The Passing of a Political Giant

In late September, the political world lost one of its sublime practitioners. Pierre Elliott Trudeau, former leader of Canada's Liberal party and that country's prime minister from 1968 to 1984, except for a brief hiatus in 1979-80, died of prostate cancer at the age of 80.

The loss was keenly felt throughout most of Canada, less so in the Province of Quebec, where Trudeau's duels with French separatists still rankle. For most Canadians, though, the exprime minister's passing was a sudden reminder of an era when their nation, led by a charismatic presence, stood tall on the world stage.

As one who was north of the border when the news came, I was struck by the similarity to November 1963. The circumstances were far different, of course. John F. Kennedy, to whom Trudeau is often compared, died in office of an assassin's bullet; his Canadian counterpart died peacefully at home, 16 years after having left office. Nevertheless, the outpouring of grief was strikingly comparable: impromptu eulogies from the man or woman in the street, huge crowds attending memorial services or passing the fallen hero's bier, hushed and respectful commentaries by news analysts and representatives of all political parties.

Most noticeable was the sudden calm that descended on Canada. As with the death of JFK, all partisan bickering ceased. A nation on the verge of a high-stakes political campaign stopped to assess and reflect; television sets were riveted to the nearly around-the-clock coverage. Trudeau, a lightning rod while alive, became the unifying force in death that he never was in life.

The Canadian bereavement over a deceased politician long out of power was at once surprising and unsurprising. Our northern neighbors, a reserved lot for the most part, are not normally given to public displays of emotion. However, these are not normal times in Canada.

Unemployment is high, the Canadian dollar is weak, the national culture is under siege from overwhelming American media influences, and the country's vaunted social safety-net system, including a universal health-insurance program that is a source of national pride, is struggling to survive budgetary and ideological assaults. The death of Trudeau reminded wistful Canadians of a time when these things were not so and when everything seemed possible.

The Trudeau reign was something of a political golden age, Canada's Camelot; it was the New Frontier and the Great Society rolled into one, approximating the former stylistically and the latter programmatically. A federal languages law was passed, making the Dominion officially bilingual. A national, single-payer health-insurance system was enacted, guaranteeing medical care for all. A government-run oil company was created, ensuring a viable response to the 1970s energy crisis. A new national constitution and charter of rights were implemented, all but symbolically separating Canada from Great Britain. Welfare benefits, anti-discrimination laws, and cultural and educational subsidies were enhanced, and regional economic disparities were addressed through far-reaching fiscal-redistribution policies.

All this was accomplished with style and verve by an articulate leader who combined charm, wit, physical grace, and intelligence. Not that Trudeau was perfect; far from it. His unprecedented peacetime use of Canada's War Measures Act against Quebec separatists in 1970, for example, has been subsequently viewed as an overreactive attack on civil liberties. And on a personal level, his considerable Gallic charm was offset to some degree by a haughty demeanor that emerged at defensive moments. Trudeau, in fact, defined political arrogance long before latter-day pretenders like Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared on the scene; he was smarter than most of us, and he knew it.

That said, there was definitely something about the man. Perhaps it was the fact that unlike most modern politicians, he knew who he was; no personal gurus were employed to shape his persona, and no focus groups were needed to define his message. Trudeau knew his mind, said what he thought, and, more often than not, did what he said he would do. And he was willing to shock or risk sounding outrageous to make a point.

Occasionally, this approach got the prime minister into trouble, especially with his North American neighbors. Over the years, he opposed US policy in Vietnam, defied Washington's efforts to isolate Fidel Castro, and criticized Reaganomics. That was enough to enrage a succession of Republican administrations and make him a devil in the eyes of the American right. At home, Trudeau was not averse to using interventionist government to address social and economic problems, including the application of controversial wage and price controls in 1975, a course that cost him political capital.

The Trudeau philosophy of governance is somewhat unfashionable now. In a time of third-way capitulation to conservatism, his forthright left-of-center politics is viewed by dominant opinion makers as outdated. That may be why the drama of his passing was barely noticed by most American news outlets. For all the attention our collective media gave to the event, Ottawa and Montreal could have been Peking and Calcutta. Yet, Trudeau remains a beacon of light for progressives, Canadian and non-Canadian alike. He is a reminder that activist government under inspirational leadership has worked in the past and can work again.

Canada's commitment to the Trudeau legacy will shortly be tested anew in an upcoming parliamentary election pitting the incumbent Liberal government against a Gingrich-lite conservative alliance of the Reform and Tory parties. It's an election that will determine whether the Dominion will renew its tradition of communal "civic nationalism" and continue on the road toward the just and fair society envisioned by the late prime minister, or whether it will turn rightward and embrace a harsh tax-cuffing, budget-slashing, privatization agenda. Given the heartfelt reaction of ordinary Canadians to the death of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the betting here is for a Liberal party victory.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

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