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Thirty-two years ago, in 1968, I came to Canada and wrote a profile for the New Yorker magazine about the charismatic, brilliant Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who had just become Canada's fifteenth prime minister. It was a wonderful assignment. His was a refreshing personality in politics, and he was at the start of sixteen years of extraordinary leadership.

When I came to see him, Trudeau was sitting at his octagonal table-desk in his oak-paneled formal office, an old-fashioned room with a fireplace and Gothic windows, on the third floor of the Parliament buildings. "Do you have a vision for Canada?" I asked.

"I dream. I dream all the time," Trudeau replied.

"I've always dreamt of a society where each person should be able to fulfill himself to the extent of his capabilities as a human being, a society where inhibitions to equality would be eradicated. This means providing individual freedoms, and equality of opportunity, health, and education, and I conceive of politics as a series of decisions to create this society."

Trudeau, who resigned as prime minister in 1984, died on September 28, 2000, at the age of eighty in Montreal, the city of his birth. Canadians, who normally do not display emotion in public, went into unprecedented national mourning for the five days before his state funeral, the largest in Canadian history. When the train bearing Trudeau's casket, covered with a maple leaf flag, traveled from Ottawa, where his body had been lying in state on Parliament Hill, to Montreal, the roads, stations, and the fields in rural areas through which it passed were filled with persons bidding farewell to a great Canadian. As the funeral procession slowly drove to and from Montreal's historic Notre-Dame Basilica, the cathedral in the heart of the old city where the service took place, the streets were lined with people, many weeping.

The funeral was attended by family, friends, and dignitaries from all over the world; the most prominent, Cuban president Fidel Castro and former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, were personal friends. They were honorary pallbearers and sat with the family, Castro directly behind sons Justin and Sacha Trudeau. It was a spellbinding ceremony for those not present as well; for it seemed as if the entire nation was watching the event on television screens across Canada.

When Pierre Trudeau was prime minister, and even before, when he was minister of justice in the government of Lester Pearson, he was a strong leader, holding firmly to ideals and to his dream for a more perfect state. A lawyer by profession, before entering politics he had been an activist in labor disputes, a university professor, and a sophisticated backpack traveler fluent in Spanish as well as French and English. He was, briefly, an Ottawa bureaucrat, and a scholar and writer who expressed his pragmatic political philosophy in many articles and several books. He believed that the nation must be strong enough to withstand the overwhelming economic and cultural pressures from its giant neighbor, the United States, and he believed in a "Just Society," one of his favorite phrases that held many meanings for him.

The concept of a Just Society was never merely a convenient phrase; it was the inspiration for Trudeau's deepest feelings. He believed that the ever-widening gulf between rich and poor at home and in underdeveloped countries should be reduced. He thought it was the government's responsibility to provide equal status, equal opportunity, and fair treat-merit for all. As justice minister he introduced legislation that broadened grounds for divorce and abortions and abolished penalties for homosexual acts between consenting adults, with the famous remark, "The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation."

Although Trudeau was in early middle age when he became prime minister, he seemed as young as his most youthful constituents. He inspired the kind of dedicated enthusiasm seen in the United States thirty years earlier, when the young flocked to Washington to work for the late great U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal.

The passion of Trudeau's life was to keep Canada united, ten provinces with equal powers and a strong federal government. An unlikely candidate for prime minister, he had never held elective office until he and his Quebec comrades, Jean Marchand, a tough, prominent Quebec labor leader, and Gerard Pelletier, a well-known French Canadian journalist, ran successfully for Parliament in 1965. Known in Ottawa as the Three Wise Men and in Quebec as the Three Doves, they believed French Canadians should participate in federal politics to hold the country together and to persuade the French-speaking province of Quebec not to separate from the rest of Canada.

One of Trudeau's first moves as prime minister was to make Canada a bilingual country, with the Official Languages Act, which gave French and English equal status by law. Trudeau also "brought home" the Canadian constitution with the Constitution Act of 1982, rectifying an anomaly from the previous century that required the amending process to be approved by the British Parliament. He incorporated a Charter of Rights and Freedoms into the Constitution, which enshrined French and English education rights across the country; created PetroCanada, Canada's own oil company; instituted the controversial National Energy Program, which extended federal government control of the gas and oil industry; appointed the first woman to the Supreme Court of Canada and the first female governor-general; and introduced new employment and educational opportunities for the young.

"Not all his policies were well received," recalls Ivan Head, Trudeau's former principal adviser on foreign policy. "His National Energy Program in 1980, designed to increase Canadian ownership of the oil industry from 15 percent to 50 percent, to introduce conservation measures, and to revise the division of oil revenues between the producing provinces and the federal government created immense controversy. The province of Alberta and the United States government both retaliated against what they regarded as `anti-Alberta' and `anti-American' actions.

"At an early date Trudeau took steps to remove all nuclear weapons from the Canadian military arsenal," Head continues. "This made Canada the first (and still only) nuclear, armed power in the world to do so." Later, in 1984, shortly before his resignation, Trudeau also went on a global peace mission for nuclear disarmament.

"Within the Hemisphere, Trudeau was on excellent terms with the leaders of the several Commonwealth countries with whom he met regularly, most often officially," says Head. "He would also occasionally travel to those warmer areas to break the Canadian winters. Among those Latin American leaders he saw the most were (the late) Michael Manley of Jamaica, who had served with distinction in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War, Errol Barrow of Barbados, and John Compton of St. Lucia. His visit to Guyana in 1975 was the first by a Canadian prime minister to the continent of South America."

Two newspapers in Kingston, Jamaica, published impressive editorials at Trudeau's death. The Gleaner, calling his constitutional changes his greatest legacy, wrote that Trudeau was "a breath of flesh air for what was then a very staid society, which has undergone tremendous change because of his impact." The Daily Observer referred to Trudeau as a "monumental figure not only in Canada. The esteem in which he was held in countries like our own was earned by deeds." Stating that Trudeau understood that "if millions and millions of people existed in hunger and abject poverty, the countries in which they lived were likely to be unstable, leading, ultimately, to an unstable world," the editorial concluded: "All the ideas and vision did not come to fruition. Some were flawed. What made the difference is that Pierre Trudeau dared to try. Our world is better because he did."

Professor John Kirk of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, an expert on Canadian-Latin American relations, says, "Trudeau was the most effective prime minister we have ever had in Canada-Latin American relations. He had a profound knowledge of international politics, and extensive travel experience in the developing world."

In the fall of 1969, Trudeau's minister of external affairs, Mitchell Sharp, made an extended trip with a large entourage to nine Latin American countries, including Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. The purpose was to diversify Canada's world trade and reduce its dependency on the United States. Canadian officials had been looking primarily at Europe and Japan, but they had a parallel interest in what they phrased as "the North-South dimension," where the developing countries suffer from grave economic disparities and crushing debt.

In 1970 Canada became a permanent observer, but not a member, of the Organization of American States and joined its specialized health and agriculture agencies. "We were reluctant to join the OAS itself with so many non-democratic governments in Latin American countries, Sharp says. Canada did become a full voting member of the OAS in 1990.

Trudeau made a state visit to Latin America in January 1976, with his then wife, Margaret, and their four-year-old son, Justin, focusing on Mexico, Cuba, and Venezuela. This was the first time a leader of a NATO country had visited Cuba.

In 1981, at a time of deep and acrimonious differences between industrialized and developing countries, a broad-based summit meeting was convened in Cancun, Mexico. Trudeau was invited to co-chair it with Mexican president Jose Lopez Portillo.

After Trudeau had retired and resumed the practice of law in Montreal and Ivan Head had become a distinguished professor of international law at the University of British Columbia, they co-authored a book, The Canadian Way: Shaping Canada's Foreign Policy, 1968-1984, published in 1995, in which they discussed the intensive preparations made by the prime minister and his staff for the Cancun conference. They wrote in retrospect of how they were to discuss "such urgent issues as access to technologies, resource transfers, energy development, and a global food program.... An honorable compromise was reached among the leaders present--Reagan, Thatcher, Nyerere, and Gandhi among them--but was scuttled by others.... A golden opportunity for real North-South progress was lost, cascading the relationship into the depths of northern indifference for years thereafter .... The failure to reach consensus was particularly troubling to Trudeau ... (who) ... was hopeful that the Cancun outcome would be positive. Alas, it was not to be."

Ever since Trudeau's 1976 state visit to Cuba, Canada and Cuba have enjoyed excellent relations. "Trudeau made the decision to continue the policy of normal trade relations established by his predecessors, rather than a policy of isolation, even though the countries disagreed on many issues," Head says.

The two leaders developed a strong personal relationship. Although both were educated by Jesuits and trained as lawyers, "Trudeau was fascinated by Castro, largely because he was so different," Head adds.

Canadian tourists were encouraged to visit Cuba, and by 1999, out of 1,600,000 tourists from all over the world who visited there, the largest single group, 250,000, came from Canada.

The attraction of Cuba for Trudeau began as early as 1960, when he made a legendary if unsuccessful attempt when he was forty with two Montreal friends to row in an experimental canoe from Key West, Florida, to Havana. Trudeau is said to have lain on his back in the vessel, working oars with his feet while his two companions steered and rowed with what would appear in photographs to be traditional oars. The second morning out, about haft way across the turbulent Florida Straits, three very seasick men gave up.

In later years, Trudeau, in a more prudent mood, privately visited Cuba with his three sons three times. When Castro came to Trudeau's funeral, he made it clear with every gesture that he was not there on a political visit, but to comfort the grieving family as a friend; and Cuba declared three days of mourning, with flags on government buildings at half-mast.

In 1968, when I had finished my interviews for my Trudeau profile, without an appointment I was slipped into his office for a final word on Canada. Trudeau had described himself as a "clocked person." His vivid blue eyes turned icy, and he was openly annoyed by the unexpected visit. When I pointed out that he might be even more displeased with an inadequate ending to my story, he put his feet up on his desk, smiled, leaned back, and relented.

"When I talk to students," he said, "I tell them we shouldn't think of Canada as one of the big important nations. We can't tell the rest of the world what to do. We must be more modest in our ambitions, and not carry the burden of the world on our shoulders. If we don't solve our own problems, other people will--and the world of tomorrow belongs to the people who will solve them." He stood up and walked me to the door. "I see Canada as a land of tremendous opportunity in terms of jobs, in terms of its natural beauty and wealth and its three oceans, its temperate climate, its standard of living, its system of education, its technical knowledge," he said. "I enjoy being prime minister. I am pleased to be part of this society. I see Canada exploring its past, experimenting with its future--playing its political role--first at home, and then in the world."

Edith Iglauer is a longtime journalist whose work has been featured in the New Yorker, Harper's, and the Atlantic Monthly. She also is the author of Inuit Journey (Harbour Publishing, rev. ed., 2000), The Strangers Next Door (1991), which includes the New Yorker profile of Pierre Trudeau, entitled "Prime Minister/Premier Ministre," Fishing with John (1988), Seven Stones: A Portrait of Arthur Erickson, Architect (1981), and Denison's Ice Road (1975). She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Illustration by Thomas B. Allen, reprinted with permission of the author.
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Author:Iglauer, Edith
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2001
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