David Frum March 10th, 2000 at 12:00 am
On the day in 1979 when he retired from politics for the first time, Pierre Trudeau ordered his vintage Mercedes sports car to be wheeled up to the door of Canada’s prime ministerial residence. A mob of reporters waited for him. As he stepped toward the car’s gull-winged door, one reporter shouted: “Mr. Trudeau! Any regrets?” He turned, gazed at the assembled press, and replied: “Yes. I regret I won’t have you to kick around any more.”
Trudeau, who died last week — and whose state funeral is today — was not a man to traffic in false compliments or sentiments. His disdain for cant was perhaps his greatest virtue, equaled only by his personal courage. Indeed, that courage won him his first and greatest political victory. On June 24, 1968, the day before Trudeau’s first national election, Canadian television viewers watched Montreal’s St. Jean Baptiste parade — an annual celebration of Quebec nationalism — erupt in violence. Every dignitary on the reviewing stand leapt for cover — except for Pierre Trudeau. As bottles and rocks flew past him, he held his ground, glaring at the rioters. The next day, his Liberal Party won 58.7% of the vote in the federal election.
Trudeau scoffed at the politician’s easy arts. When he imposed martial law on Quebec in 1970 after two terrorist kidnappings, detaining without warrant more than 500 people, a journalist asked him how far he was prepared to go. “Just watch me,” Trudeau replied.
If Trudeau’s steely indifference to popularity was his most impressive characteristic, his deeply rooted distaste for liberty was his worst. His government made it a crime to sell gasoline by the gallon and meat by the pound, and then jailed anti-metric recalcitrants. Almost by instinct, he gravitated toward the world’s dictators and despots. He attended an international conference in Moscow a year before the death of Stalin and published, in 1968, an admiring book about Mao Tse-Tung’s China. As prime minister, he toasted Fidel Castro and refused to muster even a perfunctory condemnation of the December 1981 crackdown in Poland.
Ideologically, Trudeau was not so much a socialist (he never showed much zeal for the redistribution of incomes) as a dirigiste.Trudeau created a new federal agency with power to scrutinize and disallow foreign investments in Canada, and through complex systems of incentives and subsidies tried to direct even domestic investment. He established a state oil company, and then later attempted to confiscate one-fourth of all foreign oil holdings in Canada.
It is ironic that a leader who trusted so much to the state should be remembered in Canada as a great champion of individualism. Trudeau owes that reputation to his 1982 Charter of Rights, a series of amendments to Canada’s 1867 Constitution.
But the Canadian charter offers relatively weak protection against the power of government; what it vindicates instead is the ability of some citizens to make claims against other citizens, claims that can only be upheld by a larger and more intrusive government. The right to speak and to worship is carefully limited; the right to property is not protected at all; but the right to welfare is guaranteed and Section 15 (2) subordinates the right to equal treatment by law to the needs of “disadvantaged groups” for special favors.
The charter is one of Trudeau’s two most enduring legacies to his country. The other is debt. Trudeau administered his country’s finances with what can only be described as recklessness. Although he cut military spending to the second-lowest level of any North Atlantic Treaty Organization government (only Luxembourg spent less relative to its economy), the federal government was spending $140 for every $100 it received in revenue when he left office for good in 1984.
By the time the debt ceased to grow, Canada was distinguished by the worst debt-to-GDP revenue of any major economy this side of Italy. And while Trudeau’s old cabinet colleague, Jean Chretien, would eventually bring the books back into balance, this accomplishment was achieved by means of crushing taxes, a collapse in the value of the Canadian dollar to as little as 65 U.S. cents from 90 cents, the exodus of tens of thousands of the country’s most highly skilled workers, and the most prolonged slump since the 1930s.
Trudeau is recognized by admirer and critic alike as the most important Canadian prime minister of the 20th century. Oddly, though, his influence has been felt least on the one subject he cared most about: national unity.
Trudeau came to power in April 1968, promising that Quebec nationalism could be squelched once and for all if English-speaking Canadians would only jettison those national symbols that reminded Quebeckers of the country’s ties to Britain and if the French language were elevated to equal status with English.
Trudeau’s bargain failed to satisfy French-Canadians. Federalists won the 1995 referendum on secession by a margin of only 50,000 votes out of five million cast. Some 60% of Quebec’s French speakers voted for independence. English-Canadians, in turn, feel great bitterness over what they see as Quebec’s ingratitude. Although separatist feeling has subsided since 1995, Quebec remains attached to Canada the way a rotten tooth dangles in the gum: It would take only one unexpected tumble to knock it right out.
Trudeau was a great man: valiant, fearless and devoid of any kind of pettiness. But he was a catastrophic prime minister — indeed one of the most catastrophic figures to come to power in any Western country since 1945. Sixty thousand Canadians turned out over the weekend to pay their last respects to his bier. If he could see them, though, it’s a good guess that he’d be musing a final time about that one last regret of his.