On Sept. 6, 1991, The Globe and Mail published a sensational scoop. At 71, Pierre Trudeau had secretly fathered a baby girl, named Sarah. The mother was a constitutional lawyer named Deborah Coyne, 36. The Globe and Mail had unearthed the baptismal record, but both refused to comment. “I never talk about my private life in public,” Ms. Coyne said.
The next day, the paper ran a legendary editorial cartoon. In it, Mr. Trudeau is dining alone at a restaurant. An ancient geezer points to him and tells the waiter, “I’ll have what he’s having.”
Mr. Trudeau’s ghost looms large in the current Liberal leadership race. Justin, his son, is the front-runner. Deborah is running, too, although nobody can figure out why. She’s never held elected office and doesn’t have a hope of winning. Politics makes strange bedfellows, indeed.
To introduce herself to the public, Deborah has changed her mind about her private life. She has written an e-book, Unscripted: A Life Devoted to Building a Better Canada. Sandwiched between the dry bread of policy is her account of her life with (and mostly without) Pierre. She is very, very clear that she doesn’t want or need your sympathy. But it’s a heartbreaking read.
Deborah was nothing like the women Pierre preferred (gorgeous, lively, artistic and unstable). She was a smart, earnest policy wonk – the daughter of old family friends. The seduction began when she sent him a paper she had written on North-South relations, and he invited her to lunch. More lunches followed. They talked about the patriation debate. She felt she’d met her “kindred spirit.”
One day, she told him she wanted to get romantically involved. He agreed – but only on his terms. “I would have settled down with Pierre, even married him, but he had a life that involved both numerous public commitments, even at that later stage of his life, and his family. He wasn’t prepared to commit to anything. He made it clear from the beginning that the boys were his first priority and that remarriage was out of the question.”
Thus began her 15 years on the margins of his busy, busy life. When she got pregnant, he again made it clear that she was on her own. “Pierre was not prepared to take any sort of active role in bringing up a small child,” she says. “He chose to play the role of a distant uncle.” At one point, she thought of taking a job in Montreal, where he lived, but he discouraged her. “He stressed that Sarah and I wouldn’t be able to just come by his home any time we wanted to.”
The flat, matter-of-fact tone conceals a world of hurt. After that conversation, she began “distancing” herself from him. When Pierre died in 2000, she and Sarah walked a few steps behind Margaret and the boys. They were the shadow family.
Deborah gave up a fledgling career in politics when she fell in love with Pierre. Later, she ran against Jack Layton for a federal seat, but lost. She never ran again, until now. Did she fall in love with Pierre because she worshipped him? Or because she wanted to be him? When intellectual younger women fall in love with much older, brilliant men, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference.
Deborah doesn’t say anything about her relationship with Justin, who was 19 when his half-sister was born. You can’t imagine he and Deborah are close. They’re temperamental opposites. She has the gravitas and taste for policy he lacks. He has the charm and good looks. Neither can remotely fill the shoes of the giant who inspired them. I imagine that he haunts them still, and always will.