When British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was preparing for a visit to Canada in 1983, her officials advised her to beware of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s “unsound personal views” and to take careful note that Canadians are “inordinately sensitive.”
The briefing note is among hundreds of government documents from 1983 released by Britain’s National Archives on Thursday under a rule that declassifies cabinet files after 30 years.
Canadian historians said the notes confirm the frosty relations between the two world leaders at the end of Mr. Trudeau’s time in office, adding new details to the British government’s understanding of the weakening links between the countries.
Mrs. Thatcher, who was given a life peerage as Baroness Thatcher after retiring in 1992, visited Canada and the United States in September, 1983, meeting both Mr. Trudeau and U.S. President Ronald Reagan. In preparation for the Canadian trip, which included stops in Toronto and Edmonton, the British High Commission sent a four-page telegram to the Prime Minister outlining several issues Mrs. Thatcher should be aware of.
The telegram opens with an overview of Canada and how it is dominated culturally and commercially by the United States “but is inclined to resent this.” It goes on to discuss how Canadians believe Britain “has turned her back on Canada and is now only interested in Europe.” However it also notes that Canadians have enormous interest in Britain, “and great affection too.”
The telegram warns Mrs. Thatcher about Mr. Trudeau’s “complex personality and his unsound personal views on East/West problems and the strategic balance.”
“But it will be worth putting our views to him in front of his senior colleagues whom we can hope to influence,” the note added. “Notwithstanding his wobblings the Canadian government has agreed to the testing of unarmed cruise missiles in Canada, despite a massive campaign against this.”
Bob Plamondon, the author of a recent book critical of Mr. Trudeau, said that the description of the former prime minister is particularly harsh coming from diplomats.
“By reputation, we think of Mr. Trudeau as a respected international statesman,” he said in an interview. “The reality is quite different.”
Historian Michael Bliss said the notes confirm the common perception of Mr. Trudeau in international circles at the time. “Other leaders thought Trudeau was inconsistent, wobbly and dangerously inclined to the left,” he said.
In the newly released documents, there is also a discussion about the political situation in Canada at the time and the likelihood of Mr. Trudeau resigning, largely under pressure from a Liberal Party that was seen to be “becoming desperate,” the note said. Mr. Trudeau announced he was stepping down as party leader in February, 1984, after “a walk in the snow,” and the Liberals lost the next election to the Progressive Conservatives under Brian Mulroney.
The note cautioned Mrs. Thatcher that the federal government “has bad relations with nearly all the provincial governments” and that since Mr. Trudeau planned to accompany Mrs. Thatcher throughout the trip “this will affect the nature of the visits to Toronto and especially Edmonton.”
The British pointed out that the Conservative government in Alberta was typical of Westerners, in that it was “suspicious of everything coming from eastern Canada.”
The note ended with some recommended topics for Mrs. Thatcher to cover in two major speeches during the trip. They included taking aim at Canada’s “inadequate defence effort,” restrictions on British banks and protectionist trade barriers, provided all of “this is not done in too blunt a way (Canadians are inordinately sensitive).”
The goal was to “persuade Canadians that we do mind about them, do value our relationship with them and have not turned our backs on them.”
Mr. Bliss said the notes confirm that the British were well aware of the fraying of the historical relationship between the two countries. “The British have a quite realistic sense of how Canadian ties had eroded over the years,” he said.
A follow-up note to Mrs. Thatcher talked about Mr. Mulroney winning a seat in the House of Commons and the likelihood of him becoming Prime Minister, as happened in 1984.
“No one is likely to confuse Mrs. Thatcher with Mr. Mulroney, but a successful Conservative Prime Minister is currently an object of particular local interest,” the note said. It added that “the Canadians are a people of the extreme centre. They have not been averse to the quiet life offered by Trudeau nor keen to spend more money on defence or effort abroad.”
The British also played down the differences between the Progressive Conservative Party and the Liberal Party in 1983, saying “there are no great ideological rifts between the parties. The Liberals put more emphasis on social welfare and state intervention, the Conservatives on free enterprise and collective security.”
Mrs. Thatcher was briefed on potential military sales to Canada, with little optimism. “The Canadian defence effort is minimal, but this will not change as long as Mr. Trudeau is prime minister.”
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