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In the fall of 1967, Lester Pearson confided his intention to resign as prime minister, and predicted that the leadership race would be hotly contested.

Pearson hoped for a strong Quebecker - Jean Marchand was his favourite - and worried that external affairs minister Paul Martin Sr., although leading the polls, belonged too much to the past when new voices were essential.

Convention organizer Richard Stanbury shared these worries. Early in January, 1968, he scheduled meetings with the candidates, and began with Martin.

"Who's your candidate?" Martin demanded.

"I'm impartial," Stanbury replied.

"Oh, you and I know that, but who's your candidate?"

Stanbury said he thought it was a "fine, wide-open race and that anyone might win."

Martin "harrumphed." Stanbury knew he was failing to find his expected support.

English Canada was quickly learning about Pierre Elliott Trudeau, whom the wily young political operative Keith Davey had not even considered as a possible candidate two months earlier. He cleverly borrowed Globe and Mail editorialist Martin O'Malley's statement that "the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation" and, in a Dec. 22 television interview, made it famously his own. It caught precisely the new spirit of the times.

On Jan. 13, the Gallup Poll revealed that the Liberals had gained on the Conservatives, who had moved ahead in the polls after they chose the Nova Scotia premier, Robert Stanfield, in September. The Liberals now trailed by only six points.

That same day, Peter Newman reported that a group of Toronto academics were "rallying the forces" behind Pierre Trudeau. He described the instigators - Ramsay Cook, John Saywell and William Kilbourn - as three of the academic community's brightest young men. (At the University of Toronto, radical student activists Michael Ignatieff and his friend Bob Rae also rallied behind Trudeau.) Their petition imploring Trudeau to consider the leadership quickly gained signatures from hundreds of English-Canadian academics.

Newman linked the petition's "assault on smug old-line thinking" with the forthcoming Pierre Berton book Smug Minority, which asserted, Berton said, that "the kind of political leadership we've had has been the wrong leadership, because it has been restricted to a cozy little group." Trudeau would save Canada from this coterie.

The committee to elect Trudeau met for the first time on Jan. 25. Its members were young, eager to bring their generation to the party's forefront. Seniors had long prevailed there - Louis St. Laurent was 66 when he was chosen in 1948, and Pearson was 61 in 1958.

The Sixties were different: In the United States, John Kennedy called for the torch to be passed to a new generation, while in Quebec, 45-year-old René Lévesque was wooing the youth into a swelling separatist force. Trudeau's new voice needed to be heard to win this essential Quebec support.

Events were moving fast - too fast, it seemed to some. The Canadian Press reported that there was "naturally some ill feeling . . . at Mr. Trudeau's jet-propelled rise to national prominence." And Trudeau confidant Gérard Pelletier faced constant pressure from Paul Martin, to whom he was parliamentary secretary. First, Martin demanded to know if Trudeau was running; then, within days, he was so obsessed with the subject that, four times, he called Pelletier "Pierre."

On Jan. 23, he even sent his son, "Paul Martin Junior, as he calls himself," to tell Pelletier he wanted to be identified with the "leading wing of the party and not with the old guard." However, members of "the leading wing" refused to sign up with Martin because they were waiting for Trudeau.

They would continue to wait. Trudeau had one more event he and his supporters did not want to miss: the opportunity to challenge Quebec premier Daniel Johnson at the constitutional conference being held in Ottawa from Feb. 5 to 7.

There, Lester Pearson, barely concealing his preference for a francophone successor, seated Trudeau next to him. He had already ceded the intellectual ground to Trudeau, who, on Feb. 1, had issued, in Pearson's name, a booklet outlining the government's stance.

In his response to the premier's speech, Trudeau bluntly expressed his strong opposition to special status for Quebec and his belief that changes being proposed to the Canadian Constitution would only undermine the position of Quebec's MPs in Ottawa. His tone ever more biting, his voice metallic, Trudeau responded to Johnson's reference to him as the "député de Mont-Royal" by describing the premier as the "député de Bagot."

Sensing the tension and worried himself about Trudeau's tone, Pearson called for a coffee break. During the break, Trudeau curtly nodded at Johnson and muttered that the premier was seeking to destroy the federal government. Johnson sneered that Trudeau was acting like a candidate, not a federal minister.

Reporters rushed from the room to file their stories. The federal government has finally found its own voice, they stated, as they ignored the complicated substance of federal-provincial relations and focused on Trudeau's articulate attack on Johnson.

"At the beginning of February," Jean Marchand later recalled, "Pierre Trudeau was really created."

Trudeau's opponents were already in the field, and delegates were making commitments.

Paul Martin began his phone calls before breakfast and continued late into the night, in complete disregard of Canada's varied time zones. Mitchell Sharp, the finance minister, was constantly in the news, and his elegance and authority had considerable influence in both the Canadian public service and corporate boardrooms. Paul Hellyer, the defence minister, was already at 44 a multimillionaire and a seasoned political veteran. Through his historic if controversial unification of the defence forces, he had stood up to the generals and never retreated. John Turner, at 38, was even younger and already a junior minister.

Other candidates included brilliant, albeit idiosyncratic Eric Kierans, who had been a provincial minister in Quebec; Joe Greene, a lawyer from eastern Ontario, and Nova Scotian Allan MacEachen, the craftiest of parliamentarians.

Trudeau was rightly wary of the media enthusiasm for his campaign. He knew that this embrace could chill quickly. He also knew that his past had secrets that could quickly capture the front pages of all the dailies. Already, maverick Toronto Liberal Ralph Cowan was passing around translations of Trudeau's bitter 1963 attack on "defrocked prince of peace" Lester Pearson, and promised more revelations. Trudeau, the scourge of separatists and the most eloquent supporter of a secular state in the Sixties, had endorsed an independent, Catholic "Laurentie" in the early 1940s. He had championed France's infamous Marshal Pétain, and urged violence. Many who loathed him knew his past. Would they reveal it? Would it affect him?

Finally, Trudeau valued his privacy, and writer Christina McCall, who knew Ottawa well in those days, remembered the Conservative candidate in the Beauce who, in denouncing Trudeau's legislation regarding homosexuality, said the bill was "for queers and fairies," adding, gratuitously, that Trudeau was a bachelor.

Leading Liberal Walter Gordon told McCall that, when he confronted Trudeau in the House of Commons lobby about the many rumours of his homosexuality, Trudeau reacted angrily and suggested that the men making the charge should leave him alone with their wives for a couple of hours. According to one reliable source, Pearson himself asked a close associate of Trudeau whether the justice minister was a homosexual.

To these largely personal concerns, Trudeau added a shrewd political assessment: It was by no means certain that he would win the leadership and the election to follow. The Progressive Conservative lead in the polls was 6 per cent, and the Liberal leadership campaign was proving divisive. Moreover, the "draft Trudeau" campaign could identify only 700 supporters; he would need to attract about 500 more.

Surely all those church suppers, summer barbecues and favours rendered over 33 years of Liberal service meant something for Paul Martin's candidacy. Did it matter that Ramsay Cook, his most eminent academic supporter in English Canada, had been a long-time supporter of the CCF-NDP and, in a 1965 private letter, criticized Trudeau's affiliation with the Liberals?

The political times were not normal or predictable. And it was fortunate for Trudeau they were not.

Trudeau announced his candidacy on Feb. 16, and, three days later, the Liberal government was defeated on a budget item in the House of Commons. Normally, that would mean the defeat of the government and an immediate election, presumably with Lester Pearson leading the Liberals in the campaign.

Pearson was holidaying in Jamaica, and flew home "shocked and enraged." He then persuaded Robert Stanfield to agree to a 24-hour adjournment of the House. It was a fatal error. Pearson counterattacked, managed to delay the vote of confidence, and convinced the Créditistes to reverse their vote.

Throughout the crisis, Trudeau gave constitutional law advice to Pearson and the cabinet and performed coolly in the House of Commons in defending the government's stand. Immediately, he benefited most from the whole dramatic event. The leadership race continued, although finance minister Sharp's campaign had been mortally wounded.

Gérard Pelletier had worried about Trudeau's bitter sarcasm and unexpected cruelty in debate. What he saw once the campaign began was a "cool" Trudeau, slow to anger and amused and tolerant when journalists attacked. When television interviewers accused Trudeau of having no support in Quebec, he "stayed cool" and "replied that we should wait and see." When they rudely interrupted him before he answered, he simply smiled.

Moreover, the timidity that Trudeau usually exhibited at social events disappeared in the midst of the adoring crowds that greeted him during the leadership tour. At the launches for two books hastily assembled by his supporters from his previous writings, Federalism and the French Canadians and Réponses, Trudeau astounded his old friends and reporters as he kissed the numerous beautiful women present as enthusiastically as traditional politicians bussed babies.

Out on the campaign trail, reporters vied with each other to spin the tastiest tales. A desk clerk at a Sudbury hotel was so stunned by Trudeau's handshake that she forgot to make change. A MacEachen supporter declared, on seeing Trudeau, that rather than meeting him she wanted to marry him - forgetting that her husband stood nearby.

Soon Trudeau was dubbed the candidate of the Age of Aquarius - he wore a rose in his lapel just as hippies wore flowers in their hair. He promised he'd open 24 Sussex Drive to parties and, when asked who would be the hostess, he replied: "Why should there be only one?" Woodstock was not far away.

His new "personage" carried the message that he would be different. He ran for office among the finest group of politicians ever to contest a party leadership in Canada, and he stood out above them all. The issues identified with him - reform of the Criminal Code, the Constitution, and Quebec - reflected the spirit of a country that wanted to change and, in the case of Quebec, knew it must change.

For many of the young, the unorthodox and stylish challenge of Pierre Trudeau had become the light that illuminated a new Canada.

In the last week before the convention, the campaign became, very simply, Trudeau against the rest. Then fortune fell unexpectedly in Trudeau's path: Mitchell Sharp withdrew and on April 3, the eve of the convention, endorsed Trudeau, while his supporters Jean-Luc Pepin, Jean Chrétien, and Bud Drury joined the Trudeau team. All three were political gems - Pepin because he was a powerful figure, Chrétien for his extraordinary campaign skills, and Drury for his ties with business.

The news fuelled a wild Trudeau rally at the cavernous Chaudière nightclub across the Ottawa River. There the irrepressible Newfoundlander Joey Smallwood declared that "Pierre is better than medicare - the lame have only to touch his garments to walk again."

The next day, as the convention began, James Earl Ray shot Martin Luther King in a Memphis motel and riots swept through American cities as his murderer fled to Toronto. The tragedy provoked sombre thoughts but did not deaden the excitement surrounding the policy workshops in Ottawa. Trudeau's crowds were the largest, crammed with mini-skirted youthful enthusiasm.

The next day came the speeches. Ottawa's Civic Centre was crammed, television booms and cameras were everywhere, and streamers dangled from every rafter. Trudeau, who spoke well, was the target of the other speakers, who largely disappointed (except for Joe Greene, who gave a populist "barnburner"). Paul Hellyer's poor performance had a major impact later as voting delegates remembered his bland words.

Trudeau began Saturday, the final day, with a pancake and maple syrup breakfast at the Château Laurier which 600 delegates attended. As he left, he slid down the hotel's grand staircase banister, to the delight of photographers and delegates alike.

Balloting began at 1 p.m. At 2:30, Senator John Nichol, president of the Liberal Federation, announced the initial results: Greene 169, Hellyer 330, Kierans 103, MacEachen 165, Martin 277, Trudeau 752, Turner 277, and 293 for trade minister Robert Winters, who'd announced his candidacy two weeks after Trudeau.

Hellyer's face began to drip with perspiration; Quebecker Maurice Sauvé immediately bolted from his seat beside Paul Martin and pushed through the crowd toward Trudeau.

Kierans and Martin, who had led the leadership polls for so long, both withdrew graciously. MacEachen intended to withdraw but failed to notify Senator Nichol by the deadline, so, to the disappointment of the Trudeau camp, he remained on the second ballot.

On that ballot, Trudeau moved up to 964, as he picked up most of MacEachen's left-wing support. Winters finished second with 473 votes, Hellyer won a disappointing 465, while Turner rose to 347 and Greene fell to 104. The beneficial impact on Trudeau's campaign of Mitchell Sharp's withdrawal suddenly became obvious.

The two successful businessmen, Hellyer and Winters, conferred on what they should do to stop Trudeau. Despite Winters's entreaties, Hellyer refused to drop out. On the third ballot, Winters took 621 votes; Hellyer, 377. Trudeau, at 1,051, was only 53 ahead of their combined vote. Turner held on to 279, and Greene, at 29, was dropped.

Had he spoken better on Friday evening and had Sharp not endorsed Trudeau, Paul Hellyer probably would have become Liberal leader.

But these are the "what ifs" of history, which intrigue but remain wistful dreams for losers.

Hellyer kept his promise to endorse Winters if he moved ahead on the third ballot. Enthusiastically waving a Winters banner, he began to chant, "Go, Bob, go."

Joe Greene joined the crowded Trudeau box, where Trudeau coolly amused himself by tossing grapes in the air and catching them in his mouth as they fell. John Turner stubbornly refused to withdraw, and, as the final voting began at 8 p.m., most of the crowd erupted in shouts of "Trudeau. Canada. We want Trudeau."

Then, when Senator Nichol began to read out the final results - Trudeau 1,203 - the crowd exploded.

John English is a professor of history at the University of Waterloo, executive director of the Centre for International Governance Innovation, and co-editor of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. This article is excerpted from his new book, Citizen of the World: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Volume One: 1919-1968, © 2006 John English. Published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada. All rights reserved.