Luc-André Brunet is a lecturer in history at the Open University and acting director of the LSE IDEAS Cold War Studies Project at the London School of Economics.
Prime Minister Trudeau made a controversial decision, which seemingly flies in the face of the progressive values on which he was elected. This has, in turn, prompted widespread protests, including one on Parliament Hill led by Greenpeace, which threaten the prime minister’s prospects for re-election. This isn’t 2018. It’s 1983.
While Justin Trudeau today grapples with opposition to his resolve that the Trans Mountain pipeline will be built, we should consider the parallels between this situation and Pierre Trudeau’s difficulties with peace activists during his final term – and what lessons might be drawn for the current Prime Minister.
Throughout his career, the elder Mr. Trudeau had established a reputation as an opponent of nuclear weapons. Before entering politics, he famously criticized then-prime minister Lester Pearson’s decision to station nuclear-armed Bomarc missiles in Canada, deriding the Nobel laureate as the “defrocked prince of peace.” In 1978, at the first United Nations Special Session on Disarmament, Mr. Trudeau took the lead by advancing a “strategy of suffocation” involving a worldwide freeze on testing and deploying new nuclear weapons. By 1984, as a result of his policies, Canada had divested itself of the last remaining nuclear weapons on its territory, and has been free of nuclear weapons ever since.
Against this record on nuclear disarmament, however, Mr. Trudeau shocked Canadians when it was revealed in 1982 that the Canadian government had secretly agreed to the American request to test cruise missiles in Northern Alberta, a region chosen specifically because of its geographical resemblance to Siberia. This decision looked like support for U.S. president Ronald Reagan’s bellicose stand toward what he would call the Soviet’s “evil empire,” and its concomitant nuclear arms race. It smacked of hypocrisy.
The public reaction was swift. The hitherto disparate peace organizations that existed in Canada rallied behind opposition to cruise-missile testing, and tens of thousands of Canadians took to the streets in a series of protests in 1982 and 1983. A peace camp was set up by activists near CFB Cold Lake, Alta., where the testing would take place – similar to today’s Cloud Camp erected by the Kinder Morgan outpost near Burnaby, B.C. Protesters arrived at Parliament Hill on Saturday, armed with lengths of an oil pipeline made of cardboard, bearing a striking resemblance to the cardboard cruise missiles carried at the same site by peace activists 35 years earlier.
Against the backdrop of the growing peace movement in Canada, Mr. Trudeau struggled to regain the initiative. In October, just days after thousands of Canadians had marched in rallies in 40 cities across the country in opposition to cruise testing, the prime minister launched his so-called peace initiative at a speech in Guelph, Ont. This bold international venture sought to usher in a new climate of East-West relations and to bring about new advances in then-stalled arms reduction negotiations between the superpowers. Activists were initially unimpressed – indeed, dozens of them accosted Mr. Trudeau that evening as he left the venue after his speech – but the prime minister’s energetic travels to meet with dozens of world leaders to win support for his initiative projected an image of a leader singularly focused on achieving peace and averting a further build-up of nuclear arsenals.
Ultimately, this peace initiative was inconsequential on the world stage; as I have shown in a recent article, leaders’ reactions varied from polite indifference to outright hostility toward the initiative, and viewed it as a political ploy by Mr. Trudeau intended merely for domestic consumption. Yet it did succeed in shoring up his reputation at home (and abroad) as an advocate of peace and an anti-nuclear campaigner. His controversial support for cruise testing, meanwhile, faded from memory, even as these tests continued into the 1990s.
The parallels between the opposition to cruise testing in Canada in the early 1980s and resistance to the Kinder Morgan pipeline today are numerous. In both cases, activists mobilize around a relatively local manifestation of a global issue. The prospect of climate change, like the threat of nuclear war, is seen as endangering the very survival of humankind. For some, such an issue simply cannot be resolved by a tidy political compromise.
So far, Justin Trudeau has handled the issue better than his father managed the cruise-missile tests. In 1982, the public first learned of the Canadian government’s decision because of a leak in the Pentagon, and the Trudeau government haplessly waffled on the issue until finally confirming the decision in August, 1983. By contrast, the current government has been relatively upfront about its support for a new pipeline and even for effectively nationalizing the project to ensure it is completed. This has allowed the government to maintain a greater degree of control over the messaging around the issue. The Liberals have also been helped by the fact the the Conservatives support the pipeline extension (as they supported cruise testing in the 1980s), leaving the NDP as the only major party to deviate from the government’s position.
If the experiences of 1983 have a lesson to offer the current government, it is likely a cynical one. If the current Prime Minister seeks to bolster his environmentalist credentials ahead of the 2019 election, launching a high-profile initiative on this file could help restore his credibility and succeed in overshadowing and even overcoming opposition to his pipeline policies. Regardless of what results it might achieve, it could make for good politics.