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opinion

Pierre Trudeau was a blend of "Marlon Brando and Napoleon," Barbra Streisand would go so far as to say. Daunting in every way, other over-the-toppers would add.

Trudeau said there was only one constant about him: "Opposition to accepted wisdom." That aspect of him fit the times to a T. He was the counterculture's caped crusader. When elected in 1968, expectations were meteorically high in this country, higher than today for his son.

But Pierre Trudeau's first four years were disillusioning in many ways, culminating almost in defeat, and they offer some lessons – should Justin Trudeau wish to heed them – on the vagaries of governance.

In politics much derives, of course, from the cards you are dealt, most notably in regard to economic conditions. The economic hand dealt to Pierre Trudeau weakened him. As biographer John English put it, "The effervescence of Trudeaumania cloaked a flat economy." When the cloak was lifted a troubled economy is what remained.

Inflation stalked the nation. To attack it the unconventional leader chose a conventional policy response. Following the line recommended by economists, he tightened the screws on spending. It didn't work. Inflation continued to rise. So did unemployment. Double trouble, which served to undermine the idealism of Trudeau's Just Society vision. The bloom was off the rose.

Justin Trudeau begins his stewardship with a similar handicap. The flat economy is due not to inflation but chiefly to the decline in the price of oil and other commodities. In respect to the economy, his fate, even more so than the father's, is to a considerable degree beyond his control.

Much like his son today, the Trudeau of 1968 was intent on bringing about a renaissance to the governing culture. "Come work with me," Trudeau told Canadians in 1968. His plan was for a participatory democracy. Anthony Westell's book Paradox: Trudeau as Prime Minister, shows that he tried to achieve it. He gave more power to his cabinet and parliamentary committees, he engaged in more public consultation via white papers on a range of issues, he tried in his early years to be open to the media.

The powers of his own office expanded as well, however, and combined with his notorious arrogance, the image created was more akin to imperial leadership than citizen engagement. What captured the public consciousness were Trudeau's acerbic putdowns, like his comment that once off Parliament Hill, MPs were "a bunch of nobodies." Worse was his telling a group of picketing truck drivers, "Mangez de la merde!" This kind of thing, as Mr. English wrote, began to transform his image.

Justin Trudeau doesn't appear to possess the conceit of Papa. But he has made slips and dips of the tongue that have proved costly and which he must guard against without losing spontaneity.

His father's legislative record in the early years was mixed. His Official Languages Act was farsighted but brought on significant opposition, particularly in Western Canada. He soared high in the polls with his handling of the October Crisis, but it clashed with his image as a civil libertarian. He attempted a grand constitutional reform with the Victoria Charter, only to have Quebec back out. He had successes in foreign affairs, like opening diplomatic relations with China.

By the time the 1972 election campaign began, Pierre Trudeau still had an aura few other leaders have possessed. But not many were buying into his campaign slogan, "the land is strong," which became a source of derision. The northern magus won that election by a whisker, two seats, and would later to go on to achieve his great legacy piece, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In his first term, he couldn't do much about the stagflation that was settling in and would haunt leaders everywhere. But his haughty attitude was equally damaging, turning much of the population against him.

The lesson his son might learn from those years is the need – as seen from what happened here in recent years as well – to govern not like you own the place, but with a degree of humility.