He Daunts Us Still

A new book takes aim at Pierre Trudeau’s legacy

In the world of Canadian political commentary, unvarnished critiques are relatively rare. Bob Plamondon is forthright about what prompted his in The Truth about Trudeau. “This book was born at the Politics and the Pen dinner in 2009,” he says, “just after John English, a member of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, was given the Shaughnessy Cohen Award for the best political book of the year for the second volume of his Trudeau biography. Lawrence Martin cornered me that night and said that enough was enough and that the record was just as important as the man.”

And what a record. As one of the country’s longest serving prime ministers (third, behind William Lyon Mackenzie King and Sir John A. Macdonald), Trudeau governed the country at what was arguably the most pivotal point in the entire post-war period. Plamondon’s j’accuse covers the full waterfront, from international relations and the economy to social policy and national unity. On only two files—official bilingualism and Canada’s relatively early opening up of relations with China—does he give Trudeau reluctant praise. Otherwise, his judgements range from the mildly dismissive to the downright scathing, and lead him to his concluding question: is Trudeau the most overrated of Canada’s prime ministers?

Opinions on that point differ widely. But even the most loyal of Trudeau supporters might grudgingly agree with some of Plamondon’s assessments. Trudeau’s trade policies, for example, excite little enthusiasm among historians—particularly the so-called Third Option of the mid 1970s, when an attempt was made to shift Canadian trade away from the American market. Even Trudeau himself later admitted that this piece of idealistic flummery failed, as the proportion of Canada’s trade with the United States increased during the time the policy was ostensibly in effect. And few would give much credence to Trudeau’s personal forays into foreign affairs. Plamondon pays particular attention to the whistlestop peace initiative near the end of Trudeau’s last period in office, whose aim was to kickstart global nuclear disarmament, but which had, as Plamondon drily puts it, “no concrete results.”

In economic matters, too, Plamondon’s jibes are unlikely to provoke much resistance. On federal finance, Trudeau’s record looks especially dismal. Compared to later regimes under Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien, he oversaw a significant cumulative deficit of program spending relative to revenues, leaving a huge debt overhang for his successors to contend with. Meanwhile, Canada’s record on unemployment and inflation during these years was equally unimpressive. But here chinks in Plamondon’s armour begin to show. Is it fair to highlight Canada’s execrable inflation performance during the 1970s without any acknowledgement of the mistakes made by the Bank of Canada, especially during its failed application of monetary targeting in the final years of the decade? Similarly, in Plamondon’s treatment of the unemployment record, he neglects the horrendous effects on employment due to the Bank of Canada’s abrupt change of course to a highly anti-inflationary stance near the start of Trudeau’s last term in office.

On social policy, Plamondon points out that Trudeau’s perceived role in opening the country’s doors to immigrants carries little credence if one looks purely at the statistics, although there was a marked change in the origins of immigrants during his prime ministership. Plamondon also shows that the distribution of income and poverty rates did not change significantly during Trudeau’s years in office, despite early talk of a just society, and that on issues such as the environment, democratic governance and relations with Canada’s indigenous peoples, results are mixed at best.

But none of these topics will seem newsworthy to Canadians who lived through the Trudeau years. And understandably they are not Plamondon’s main focus. Instead he concentrates on the legacy-defining contributions Trudeau made on the issues of constitutional change and national unity. Plamondon acknowledges Trudeau’s vital role in helping defeat the separatists in the 1980 referendum. Still, he downplays the notion that without Trudeau as prime minister the referendum might easily have been lost. But is that the right question to be asked? Quebec journalist Denise Bombardier voiced an intriguing argument, cited approvingly by Michael Bliss in his own analysis of Trudeau’s record in Right Honourable Men: The Descent of Canadian Politics from Macdonald to Mulroney. According to this argument, Trudeau was such a forceful personality that whichever side he chose on the national unity question would have prevailed. English Canada is then lucky that his own political development as a young man led him to opt for federalism. If this analysis is correct, it is difficult to accept Plamondon’s placement of Trudeau at the head of the list of overrated prime ministers. Whatever one’s opinions of the particulars of Trudeau’s record, it would seem patently unfair to dismiss someone who ended up being so pivotal in the survival of the country in such a summary fashion.

But all this takes us up just to the start of Trudeau’s last term in office. That still leaves his famous constitutional brinksmanship in the follow-up to the referendum victory to be considered. Plamondon’s assessment of this historical chapter is one often voiced by Trudeau’s detractors: during the referendum campaign Trudeau made solemn promises that, in the eyes of many Quebecers, he later betrayed in cynical fashion. On this point, Plamondon is especially eloquent:

[Quebecers] took his word during the referendum that he would reform the federation. At no time did they believe a vote for Trudeau was a vote to patriate the constitution over the express objections of the government of Quebec. At no time did they endorse constitutional reform that superseded Quebec’s power over the language of its education system. At no time did they endorse recognizing multicultural communities across the nation, but not recognizing Quebec as a distinct society.

Whatever the long-term legal impact of Trudeau’s patriated constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (not surprisingly, Plamondon bemoans the Charter’s impact, especially in the way it has elevated Canadian courts in political decision making), their political effect was to lay the groundwork for Meech Lake and Charlottetown, and then the gamble of the 1995 referendum. Many of Plamondon’s readers will remain unconvinced by his contention that Trudeau is the most overrated of Canadian prime ministers. Fewer will easily dismiss his accusation that Trudeau holds top prize in the viciously meddlesome ex–prime minister stakes (arguably with John Diefenbaker as worthy runner-up). At the time of Meech, Trudeau publicly castigated Mulroney as a “weakling” willing to emasculate the constitution in the name of some utopian ideal of cooperative federalism. And if the Quebec electorate disliked Trudeau’s continued interventions on the subject, tough for them. For many Trudeau critics, it is this post–prime-ministerial manoeuvring to kill Meech, a game played in part behind the scenes with the help of allies such as Newfoundland premier Clyde Wells, that casts a pall over Trudeau’s entire legacy, especially given the later razor-thin federalist victory in 1995.

For Trudeau’s numerous admirers, all this is political water under the bridge that does nothing to break the strong attachment they still have to his memory. In attempting to explain this enduring hold for so many, Plamondon gives two reasons. The first is obvious: for all of the gambles that Trudeau took, he ended up winning the crucial ones, especially involving his home province. In the words of one Trudeau loyalist whom Plamondon interviewed and quotes anonymously, “Forget about the economy, the just society and his hare-brained forays around the world. All that can be excused because Quebec remains in Canada.”

The second reason is more visceral. It is the appreciation that many Canadians, especially on the progressive side of the political spectrum, have for Trudeau’s character. Here, Plamondon gives credit where credit is due:

It is the man, rather than the record, that holds our attention. Trudeau was the gunslinger who showed no fear in the face of terrorism. He was the maverick who bucked protocol, whether pirouetting behind the Queen’s back or sliding down a banister. He was the anti-American and our man of the world. He was our intellectual and philosopher king, the millionaire socialist with glamorous women on his arm. He was our radical prime minister.

And a figure whose passionate regard for his country, along with the principles on which he believed it should be based, was never in the slightest doubt. For many Canadians, the sheer delight that comes with remembering a politician willing to speak his mind and hold steadfast to his fundamental beliefs, is hard to shake, especially in this spin-laden age. For all the nostalgia that many feel, however, important aspects of Trudeau’s reputation remain an open question. As Plamondon puts it, “Did he inflame the tensions regarding Quebec’s place in Canada and leave the matter so profoundly unresolved that it will yet be the undoing of the nation as we know it? Or will his actions be judged as decisive in keeping the country together?” History has yet to provide a final verdict. All the same, through the trajectory of his own life and the multifaceted aspects of his legacy, Trudeau somehow captured modern Canada’s most basic political contradictions as well as its emerging potential. If only for this reason, he is the one prime minister who, more than any other, daunts us still.