Pierre Trudeau -- a Controversial PM


Three Takes on a Controversial PM

(Originally published in the Ottawa South Community Association Review -- OSCAR)

In June, 1984, at the convention to choose the successor to Pierre Trudeau as leader of the Liberal Party, Marc Lalonde predicted that in years to come, Canadians would remember those times as the Age of Trudeau.  In November, 2017, the audience who gathered at St. Paul University to hear Dr. Paul Litt would probably agree. 

Almost all of us were of the generation shaped by Trudeau. Many of the policies that seemed controversial at the time have become woven into the Canadian fabric: bilingualism, multiculturalism, a strong federalist response to Quebec nationalism, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.


“Part of what makes a nation is shared experiences,” Dr. Litt reminded us. The shared experiences of the Trudeau years ranged from the Laporte murder and the War Measures Act, to the highly visible dramas that played out in Trudeau’s personal and family life.

To help us assess Trudeau’s impact, Dr. Litt, a Carleton professor whose book, Trudeaumania, was released last year, offered three “cafeteria-style offerings” for the audience to choose from.

The first saw Trudeau as “The Father of Modern Canada.” He came to power in the heady afterglow of Expo and the Centennial. Many Canadians saw him as the ideal figure to lead this new, optimistic, confident Canada that was sloughing off its colonial skin.  He modernized us, according to this narrative, and enabled us to take a proud place in the international arena. 

Against this, Dr. Litt offered “The Evil Sorcerer” – the PM who ruined the country and we are still trying to recover from his mistakes. Dr. Litt’s heart didn’t seem to be in this evocation of Trudeau as free-spending socialist, or as a man who vulgarized the office of Prime Minister by swearing in the House of Commons (“fuddle duddle”) and showing his contempt through the “Salmon Arm salute.” 

The professor set up straw men to knock down:  businessmen resented not having their usual privileged access to the Prime Minister, for example. Was anyone in that audience going to take the businessmen’s side? Not when Dr. Litt put the issue in those terms. Most tellingly, when trying to explain why some consider PET to be a bad Prime Minister’s, he failed to mention the National Energy Program (NEP).

That’s because he was saving the NEP for his third offering:  Trudeau as “High Modern Technocrat.”  The political capital of Trudeaumania was spent on experiments with “rational” government, which held that solutions were available to the nation’s complex problems if the right policies were in place.  To find those solutions, his years of power saw a ballooning of the public service and the “mandarinate” and an accelerating climb of the national debt.

Trudeau’s time is remembered, by some, for great failed experiments, including the White Paper on reform of relations with Indigenous peoples, the Just Society, Wage and Price Controls, “6 and 5” deficit reduction, and the National Energy Program. One enduring result of Trudeau’s technocratic approach has been the Charter.

In this scenario, Dr. Litt sees Trudeau’s rigidity of mind as a failing.  He contrasted Trudeau to Sir John A. Macdonald whose flexibility sometime erupted into scandal, but whose understanding of human nature enabled him to bring coalitions together to achieve what otherwise would not have been possible – including creating a nation.

He summed up Trudeau’s technocratic dilemma this way: “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice; in practice, there is.”

That gives a sense of the wit and fun that infused Dr. Litt’s talk.  It was a wonderful romp down memory lane for some, and a reminder of the shared experiences that have made us a nation.

Dr. Litt’s presentation on Trudeau was followed, in December, by Dr. Michael Stevenson of Lakehead University who spoke about John George Diefenbaker (see elsewhere in this issue of OSCAR). The series resumes in the new year when Arthur Milnes will give an overview of several Prime Ministers.

Part of the Old Ottawa East Community Association’s Canda150 celebrations, the lectures are held at room L120, 233 Main Street. Admission is free.

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Don Cummer lives in Old Ottawa South.  He organizes kilt skates in honour of Sir John A. Macdonald. www.kiltskate.com