Pierre Trudeau: Champion of a Just Society

By Iglauer, Edith | Americas (English Edition), January 2001 | Go to article overview

Pierre Trudeau: Champion of a Just Society


Iglauer, Edith, Americas (English Edition)


Thirty-two years ago, in 1968, I came to Canada and wrote a profile for the New Yorker magazine about the charismatic, brilliant Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who had just become Canada's fifteenth prime minister. It was a wonderful assignment. His was a refreshing personality in politics, and he was at the start of sixteen years of extraordinary leadership.

When I came to see him, Trudeau was sitting at his octagonal table-desk in his oak-paneled formal office, an old-fashioned room with a fireplace and Gothic windows, on the third floor of the Parliament buildings. "Do you have a vision for Canada?" I asked.

"I dream. I dream all the time," Trudeau replied.

"I've always dreamt of a society where each person should be able to fulfill himself to the extent of his capabilities as a human being, a society where inhibitions to equality would be eradicated. This means providing individual freedoms, and equality of opportunity, health, and education, and I conceive of politics as a series of decisions to create this society."

Trudeau, who resigned as prime minister in 1984, died on September 28, 2000, at the age of eighty in Montreal, the city of his birth. Canadians, who normally do not display emotion in public, went into unprecedented national mourning for the five days before his state funeral, the largest in Canadian history. When the train bearing Trudeau's casket, covered with a maple leaf flag, traveled from Ottawa, where his body had been lying in state on Parliament Hill, to Montreal, the roads, stations, and the fields in rural areas through which it passed were filled with persons bidding farewell to a great Canadian. As the funeral procession slowly drove to and from Montreal's historic Notre-Dame Basilica, the cathedral in the heart of the old city where the service took place, the streets were lined with people, many weeping.

The funeral was attended by family, friends, and dignitaries from all over the world; the most prominent, Cuban president Fidel Castro and former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, were personal friends. They were honorary pallbearers and sat with the family, Castro directly behind sons Justin and Sacha Trudeau. It was a spellbinding ceremony for those not present as well; for it seemed as if the entire nation was watching the event on television screens across Canada.

When Pierre Trudeau was prime minister, and even before, when he was minister of justice in the government of Lester Pearson, he was a strong leader, holding firmly to ideals and to his dream for a more perfect state. A lawyer by profession, before entering politics he had been an activist in labor disputes, a university professor, and a sophisticated backpack traveler fluent in Spanish as well as French and English. He was, briefly, an Ottawa bureaucrat, and a scholar and writer who expressed his pragmatic political philosophy in many articles and several books. He believed that the nation must be strong enough to withstand the overwhelming economic and cultural pressures from its giant neighbor, the United States, and he believed in a "Just Society," one of his favorite phrases that held many meanings for him.

The concept of a Just Society was never merely a convenient phrase; it was the inspiration for Trudeau's deepest feelings. He believed that the ever-widening gulf between rich and poor at home and in underdeveloped countries should be reduced. He thought it was the government's responsibility to provide equal status, equal opportunity, and fair treat-merit for all. As justice minister he introduced legislation that broadened grounds for divorce and abortions and abolished penalties for homosexual acts between consenting adults, with the famous remark, "The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation."

Although Trudeau was in early middle age when he became prime minister, he seemed as young as his most youthful constituents. He inspired the kind of dedicated enthusiasm seen in the United States thirty years earlier, when the young flocked to Washington to work for the late great U. …

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