Article originally published Nov 10, 2009
Pierre Trudeau still haunts us.
The publication of historian John English's sweeping biography of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Just Watch Me, is the second volume of English's definitive look at the life of a prime minister whose influence and legacy continue to dwarf the little men and women who run Canada today. Love him or hate him, Trudeau still provokes passionate discussion and debate. No politician since has had a hold on the country like Trudeau.
This new book covers the period from 1968 when Trudeau became prime minister to when he died in 2000. The book's title comes from the now-famous phrase Trudeau used when asked by a CBC reporter during the October 1970 FLQ crisis how far he would go with suspension of civil liberties to maintain order. Three days later, he invoked the War Measures Act.
On its own, Just Watch Me is just another biography about a dead Canadian leader. But its publication raises so many questions about Canadian politics today that it makes Just Watch Me vital reading for any serious student of today's political situation. More importantly for people of faith, Trudeau's life and legacy provides clues as to why our political leaders act as they do.
The aspect of the book that has garnered most media attention is Trudeau's relationships with the women in his life—not only his wife, Margaret, but also actresses Barbra Streisand, Kim Cattrall, and Gale Zoe Garnett and classical guitarist Liona Boyd, all of whom seemed to have impacted Trudeau's political decisions in some way.
The book recounts how Trudeau's marriage's problems forced the prime minister to spend most of his time in the later part of the 1970s compartmentalizing his public and private life.
This idea that politicians can or should "compartmentalize" their public and private lives is one that's debated even today. Does it matter that Stephen Harper appears to be an "evangelical Christian?" Did Paul Martin's Catholicism have zero influence in his capitulation to gay lobby groups on legalizing same-sex marriages? Was Preston Manning's open Christian faith what ultimately did him in with the chattering classes? Should what our leaders do behind closed doors—or in front of their computer—matter?
It's fascinating to hear Trudeau's 37-year-old son, Justin, talk about his father's legacy. The rookie Liberal MP's take on that legacy is about "big values and big visions."
The main difference between politics then and now, says the younger Trudeau, is how much more of today's debates seem to be about the immediate or short-term issues. In part, Justin Trudeau says, this is a result of minority government, although his father also had to deal with minority rule from 1972 to 1974.
The main problem with Canadian politics today is that it is held hostage by what Justin Trudeau calls "short-term minority cycles," where politicians simply won't talk about their values and visions for Canada. Our political leaders, no matter what their political stripe, are all far too worried about short-term electoral gain.
The result is the lack of respect in our legislatures, blind partisanship, not real policies for which politicians will die for, and, according to Justin Trudeau, the "simplification of discourse that should remain complex."
It is wrong to deify Trudeau and his legacy. The man had many faults. Indeed, many of his policies have resulted in laws and court rulings that many of us with a faith perspective would argue have harmed the country: abortion on demand, the erosion of traditional marriage, the virtual eradication of faith from public debate, collapsing morals which have fostered consecutive generations of young people who can't see beyond their own needs, etc.
Another Trudeau legacy that hurts us is the political obsession with "spin" and "managing the message"—innovations in political arts whose origins can be traced to Trudeau's time.
Ironically, Trudeau's determination to keep politics and morality (what we do in private) separate may be the one legacy that spurs Canadians to question the wobbly foundations of our society.
The rampant capitalism of the last two decades has proven itself a hollow shell, not because the type of "statist" policies which Trudeau would have embraced is better, but because modern capitalism is built on selfishness. The hidden poverty and crime infecting our major urban centres would not be cured by Trudeau-style state intervention. Instead, Canadian society needs a heart transplant: what happens to my neighbour should matter to me.
Canada does not need a political messiah à la Trudeau. But it does need men and women of big values and visions. Until such individuals are found within the Canadian body politic, don't be surprised if Trudeau's shadow continues to haunt us.