Canada News

Today in Canada’s Political History: Pierre Trudeau’s Fourth Government Takes Office

Summary

It is a very real personal and professional pleasure to welcome as my guest columnist today Professor and former MP John English. Canadians will for decades owe a debt to Professor English.  Thanks to him, two monumental biographies of Prime […]

It is a very real personal and professional pleasure to welcome as my guest columnist today Professor and former MP John English. Canadians will for decades owe a debt to Professor English.  Thanks to him, two monumental biographies of Prime Ministers Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, are available.  He has chronicled the lives and legacies of these two significant PMs in a graceful and readable style all too rare in the writings of so many present-day historians.

Over to you Professor English, and, thank you from Art’s History for all you have done – and still do – to encourage the studies of our Prime Ministers in this dark era that brings no credit to many of today’s historians.

by John English

Nineteen seventy-nine brought Pierre Trudeau’s summer of discontent followed by an autumn of despair.  In late May, he lost an election and the prime minister’s office.  In June, he moved out of 24 Sussex Drive from which his wife Margaret, the mother of their three children, had departed two years before.  On election night, she partied in New York at the Seventies Nirvana, Studio 54.  The morning after, photos of Margaret discoing outnumbered those of Pierre losing in the international press.

He seemed indifferent as an opposition leader. A few months later, after he shaved off a scraggly summertime beard and turned sixty, he begged off a British Columbia Liberal convention because he had a bad cold.  That weekend a photographer caught him at a New York disco.  He resigned as Liberal leader shortly after New Democratic Party Leader Ed Broadbent moved a motion in the House of Commons calling for tax deductions for discos used to cure colds.

George Radwanski’s 1978 sympathetic biography of Trudeau concluded that, if he soon left public life, he would depart “unfulfilled.”  Trudeau knew the judgment was true.  He had entered politics in 1965 because of the challenge of Quebec nationalism and separatism and became prime minister in 1968 to fight those forces.  It had not gone well.  His major attempt at constitutional revision, the Victoria Charter, failed in 1971.  René Lévesque’s separatists took office in 1976 and were planning a referendum.  He faltered as Lévesque challenged him.  His personal life and political disappointments took a toll in the later seventies.  He later said that he felt as if he were in a fog where his body and mind were disassociated.  At the beginning of December, politics belonged to his past; his three boys would be his future.

It was not to be.  Prime Minister Joe Clark stumbled in office and in the polls.  Foolishly, he decided not to avoid a vote of non-confidence believing the leaderless Liberals would never defeat him.  He was wrong.  On 13 December, 1979, the Clark government was defeated.  Trudeau’s executive assistant Jim Coutts and Allan MacEachen, the shrewdest Liberal tactician, immediately moved to have Trudeau return.  After some hesitation, he agreed knowing that he would likely become prime minister again.

Liberal organizers feared that the animosity to Trudeau in boardrooms and newsrooms remained, and he shunned debates and press encounters.  Coutts, MacEachen, and other advisers crafted a platform that was nationalist and interventionist.  As the 1980s began, the fog upon him swiftly lifted.  He told the press in the last weeks of the campaign he was ready to govern.

“Welcome to the eighties,” he proclaimed to a riotous crowd gathered on election night to celebrate a Liberal majority government.  He promised to confront problems directly and resolved, in his own words, to “govern in this next term as though it was going to be my last.”

On 3 March, the Liberals took office, and he did govern as if it were his last.  Boldly, he confronted the separatists in a referendum that he won.  Quickly, he moved to create a Canadian constitution with a Charter of Rights and Freedom.  It transformed the nation and became his greatest legacy.

Pierre Trudeau was finally fulfilled.

Pierre Trudeau addresses a jubilant election night audience at the Chateau Laurier, February 1980

Arthur Milnes is an accomplished public historian and award-winning journalist.  He was research assistant on The Rt. Hon. Brian Mulroney’s best-selling Memoirs and also served as a speechwriter to then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper and as a Fellow of the Queen’s Centre for the Study of Democracy under the leadership of Tom Axworthy.  A resident of Kingston, Ontario, Milnes serves as the in-house historian at the 175 year-old Frontenac Club Hotel.

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.

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