“Just watch me”
by Lauren Golosky, contributor
A prime minister admired and adored as greatly as he was despised, Pierre Elliot Trudeau left an undeniable impact on Canada as recognizable now as ever.
This last Tuesday marked a decade since the controversial political legend succumbed to prostate cancer on Sept. 28, 2000.
Trudeau was first elected prime minister in 1968, emerging from a world of scholars. He was appointed minister of justice by Prime Minister Lester Pearson, and that’s where he began to establish a serious role in Canadian politics.
The young politician proved to be a strong force, forever changing the face of Canadian politics during the sixteen years he served as prime minister. Trudeau attracted attention by decriminalizing homosexuality and reforming laws on abortion and divorce, issues that were historically taboo.
“[Trudeau] introduced policies that changed the country for the better: official bilingualism, multiculturalism, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” explains Professor Lee Ward of the University of Regina’s political science department. “They impacted the relations between people and government. People hold Trudeau responsible and admire him for these things.”
Trudeau was, and still is, particularly popular with the university demographic, which Ward chalks up to Trudeau’s intellectual background.
“For many faculty, it was a formative experience – Trudeau being in power. It’s also the memory of their youth – the changes in the 1970s and ’80s. He came out of university himself, a law professor before politics. He understood the contributions of intellects.”
As the top newsmaker of the 20th century, Trudeau was obviously more than just a political figure representing Canada. Like the American Kennedys, Trudeau rose to celebrity status.
“Prior to Trudeau, Canadian prime ministers tended to be understated and somewhat unprepossessing figures, but Trudeau was much more a dominant figure in culture and politics,” Ward says.
However, with this dominant role came backlash for Trudeau. What his supporters perceived as charismatic qualities, his critics found to be arrogance.
Although Trudeau had always aimed for a unified nation, issues arose in western Canada and Quebec. He believed to accomplish his goal of a unified nation, he had to fight against Quebec’s separatist movement. Ward says, to this day, many Quebecers still hold a grudge against the former Prime Minister.
“Many people credit Trudeau for holding Canada together, for fighting Quebec centralism. But many Francophones in Quebec think Trudeau undermined their nationalism aspirations; that Trudeau sold them out. In Quebec, his legacy is divided.”
Ward continues that Trudeau’s relationship with the western provinces of Canada was even worse.
“People in the West felt Trudeau’s policies favoured Central Canada. He showed contempt for people in Western Canada,” Ward explains. “He was too quick to dismiss certain points of view.”
The effects of Trudeau’s contention with the West are still visible today.
“The Liberal party still struggles in Western Canada because of Trudeau’s legacy,” says Ward.
Still, Canadians from coast to coast cannot ignore Trudeau’s influence. Without policies he fathered, Canadians wouldn’t have the same rights and freedoms as we do today.
Ten years later, the country still isn’t the vision Trudeau saw when he looked to the future. Ward says she believes this is something Canada will have to start working for again.
“Trudeau would be worried about the divisions in the country. The national vision that he promoted hasn’t happened or succeeded yet. The division of Western and Central Canada still exists. Quebec separatism is still a strong force in Canadian politics 40 years after it first appeared. The sense of the national vision Trudeau promoted will have to be addressed by current and future generations.”