Pierre Trudeau: In a League of his Own

Yesterday was the hundredth anniversary of Pierre Trudeau’s birth. To mark the occasion his former Principal Secretary Tom Axworthy organized a day-long conference with the intriguing title “The Leadership Arts of Pierre Trudeau”  at the University of Toronto’s Massey College This blog post is a brief summary of what we heard and what resonated most with me. It is also advance notice of subsequent podcasts and YouTube videos.

I draw my title from an anecdote told by former Toronto MP, minister, and Senator David Smith. Smith had the responsibility of accompanying Margaret Thatcher during a G-7 meeting in Canada. Thatcher delivered her candid assessments of the other six leaders and Smith quoted her view of Pierre Trudeau.

Allen Mills and Max and Monique Nemni spoke about Trudeau’s thought, tracing the intellectual influences that shaped his rejection of nationalism and advocacy of states that accommodate many nationalities and provide equal rights for all citizens.

Robert Lewis, former editor of Maclean’s; Dorothy Davey, Ontario chair of Trudeau’s 1974 campaign (and wife of the late Senator Keith Davey); and former Senator Lorna Marsden regaled us with stories demonstrating Trudeau’s wit, charisma, formidable intellect, and kindness and empathy towards colleagues.

The historians Robert Bothwell and John English revisited their contemporaneous assessments of Trudeau’s policies and concluded that, in retrospect, his achievements are even more significant. They also revisited the inside baseball of the patriation of the constitution by the British Parliament, noting that Canada had three “mothers of Confederation,” Queen Elizabeth, Margaret Thatcher, and Jean Wadds, Canadian High Commissioner at the time.

York University Professor (and former adviser to Brian Mulroney) Charles McMillan argued forcefully that the most transformational recent prime ministers were Trudeau and Mulroney, the former for the patriation of the Constitution and bilingualism, and the latter for trade liberalization, deregulation, privatization, and transparent taxation (the GST).

In the last session, Robert Weese, Cabinet Secretary to Premier Blakeney of Saskatchewan continued the conversation about patriation from Blakeney’s unique perspective. The highlight of the session for me was former MP and minister David Collenette’s discussion of Trudeau’s statecraft in chairing both caucus and cabinet (personal disclosure, I co-authored a book with Allan Blakeney and we examined Blakeney’s approach to those key tasks of a first minister). I was impressed at how Trudeau treated cabinet meetings like seminars, reveling in the debate among well-informed and thoughtful ministers.

The anecdote that particularly spoke to me was Collenette’s recollection of a caucus meeting he attended as a newly-elected MP from Toronto in 1974. He was shocked by the racist views expressed by some colleagues in a discussion of immigration policy. Senator David Croll (another personal disclosure – the law partner of my great-uncle Norman Borins) gave a ringing defence of a liberal immigration policy on both humanitarian and economic grounds. When Croll finished, Trudeau smiled and rose to lead a standing ovation.

Collenette summed up Trudeau’s performance in cabinet and caucus as thoughtful, well-prepared, fair, visionary, and progressive.

The final speaker was Trudeau’s son Alexandre, who recounted that when young people asked his father’s advice about a career in politics, he always replied that self-knowledge and a vision of the society one wanted to create through politics were essential. The preparation for politics is one’s life, not politics per se.

Overall, the event combined both an academic seminar and a celebration of Trudeau’s life – almost twenty years after his passing. It therefore speaks to the influence he had on both the nation and on the lives of those who worked with him. I look forward to the podcasts and YouTube videos so they can be shared beyond the circle of those who were present.

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