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GiveLife.ca

     Pierre Elliott Trudeau:
1919-2000


EARLY YEARS

Ambulant life made him one-of-a-kind

The progeny of French-Canadian and
Scottish-French parents, Pierre was soon
seen as unpredictable, DONN DOWNEY says

Saturday, September 30, 2000
DONN DOWNEY

Pierre Trudeau was one of a kind, a trait that could be traced to his strikingly original early life.

He was born on Oct. 18, 1919, the son of a French-Canadian father and a mother of Scottish and French descent. Hence his middle name: Elliott. From them, he learned to speak wittily and colloquially in both English and French.

Mr. Trudeau's father, Charles-Émile, died when the future prime minister was 15. Mr. Trudeau had an older sister, Suzette, who married a Montreal dentist, and a younger brother, Charles, who became an architect.

A frail child, Mr. Trudeau threw himself into an exercise program to build up his strength. To the end of his days, he placed a high premium on physical fitness. A group of anonymous donors paid for the installation of a swimming pool at 24 Sussex Drive, and he swam 42 laps each day he was there.

At school, he was recognized as brilliant and unpredictable. He enjoyed challenging his teachers' doctrines and thumbing his nose at conventional wisdoms, including riding around Montreal dressed in a German military uniform during the Second World War. He refused to enlist for military duty, for which he was often criticized by some of his political opponents.

He served in the Canadian Officers' Training Corps at university. He later said he was "kicked out" of the COTC, although other accounts insist he was not dismissed. He later served with a reserve unit of Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal.

In 1944, Mr. Trudeau graduated with honours from the law faculty of the University of Montreal. For the next five years, he used his family's affluence to study and travel, seldom staying long in one place.

He went to Harvard for a master's degree; to the École des Sciences Politiques in Paris; and to the London School of Economics where he took courses but did not complete a degree.

For the next two years, he travelled around the world: to Africa, to the Middle East, throughout Eastern Europe and to China, where he left Shanghai on an American troop carrier just before Communist forces captured the city.

Mr. Trudeau retained his love of travelling throughout his life. As Prime Minister, he often took his holidays in far-away places. When travelling on official business, he would book off for a day of sightseeing.

When he returned to Canada in 1949, Mr. Trudeau joined the political struggle in Quebec against the authoritarian regime of Premier Maurice Duplessis. He played a minor role in the bitter asbestos miners' strike, in which miners clashed with provincial police sent in by Mr. Duplessis. He later edited a book of essays on the strike, La Grève de l'amiante, to which he contributed a chapter. It was through the strike that he formed a friendship with Jean Marchand, who was the labour leader organizing the strikers.

In the early 1950s, Mr. Trudeau helped to found a small but influential magazine, Cité Libre, which criticized the Quebec political establishment. The magazine's circulation was small, but its influence was great, because it was one of the few vehicles for expressing dissent against the Duplessis government.

But Mr. Trudeau would not stay put for long. He worked briefly in Ottawa as an economic policy adviser in the Privy Council, but he soon departed for another trip, this time to Africa, and to a communist international economic conference in Moscow. For the rest of the decade, he dabbled in a variety of occupations. He advised the trade union movement on legal problems, wrote essays, edited Cité Libre, managed his father's estate, taught and travelled.

His essays were marked by provocative writing. Ever the opponent of nationalism, he attacked the Quebec variety. Instead of looking inward, Quebec society should throw off its old myths, he argued. Quebeckers should compete vigorously with English Canadians and understand that federalism offered them the best of both worlds -- a chance to protect their culture and develop their distinct society through their provincial government, and an opportunity to participate in a wider Canadian dream through the federal government.

For these heretical views and his opposition to Mr. Duplessis, he was denied a teaching post at the University of Montreal. Throughout his academic and political life, therefore, he held Quebec's intellectual community in contempt. He never missed a chance to lampoon Quebec's intellectuals. Even as Prime Minister, he wrote letters to French-speaking newspapers criticizing their attacks on Ottawa.

When the Quiet Revolution began in Quebec after Mr. Duplessis's death in 1959, Mr. Trudeau was finally offered a post at the University of Montreal. For six years, he taught constitutional law until his entry into politics.

During that period, he took part in regular political discussions with Mr. Marchand, Gérard Pelletier and Réné Lévesque, the Liberal Minister of Natural Resources who was to become leader of the separatist movement, Leader of the Parti Québécois, Premier of Quebec and Mr. Trudeau's most intractable foe in the province.

As he discussed politics with Mr. Lévesque around Mr. Pelletier's kitchen table on Friday nights, it became clear that the Quebec Liberals were so intent on strengthening the provincial government that Ottawa would soon look like a Cheshire cat: Nothing would remain but the smile.

Thus, when the Liberals put out feelers to Mr. Trudeau about entering federal politics, Mr. Trudeau was interested. It was a testament to the Liberals' political flexibility that they would even consider Mr. Trudeau. As rumours about a possible Trudeau candidacy spread, so did the enthusiasm for him within the party.

Mr. Trudeau consulted widely with his friends, then retired to think alone. At the leadership convention, Mr. Trudeau took the lead on the first ballot and was elected on the fourth, defeating Trade Minister Robert Winters. Three days after becoming Prime Minister, he dissolved Parliament and called the election that swept the Liberals back to power with a majority government.


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