OPINION: TRUDEAU AND THE MONARCHY

84 Trudeau/Queen chat

84 Trudeau/Queen Constit

Trudeau Pirouette
An appraisal by Geoff Heinricks
reprinted courtesy National Post


Prince Charles, heir to this nation's constitutional monarchy, once complained to British politician Roy Jenkins that Pierre Trudeau kept his collection of autographed photos of the Royal Family in a desk drawer at home, rather than on view. That little observation probably best serves to illustrate Mr Trudeau's lifelong attitude to the role of the monarchy in Canada: It was carefully protected, for the most part out of public view, and yet readily available to be retrieved if and when required.

Mr Trudeau's long dance with both the theoretical constitutional framework and the personal and symbolic incarnations of the Crown in Canada was certainly consistent, when viewed through his personal philosophic lens of "reason over passion."

Mr Trudeau's mother, Grace Elliott, was thought to be descended from United Empire Loyalists. If this was true, it had little direct bearing on his predisposition to the monarchy. In his early political writings for the Quebec magazine Vrai, Mr Trudeau boldly stated that: "Neither authority nor obedience ought to be taken for granted. If my father, my priest or my mind wants to exert authority over me, if he wants to give me orders, he has to be able to explain, in a way that satisfies my reason, on what grounds he must command and I must obey."

Neither his own family history nor the violence that surrounded Queen Elizabeth II's visit to Quebec City on October 20, 1964 ­ and which resulted in the so-called "le samedi de la matraque" (Truncheon Saturday) ­ influenced Mr Trudeau's view of the monarchy; it was firmly an intellectual, not emotional, question to prod and ponder. Nearly three years after le samedi de la matraque, Mr Trudeau, by then sworn into the Privy Council as a member of the Pearson Cabinet, declared: "I wouldn't lift a finger to get rid of the monarchy... I think the monarchy, by and large, has done more good than harm to Canada."

Though he professed at best an emotionally cold but intellectually valid support for the institution of the monarchy, Mr Trudeau continued to be suspected of an ardent republicanism; a Jacobin-in-the-box wanting to sever all ties with Britain, especially the Crown.

On The Queen's side, there was disapproval at Mr Trudeau's flamboyance. According to Paul Martin, Sr., at the time serving as Canada's High Commissioner, The Queen was worried the Crown "had little meaning for him." Tony Benn ­ a with-it British politician of the same '60s vintage as Mr Trudeau, and a republican to boot ­ claimed that The Queen confided to him that she found her Canadian prime minister "rather disappointing."

The steady, slow disappearance of familiar Canadian cultural ties to the Crown, from the removal of HM and OHMS in federal documents to the gradual eradication of imperial measurements (and the symbolic regicide of stomping out the yard ­ the distance between Henry I's nose and fingertips) was cited as proof of Mr Trudeau's true attitude to the monarchy.

Eugene Forsey wrote in his autobiography that, where the great flag debate of Lester Pearson was fair, and respected "both facts and logic," this "was not true of the other two: the getting rid of 'Royal Mail' on the trucks and post boxes of the Post Office Department, where those who thought as I did were totally defeated; and the erasure of 'Dominion' from everything except, amazingly, our Constitution, where it still survives in the preamble and Section 3 of the Constitution Act of 1867, unrepealed and unamended."

This steady erosion of the language and symbolism of the Canadian Crown was married to a sense that Mr Trudeau was also personally rude and far too ready to publicly mock the person of The Queen. Published reports of Mr Trudeau's sliding down Buckingham Palace banisters, and his famous pirouette behind The Queen, captured on film in 1977, either enraged or tickled Canadians ­ or, more often, evoked a measure of each.

The pirouette became almost a moment of Zen simplicity, summing up Pierre Elliott Trudeau; it continues on as likely the most telling single image of his era. (In fact, J.L. Granatstein and Robert Bothwell published a 1990 book called Pirouette ­ Pierre Trudeau and Canadian Foreign Policy.")

In John Fraser's book Telling Tales, he attempted to explain the famous image: "Mr Trudeau, as is known to some, is a dance fan. A former dancer with the National Ballet has told me of classes he and Pierre had taken together in Montreal during the '40s... I trust all this now puts into a far happier perspective his later and allegedly disrespectful pirouette behind The Queen's back. When the band plays, a guy's gotta dance."

While the daily reminders of the constitutional head of state were carted off during the Trudeau years, Mr Trudeau did open the drawer from time to time and dusted off the institution. He was accused of becoming an opportunistic and instant monarchist during a period of political unpopularity in 1970-1973 when he invited The Queen to attend the first Commonwealth Conference held on Canadian soil. The invitation was eagerly accepted, and started the tradition of Her Majesty attending these conferences, even when held outside of Great Britain. In 1976, after Robert Bourassa, the Quebec premier, begged him to invite The Queen to the Olympics in Montreal, Mr Trudeau, after doing so, became quite annoyed when Mr. Bourassa later become unsettled about how unpopular the move might be. At the same time Mr Trudeau was capable of his own stunning breaches of protocol: In 1978, he off vacationing in Morocco, when custom meant that he should have been in Canada to attend The Queen's arrival and departure.

Apart from the emotionally raw aspects of symbolism, and an unconventional personal interplay between The Queen and her Prime Minister, Mr Trudeau ­ to an extent not equalled in our history ­ examined, experimented with, theorized and then ultimately entrenched the role of the Crown in Canada.

Mr Trudeau began by tinkering with the role of Governor General. Roland Michener was sent to the Benelux nations of Europe in 1971, enjoying all the perks and honours of head of state. This little experiment in increasing the prestige and powers of The Queen's representative, though considered a success, was scaled back for future Governors General.

In 1978, Bill C-60 was read for the first time in Parliament; it meant to reform the Senate, Supreme Court of Canada, and strengthen the role of Governor General, transferring powers exercised by The Queen. A storm of outrage met the poorly drafted bill, and it enjoyed a quiet death of neglect. At the time, Mr Trudeau said: "If I were an anti-monarchist, I should leave the post alone and let it become obsolescent, let the Governor General do nothing but attend Boy Scout rallies."

Unfortunately, though there was an initial intent to increase the powers and profile of the vice regal role, the recommended appointments Mr Trudeau did come to make to the position started a long pattern of uninterrupted, tired political appointees.

In 1980 and 1981, the constitutional battle raged again ­ a small sideshow of it resulting in the sudden retirement of British high Commissioner Sir John Ford when it was discovered that Sir John was trying to enlist such pro-monarchist politicians as New Brunswick Premier Richard Hatfield in organizing a ridiculous coup to stop Mr Trudeau and his reforms. The Queen, meanwhile, had taken a great and deep interest in the constitutional debate, especially in the wake of the failed [Bill] C-60, which affected her role as head of state. Paul Martin, Sr. had earlier noted this keen interest, and so did John Roberts and Mark MacGuigan when they were despatched in 1980 to discuss the proposed changes in London, finding The Queen "better informed on both the substance and politics of Canada's constitutional case than any of the British politicians or bureaucrats."

During the intense and complicated process of negotiation, compromise and political hardball required to secure an agreement to patriate and amend the Constitution, it was agreed to make the Canadian Crown one of the political institutions that required the unanimous agreement of all the provinces to amend or dismantle. This effectively entrenched the monarch as head of state in Canada, and should have ended any speculation that Mr Trudeau was out to sculpt a republic.

The Queen readily assented to come to Ottawa in 1982 to sign the Constitution Act, and did so at the famously wet and grey ceremony of April 17.

"I always said," Mr Trudeau wrote in his memoirs, "it was thanks to three women that we were eventually able to reform our Constitution ­ The Queen, who was favorable, Margaret Thatcher, who undertook to do everything that our Parliament asked of her, and Jean Wadds, who represented the interests of Canada so well in London.

"The Queen favoured my attempt to reform the Constitution. I was always impressed not only by the grace she displayed in public at all times, but by the wisdom she showed in private conversation."

Mr Trudeau was made a Companion of Honour in 1984, an order of chivalry founded by George V in 1917, and an honour also awarded to John Diefenbaker, an avowed monarchist. In 1985, Mr Trudeau became a Companion of the Order of Canada. In 1994, another honour from the Crown was bestowed upon him, when he and the other surviving former prime ministers were granted arms.