On Tuesday, at the Museum of Civilization, David Frum argued in favour of the proposition that Pierre Trudeau was "Canada's most disastrous prime minister:"
Pierre Trudeau was a spending fool. He believed in a state-led economy, and the longer he lasted in office, the more statist he became. The Foreign Investment Review Agency was succeeded by Petro-Canada. Petro-Canada was succeeded by wage and price controls. Wage and price controls were succeeded by the single worst economic decision of Canada's 20th century: the National Energy Program.
Frum's argument is the standard conservative criticism of Trudeau..For conservatives, Trudeau is the bogeyman of their nightmares. The trouble is that their memories are highly selective. Lawrence Martin, who argued the other side of the resolution, reminded his audience of Trudeau's accomplishments. Trudeau, Martin said, was The Great Emancipator:
With his repatriation of the Constitution, Trudeau liberated us at long last from Great Britain. With his Charter of Rights and Freedoms, he liberated us from the authority of the state. With his bilingualism and multicultural polices, he liberated us from unilingual, unicultural trappings; from anti-pluralist prejudice that had rarely seen a woman in top governing posts, that saw no Jews in the cabinet or on the Supreme Court.
Frum argued that Trudeau made the October Crisis worse:
Trudeau responded with overwhelming force, declaring martial law in Quebec, arresting dozens of people almost none of whom had any remote connection to the terrorist outrages. The arrests radicalized them, transforming many from cultural nationalists into outright independentists. As he did throughout his career, Trudeau polarized the situation - multiplying enemies for himself and unfortunately also for Canada.
If Frum had grown up in Quebec, he might see things a bit differently. Martin suggested that Trudeau's greatest accomplishment was not the Charter of Rights, the repatriation of the constitution or winning the 1980 referendum. Rather than alienating Quebec, Trudeau brought that province into the centre of Confederation:
This was a country with a 25-per-cent francophone population, yet for 100 years, Canada had a central government that functioned only in English. Trudeau’s bilingualism program ended that shame. Bilingualism was expensive, was resisted in parts of the country, but never shoved down anyone’s throat. Today millions of our citizens speak French who otherwise would not. This is a richer and more cultivated country as a result.
It is significant that Stephen Harper's new Director of Communications doesn't speak French. Harper's goal is to erase Trudeau's accomplishments. He wants to return Canada to the country is was before Trudeau, when:
There was that howling blowhard from the prairies, John Diefenbaker. He wasn’t dull, just deluded. His main appeal was to rural folk, aged 60 and over. Lester Pearson has a very good image today but back then he was no star. On the campaign trail, he was a bumbler, spoke with a lisp, could empty a room faster than R.B. Bennett.
Trudeau's crowning achievement was that he convinced a young generation of Canadians that politics mattered. Stephen Harper has convinced young Canadians that politics don't matter. They know that, for Harper, politics is about old people. Canada has become a country for old men.
This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.