Monday, August 12, 2013

Trudeau The Elder

For the Canadian Right, Pierre Elliott Trudeau is the bogeyman. Stephen Harper, who used to admire Trudeau, came to believe the standard Conservative line, best expressed by Bob Plamondon in his book, The Truth About Trudeau:

“Far from being one of the best of our prime ministers, he was one of the worst. [He] left deep divisions and scars that remain to be healed. … It took successive leaders many decades to clean up the disorder.”

Somewhere between the time he left Toronto and started to refer to Calgary as his "home town," Harper dedicated himself to undoing what Trudeau had achieved. But, Andrew Cohen writes in The Ottawa Citizen, Plamondon's take on Trudeau is fundamentally misguided:

Consider national unity, where Trudeau was indispensable. Plamondon correctly argues that Trudeau was “obsessed” with bringing home the British North America Act, a process that initially left most Canadians indifferent. After all, he says, we’d done fine with things as they were. Sure, patriation would happen, “but only when the time was right.”

Yet the time was never right — and likely never would be, at least in Trudeau’s lifetime. We had been trying since 1927 to free the BNA Act from British trusteeship. That paralysis appalled Trudeau, who believed in a striving, mature, self-respecting nation. His magnificent obsession, as it was called, was what drove him to detach ourselves from Great Britain, to create an amending formula and to entrench a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It was to become adults in this world.

If anything, Stephen Harper wishes he could turn back the clock and return us to our colonial past. As for dividing the country -- a mantra which the right continually repeats -- Cohen writes:

Trudeau repeatedly took on the forces of division. He spoke for Canada with a singular, eloquent passion. In 1968, at a federal-provincial conference, he challenged Daniel Johnson’s suffocating nationalism. In 1970, he vanquished the terrorists in the October Crisis. His response crushed the FLQ, sparing Canada the violence that stung Italy and West Germany in the 1970s.

In 1980, in the Quebec Referendum, he rallied the flagging federalists. In three timely, brilliant speeches, he reversed the trend — an intervention reflected in a shift in public opinion. As one critic said, had Trudeau been a separatist rather than a federalist, Quebec would be independent now.

In 1987, he challenged the Meech Lake Accord, and in 1992, the Charlottetown Agreement. He thought they were flawed. Such was his stature among Canadians that both times he carried the day.

Every time things became hot in the Constitutional Wars, we were told this was the end of Canada. If it wasn’t the separatists in Quebec, it was the premiers or the devolutionists in the most decentralized federation in the world. Patriation, the Charter, the collapse of Meech Lake, the end of Charlottetown: each time, the Cassandras, the Jeremiahs, the shiver sisters, the currency traders — and often the political elite — issued their alarms.

Trudeau, bless him, ignored them. He knew this country was stronger than that.

Cohen freely admits that Trudeau was a flawed leader: "He made mistakes and enemies." But, "That’s what greatness is. Nations don’t raise statues in parks to managers of banality or accountants of envy."

What really drives Stephen Harper is his knowledge that he isn't Pierre Elliott Trudeau. In the final analysis, he is an "accountant of envy." He may battle Trudeau's son. But he can't hold a candle to Trudeau the Elder.


Lorne said...

Although I was never a big fan of Trudeau, Owen, I always remember his response to the forces that sought the devolution of federal power: "Who will speak for Canada?"

Unfortunately, under the current political regime, I suspect the answer would be, "Whoever has the money."

Owen Gray said...

I suspect that's true, Lorne. That said, I've always been struck by Harper's fixation on Trudeau.

A friend of mine used to attend question period when Stanfield, Lewis and Trudeau were leaders of their respective parties. He was struck by the mutual respect each leader had for the others.

Harper shows contempt for his rivals, but for Trudeau most of all. There's something fundamentally unhealthy about Harper's focus on Trudeau.

Rene said...

I beg to differ. Trudeau waged war with his unilateral vision of federalism not simply against "separatists" in Quebec, but against moderate Quebec nationalists such as Robert Bourassa. His constitutional policies, unilateral repatriation, etc., were condemned in Quebec's national assembly by pequistes and liberals alike, which explains why the federal Liberals seats were wiped out in Quebec in federal elections following the first referendum and the repatriation of the constitution.

The Meech Lake constitutional amendment pursued by the Progressive Conservatives and Bourassa Liberals split the PQ ranks, winning the endorsement of Levesque and moderates within PQ ranks, whereas Trudeau's interference in a bloc with western Reformers scuttled the attempt at constitutional reform securing Quebec's agreement, split the PC Party along regional and linguistic lines, lead to the loss of the Progressive Conservative's Quebec base, the creation of the Bloc Quebecois, an upsurge in nationalist sentiment in Quebec, a PQ victory in the subsequent Quebec election, a referendum crisis which almost succeeded in tearing this country apart and in whose aftermath we currently find ourselves more than 20 years later.

Meanwhile throughout English Canada, particularly in the western provinces, Reformers are ceaselessly advocating for Quebec to be booted from Canada. Quite a nation building legacy ....

Owen Gray said...

I would contend, Rene, that much of the stew Bourassa found himself in was of his own making. He alienated public service unions, and made a play for the nationalist vote which nationalists correctly saw as weak kneed.

As for splitting the Conservatives, that was Mulroney's doing. He courted Lucien Bouchard, thinking he could keep him on the reservation. If he had paid attention to Bouchard's opinions, he would have known that there were plenty of reasons not to invite Bouchard into the party.

Bouchard humiliated Mulroney, leaving Mulroney to decree that, if Bouchard attends his funeral, Bouchard should be evicted before the proceedings begin.

Trudeau made mistakes. But he is accused of mistakes which others made.

Rene said...

There is a mythology about Trudeau in English Canada by many who consider themselves "leftist and progressive" that his major adversary was to the right.

It is certainly not so from the perspective of many Quebecers, who view Trudeau as an adversary of the Quebec left, of sovereignists, of the labour movement.

The War Measures Act and the repression he introduced in 1970 was not simply intended to round up a handful of terrorists, but to crush and intimidate the Quebec left, Quebec nationalists, the labour movement. A major target of such legislation was not a handful of terrorists already heavily infiltrated by RCMP, but independent labour campaigns such as the three trade unions federations were waging against the corrupt Drapeau administration under the umbrella of an electoral front named FRAP. In the midst of the Montreal municipal elections in 1970 the FRAP was labelled "terrorist" not merely by Drapeau but by federal Liberal Ministers such as Marchand who found the opportunity to intervene in favour of Drapeau's candidacy. The entire FRAP team, candidate, campaign organizers had to wage a campaign from a jail cell, publicly slandered as terrorists by Trudeau Liberals, but nonetheless managed to muster 15% of the popular vote in their campaign.

It took the NDP forty plus years to figure out that parroting Trudeau's hardline constitutional stance was winning them no support in Quebec and simply marginalizing them. They did manage to win significant support in what was once a political wasteland for them when they modified their constitutional perspective and political message.

CK said...

I love how politicians accuse one another of dividing the country apart. Harper & his friends saying that Papa Trudeau split the country apart, when no one is more divisive than he is. Furthermore, Harper is far more malicious and deliberate in accomplishing this as Trudeau ever could've been. Trudeau did it to achieve a greater good--for Canada to become more independent (for better or worse). Harper, simply to keep his rabid base happy and to knock down his "enemies".

Mulroney, I'm sure, in his own weird and twisted way, meant well back in the days when he assembled socially conservative westerners, fiscally conservative easterners and Quebec nationalists into his coalition of sorts. He courted the westerners by scrapping the National Energy Plan, among other things and attempted to court Quebec nationalists at the same time. We know how well that worked out. All 3 of the above mentioned factions splintered into 2 different parties, leaving the PCs on life support-- The Bloc Quebecois, founded by Lucien Bouchard and earlier, Reform with Preston Manning to outraged Westerners crying over western alienation. Remember Manning's campaign statement? "No more Prime Ministers from Canada"? If that isn't a divisive statement.

Every politician has stoked the obvious divisions in Canada for their own gain or for well-intended purposes that went awry.

In reality, those divisions have always existed -- the West coast hates the east coast and vice-versa and everyone hates French Quebec.

Justin Trudeau speaks of uniting all. He won't succeed. He may try, whatever, but he won't succeed. It is what it is.

Do you think that when the BNA act was conceived that the original signatory provinces (or the people who lived in them, at least) were all happy go lucky? My history lessons tell me not.

your last line is accurate: Trudeau's mistakes were the same mistakes others before and after him have made.

Owen Gray said...

I will agree that Trudeau's name is detested in certain Quebec circles, Rene.

The conventional wisdom is that to win in Quebec, you have to appeal to the soft nationalist vote. That was precisely the strategy which Jack Layton followed in the last election.

That strategy will work through one election cycle. But Bourassa proved that the soft nationalist vote changes quickly and moves from one party to another.

It will be interesting to see how the NDP does in Quebec the next time around.

Owen Gray said...

There are some, CK, who say that the shifting coalitions in Canada make the country ungovernable.

I think it's more accurate to say that, eventually, all coalitions break down.

What matters is whether or not the country is a better place after an old coalition splinters and a new one is formed.

CK said...

"It took the NDP forty plus years to figure out that parroting Trudeau's hardline constitutional stance was winning them no support in Quebec and simply marginalizing them. They did manage to win significant support in what was once a political wasteland for them when they modified their constitutional perspective and political message."

Rene, and just watch Tom Mulcair and the NDP learn what both the Socreds / Ralliement des creditistes and Mulroney and the PCs learned before them, you become a Quebec party instead of a Pan CAnadian or you win a bunch of seats in La Belle Province by catering to Nationalists (and yes, even some separatists), you and your party end up losing big time in the long run. Case in Point, both the Socreds/Ralliement des creditistes and the Progressive Conservative parties no longer exist.

The Bloc Quebecois should've been considered a blessing in disguise for Pan Canadian parties for one good reason, other parties could concentrate on the rest of the country while Quebec had it's very own party representing our interests in Ottawa.

Pretty much the only reason the Bloc irritated parties like the Liberals or the Cons or even the NDP to some degree, was that the Bloc either made difficult or made outright impossible for parties to win majorities.

Ok, the Harpercons proved they didn't need Quebec, but if you're a party, left of Harper, you do, or at least did.

Now, there will be 30 new seats, all in Ontario, Alberta and BC (3 token for QC, but nothing significant). Mathematically speaking, Quebec won't factor in getting that majority for anyone, BC and Ontario and Alberta will (one problem though, Alberta will never quit Harper. Ever.), BC and Ontario, ever more conservative with each passing day.

I believe that the Bloc will make a small come back for a variety of reasons.

Owen Gray said...

It's sad to see Quebec retreat into isolation, CK. Trudeau wanted Quebec to take its place in the confederation.

Instead, the province is retreating into its own separate universe.

Rene said...

If I might interject, had the NDP pursued the constitutional initiatives of the Progressive Conservatives during that critical period, back at the time of the first referendum in 1980 and the ensuing constitutional debates, we would have witnessed a completely different political evolution in this country.

It is unlikely the Progressive Conservatives alone would have swept Quebec in 1984, the NDP would have had their share of electoral gains and would certainly have been a factor in provincial politics. Much more important, there would certainly have been a much more unified Canadian left and labour movement than that which existed at the time. And the Levesque wing of the PQ, and the Quebec labour movement which rallied behind the PQ, certainly stood much closer to the NDP in terms of social policy than they did with the Progressive Conservatives.

To their credit, the Progressive Conservatives did have the courage to challenge the rednecks, bigots and anglo-chauvinists within their ranks by making political and constitutional overtures to Quebec nationalists. The NDP should have shown the same political courage and determination.

Yes the venture failed, the project was shipwrecked, not least due to connivance from Trudeau Liberals and western Reformers. The Progressive Conservatives were destroyed as a political party as a result. Political parties come and go, the programs they represent, if they have genuine value and enduring perspective, manage to live on in other formations.

At this point you do have a left and labour movement in Quebec and one in English Canada leading a separate existence, with distinct projects and not that much communication between both major language groups and cultures.

It is certainly not a healthy state of affairs.

Now if you conclude that dialogue and perspectives of constitutional mediation is meaningless and doomed to failure, not worth the effort and decide to concede the issue to Reform, you can passively watch both nations drift off into separate societies. Or you may decide better late than never and make a serious attempt at social, political, constitutional reconciliation...

Owen Gray said...

The question, Rene, is who is best suited to lead such a reconciliation. Certainly not Stephen Harper. So that leaves Mulcair and the younger Trudeau.

Frankly, I'm not sure who is better suited to the task.

Rene said...

From my perspective, the NDP, as they are already moving in that direction on their own initiative, have a fairly solid Quebec base, ties to the labour movement in English Canada and have managed to sway a good segment of Bloc and left nationalist votes to their side.

The Liberals would have much more difficulty moving to such perspective, it involves a break with their past, Dion, the Clarity Act and a vocal contingent around Warren Kinsella accusing the NDP of pandering to "separatism" in Quebec. As far as the latter accusation goes, the Trudeau Liberals made similar arguments against the Progressive Conservatives throughout the 80's, which hardly hindered them from making sweeping gains in Quebec, nor from holding onto their base in the rest of Canada.

There is no dishonour in waging a battle for a principled position and losing. What is cowardly is to capitulate without making an effort or to avoid engaging in battle altogether out of fear of losing...

Owen Gray said...

Time will tell how solid NDP support in the province is, Rene. As I wrote earlier, the soft nationalist vote moves, and parties come and go.

Remember Mario Dumont? Certainly there is little hope under Mr Harper for a rapprochement between Quebec and the rest of the country -- and the clock is ticking.