Trudeau remembered for redefining Canada

Former prime minister's legacy includes everything from bilingual breakfast-cereal boxes to the Canadian Constitution

Thank you, Pierre.

From simple messages of gratitude, to paeans of praise, Canada collectively paid tribute this weekend to its most famous son: Pierre Trudeau, the man with the red rose in his lapel.

But the forces that Mr. Trudeau - Canada's charismatic former prime minister - unleashed are still at work, shaping Canada's destiny.

Trudeau, who died Thursday, and will be given a state funeral in Montreal tomorrow, redefined the national ideal. He was the Franco-Quebecker English Canada turned to to save the country from breaking apart.

His solution to the challenge of rising Francophone nationalism was not to give more power to the provincial Quebec government, but to entrench individual language rights, including the right to education, across Canada - to make Canada a country where both Francophones and Anglophones felt at home. Today, his legacy lives on even in such mundane things as bilingual packaging for breakfast cereals.

His actions included giving Canadians their own Constitution, complete with a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, not unlike the Bill of Rights attached to the US Constitution. The Charter has been hugely popular, and the implications of its guarantees of individual liberties are just beginning to become apparent as cases on all manner of issues - from same-sex marriages to native fishing rights - work their way through the courts.

But Trudeau, a Liberal and federalist, made no small number of enemies along the way. Lucien Bouchard, Quebec's sovereigntist premier, praised Trudeau at a press conference as a "great Canadian, a great man," but went on to recall how strongly he had acted against the Front de Libration du Qubec in 1970: "He suppressed individual rights in Quebec. He had hundreds of people arrested without accusations."

Similarly, Joe Clark, the Tory leader who served as prime minister in 1979-80, interrupting the Trudeau years that began in 1968 and ended in 1984, commented in the House of Commons, "It's ironic ... that a prime minister whose mobilizing purpose was the unity of his country should have so exacerbated the differences within our own family.... His intellect guided him more than his intuition. He was too rational for this country, which after all was formed and grew against logic."

Trudeau was the one Canadian prime minister the mass of Americans were likely to have heard of. When the US was torn apart over the Vietnam War and torn by a "generation gap," Trudeau demonstrated that a national leader could be as popular as a rock star.

Trudeau was ferociously intellectual. His public persona was a mix of John F. Kennedy and the Beatles; he was mobbed at public appearances by screaming, swooning young women. Indeed, John Lennon came calling in Ottawa on Christmas Eve 1969 to discuss prospects for world peace. Lennon said afterward, "If all politicians were like Mr. Trudeau, there would be world peace. You people in Canada don't realize how lucky you are to have a man like Mr. Trudeau."

Sometimes he seemed to be appreciated abroad more than he was at home - especially given that he sometimes hopped on a plane to go fight against nuclear weapons when pressing problems at home were getting short shrift. He carried on the Canadian tradition of a strong presence at the United Nations, where Secretary-General Kofi Annan and former South African President Nelson Mandela were present for a moment of silence in Trudeau's honor Friday.

"He's the closest any Western country of the modern age ever had to a philosopher king," Don Boudria, the Liberal leader in the House of Commons and one of many Canadians whom Trudeau inspired to enter politics, said over the weekend.

More than any other public figure, Trudeau turned Canada - this "not America," or as one Toronto resident put it - this "accident," into a "real country."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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