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Ex-Canadian Premier Pierre Trudeau dies

Politics: Charismatic leader reshaped nation's government as well as its image.

September 29, 2000|By Craig Turner | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • Pierre Elliott Trudeau, visiting London in 1975.
Pierre Elliott Trudeau, visiting London in 1975. (Agence France-Presse )

Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the charismatic and controversial former prime minister of Canada whose vision inspired Canadians to reexamine their national character and reinvent their government, died Thursday in Montreal, his family announced. He was 80.

Trudeau had been suffering from prostate cancer and Parkinson's disease, the family's statement said. Canada's national television network immediately cut away from its live coverage of the Olympics after the announcement to report extensively on Trudeau's life and death. Accolades poured in from political allies and adversaries alike.

"The forces of change that he set in motion continue to shape the soul of his people," Prime Minister Jean Chretien said of his mentor. " . . . On the international stage, he gave us a profile and stature well beyond our size and power."

In Washington, President Clinton noted Trudeau's passing in a written statement:

"As prime minister for nearly a generation, Pierre Trudeau opened a dynamic new era in Canadian politics and helped establish Canada's unique imprint on the global stage."

Trudeau streaked to political prominence amid the kind of frenzy usually reserved for rock stars and was lifted into Canada's highest office in 1968 on the crest of "Trudeaumania." For most of the next 16 years, he dominated his country's politics and pirouetted across the world diplomatic stage.

He revised the Canadian Constitution and vastly expanded his countrymen's civil rights, built a European-style welfare state, crushed a violent separatist movement in his native province of Quebec and thrust himself into world affairs in a way that sometimes irritated occupants of the White House. His campaign to make Canada officially bilingual elevated the status of the country's Francophone minority.

But Trudeau captured public imagination as much with his insouciant style as with his politics. He was witty, acerbic and irreverent, sliding down a banister at a meeting of world leaders at Buckingham Palace, waving his middle finger at protesting constituents and inviting John Lennon and Yoko Ono to his office in Ottawa.

An urbane, high-living bachelor into his 50s, Trudeau drove sports convertibles and dated actresses Barbra Streisand and Margot Kidder. In 1971, he married Margaret Sinclair, a beautiful free spirit who was nearly 30 years his junior. The marriage produced three sons and inspired a play still performed in Canada. But it ended badly amid Margaret Trudeau's tabloidesque adventures with the Rolling Stones and others.

By the time he left office in 1984, Trudeau's policies and pugnacious personality had worn away the adulation. Time also has eroded much of his legacy. The welfare state he nurtured proved ruinously expensive and has been pared back by his successors. The French language is seldom heard in much of the country. The arms-length relationship Trudeau favored with the United States has given way to the full embrace of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Nonetheless--and despite a post-political career that mostly eschewed public attention--he remained a figure of influence and fascination until his death. In the early 1990s, Trudeau's personal opposition helped defeat proposed changes to the Canadian Constitution that he believed conceded too much to the Quebec nationalists who were his lifelong bete noire. When Michel, the youngest of his three sons, died in an avalanche in 1998, the nation mourned with him.

In 1999, he dominated polls on the most important Canadians of the 20th century.

"Pierre Trudeau was simply a superior person," said Michael Bliss, a University of Toronto professor and leading political historian. "He had a quality of integrity and leadership that is rare in the history of any country. . . . He was towering in the way FDR was towering."

"He was the modern politician par excellence for Canadians . . . the beau ideal," added historian J. L. Granatstein, co-editor of a 1998 book of essays on Trudeau's legacy.

And yet, after more than 80 years crowded with political intrigue, intellectual challenge, physical exertion and romantic passion often played out in public, Trudeau remained at core an enigma, even to those closest to him.

"He's a very distant man," Trudeau's son Sacha told a television reporter in 1999. "He's private, even from our perspective. I guess he's had kind of a lonely life, you know."

A Childhood That Was Cosmopolitan

Pierre Elliott Trudeau was born Oct. 18, 1919, in Montreal to Charles-Emile Trudeau, a boisterous, hard-drinking French-Canadian entrepreneur, and the reserved, disciplined Grace Elliott Trudeau, who came from an English-speaking Quebec family of Scottish ancestry.

The bilingual and bicultural household--and the wealth accumulated by his father's successful investments in gas stations, the Montreal Royals minor league baseball team and other enterprises--provided him with a cosmopolitan childhood.

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