‘Trudeau-Mania’ lives on

When the family of Pierre Elliot Trudeau asked him to write the deceased Prime Minister’s official biography, John English was hesitant to take the job.

“He hadn’t been dead very long at the time for one thing, and the second reason was that I didn’t think he would’ve kept a lot of papers because he seemed like such a private person,” said English, a historian, distinguished professor emeritus from the University of Waterloo and distinguished visiting professor at the University of Toronto.

But as English revealed to the crowd in Wilfrid Laurier University’s Senate and Board Chamber on Tuesday evening, once he began to look into the life of Trudeau, the information was anything but lacking. Along with a bounty of personal writings of the prime minister, Trudeau’s mother saved every essay and examination paper he had ever written and some of what English found was quite surprising.

“He was not always what you expected,” said English, who’s lecture ‘Trudeau and why he haunts us still’ was held at Laurier as part of the Laurier Association for Lifelong Learning (LALL) 14th anniversary lecture.

“His support for Quebec nationalism and even separatism was certainly a surprise because he said he had never been attracted to Quebec nationalism and he came from English-French background, but in his twenties he was a separatist and that was what stood out as the most surprising thing to me.”

Along with writing the official biography of Trudeau — which was published in two voumes: Citizen of the World: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Volume One: 1919-1968, and Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Vol. 2 1968-2000 — English also wrote the official biography of former prime minister Lester B. Pearson.

A large portion of English’s lecture was on why Canadians, even to this day, hold Trudeau and such high regard.

English told the crowd that in Iposos public opinion polls, Canadians consistently pick Trudeau as the greatest prime minister since the war years, “by a margin of three to one.” He continued, saying that an EKOS scientific poll found that 32 per cent of Canadians voted Trudeau the greatest Canadian of all time, with Terry Fox coming in second at just six per cent.

Why is Trudeau still so revered? According to English, he gave Canadians something they had never had before.

“Because of his strong personality he gave Canadians a sense of confidence in themselves, he was the match of any leader in the world, we could be proud of him at any table,” said English. “But he also made the French presence in Canada much more real and finally, he appealed to Canadians being part of a common purpose.”

With the Liberal Party, of which Trudeau was likely the most popular leader in Canadian history, suffering considerable losses in the most recent election and the Conservative Party gaining a majority government, an audience member asked English what Trudeau would think of Canada’s current political state.

“He would shrug,” English replied with a laugh. “He would’ve been disappointed with the fighting in the Liberal Party and of course with the government of the Conservatives, they would not be his kind of conservatives.”

While Trudeau’s legacy includes, among many things, making Canada officially bilingual, patriating the constitution and ultimately beginning this nation’s policy of multiculturalism. Many people, at least in Liberal circles, are excited about one legacy in particular; Trudeau’s son Justin.

Justin Trudeau became a Member of Parliament (MP) in 2008, defeating long-time Bloc Quebecois incumbent Vivian Barbot in the riding of Papineau. Then in 2011, he was one of the few Liberal MPs to retain his seat.

With the name he carries, English said it’s not surprising that many are calling for Justin to succeed Michael Ignatieff as the leader of the Liberal Party.

“Let’s be frank, the biggest thing he brings to the table is that he’s Pierre’s son,” said English. “But Justin has impressed a lot of people in Ottawa. Most thought ‘this is a flake, this is a famous man’s son,’ but when he got there, they were stunned, he adapted to politics quickly and he did it very well…. If he decides he wants [the Liberal nomination], given the Liberal ranks these days I’d say his chances are pretty good.”

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