21 November 2004

He Haunts Us Still

      Well, it seems we're now pulling into the finishing stretch of the Greatest Canadian debate, as the last of the unaired specials-- the case for Pierre Eliott Trudeau-- is aired either tonight or tomorrow, depending on whether or not one lives in Ralph Klein land (that's Alberta for my American friends). Despite some viable arguments to be made for specific candidates (particularly Mike Pearson, Tommy Douglas and Terry Fox), it's my inclination that the question at stake is pretty much a no-brainer, an inclination, I think, that is shared by the folks at the CBC who saved the largest figure of all for last. It's also suggestive that Trudeau's advocate isn't an awkwardly situated star, like Paul Gross, or a preening intellectual wannabe, like the endlessly annoying Mary Walsh. No, Trudeau's advocate is the giant among the advocates, the best writer and speaker, and surely the one least likely to rely on stretching the truth to make a point: Rex Murphy, perhaps the closest Canada has yet come to a Jonathan Swift. I expect Murphy's case will be decisive, even though, in large part, he has the easiest case to make. One of Trudeau's biographers (I can't remember which, unfortunately) famously began a study of him by rewriting Bosola's words from John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi. "He haunts us still," the revamped line ran, and there was and is a lot of truth to the assertion. More even than Pearson or Douglas, on whose shoulders Trudeau stood, he defined what we now know as modern Canada, a fact some, like Brian Mulroney, tried to remake, only to find the ghost of Trudeau thwarting them at almost every step. Remember the Meech Lake Accord, a document that might have led us into no end of constitutional buggery? It threatened to slide right under the national radar until Trudeau spoke out against it, and opponents suddenly started cropping up like dandelions on an over-watered lawn. Trudeau's opposition, from retirement one should add, was both the first launch against the accord and the death knell for it, too. He haunted us still then. He haunts us still now.

      I said that Trudeau stood on the shoulders of Pearson and Douglas, and that's something worth considering further. Both men surely did a lot for Canada, and both are directly responsible for things that we now deem central to our national identity (Pearson's flag, the creation of UN peacekeepers; Douglas' expanded vision of a social safety net, implemented in large part by Pearson), but it was Trudeau that dared to deal with the larger questions of what Canada should be as a nation and as a society. In effect, Trudeau took the contributions of people like Pearson and Douglas to the next logical steps-- to a Charter of Rights, to a redefined judiciary, to establishing Canada as a distinct nation unto itself and no longer clinging to the British apron-strings. Moreover, he had to face the issue of seperatism head on, in part, I suspect, because the new Canada that was slowly coming into creation was an increasingly autonomous state, even if Canada had supposedly been on its own since 1867. He took us, one might say, through the looking-glass, with a sharply-identified notion of what Trudeau called a "just society" as the guiding beacon. That issues like gay marriage, abortion rights and the like aren't nearly as incendiary in Canada as they are below the border is probably in part attributable to him: the idea of "rights," as controversial as it has sometimes proven, has, especially in recent years proven more central to Canadian thinking than they are now in the United States. Simple, pithy phrases of Trudeau's, like "the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation," have become central tenets of the way we think, whether we realize it or not. Canada, and so many of its laws, still seem very much framed by Trudeau's thinking, and the more we get away from him historically, the more we seem ensconced within his Just watch me....headspace. In a way, Trudeau was Canada's Lincoln, the leader whose vision of his country not only determined its historical course but refigured the very notion of national unity. "Just watch me," he famously said, antagonizing seperatists and those that doubted him. We did. I'm not sure we had much choice. Even those that loathed Trudeau couldn't escape his presence or his influence, almost in the same way that most writers can't excape entirely the legacy of Shakespeare: the shadows, simply put, were too large. As former Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa said, furious that Trudeau had jumped into the Meech Lake fray, "it's that bastard Trudeau." Bastard, perhaps; but he was the only political titan that Canada ever produced, a fact underlined by the rather awkward respect accorded him by even his fiercest political detractors; whatever one thought of him, one never underestimated the impact he might have. There's no other Canadian politician of the past century of whom the same might be said. Mulroney? Chretien? Even Pearson or Diefenbaker? No. Surely not Joe Clark, the only man ever to defeat Trudeau at the ballot box and whose political career has proven something of a comedy of errors. And I don't think there's anyone who seriously believes that the passing of any of those men will prove as evocative, or as personally significant, as Trudeau's passing in 2000. The national reaction was one of shock, an awareness of some event of great import having happened, but that reaction was never hagiographical or deifying as, say, the American reaction was to Reagan's death. Canadians loved him as they hated him, and the general response wasn't that different than the Chorus' reaction to the revelation of Tiresias in Sophocles' Oedipus the King: we couldn't accept him any more than we could deny him, and frankly, we didn't know what to say. We were lucky we weren't cleft on the wings of dark foreboding beating.

      It's a bit ironic how history has unfolded. Many thought Trudeau had run the country on a series of fool's missions, and many thought the enactment of the Free Trade Agreement would make Canada even more dependent upon, and culturally akin to, the United States. That hasn't happened. In fact, now, more than ever, the distinctions between Canada and the United States are sharper now than they've been in decades, and the idea of Canada as an independent cultural entity is stronger now than it was even during Trudeau's years. That's Trudeau's largest legacy, I think. Even those most frustrated by Trudeau and by his policies (official bilingualism not being the least of them) often find themselves now resting on so many of his once-controversial determinations as if they were truisms. In many ways, he seemed to take Canada on a roller-coaster ride that alternately enfuriated, scared and even occasionally titillated us, but we've all not only survived the ride but we've come through it with stronger stomachs and a little less trepidation about matters that once might have intimidated us as a country. The legacy's larger even than that: Mulroney often found himself trapped by the ways in which Trudeau had remade the political climate, and Martin now finds himself trapped by the conditions that certain things once controversial now seem almost sacrosanct. Particularly as the United States seems to be taking a jagged turn to the political right, Canada's politics has tended to remain ideologically temperate, much to the chagrin of Stockwell Day and Preston Manning and Stephen Harper-- to say nothing of Jack Layton. No one can say that Canada follows Trudeau's motto "reason over passion" completely, but as so much of the rest of the world seems to be letting passion get the better of it, Canada has tended more toward reason, toward the cautious and the logical, with our nation more than most accepted by the rest of the world as a surely flawed but nonetheless admirable state.

Trudeau doing what he did best      There's one last point to make on all this, and it's one that I think tends not to be appreciated as fully as it should be. Trudeau was the first major Canadian leader to demonstrate a joie de vivre, a sometimes blithe but never glib attitude that now seems inculcated into the larger part of Canadian character. From his pirouetting behind Queen Elizabeth II to the notorious "fuddle-duddle" fiasco, in a way he typified some of those characteristics that now seem as if they were always a part of our international identity: earnestness, smugness, humour, even silliness; he was Canada's first truly cavalier politician, and it's only been in the past few decades that the nation as a whole has really been cultivating that aspect of its personality. It's an attitude that's helped keep Canada grounded: in effect, it's helped to remind us about not sweating the small stuff, a hard thing for a country previously given to belly-aching and navel-gazing and still occasionally capable of relapses into same. The fact is, as a society we're still coming to terms with Trudeau, even though we seldom think of him directly as we do so. We don't have to. Whether we observe it or not, he haunts us still.

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