April 19, 2008
A much greater cautionary tale...
Obama of the North: The cautionary tale of Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
By: Lionel Chetwynd
03/03/2008, Volume 013, Issue 24
Chris Matthews tells us that Obama's victory speech after the Potomac primaries he felt "this thrill going up my leg." Frothing on, he invokes the last Democrat to carry Virginia, JFK. Brit Hume runs a replay of an audience member at the same speech enjoying an almost orgasmic reaction. Again, someone mumbles the sainted Kennedy name. Even as Obamamania reaches new heights, those of us who were actually on hand for John Kennedy's squeaker victory over the dour Richard Nixon in 1960 do not recall Kennedy's evoking the deep, visceral excitement Obama summons. It appears the infection now loosed upon the land is rarer than any seen in 1960 - more unusual even than the state of mind induced after 1963, when the masterminds of Camelot hawked their false memories.
Yet, rare as it is, this virus is one I've seen before. It devastated a country I loved, the place that had raised me and nurtured me. Back in the Canada of 1968, in the wake of "Beatlemania," we called the malady "Trudeaumania," deliberately invoking pop-idol glitter.
Even those of us who held posts in his own Liberal party were powerless to thwart the mad embrace millions of Canadians threw around Pierre Elliott Trudeau, with his promise to reconcile the two founding peoples, to unite the English (more correctly, Scottish) heritage with the French legacy and take us forward into a brave new age. He promised, too, to reforge our relationship with "the elephant to our south" and to elevate Canada's role in the world. What that actually meant or how it was to be achieved never seemed worth mentioning, as if the mere stating of the intention were equivalent to a result realized.
As a candidate in 1968, Trudeau was completely nonspecific, avoiding policy questions and depending entirely on style and panache. This would surely undo him, or so we reassured ourselves, those of us who believed him to be a hard-line leftist because we'd read his essays in Cité Libre and studied his academic writings at the University of Montreal. We were wrong: His lack of specificity was his strength. A brilliant and smiling Savile Row-suited orator, he spun webs around huge crowds, proposing big ideas in obscure terms, leaving listeners to discover in his speeches their own dreams. He was all things to all people. And out of party loyalty and civility, we held our tongues.
Meantime, the delighted English-language media, at last presented with a French-speaking Canadian they could love, dubbed him "Canada's JFK." He would serve as prime minister for 15 years (1968-79 and 1980-84). The damage to what Canada had stood for would be staggering.
Before Trudeau, Canada still basked in the glory of its own Greatest Generation. Canada had raised the largest army in the world, per capita, to fight Hitler (1.4 million from a population of 11 million). Emerging from World War II as a leading industrial power, it had devoted a vast part of its treasure to financing the Colombo Plan, "the Marshall Plan of Asia." Parts of the infrastructure used to this day in Pakistan, India, and South Asia were paid for by Canadians. Those same Canadians generally viewed the United States with affection, even admiration. True, many harbored a residual anger at America's more than two-year delay in entering World War II, but that was a family squabble, easily put aside. They had no laws barring or limiting the flow of American popular culture across the border. That Canada's moment of triumph came in the summer of 1967 with the hugely successful Montreal world's fair known as Expo '67.
All this changed when Trudeau became prime minister, overwhelming more experienced candidates for the party leadership with his amazing style. Once in power, he led Canada down a radical new path, muddying what had been a clear sense of identity, deemphasizing the country's Scottish-French roots in favor of a more ambiguous European model. The new Canadian identity - ardently embraced in the early Trudeau years - was equivocal. It stressed multiculturalism rather than biculturalism, extolled diversity and "international consensus," and cast the very existence of the United States as sinister while rushing to recognize Communist China and Cuba. This revolution would remake Canada into something its prewar self would hardly recognize. A people once proud of their history would be weaned away from it and remade into a relativistic, postmodern nation.
How was a strong and self-reliant people so easily led astray? Trudeaumania. Look no further than Chris Matthews to understand the uncritical devotion Trudeau summoned forth.
For one thing, he tapped into Canadians' apprehension at a world becoming difficult to fathom. He ran for office at a time when nationalism, even Separatism, was taking on large dimensions in Quebec. Visiting Montreal for Expo '67, President Charles de Gaulle of France had stood on the balcony at City Hall before a huge throng and proclaimed the Separatists' slogan: "Vive le Québec! Vive le Québec libre!" It seemed that Canada's singular voice in the international arena was weakening, and even the prime minister - Lester Pearson, winner of a Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for engineering the U.N. Emergency Force that helped defuse the Suez crisis - could not arrest the trend. America was preoccupied in Southeast Asia. The world suddenly demanded a new thoughtfulness. The "old" way of doing things, cooed Trudeau, was so 1950s.
Put away your troubles, said the silver-tongued candidate, and enraptured Canadians followed, without ever learning where he intended to lead. Trudeaumania was the elixir that blotted out a newly complex world. It was also, by any intelligent measure, a disaster, one Canadians are only now beginning to understand.
Rather than reconcile the two founding cultures, the new prime minister so alienated Quebec that Separatist terrorism in Montreal soon forced Trudeau to declare martial law. In private, the de facto Francophone leader, René Lévesque, derisively called him "Elliott" (his Anglophone mother's name), and the division became so bitter the Separatists soon captured both the provincial government in Quebec and the opposition in Ottawa.
Trudeau destroyed the friendly relationship with the United States, inviting a trickle of draft evaders to turn into an onrush. His pet project, the "repatriation" from Britain of the Canadian constitution and the addition of a Charter of Rights, had the effect of handing the courts sway over virtually every aspect of Canadian life, while diminishing the power of the elected bodies. Even after he was finally replaced, briefly by the Liberal John Turner, then by the Tory Brian Mulroney, Trudeau was able to scuttle attempts to alter the Trudeau formula. In short, he succeeded in remaking the country in his own image.
To many Canadians, especially the huge number now on the left, the view of Trudeau offered here is heresy. It is nevertheless history - a history that contains a cautionary tale.
Lionel Chetwynd is an Oscar and Emmy Award-nominated filmmaker and documentarian.
Copyright 2008 - The Weekly Standard