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A Tribute to Pierre Elliot Trudeau
1919-2000

Originally published at About.com - October 2, 2000

Pierre Elliot Trudeau, who served Canada as Prime Minister for 16 years from 1967 to 1984, passed away from prostate cancer and other medical problems on Thursday, Sept. 28th. Loved by some, hated by others, respected by all, Trudeau left a lasting legacy which includes repatriation of Canada's Constitution from Britain and the establishment of a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which for the first time, despite its flaws, recognized the supremacy of individual rights over the whims of politicians, bureaucrats and the state in our great country. What follows is a personal remembrance of a time when Trudeau served the nation especially well.

You could smell the fear on the streets. The year was 1970. The Front de Liberation de Quebec had kidnapped British diplomat James Cross and Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte. For months before, bombs had gone off at random in the mailboxes of Westmount.

The Prime Minister, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, took to the airwaves on the evening of October 16, 1970. "I am speaking to you at a moment of grave crisis, when violent and fanatical men are attempting to destroy the unity and the freedom of Canada," he said. And he went on to invoke the War Measures Act.

My gut reaction, and the gut reaction of many, was to cheer loudly and long. I was living in Quebec at the time, a student at McGill University. For Quebecers, Trudeau's speech was a call for peace and freedom. A call for terrorism to be dealt with swiftly and forcefully.

The terrorists had made a long list of demands including money and the release of what they called "political prisoners".

Trudeau didn't mince words. "Who are these men who are held out as latter-day patriots and martyrs?" he asked. "Let me describe them to you."

"Three are convicted murderers; five others were jailed for manslaughter; one is serving a life imprisonment after having pleaded guilty to numerous charges related to bombings; another has been convicted of 17 armed robberies; two were once paroled but are now back in jail awaiting trial on charges of robberies."

Canadians had always thought that terrorism could never happen here. Trudeau expressed the thoughts of many when he said, "Our assumption may have been naive, but it was understandable; understandable because democracy flourishes in Canada, understandable because individual liberty is cherished in Canada."

"It has now been demonstrated to us by a few misguided persons just how fragile a democratic society can be, if democracy is not prepared to defend itself, and just how vulnerable to blackmail are tolerant, compassionate people."

At the time I was a newly minted political libertarian. And after some thought and discussion I came to oppose the invocation of the War Measures Act at an intellectual level. But on a visceral level, I supported it in spite of myself.

I used to drive to McGill along McTavish Boulevard, also known as Embassy Row. And while somewhat disconcerting, it was also tremendously reassuring to see two armed soldiers standing guard on the front steps of every embassy along the street.

In retrospect, Trudeau did the right thing. Some things have to be seen in a broader context of history. When we see the sectarian violence that has plagued Ireland for decades and is only now slowly coming to an end, we realize that, without Trudeau's decisiveness, Quebec would be the armed camp that frustrates peace and freedom in so many areas of the world.

Trudeau, in justifying the imposition of War Measures Act, said "If a democratic society is to continue to exist, it must be able to root out the cancer of an armed, revolutionary movement that is bent on destroying the very basis of our freedom."

He did root it out, and today we have the separatist movement fighting their cause through the peaceful process of democratic institutions, not through terrorism and violence. We can look at Ireland, Lebanon, Kosovo or Sri Lanka and say, "There, but for the grace of Trudeau, go we."

Much as I disliked some aspects of Trudeau's politics, particularly his aggrandizement of the welfare state, I believe we owe the peaceful fabric of our society to his action of October 16, 1970.

The man's style and panache was something I could relate to on a personal level. He was an individual who spoke his mind and if you didn't like it, tough. That sort of honesty is all too rare in politics today. Today politicians are managed by their spin doctors and do the old soft shoe in trying to avoid being politically incorrect.

When Trudeau's son Michel died, it was a devastating blow. As a father I could understand the pain he felt. That tragedy aged him in a few years and, in my opinion, was a contributing factor in his death. In a sense, Pierre Trudeau, the courageous, self-assured fighter, the brilliant speaker, the outdoorsman, the dashing ladies man, the man who faced down many challenges with vigor, was sapped of his strength and will to carry on by the sorrow of losing his youngest son.

Maybe on some plain they will be together again. God speed, Pierre Trudeau. You will be missed.

Trudeau's October Speech on the Net

I only just re-read Trudeau's speech after almost thirty years. It is as vibrant and inspiring now as it was then. You can read the text yourself, or listen to a portion of the speech in audio format by clicking the links below. Younger readers who were not around at the time may have a hard time fathoming the mood of the country at the time. But those of us who lived through it, particularly those of us living in Quebec, were staring sectarian violence in the face. Trudeau was the right man at the right time to face down this threat. A more stirring condemnation of violence and tribute to freedom has not been written in our time.

Trudeau's Speech to the Nation - October 16, 1970

Video of Trudeau's Speech - at the CBC website

 

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