Looking Back at Trudeau
On second thought
In 1977, I received an invitation to have lunch with Pierre Trudeau. Sudden and unexpected circumstances did not permit it to come about. It wasn't until last year that I would actually meet Mr. Trudeau, simply by chance, on the streets of Montreal.
There I came face to face with a living legend, someone who had provoked both the loves and hatreds of my political passion, all in form of a tired out, little old man. It was an experience at once unforgettable, nostalgic and haunting. For Mr. Trudeau had obviously diminished as much as my assessment of him over those 22 years.
I do not make this statement to be unkind or cruel. But one must believe a grown-up will see the world differently than an 18-year-old, just as one must hope Canadians will come to view
Mr. Trudeau more soberly than when it mattered.
In 1977, for instance, I hadn't experienced life in Western Canada. When Mr. Trudeau asked Western farmers why he should sell their wheat for them, I didn't know the federal government was by law the only vendor they had. But he should have known. It was a remark indicative of a distant leader who neither understood, nor cared to understand, a group of people over whom his actions had immense impact.
By the time Mr. Trudeau embarked on the National Energy Program I was living in the West. I witnessed first-hand the movement of an economy from historic boom to deep recession in a matter of months. A radical, interventionist blueprint of economic nationalism, the NEP caused the oil industry to flee, businesses to close and the real estate market to crash. The lives of honest, hard-working Albertans were upended and I came to know many of those who lost their jobs and homes. (In 1968, Canada ranked second only to the United States among the Big 7 economies in percapita income. Now we stand 18th in the OECD - ahead of Spain, Portugal and Poland!)
In 1977, economics and finance didn't much matter to me. Beginning with the NEP, Mr. Trudeau would show me that they did matter - a lesson he never bothered to master himself. Flailing from one pet policy objective to another, he expanded the welfare state, created scores of bureaucratic agencies, offices and ministries and encouraged the regulation and government control of major industrial sectors. Under his stewardship, the country created huge deficits, a mammoth national debt, high taxes, bloated bureaucracy, rising unemployment, record inflation, curtailed trade and declining competitiveness. From these consequences we have still not fully recovered, and they continue to have an impact on my pay cheque, and my family's opportunities, every single month.
In 1977, I had never really witnessed the battle over national unity. I was attracted to Pierre Trudeau as the man who offered a national vision to counter Quebec separatists and could hold the country together. I cheered for him, as did almost everyone my age, in that first referendum. But by the second referendum and the constitutional battles of later years, I was one of many only grudgingly on the same side as Mr. Trudeau.
I agreed as Mr. Trudeau so rightly railed against the absurdity of the "hierarchy of rights" in the Charlottetown Accord, or the "nation within a nation" logic of Meech Lake. But I also remembered that it was Mr. Trudeau himself who laced so many federal policies, including the Constitution itself, with the special claims of identity politics. It was also Mr. Trudeau who had remained largely silent and ineffectual as Quebec dismantled the very bilingualism he had proclaimed to be the great solution for Canada as a whole.
Mr. Trudeau's goal was no doubt to genuinely promote a "just society" of individual "equality". But only a liberal intellectual could believe the assignment of benefits and "rights" would not become an arbitrary, politicised game.
Mr. Trudeau won the great political battles of his day only to see the war lost with surprising speed after he left office. Yes, he continues to define the myths that guide the Canadian psyche, but myths they are. Only a bastardised version of his unity vision remains and his other policies have been rejected and repealed by even his own Liberal party. His definition of Canadian nationalism - centralism, socialism, bilingualism - is the polar opposite of the trends in Canadian history that are now triumphing - regionalism, globalization, Quebec particularism - in no small measure a reaction to policies Mr. Trudeau practised.
So how is Mr. Trudeau to be remembered - as a visionary colossus or a failed one? Twenty years ago, I would have evaluated him more on the basis of the energy and impact of his time. But, in 1977, I had no real sense of the difference between trend and history or between fads and values.
By Stephen Harper
National Post, October 5, 2000