I cannot think of a single other contemporary Canadian who has contributed so much to our environment of bilingualism, tolerance and respect than Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
I want to share with you my thoughts about our former prime minister. They comprise a personal tribute to a man who was a quintessential Canadian. My words don’t speak of the Bill of Rights, the “just society,” or his call for the state to keep its nose out of the bedroom of the nation. Instead, I share some teachings I received from this very special Canadian, who taught me to be proud of my country, and to cherish this marvelous dream that is Canada.
Winter, 1993. A trim figure slips almost unnoticed into a schmoozing crowd of writers at McCord Museum. Unheralded, he strolls to the coat rack where he hangs up his overcoat, then turns to the crowd.
Pierre Elliott Trudeau had arrived at McClelland & Stewart’s 1993 Montreal’s celebration of their published authors. It was nothing like the preceding, flashy entry of my other long-time Canadian hero, singer and poet Leonard Cohen. Trudeau quietly slipped amid the crowd, his shy-looking smile acknowledging greetings.
Summer 1990. It’s the first Pontiac Artist’s Studio Tour and we are creating our mailing list for brochures. I add Trudeau’s name. Perhaps he’ll come... after all, his support of Canadian culture and the arts is legendary.
Then I get the call from Trudeau’s personal secretary: he was delighted to be invited but regretted he could not attend. We are all amazed he takes the time to ask his secretary to do this.
August, 1988. I’d just published my book on Gatineau Park. I knew Trudeau loved the park and the prime minister’s residence located at Harrington Lake.
While interviewing cottagers on Meech Lake for my book’s section on human history, I’d been intrigued with stories about our former prime minister. Come winter, cottagers told how he used to play broomball with them, enjoying skating on their home-style “rinks.” They recalled how he paddled his sons in their canoe to join worshippers at the lake’s Capucin chapel.
So, when my first book was published, it was only natural I should send Trudeau a copy.
To my amazement, he wrote a personal letter of thanks. He told me he loved the park as I do, as a refuge, as a place of natural wonder. I treasure the short note. But more than this, I treasure the fact that this prime minister of Canada took the trouble to write to someone like me, a total unknown.
1968. I’m a “teenybopper” in Toronto. I’m at my girlfriend’s house for dinner and darn it, her father insists on “teaching us something for our own good,” and keeping the television on during supper. With visions of a dreary adult time ahead, we wondered what we were in for.
It was election time and the television showed an impassioned Pierre Elliott Trudeau, rousing the nation with startling, invigorating oratory. He was a groovy looking guy who didn’t speak like a politician. He filled our head with dreams of what Canada could be... and what we could achieve if only we tried.
His passion was compelling -- even to a young teenager. His pride in Canada was inspirational, infectious. He made us feel as if we could make a difference, as individuals. He was right.
Thursday, Sept. 28, 2000. Eric and I join his parents listening to the 6:00 news. We’ve just returned from a walk. We sit in numbed silence as we hear that at 3:00 Pierre Elliot Trudeau died of prostate cancer. Among the cited complications was the dreadful accident that killed his son, Michel, two years ago. Apparently, the death aged Trudeau immediately; he’s quoted as saying he never understood why God took the wrong man: it should have been him, he said.
Fraught with the cares of state, Trudeau always had time for his boys.
Monday, October 2, 2000. My neighbour Amber Walpole, Eric and I join hundreds who flocked to Parliament Hill to witness Trudeau’s last departure from Centre Block. After the hearse passes by and the 19-gun salute sounds, we walk to the Centennial Flame where a crowd has gathered. The flame is thronged with red roses, posters, cards, even two canoe paddles inscribed with messages. Whether young or old, the faces of Canadians reflect a diversity of colour and origin. We mourn the passing of a great soul who taught us by word and deed that immigrants are a welcome, strengthening addition to the tapestry of Canada.
These are my memories of a great Canadian who I will sorely miss. I hope his bereaved family derive comfort from Canadians who have responded with such heartfelt expressions of admiration at his sad passing.
Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer based near Quyon. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org