Canadian federalists hope for new sweep of 'Trudeaumania' to save country

April 26, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

TORONTO -- Talk about the Invisible Hand.

In the late 1960s, Canada was swept by "Trudeaumania" -- a "mysterious force . . . that had something to do with sexuality," as two authors who lived through the phenomenon recall it.

Canada, a country not given to electing flamboyant leaders, had made Pierre Elliott Trudeau, one of the most driven, self-assured, combative and intellectually compelling heads of government any of the modern Western democracies had ever seen, its prime minister.

The Jesuit-educated, bilingual Mr. Trudeau campaigned for office in bathing trunks and alternated coolly Cartesian speeches with trampoline back flips and jackknife dives into swimming pools. As prime minister, he played host to John Lennon and Yoko Ono, dated Barbra Streisand and dispensed advice to the likes of Henry A. Kissinger, John Kenneth Galbraith and Andre Malraux.

He married a woman young enough to be his daughter. His early public appearances elicited hysterical screams from miniskirted teen-agers.

"My goodness, Pierre is like a Beatle!" exclaimed his sister, Suzette Rouleau.

In all that he said and did, Mr. Trudeau celebrated a strong, centralized, federalist vision of Canada. Some Canadians loved him for it; others detested him. But throughout his 15 years in office, even those who despised him were grudgingly proud to have him represent their country before the world.

"No other country could boast of a leader who slid down a banister at summit meetings, yelled an obscenity in French to striking mail truck drivers, who could skin dive, high dive, ride a unicycle, earn a brown belt in judo and be voted 'the world's seventh-sexiest man' by London's Daily Sketch," says Peter C. Newman, a business columnist at McLean's magazine.

Those were the 1960s and '70s. But this is 1992 -- a crisis year for Canada. The province of Quebec is poised to secede, threatening to undo the federalist dream that Mr. Trudeau devoted his political life to. And so Canadian federalists are waiting now, counting on Mr. Trudeau to do something, to defend his life's work and save the country.

At first glance, it would seem a slender hope.

Since retiring from politics in 1984, Mr. Trudeau has shown little inclination to influence national affairs. He spends his days practicing law at a minor Montreal firm, rarely dealing directly with clients and never setting foot in court. He refuses to give interviews. Friends say that -- unlike most retired politicians -- he never talks about the years gone by. They say he is a happy and fulfilled man, with no interest whatsoever in making a political comeback.

Trudeaumania, it would seem, is a thing of the distant past. (To the delight of the nation, the now-divorced Mr. Trudeau did father a baby out of wedlock last year, at age 71.)

But look again.

Even from the sidelines, seemingly without the slightest effort, Mr. Trudeau still manages to shape Canadian political events as no other person can. There may no longer be Trudeaumania, but there is certainly a powerful, behind-the-scenes Trudeau pull.

Of all the ways in which Mr. Trudeau still makes his presence felt, it is on Canada's wrenching constitutional debate that he exerts his hidden powers most. And that is not surprising, for throughout his years in office, it was always Mr. Trudeau's dream to unite this perennially divided country under law.

The great divide within Canada is, of course, along linguistic lines. French-speaking Canadians, the vast majority of whom live in Quebec, see themselves as an imperiled outpost of French in the rising sea of English in North America.

Mr. Trudeau is a Quebecer, but he is not a unilingual Francophone -- and certainly not a nationalist. The son of a Francophone father and an Anglophone mother, he has always looked upon French-Canadian nationalism as a scourge.

And the most potent weapon in the fight against Quebec nationalism, Mr. Trudeau believed, was the Canadian Constitution.

Mr. Trudeau's plan was to knit Quebec with English-speaking Canada in three ways: by entrenching power in the federal government, by creating a truly bilingual state from the Atlantic to the Arctic and the Pacific, and by guaranteeing Canadian minorities -- French speakers in particular -- legal protection under a charter of rights.

But Mr. Trudeau never implemented his vision fully -- there was simply too much resistance. As for entrenching strong governing powers in Ottawa, there is still jealous opposition from Canada's power-hungry provinces.

And on the constitutional charter of rights, Mr. Trudeau got as far as "patriating" the Canadian Constitution from England (until then, it had been an act of the British Parliament) with a charter attached. But Quebec refused to ratify it.

That is where things stood when Mr. Trudeau retired. Though Quebecers were still unhappy with their place in the Canadian confederation, at least things seemed quiet on the linguistic-constitutional front.

And then along came Brian Mulroney.

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