The man who saved Canada

Trudeau: Bilingual constitutional protections he brought in staved off Quebec separatism.

September 30, 2000

THE CANADA that we see from south of the border is bilingual and multicultural coast-to-coast. It has its own constitution with its version of a bill of rights. It goes its own way in foreign policy, often as United Nations peace-keepers.

Canada was not always that way. Pierre Elliott Trudeau introduced all this while prime minister from 1968 to 1979 and 1980 to 1984.

It was not easy to achieve. Many English-and French-speaking Canadians were dragged along kicking and screaming.

But his vision of Canada was the only alternative in Quebec to a language-, heritage- and religion- based provincialism, rebelling against second-class citizenship, which would have destroyed Canada for something else that, even now, is difficult to imagine.

Canada still has fissures. Quebec harbors nationalism, the virulence of which has subsided and seems unlikely to prevail. Quebec also has a sense of belonging and of realizing its potential.

The demands of French language are still irritating to many Canadians there and elsewhere. A second separatism festers in the West. But the Trudeau vision of one Canada still defines the national identity.

Not everything he stood for survives. In economics, his impulses were heavily nationalist and statist. This, especially proposals for nationalizing the oil industry, alienated the West from his Liberal Party, provoking Canadas greatest political weakness today the absence of a truly nationwide party.

Canadas enthusiastic participation in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) repudiates Trudeau economics. But it rests on the national self-confidence that his constitutional vision did so much to create.

After his death Thursday at 80, Mr. Trudeau was remembered for many reasons of style and celebrity. What matters is the substance, not his wit but his intellect, not his dash but his achievements. Canada as we know it today is his monument.

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