Alicia Barsallo On Pierre Elliott Trudeau
By Alicia Barsallo
I had yet to live a year in Canada when, working as a secretary for the Habitat Conference taking place in Vancouver in the mid 70s, I saw a slim, elegant figure come up a flight of stairs to shake the hand of every worker on the floor. It was Pierre Elliott Trudeau - then Prime Minister of Canada. He took my hand and simultaneously did what almost seemed to be a slight bow. His gesture made me smile but at the same time impressed me, and left me wondering why I, a leftist, would find the greeting of a definitely pro-capitalist prime minister refreshing and welcomed. I would find the answer later. It had been my first lesson in Canadian liberalism.
Trudeau's greeting was a token gesture to be sure, but it carried with it an element of true feeling. One could describe Trudeau's interactive style as a small part of a liberal project to dress capitalism with shades of egalitarianism -- the liberal atonement for considering economic equality an impossibility.
One could also describe it as part of a project to rule not just by fear or the force of power, but by exacting conviction. Trudeau, the liberal, could be ruthless (War Measures Act/Wage Controls) but he seemed truly worried about the legitimacy of Liberal governments in the long run. He seemed to work hard trying to link capitalism with broadly upheld values. His confidence that he could philosophically defend his position in a public debate, could be respected in that he did not have to rely on a plethora of mainstream media misinformation. Though enclosed in a capitalist framework, he seemed to search not for the next narrow profitable move but for a philosophy -- a subtlety missed now, in the age of crass politics.
Amidst the emergence of the new capitalism which all over the world ushers into power absurdly short-sighted profit agendas, Trudeau, the classical liberal of days gone by, leaves as a symbol of days we might have thought of as imperfect but which we could long for now. Trudeau's passion for the Charter shines brightly now that our society descends to depths unknown and new political elites unapologetically equate "quicker" with "better" and "lie" with "truth;" now that "equality under the law" sounds subversive; and now that there's little possibility of a fair public logical debate.
That Trudeau is a figure of gigantic proportions in the Canadian scene is indisputable, but his figure is endearing to us more than anything else because of the bleakness of our current political landscape. The making of a giant requires the existence of dwarves [not that I have any thing against cute little elves], and we've got plenty of them now, in politics and in the media -- masterful in the creation of phobias, prejudices, and artificial crises; artful in minimizing the tragedy of others; manipulators of information... without a saving grace, without a human side to hang on to... no decent challenge for those of us who fought Trudeau from the left.
Now, after more than a quarter of a century in Canada, I do mourn the death of Pierre Trudeau and wonder if at the same time I am morning the death of Canadian liberalism.
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