The unforgettable

trudeauNino Ricci’s take on Pierre Elliott Trudeau must have been a difficult task. To cast new light on the person who is arguably the most written-about Canadian of all time is a tall order. Wisely, Ricci eschews his novelist’s flair for the dramatic and gives us a concise record of the man who became Canada’s all-time best-known personality both at home and internationally.

Ricci chronicles Trudeau’s early years as student at the Jesuit Jean Brebeuf College where he developed a rebellious, contrarian nature. After graduation, he flirted with Communism and Fascism. Then he matured into a champion of French Canada not as a separatist but seeing it as part of a harmonious nation. His entry into politics led to his nomination and inevitable Trudeaumania.

For me, Nino Ricci’s most absorbing chapter deals with the October Crisis of 1971 and the kidnapping of British diplomat James Cross and Pierre Laporte, the latter an old Jean Brebeuf school chum.

The sound byte that gave us “just watch me!” was part of a much longer interview and its isolation served to paint Trudeau as an arrogant dictator-in-the-making.

Much maligned for invoking the War Measures Act that led to the murder of Laporte,Trudeau has been blamed for the vacillation of Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa and the excesses of the RCMP and local police in enforcing the act. Ricci presents the evidence of many Canadians to justify the measure in the light of existing knowledge of the FLQ at the time, and vindicates Trudeau for acting within his own conscience and concern for other innocent lives.

To a novelist, peaks like this and the failed marriage to a woman 29 years his junior are of interest but Ricci never sensationalizes. His conclusion is a precise summation of a character that has dominated its times and beyond. One cannot refrain from comparisons with prime ministers like the blowhard Mulroney and the colourless Harper.

“Trudeau died on September 28, 2000, a month short of his eighty-first birthday. Arrangements had been made for him to lie in state in Ottawa then to be taken by train to Montreal for a funeral….Organizers were unsure what the public’s response would be to the death of someone who had left public life more than sixteen years earlier. They had their answer……

“From the long lines on Parliament Hill, to the school children lining the tracks….to the crowds who met his casket when it arrived in Montreal… the millions of Canadians who followed the events across the country on television, the response was dignified, emotional and massive.

“He had been hated and loved, but mostly respected….”

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