Reflecting on a tale of two Trudeaus

By Pat Murphy

If you’re a certain age, the impending April coronation of Justin Trudeau must strike a déjà vu chord. Forty-five years ago – on April 6, 1968 – his father, Pierre Trudeau, became leader of the very same federal Liberals in the very same city.

For those not immersed in politics, Pierre Trudeau seemed to come out of nowhere. First elected to parliament in 1965, he didn’t ascend to cabinet until 1967. But after Lester Pearson appointed him Minister of Justice, his rise was turbocharged.

First came the December 1967 introduction of Bill C-150, which, among other things, decriminalized private homosexual acts between consenting adults.

The state had no place in the bedrooms of the nation and all that. Then came the high profile role as Pearson’s point man in the February 1968 constitutional talks.

If you were inclined to cynicism, the timing of Pearson’s resignation announcement – a week before C-150 was introduced – and the setting of the April date for the convention to select his replacement might seem too neat to be mere coincidence. And certainly Pearson favoured Trudeau as his successor. In any event, a significant bandwagon began to roll.

Almost instantly, large swathes of the media were enthralled.

The Toronto Star had a particularly virulent case of infatuation, almost as if the Beatles had dropped in on the senior prom.

Mind you, there were holdouts, the most prominent of which was the Toronto Telegram’s Lubor J. Zink. A Czech expatriate and a vociferous anti-communist, Zink was suspicious of Trudeau’s ideological pedigree and made no bones about his reservations.

Ordinary people who were enthusiastic about Trudeau often seemed to have vague motives. An older lady I worked with – a philosophically conservative Liberal partisan – found him “interesting,” and when colleagues teased her about his being a lefty, she took solace in an observation he had made about the time for “free stuff” being over.

Meanwhile, the young woman in the apartment one floor down was for him because she’d heard he was “a swinger.”

As for myself, being just a couple of years out of university and espousing mildly leftish views, Trudeau was attractive on a couple of counts. He was both safe and stylish, much classier than the NDP alternative. While he would be “progressive,” you wouldn’t have to worry about him embarking on an old fashioned nationalization binge.

But even with all the hoopla, the April 6 balloting turned out to be pretty tense. I was living in a tiny midtown Toronto apartment at the time and watched it on television with likeminded friends. It took four agonizing ballots before we could celebrate.

Perhaps the most stunning thing to contemplate is the contrast between the two Trudeaus. Indeed, the ties of blood and family aside, one wonders whether the father would have approved of a Liberal frontrunner with a resume as flimsy as that of his son.

Whatever you thought of Pierre Trudeau’s politics, he was undoubtedly a man of intellectual substance. So far anyway, there is no indication of similar qualities in Justin.

And while Pierre Trudeau’s ascent in life was certainly eased by family money, he did build his political career himself. The same can’t be said of his son. If he carried his mother’s maiden name and was known as Justin Sinclair rather than Justin Trudeau, the idea of him being Liberal frontrunner would be beyond laughable.

Then there’s the difference in the prize to be had. In winning the leadership, Pierre Trudeau was also gaining the prime minister’s office. And in the ensuing general election, he could rely on the country’s dominant political party, formidably anchored in Fortress Quebec.

Justin will have a tougher row to hoe. With the Liberals in third place nationally, he’ll first have to wrest Quebec back from Thomas Mulcair’s NDP, before then taking on Stephen Harper, a much tougher and wilier opponent than the haplessly ineffectual Robert Stanfield.

Still, Canada 2013 is an altogether flightier place than Canada 1968. So you never know how things will turn out.

Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years.