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Last Lunch with Trudeau

(published in the Toronto Star, Friday, September 28, 2001)

Pierre Elliott Trudeau died on September 28, last year, just before the thirtieth anniversary of the October Crisis, 1970, which was one of the important events of Trudeau's years as Prime Minister of Canada.

As I am writing a book on the Crisis and as I have known Trudeau since he first ran as Liberal candidate in Mount Royal riding in 1965, I telephoned him one year before his death and we arranged to have lunch together. I brought along my diary written during the Crisis.

Herewith an account of that lunch on August 29, 1999.

Went to pick him up at his office at the law firm of Heenan Blaikie, on the 26th Floor of 1250 René Lévesque. He was wearing a red flannel shirt, no tie and looking thin, but with flashes of fun and fire. Had a corner office which juts out, as he said, like the nose of a large aircraft. Said he felt like the pilot. Beautiful view south over the port and on to the United States. Behind him and on his desk were piles of books, which had been sent to him and which he was trying to read and reply to.

Said that since the recent death of his son Michel, he was reclusive, avoiding crowds and public appearances and as he liked Chinese food, he was glad to go to the Chinese restaurant I had chosen, which was quiet and close-by.

While we walked slowly to the restaurant, he was recognized by virtually everyone in the street, but no one intruded. At the restaurant we were well received and had Chinese beer and Chinese food.

He talked with pride of Michel and his interest in the environment and even in avalanches. He was upset with the chopping down of forests in Canada and was pleased with Anderson, the new federal Minister of the Environment.

I outlined my October Crisis project and that I had already written about 58 pages. I added that his role in the Crisis, as well as his work on foreign affairs, should be made the subject of a real study and that the charter, social measures, medicare and his reorganization of the federal government, should each be the subject of an in-depth study as well. He said that enough books had been written of him. I said I believed a scholarly critique had not been done on his legislation and administration, nor anything genuine on Lévesque, Marchand, Pelletier or Ryan.

Passages of the diary, seemed to intrigue him . He said "It is eerie, hearing you read it." Like everyone he had forgotten things of 29 years before, but added details to the events once reminded of them.

He had forgotten that we in Bourassa's government had passed Medicare, ended the specialist doctors' strike and sent them back to work, in the same 24 hour period, that we had requested the application of the War Measures Act. He said Medicare was the first law he had brought down as PM; it was his first promise of the 1968 election and he had won the election on it. He remarked that by 1970 a number of provinces had already adopted Medicare and that Quebec was late in doing so. He knew the dates exactly. I read him my own comments on Medicare. (Unfortunately, I did not ask him about the present dismantling of Medicare. That's for next time.)

He made it clear that it was Bourassa who had called in the Army and one day later had requested the imposition of the War Measures Act. When we had talked for about 15 minutes on the phone two weeks earlier, when fixing a date for lunch, he had said the same thing. This is, apparently, very important to him as a small "l" liberal.

He referred to René Lévesque as at times confused in his ideas, on the role of Quebec in a federal state in respect of the use of the Army and the War Measures Act. He remembered well that in the middle of the Crisis, Lévesque, Claude Ryan and fourteen other "eminent personalities" had recommended in a public press conference and petition that Cross and Laporte be exchanged for the 23 jailed terrorists, whom they described as political prisoners. He was delighted to learn that Philippe de Grandpré, (who later was appointed to the Supreme Court) had telephoned Le Devoir to say he disagreed with the petition. He could not guess that Dick Holden was the only lawyer named in the list of those published in Le Devoir the next day, who signed the petition.

I mentioned that during the Crisis, Lévesque had recorded a conversation with Bourassa, without telling Bourassa. I asked if this was often done in his experience and he said no, but when I mentioned that British Prime Minister Harold McMillan had been outraged to learn that Nixon had secretly taped him, he said he had been secretly taped by Nixon and that on one tape of Nixon recently released, Nixon had called him a son-of-a-bitch for taking the Canadian troops out of Vietnam.

I read the passage in the diary where, in referring to Ryan, Trudeau had paraphrased Lord Acton, "Absence of power corrupts, absolute absence, corrupts absolutely." He only smiled. He seemed almost timid about his famous one-liners and put-downs of the past. He did, however, like my comment that he did not suffers fools gladly in the House of Commons. He also liked the note that he had said that much Federal/Provincial trouble was caused by civil servants and that the only recourse was to fire them as he had done in some cases in the CBC.

I read the passage in the diary about my feeling that the cell holding Cross would like to give in and accept our terms and seemed more reasonable than the cell holding Laporte. I asked why I had felt that way at the time, and he replied: "One gets such feelings from here and from there".

I told how Ryan and others (Camille Laurin, PQ leader in the National Assembly) had criticised my article that saying no to the release of terrorists was a precedent and that the checks and balances of Canada's federal/provincial constitution had served us well during the Crisis. Le Devoir had published the article in French, during the Crisis, but the Montreal Star had refused to publish it in English. He wanted to see the article. He laughed that I had written in the diary that the press would never get a minister to go out on a limb again and I had added that they never did.

I told him that John Stuart Mill had said in his book "Utilitarianism", that French Canadians should be assimilated. He was surprised and wanted to see the reference.

We discussed the Victoria Agreement of 1971 and he gave it as his view that the Agreement, which we turned down, was the best deal Quebec could have ever received. Throughout the lunch, I found him as I always had, never bitter, nor mean or noisy, but very fair, reasonable, quiet and calm. The conversation was all over the place and not strained.

We again discussed his son Michel. He was pleased to hear the kind comments I had heard from friends of mine in Vancouver, who had known Michel. He agreed that the press had acted very properly and sensibly at the funeral. He again thanked me for my letter of sympathy, which I had written very carefully after Michel's death.

As we walked back from the restaurant, he did not seem to want to be seen as being protected by me. He particularly opened doors and let me go out first. He looked frail, but still had great strength in his step, although not quite a stride. He said he walked back and forth, between his home and the office. There were 102 steps up the stairs at Avenue du Musee. He climbed them all, without a stop. At the restaurant, he had read the menu without glasses.

As we said goodbye, he thanked me for the long lunch and discussion and then made a point of crossing René Lévesque boulevard. alone, almost at a trot.

Next morning in the Gazette, he was shown at the Film Festival the night before looking thin, but otherwise his usual old self. The Film Festival was reported as being his first public appearance since Michel's death. Perhaps the lunch gave him a lift?

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William Tetley is a McGill law professor and was Minister of Financial Institutions in Bourassa's Cabinet from 1970-1976.

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