It’s rare to meet a Canadian who doesn’t have strong opinions on Pierre Trudeau. Easily the most influential prime minister of modern times, Trudeau’s activist administration sought to dramatically alter almost every policy and institution of the Canadian government — which was just as controversial as you might expect. The election of his son, Justin Trudeau (b. 1971), as prime minister in 2015 has seen a particular uptake of interest in his legacy.
Born to a wealthy Montreal family, young Trudeau traveled extensively, visiting exotic countries and attending many of the world’s top universities, but controversially never fought in the Second World War (1939-1945). A gifted writer and thinker, upon returning to Canada he became a high-profile intellectual and scholar, known for spouting contrarian views on Canadian politics and economics with great wit and charm.
Recruited as a Liberal “star candidate” for Parliament in the 1965 general election, Trudeau served as attorney general in the cabinet of Prime Minister Lester Pearson (1897-1972), where he relaxed Canada’s laws governing divorce, abortion, and homosexuality. Celebrated in his party as a fresh new kind of leader, when Pearson resigned two years later Trudeau won the race to replace him.
The 15 years Trudeau ran Canada are generally seen as heralding a significant left-wing shift in what had previously been a rather stiff and conservative country. Distrustful of the free market, Trudeau’s administration grew government spending and regulation, and advocated Canada take a more neutral position in the Cold War. Viewing the country’s traditional English-French tensions — and particularly the French-Canadian separatist movement — as bigoted and small-minded, he promoted bilingualism and multiculturalism to create a more diverse, post-national Canadian identity, and took a hard line when Quebec elected its first openly separatist government. In 1970 he imposed martial law in order to end a hostage crisis with French-Canadian terrorists, in what remains one of the most controversial decisions of his entire tenure.
Trudeau’s most significant achievement came in his fourth and final term, when he persuaded the British parliament to surrender control of Canada’s constitution — securing the country’s complete independence from the United Kingdom — and creating Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which permanently enshrined into law the civil rights of all Canadians. He retired from politics shortly after, but continued to speak out on political matters until his death in 2000.
Trudeau’s hold on office was not always firm. His tenure overlapped with serious bouts of economic difficultly for Canada, resulting in several close elections and even a short-lived loss of power to Joe Clark (b. 1939) from 1979 to 1980, though this eight-month exile proved fairly inconsequential.