Awkward -



During one of the breaks in voting today, Justin Trudeau strode across the aisle to shake the hand of Stephen Harper. The two exchanged brief pleasantries.

To facilitate future dialogue between these two (ahead of their inevitable meeting in the 2014 federal election), we reprint here a column Harper wrote for the National Post on the subject of Pierre Trudeau, first published a week after the former prime minister’s death.

Looking Back at Trudeau
Stephen Harper
5 October 2000
National Post

In 1977, I received an invitation to have lunch with Pierre Trudeau. Sudden and unexpected circumstances did not permit it to come about. It wasn’t until last year that I would actually meet Mr. Trudeau, simply by chance, on the streets of Montreal.

There I came face to face with a living legend, someone who had provoked both the loves and hatreds of my political passion, all in the form of a tired out, little old man. It was an experience at once unforgettable, nostalgic and haunting. For Mr. Trudeau had obviously diminished as much as my assessment of him over those 22 years.

I do not make this statement to be unkind or cruel. But one must believe a grown-up will see the world differently than an 18-year-old, just as one must hope Canadians will come to view Mr. Trudeau more soberly than when it mattered.

In 1977, for instance, I hadn’t experienced life in Western Canada. When Mr. Trudeau asked Western farmers why he should sell their wheat for them, I didn’t know the federal government was by law the only vendor they had. But he should have known. It was a remark indicative of a distant leader who neither understood, nor cared to understand, a group of people over whom his actions had immense impact.

By the time Mr. Trudeau embarked on the National Energy Program I was living in the West. I witnessed first-hand the movement of an economy from historic boom to deep recession in a matter of months. A radical, interventionist blueprint of economic nationalism, the NEP caused the oil industry to flee, businesses to close and the real estate market to crash. The lives of honest, hard-working Albertans were upended and I came to know many of those who lost their jobs and their homes.

In 1977, economics and finance didn’t much matter to me. Beginning with the NEP, Mr. Trudeau would show me that they did matter — a lesson he never bothered to master himself. Flailing from one pet policy objective to another, he expanded the welfare state, created scores of bureaucratic agencies, offices and ministries and encouraged the regulation and government control of major industrial sectors. Under his stewardship, the country created huge deficits, a mammoth national debt, high taxes, bloated bureaucracy, rising unemployment, record inflation, curtailed trade and declining competitiveness. From these consequences we have still not fully recovered, and they continue to have an impact on my pay cheque, and my family’s opportunities, every single month.

In 1977, I had never really witnessed the battle over national unity. I was attracted to Pierre Trudeau as the man who offered a national vision to counter Quebec separatists and could hold the country together. I cheered for him, as did almost everyone my age, in that first referendum. But by the second referendum and the constitutional battles of later years, I was one of many only grudgingly on the same side as Mr. Trudeau.

I agreed as Mr. Trudeau so rightly railed against the absurdity of the “hierarchy of rights” in the Charlottetown Accord, or the “nation within a nation” logic of Meech Lake. But I also remembered that it was Mr. Trudeau himself who laced so many federal policies, including the Constitution itself, with the special claims of identity politics. It was also Mr. Trudeau who had remained largely silent and ineffectual as Quebec dismantled the very bilingualism he had proclaimed to be the great solution for Canada
as a whole.

Mr. Trudeau’s goal was no doubt to genuinely promote a “just society” of individual “equality.” But only a liberal intellectual could believe the assignment of benefits and “rights” would not become an arbitrary,
politicized game.

Mr. Trudeau won the great political battles of his day only to see the war lost with surprising speed after he left office. Yes, he continues to define the myths that guide the Canadian psyche, but myths they are. Only a bastardized version of his unity vision remains and his other policies have been rejected and repealed by even his own Liberal party. His definition of Canadian nationalism — centralism, socialism, bilingualism — is the polar opposite of the trends in Canadian history that are now triumphing — regionalism, globalization, Quebec particularism — in no small measure a reaction to the policies Mr. Trudeau practised.

So how is Mr. Trudeau to be remembered — as a visionary colossus or a failed one? Twenty years ago, I would have evaluated him more on the basis of the energy and impact of his time. But, in 1977, I had no real sense of the difference between trend and history or between fads and values.

Mr. Trudeau embraced the fashionable causes of his time, with variable enthusiasm and differing results. But he was also a member of the “greatest generation,” the one that defeated the Nazis in war and resolutely stood down the Soviets in the decades that followed. In those battles however, the ones that truly defined his century, Mr. Trudeau took a pass. And so it is to the ideals of the greatest generation, and not those of Pierre Trudeau, that Canada should properly dedicate itself.

Stephen Harper is president of the National Citizens’ Coalition.



  1. A pretty fair assessment of Trudeau, I would say. He is the man who alienated the West with the NEP, madly spent his way to a horrendous national debt and bestowed a charter of rights that transferred power from elected officials to unelected judges. Now along comes Son of Trudeau and the media are ramping up to try and snow us again. Fool us once, media, shame on you. Fool us twice and shame on us.

  2. Clearly, Harper is properly dedicated to “the ideals of the greatest generations”, as he puts it. You could see it in his sweater ads. The dedication shown in mountains of ten percenters. Even oily the splotch seemed dedicated, not to mention the dedicated puffin.

  3. Stephen Harper wrote a column for the National Post.

    Don’t have to read it.

    ‘Nuff said.

  4. Justin’s probably figured out by now he didn’t mean it.

  5. Are we sure John Howard’s staff didn’t write that? Or, more plausibly, Tom Flanagan?

  6. For better and/or worse, we live in Pierre Trudeau’s Canada, and are all his “children”, many of us “b#$%#” children.

    The primary raison-d’etre of Pierre Trudeau’s political career to to modernize Quebec, and to bring Quebec into the bosom of the Canadian federation, by bringing Quebec to Ottawa. Trudeau’s great blindspot was not recognizing the differences between Ontario and the rest of “English” Canada, that there was no monolithic “English” Canada, and the most Canadians outside of Ontario and Quebec reject the Upper Canada/Lower Canada paradigm.

    This was particularly true in the West, whose essence Trudeau never came to understand or appreciate. Hence disasterous polices such as the NEP, and the challenge to the West of “why should I sell your wheat?”.

    Of course, the challenge to the West that “why should I sell your wheat” represented, was the challenge to Westerners to do for the West what he had done for Quebec. He had brought Quebec into the bosom of Ottawa. It was up to Westerners themselves (and not him) to bring the West to Ottawa.

    And, ironically, who represents best the response to Trudeau’s challenge, but his “true” heir, Stephen Harper, who abandoned the Mulroney government at the height of its power, to join a renegade political party out West which would eventually lead to Harper rebuilding a disparate Western-born principled conservative party bringing the West to Ottawa and Trudeau had brought Quebec to Ottawa a generation earlier.

  7. I am starting to wonder where this impression of Harper as an academic comes from… When Trudeau asked ‘why should I sell your wheat’ it was a rhetorical question, that he then went on to answer. Now, one can argue about the merits of leading a speech off in such a manner (Ross Perot’s VP candidate, Admiral Stockdale led a debate if memory serves ‘who am I’… the comedians had a field day) but at least show some intellectual honesty about the content.

  8. “I agreed as Mr. Trudeau so rightly railed against the absurdity of the ”hierarchy of rights” in the Charlottetown Accord, or the “nation within a nation” logic of Meech Lake.”

    How can anyone challenge Harper’s principled stands?

  9. I may regret this… but I’m suspicious that Western Canadian politicians have inflated the significance of the NEP far beyond reality.

    Here’s why: even today it’s approaching $20/bbl to produce oil in Western Canada. International oil prices stayed around $20/bbl through much of the 1980’s. I just don’t see how oil could have been a bonanza for Western Canada under those conditions. The NEP may have made things worse, it may have catalyzed the collapse, but I find it hard to believe it cost Western Canadians their shot at the brass ring.

    I’ve heard Western Canadian politicians build entire careers out of demonizing Ottawa, including – to some degree – our current PM. To what degree was the NEP really economically destructive vs. a handy boogeyman?


    • I am not sure if your $20 figure is conventional, oil sand or blended.

      It would be good to see an independent economic analysis, but also a political one as well. The NEP was a failure, no doubt. However it was done in the context of the emergence of OPEC, an organization that was looking to radically restructure the political and economic world order. The early actions of OPEC were seen as a direct economic attack on the West. In Trudeau’s view, such attacks demanded a National response.

      It is also worth noting that Trudeau was the Canadian PM who invested in the long-term research necessary for the economical use of oil sands bitumen.

  10. TJ: To be honest, the NEP may have extended the time period it took to recover, (and I’m not even sure about that) but the energy companies in the west had started to have problems before it was put into place. When it came out, it was a convenient rallying cry both for politicians and for oilmen approaching the local provincial governments to extract various subsidies from them.

  11. “I agreed as Mr. Trudeau so rightly railed against the absurdity of the ”hierarchy of rights” in the Charlottetown Accord, or the “nation within a nation” logic of Meech Lake”

    I’m sure that’s a quote that Harper is glad we had all forgotten.

  12. The NEP was brought in when global oil prices hit their peak and were just beginning to slide. It was not the cause of the shuttering of the Canadian oil industry and it’s absolutely propaganda on the part of western Canadian politicians that the myth persists to this day. Oil is sold on the global market and prices seem to follow a boom and bust cycle, and it’s once again sliding down from a peak. It’s going to be tough to blame this drilling slow down on the NEP but I’m sure that the oilmen will try.

  13. Many of the very generous tax incentives* currently enjoyed by the oil industry were part of the NEP.

    *Harper has promised to eliminate these in a decade or so, some reporter should ask him about the irony of this

  14. What a petty man Harper is.

  15. I would have to agree completely with me boy Stevie on this one and from my memories of the various I times I met Pierre a very accurate description. I too was just under 18 and Trudeau was out west here and when he gave the finger to the media knowing full well the cameras were turned on him my respect for the man went rhough the ceiling and he was running at the perfect time when I became a poltical junkie or activist as I used to call myself and signed up for the LPC – what days they were and to be so young and so stupid alas it is a cycle repeated over and over and over again because let’s face it … if you are under 40 and not a Liberal you have no heart and if you are over 40 and not a Conservative you have no head (not my quote)

  16. “But he was also a member of the “greatest generation,” the one that defeated the Nazis in war and resolutely stood down the Soviets in the decades that followed. In those battles however, the ones that truly defined his century, Mr. Trudeau took a pass. And so it is to the ideals of the greatest generation, and not those of Pierre Trudeau, that Canada should properly dedicate itself.“ – Steven Harper

    I was reminded of Trudeau`s approach today as I was reading the autobiography of Richard Pipes, a Jew who fled Poland in the first two weeks of the German invasion in 1939. A Harvard professor and Soviet specialist, he worked as an advisor to the U.S. National Security Council in 1980-1982. He relates a visit by Robert Ford, the Canadian Ambassador to the U.S.S.R. in 1982 whereby the Canadian criticized the U.S. approach to the Soviet Union as wrong. He preferred the appeasement approach. Of course the U.S approach was right, the Canadian one wrong.

    But that was Pierre Trudeau, on the wrong side of history, not once but twice. On the two seminal confrontations of the last century.

  17. I enjoyed the political entertainment that Trudeau provided.

    But I lost respect for him after he abandoned MacEachern to the blue Liberal wolves with the ’81 budget.

  18. Here`s Mr. Trudeau`s view on the Polish Crisis in 1981. Remember that one, where tanks crushed people, and the authorities killed several others under the cover of darkness. People who simply wanted to be free of soul-stifling communism.

    Courtesy of Reuters, December 1981:

    Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau said today that he regretted the imposition of martial law in Poland but could not condemn it if it prevented civil war and if the military authorities did not abuse their power. He rejected suggestions that Canada stop grain sales to Poland at preferred prices.“

    Solidarity for Mr. Trudeau meant solidarity with the commies in Moscow and Warsaw.

    But at least he entertained Sisyphus.

    • Harper is supporting Israel occupation of Palestine what is the difference

  19. A stray thought. Pierre Trudeau was 20 when Hitler invaded Poland. He did not hold elected office of any kind.

    Stephen Harper was 44 when the U.S. invaded Iraq. He was leader of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition.

    Now, obviously, George W. Bush is not Hitler and Poland is not Iraq. But if Harper considers Trudeau’s stance on WWII to be essential to Trudeau’s legacy, would he agree that his stance on Iraq will be essential to his own legacy?

  20. Yes, he entertained. And occasionally enlightened.

    Rarely a bore, or boor.

    Jarrid, if our political class can do nothing useful for us the least they can do is entertain us. They can’t even meet that low standard these days.

  21. One last quote, this from a Robert Fulford column of September 29th, 2000:

    “In the 1970s, Trudeau showed no sympathy for the dissidents across eastern Europe who were fighting a long and lonely (and often apparently hopeless) battle against Moscow. He saw them as irresponsible agents of disorder who might disturb the world’s delicate status quo. “He considered them thugs,” a senior diplomat told me, after watching Trudeau’s reactions over the years.“

    Solzhenitsyn a thug. No wonder Castro came to his funeral and declared three days of mourning in totalitarian Cuba in Trudeau`s honour.

  22. Jarrid, settle down. We know, Trudeau is a commie, Obama is a commie… who the hell is Fulford? A man of great importance I bet.

  23. Aaron, O.K. let`s give young Trudeau a pass on WWII, as you point out he was a young adult.

    But what of his pro-commie, pro-totalitarian sympathies. Or does he get a pass on that because the commies had good intentions. When they tortured people and invaded countries and generally failed to respect basic human rights they get a pass because they had high-minded motives. And people who sympathised with them and ran cover for them, like Trudeau should get a pass too. The U.S.S.R. truly was, in Reagan`s words, “an evil empire“. The incalculable harm done to the Russian people and those of Eastern Europe should never be forgotten, and neither should those who acted as their apologists, like Pierre Trudeau.

    As for Iraq, I guess in your books Saddam Hussein was a freedom fighter, to me and many he was a stalinist thug. Supporting the American intervention in Iraq hardly puts one on the wrong side of history, as the next leader of the Liberal Party will tell you. The U.S. isn`t the enemy Aaron.

    Failing to stand up to the evils of our day, and in the case of communism, being an active sympathizer, is a cornerstone of the morally muddled Trudeau legacy.

  24. BC – you need to read The Gulag Archipelago or Varlam Chalamov`s Tales of Kolyma, the latter in particular will make your blood run cold. We Canadians live in la-la land, we`re blessed but we`re ingrates and we take so much for granted. When in our coddled corner we abet rather than fight injustice, I can`t keep quiet, sorry.

  25. Jarrid, I’m thumbing my way though A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, I get it, monstrous crimes were commited against the russian people. But… you are a little over the top with your accusations against Trudeau, oh well, I won’t change your mind, proceed, freedom fighter.

  26. “What a petty man Harper is.”

    hey. it pays the rent.

  27. True, It’s probably time I read that book Bastards and Boneheads.

  28. Most of the neoconservatives, like Bush, Cheney, and Wolfowitz, took a pass on the Vietnam War. ( Clinton hid in Britain. Gore got a safe military job to protect his viability in the system.)

    As for WWII, the Americans didn’t even bother to show up till 1941. And then well “the greatest generation” let the Russian people do most of the fighting (and dying) against the Germans. The greatest generation really didn’t get interested in fighting the Germans until the Soviets threatened to overrun Europe.

    Reagan bankrupted the Soviet Union, but he put in place the “deficits-don’t-matter” mentality that 30 years later has bankrupted the United States. So Reagan was great short term, in ending the Soviet empire, but sowed the seeds for the end of the American Empire too.

    The Quebec Trudeau grew up in was inward-looking and isolationist. A young person growing up in that society would have grown up culturally predisposed against fighting in any foreign war.

  29. We Canadians live in la-la land, we`re blessed but we`re ingrates and we take so much for granted. When in our coddled corner we abet rather than fight injustice, I can`t keep quiet, sorry.

    Yes, and calling Trudeau a Commie is no doubt useful, but hey, there’s a whole 3rd-World out there waiting for your help, Jarrid. Also, you could enlist, no?

  30. he really is a petty dude

    as he says:

    “I do not make this statement to be unkind or cruel. But one must believe a grown-up will see the world differently than an 18-year-old, just as one must hope Canadians will come to view Mr. Trudeau more soberly than when it mattered.

    to put it in other terms, it doesn’t matter anymore but i am gonna skewer you record while you still are warm in your grave…a week!…

    hmmm…. how do you think SH’s record will be viewed vis a vis PET’s in say 50 yrs?

  31. So far the only thing I can see Harper being remembered for is the Quebec resolution, and that only if it turns out negatively.

  32. Given that Al Qaeda in Iraq seems to have given up the ghost, Harper will probably be remembered as having the right initial response and then pretending he didn’t with suprising success. So we should credit him for that political cleverness and nothing more. If Iraq itself remains stable. Seems to me that the Chinese guy that said democracy is 100 years away for them has a more sensible, conservative grasp of things.

    I remember helping pass around a petition in Grade 12, asking our government to participate in bringing democracy to Iraqis. Got a lot of signatures… probably a good majority of the people we asked. Youthful idealism I suppose, but I’d still sign it.

  33. Given that Al Qaeda in Iraq seems to have given up the ghost,

    Al Qaeda’s coming back, bigger and stronger and more distributed than ever before.

  34. Again? No doubt it’s pure miracle that the deadly Afghan winter hasn’t struck for the past several years. [i]It’s waiting until we’re not looking![/i] It’s being morphed by global warming into something worse which will follow our paper tiger trail into our own countries!

    Sorry. I’m being an ass. It drives me crazy though – there is no way to distinguish between what you’ve just said and what some wannabe taliban pajama warrior astroturfing coalition countries would say if he or she was trying to convince us that We Can Never Win. Several years in and the only arguments that have made an impression on me against either war or how they are being conducted that aren’t based on conspirasy or defeatism come from libertarians, George Will, or George Jonas. I just watched an old video of a former adviser to Petraeus named Kilcullen – he says 80% of insurgencies fail. Really? True or not, you can bank on one thing – that fact will by no means alert the media.

  35. Perhaps I’m mistaken but it seems to me that Harper, now and always, has considered political advantage the most important function of his intellect.

    I cannot see how that serves Canada or Canadians well.

    Here is what I know of Pierre Trudeau:

    I am a child of the United States, despite I was born in Canada. When I achieved my majority I chose Canadian citizenship.

    I’m damn happy with that decision.

    Because Monsieur Trudeau convinced me I prefer a bright guy running the country. Harper’s intellect, I posit, is no longer in question. It is inadequate.

    Particularly it is inadequate to my expectations of the Prime Minister of Canada.

  36. Was Harper really unaware of Trudeau’s immediate response to his own question “Why should I sell your wheat?”, or was he already practicing his now insidious habit of dishonestly manipulating popular ignorance in order to further his own selfish ends? Quite a choice: he was (and is) either woefully ignorant of readily available fact, or deviously manipulative and dishonest. We are faced with the same choice when assessing his present knowledge of the way the parliment of Canada functions. This man pretends (one must assume that he is, in fact, not actually this ignorant and uninformed) to the nation that a government is elected, and not, as is actually the case, a parliment. This is our prime minister. Stephen Harper does not hold a candle to Pierre Trudeau, as a man, or as a leader. Not only will history show it, but anyone with an open and critical mind can see it today.

  37. What is most interesting to me about this OpEd of Harper’s is that he failed to realize himself the lesson that Trudeau taught us all. That it is no policy that makes the difference. Policy, and the harsher form that Harper uses of secrecy and trickery laden populist dogma: eventually they all fail. They have a definite and often very short self life. What really counts and what matters is the unity that a leader can create in representing the people that they lead. Most powerful devotion is useless if hatred and abandonment of other constituents is simultaneously created. Harper only seems to count the people who stand for harper-Canada and cynically makes sure that those numbers are merely enough. The rest be damned. Trudeau’s lesson would be not only wisdom, but the humility of age… Of having taken your life and committed to a path and taken the results as your own responsibility. One day Harper will also be a shrunken old man. Will he have built on what those before him learned? It seems not.

  38. Wow, he wrote that only a week after Pierre Trudeau’s death! Harper is a nasty piece of work. I’m happy to see it reprinted to show just how mean-spirited Harper is.

  39. i don’t think Harper is in a position ti comment on anyone … He’s been the WORST Prime minister we’ve ever known, and those of you who have voted for him should be ashamed to have done that to our country

  40. That is just mean, nasty and very unCanadian of Harper! Imagine, oh just imagine the CONs fauxtrage if Justin Trudeau had said that of a former CPC PM who had just died? How horrible Harper is! No wonder he is SO loathed by such a huge majority of Canadians who can’t wait to heave him out in 2015; Harper *and all the Cons who support him. G’bye

  41. Yeah, of course it was the NEP that was the cause of all Alberta’s problems in the early 80s. It was Trudeau who was responsible for interest rates north of 20 percent too. To Harper that is.
    Look up “the House of Saud” in case you forgot what it’s doing again now. It did it worse in the 70s and early 80s. You might want to look up “Volker shock” too if you are still inclined to blame Trudeau for the interest rates of the time too. Half-stories and scape-goating go hand in hand with the world according to Steve Joseph Harper.