Pierre & Maggie: The untold story

From 2009: John English on the most fascinating marriage in Canadian history

There’s something dark, almost to the point of the occult, in the way Pierre Trudeau is often remembered. Scan across the shelf of books about him: titles refer to his “shadow,” the notion he remains “hidden,” and one even calls him a “magus.” The most famous biographical quote about him claims “he haunts us still.”

Perhaps it’s all this gloom that makes the story of his courtship and marriage such welcome leavening in the tale. The dancing entrance of Margaret Sinclair, quintessential flower child, brings to the story a tie-dyed splash of contrast, occasionally sheer silliness—not to mention doomed romance, rare beauty and rock-star celebrity. No wage and price controls or constitutional amendments in this chapter.

Yet the famous Maggie and Pierre saga is more than a mere diversion from the main current of the Trudeau narrative. This excerpt from Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 1968-2000, the second volume of John English’s authoritative biography of Canada’s 15th prime minister, fits their love story into tumultuous political times. The University of Waterloo history professor had exclusive access to Trudeau’s papers, and interviewed his family members and friends, some of whose privacy he protects by quoting them anonymously.

He shows Trudeau’s private and public sides intersecting poignantly when he is drawn closer to Margaret by their being together on the night Pierre Laporte, the Quebec labour minister, is murdered by his FLQ kidnappers. Yet it would be a mistake to try to integrate Margaret too tightly into Trudeau’s political life. He certainly didn’t.

In fact, English says if he had to pick one aspect of Trudeau’s character that struck him repeatedly in his research, it was the way he kept the different parts of his life from intermingling. “I was surprised how compartmentalized he was. It allowed him to be a very disciplined person as prime minister,” English said. “People who were very close to him on something fundamental were totally closed off from other parts of his life.”

For instance, Jim Coutts, enormously influential as Trudeau’s principal secretary from 1975 to 1981, never considered himself a friend of his boss. Marc Lalonde, who also served as principal secretary and then emerged as a powerful cabinet minister, was never invited to Trudeau’s house for dinner. But then, they were men. “Trudeau seemed to pour his heart out with women,” English says. “With men, he always had his elbows up.”

Just Watch Me reveals how Trudeau’s private circle saw his public persona. In early 1969, he erupted several times in short order, railing against the media at a news conference, storming out of a meeting, and swearing at a protester. The public saw a mercurial leader. An old flame from the 1940s, Thérèse Gouin Décarie, saw an unhappy friend. “Pierre, our Pierre,” she wrote in a note English found in his papers, “what has happened to you?”

He was famously disciplined about everything, from keeping fit to exercising his mind. If he behaved erratically, Trudeau instantly regretted it. But he was consistently attracted to women who were impulsive. He liked the excitement of dating outspoken celebrities like Barbra Streisand and Margot Kidder. More involved was his relationship with Carroll Guérin, whom he’d first dated in the late 1950s. She’s described by English as “strikingly beautiful, Catholic, liberal, fluently trilingual, independently wealthy, and knowledgeable about the arts,” and, perhaps most importantly, “not in awe of Trudeau.” Remarkably, Trudeau consulted Guérin, to whom he had repeatedly proposed, about marrying Margaret.

In hindsight, the pairing of the 52-year-old prime minister with a 22-year-old hippie looks bound to fail from the start. To his detractors, the folly fits with their view of Trudeau as a less than serious figure. Indeed, by the time he took his walk in the snow in 1984, it was easy enough to see him—except on the Constitution and national unity—as increasingly irrelevant. After all, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan had ushered in a new faith in free markets and deregulation. But English finds Trudeau throwing himself into a 1981 bid to persuade the rich North that its economic priority should be doing much more to help the poor South. His skepticism about the anti-government-intervention vogue in economics looked retrograde.

Until lately. English says last year’s market meltdown, and the resulting rediscovery of the benefits of regulation, cast a new light on Trudeau’s resistance of the Thatcher-Reagan revolution. “Now he seems more prescient,” English says, “and some of his reservations seem to have been accurate.”

Trudeau tried to seal off politics from the realm of the personal. Of course, that was as impossible then as it is today. So if his economic instincts are looking plausible again in 2009, perhaps his romantic foibles are also due for a sympathetic reappraisal—not a dilettante’s foolishness, but a prime example of an intensely self-aware man’s quest for fulfillment in every compartment of his complex life.


As the bachelor Trudeau neared mid-century, he began to date with the energy of a sixties teenager, and as Kissinger aptly said, “power is the greatest aphrodisiac.” Although some of his interests—classical music, philosophy, and political theory—were not those of most young people, he possessed a youthful flair, a romantic attachment to the wilderness, a chiselled body, a sharp wit, and, of course, power.

In the later sixties his mood shifted, and he spoke surprisingly freely about wanting to abandon his bachelorhood. Perhaps it was the commitment to pursuing the leadership that had prompted such thoughts: his hope for a family was certainly an issue that had weighed on him when he’d embarked on the leadership quest and even caused him to consider turning down the historic opportunity. Later, after he became prime minister, reporters quizzed Trudeau at the Ottawa airport about rumours that he had been married during his trip to the North in July 1968. He denied the suppositions but then replied, surprisingly: “I’m constantly thinking of marriage.” To a CBC reporter in a 1968 year-end interview, he responded that instead of making a resolution to remain a bachelor, he was “rather despondent that leap year should have passed by without my really having had time to make the kind of deal I would have liked. But, never mind,” he said. “This year I’ll be taking initiatives!” And he did.

Margaret Sinclair remained very much in his mind and was often by his side after Trudeau wooed her following their encounter at the leadership convention. By Christmas 1969, Trudeau and Margaret “were confessing to each other that [they] were unmistakably in love.” Certainly, there were doubts: he was too old and she too young and different. They saw each other secretly in the fall of 1969 and spent weekends at Harrington Lake, where they rumpled the beds in the other rooms to deceive the staff into believing that others had been there. There were only two public occasions in 1970: once at the National Gallery, when Margaret dressed for a costume ball as a “hippie” Juliet, and once at a dinner party at the home of Wendy and Tim Porteous. At the gallery, groups froze when they came near, and Margaret, surprised by the coolness of her welcome, sobbed uncontrollably after they left. At the Porteous home, everyone spoke French, which Margaret did not understand. For a brief time in the winter of 1970 the two broke up. Margaret began dating a divinity student, and Trudeau and Streisand had their fling.

But then, at Easter, shortly after Pierre and Barbra had gone their separate ways, Pierre and Jean Marchand spent a ski holiday at Whistler, and Margaret met up with Trudeau there. Romance blossomed again, and Margaret decided to enrol at the University of Ottawa for the fall term in the department of psychology. As she warmed to Pierre, he, not surprisingly, pulled back, telling her she was “too young and too romantic.” They broke up once more and Margaret returned to British Columbia, but then he called during a visit to Vancouver in early summer 1970 and asked her to go scuba diving with him in the Caribbean. “What for?” she fumed. “More pain? I can’t go on playing this sort of life.” He begged for patience and asked her to fly back to Ottawa with him.

She then spent a weekend with him at Harrington Lake, and one summer afternoon beside the shimmering water, Trudeau, entranced, murmured that they should talk about marriage. It was not a proposal, he said later, but Margaret thought it was. As one of Trudeau’s closest friends remarked, Pierre was playing dangerously in those times. Margaret jumped to her feet, flung her arms around him, and exclaimed, “When? Tomorrow?” A startled Trudeau replied, “Let’s take it easy,” but Margaret jumped into the lake and swam around in circles “like a frenzied dolphin.” When she finally emerged from the water, Pierre set out some conditions: she should be “a good faithful wife to him, give up drugs, and stop being so flighty.” He warned her that he was 50 years old and “extremely solitary by nature.” Trudeau was troubled. Had he gone too far? As Margaret wrote later: “This period was the closest I ever came to seeing Pierre out of full control in all our time together.” While becoming “most attentive and loving,” he believed, in Margaret’s words, “that he must convince himself that it would work.”

Trudeau decided to take a break in the month of August, in the Caribbean with Margaret and the noted ocean scientist Dr. Joe MacInnis and his wife, Debby. He then vacationed alone that summer at the Aga Khan’s home in Sardinia and on a yacht in the Mediterranean. He also decided to speak with his long-time friend Carroll Guérin. Carroll had spent much of her time in Europe and England in recent years and had been on a spiritual quest, including a period in a monastery. For these reasons, she had seen Trudeau only intermittently since he had entered politics, although she remained emotionally committed and dated no others until the late sixties.

Strikingly beautiful, Catholic, liberal, fluently trilingual, independently wealthy, and knowledgeable about the arts, Carroll was not in awe of Trudeau, and their relationship was full of respect and playfulness. Over the years, he had raised the question of marriage, to the point where he began one conversation with the disclaimer: “Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to marry me today.” Now he told her he was seriously contemplating marriage (to Margaret Sinclair), and referring to their discussions of the past brought the topic up one last time, but Carroll quickly turned it away. “No,” she replied. She did not think Trudeau could share the spiritual life she was devoted to and told him that, because they “could not meet at that level of togetherness which would come from Grace,” marriage was not a good idea. She also knew that he wanted children, and her health might make that difficult. She has a letter thanking her for her thoughtfulness and for considering his proposal.

Trudeau then flew to Nassau with Margaret, Joe and Debby MacInnis, and other friends and booked in at the Small Hope Bay Lodge on the little island of Andros in the Bahamas. Trudeau’s aides warned MacInnis that scuba diving was “a hobby, not a passion” for the prime minister. The aides seem to have completely misunderstood their boss’s nature. He was never a man of “hobbies” in anything that he undertook. MacInnis would eventually take Trudeau on dives of remarkable depth, including one of 250 feet. He later said that Trudeau was always “curious about the natural world and his place in it.”

But at the time there were other passions to satisfy. Margaret and Pierre “lived in a derelict shack on the beach and dived all day, spending romantic and exhausted evenings pacing the sand” as Pierre asked endless questions about her past. He claimed he needed to know everything, to prevent blackmail, and he kept saying, “I know you’ll leave me one day.” She said she would never leave him, but they agreed to test their love by a separation: Margaret would return to Vancouver, not Ottawa. When they were ready, they would marry, but in the meantime, they would tell no one. Margaret did tell her mother, who initially opposed the match, and then they began to plan for the wedding. Jimmy Sinclair was kept in the dark until late, as were Margaret’s friends. Margaret began to take instruction for conversion to the Roman Catholic Church, and after some debate, she agreed to give up marijuana. She also began French lessons at the Alliance Française in Vancouver.

She describes Father Schwinkles, the priest who guided her conversion, as a shy man with little imagination: he presented her with a manual called What It Is to Become a Good Catholic, with the relevant parts underlined in black. When Margaret professed concern that the book suggested that only Catholics went to Heaven and asked what would happen to her Protestant friends, he reassured her that Catholicism represented the “jet plane to Heaven.” Protestants, presumably, were condemned to turboprops. A disturbed Pierre, who called nightly, gave her a more academic reading list, which included Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua and St. Augustine’s Confessions, to complement her mandated reading. It was a practice he continued after they married, as he tried to ensure that Margaret appreciated the intellectual foundations of her new faith.

In November 1970 Trudeau was scheduled to meet Streisand again in New York, but if he did the press learned nothing of it and, presumably, neither did Margaret. She recalls, however, coming upon a pile of photographs of various women in Trudeau’s desk drawer, with Streisand’s picture on top. “Are you ranking us?” she asked. “Maybe,” he replied wryly. By Christmas 1970, however, Streisand had begun an affair with Hollywood star Ryan O’Neal, then at the height of his popularity for his performance in the saccharine Love Story. Margaret, as we know, had been with Trudeau the night Pierre Laporte was killed (it was Thanksgiving), and the experience had brought them closer together. The security was a shock, and the lovers, accustomed to secrecy but not heavy security, misbehaved by trekking into the forest one rainy day at Harrington Lake to escape watchful eyes. They got lost, the security forces panicked, and when the pair finally emerged in a clearing, they heard gunshots. There, in the middle of the lake, was an “absolutely bald policeman” holding an umbrella in one hand and shooting a rifle in the air with the other to guide them home. Margaret later wrote that the security bothered her greatly, but she did not heed her doubts about her upcoming marriage to the prime minister. In her dream, she would “turn his cold, lonely life into a warm, happy one.”

Margaret returned to Vancouver in November and began to sew her wedding dress, modelled on a sari Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru had given her mother in 1954. With their decision to marry now firm, Margaret’s parents agreed to let her spend Christmas with Pierre. He wanted her to meet his family, and understandably, she dreaded the experience. They quickly selected some presents from the gifts that Trudeau had received in his capacity as prime minister and drove from Ottawa to Montreal. Pierre’s brother and sister, Charles and Suzette, were warm and charming and, according to Margaret, knew immediately that the relationship was serious because Trudeau had not brought other girlfriends home for Christmas. His mother, Grace, who was suffering from advanced Parkinson’s disease, could only clasp Margaret’s hand silently as her future daughter-in-law sat beside her bed. In Margaret’s eyes, the past overwhelmed the Trudeau house, in which “not a corner had been altered since Pierre, as a little boy, had fled in terror from a surrealist painting of a skeleton holding a skull.”

Back in Vancouver, as the marriage, set for March 4, 1971, neared, the wedding dress took shape in the Sinclair house and the cake was baked. Pierre called every night in an increasingly concerned state, asking, “Are you sure you want to go ahead with this?” Margaret no longer had doubts. She still had hippie friends and had had a narrow escape when she joined three of them on a trip to the United States a few weeks before the wedding. They were stopped at the border and ordered out of the car, whereupon the police seized a box containing ashes from India, mistaking it for contraband drugs. A matron subjected Margaret to a total body search while a portrait of Richard Nixon “leered” at her. Fortunately, the incident attracted no attention. Trudeau’s friends noticed that he was intense and frustrated, especially in the Commons in February, when he mouthed the infamous “fuddle duddle.” A week before the wedding, Margaret went to her shy priest Father Schwinkles, told him she was ready for conversion, and confessed quite a few sins, including the fact that she’d lied about the identity of the man she was dating. It was not “Pierre Mercier” but Pierre Trudeau. The priest gasped, then hurriedly commanded: “Go down on your knees and say the Lord’s Prayer. Do three Hail Marys for your sins.”

As the day for the wedding approached, Pierre became ever more “nervous and jittery.” But he kept the news from everyone else, including those with whom he worked most closely. A snowstorm closed the Ottawa airport the morning of Thursday, March 4, but when the skies opened briefly, Trudeau rushed off to fly to Vancouver. Marc Lalonde accompanied him in his limo, and engulfed in files, they worked all the way through the drive. At the airport, Lalonde asked Trudeau, “What are you doing for the weekend?” “I’m getting married,” Trudeau replied without hesitation and sprinted to the plane.

The wedding day was cool and clear in Vancouver, but the atmosphere in the Sinclair home was feverish. The best-laid plans for a secret ceremony were going awry. Margaret’s hairdresser had influenza, and his replacement had styled her hair to look like a “fuzzy poodle.” The cake Margaret and her mother had baked so carefully was not iced plainly as Margaret had instructed but decorated with little figures of bride and groom, surrounded by bees and doves. Margaret ripped them off, knowing how offensive they would be to Pierre. Finally, Pierre arrived a half-hour late at the small church where he would wed. It was bedecked with garlands of spring flowers and sprigs of wheat as a late afternoon sun lit the interior. Father Schwinkles had agreed to preside—rather reluctantly, according to Margaret; Pierre’s brother Charles was best man; and Margaret’s sister Lin Sinclair, the maid of honour. Trudeau’s assistant Gordon Gibson, who had been fooled to the last minute, was drawn in to make the wedding party an even 14. Margaret’s wedding dress was white, hooded, and exquisite in its simple elegance, and the ceremony proceeded flawlessly.

Trudeau once again stunned Canadians with this unexpected move, and there were neither crowds nor reporters until the family reached the Sinclair home after 9:30 that evening. The newlyweds lingered long at the reception there, then changed into informal clothes for the drive away to their honeymoon in the Sinclairs’ mountain log cabin.

At 6:30 the next morning, the telephone rang. A startled Trudeau leapt from the wedding bed and answered. It was Richard Nixon, thinking the newlyweds were in Ottawa and calling to offer congratulations from Pat and the American people. Other unexpected good wishes appeared on Canadian editorial pages, ranging from the chauvinist greetings in the Vancouver Sun, which congratulated Trudeau for his good sense in choosing a British Columbia beauty, to Le Devoir’s whimsical account of how the provinces had all competed with their own candidates. The gorgeous wedding photos that dominated the media on March 5 were followed by breathless stories of Margaret’s athleticism, recounting how the happy couple had put in four hours of skiing. But of all the well-wishers, John Diefenbaker captured the most headlines with his brief comment: the prime minister, he sonorously declaimed, had had two choices—to marry her or adopt her. Trudeau, who liked Diefenbaker despite many angry exchanges, took the remark in good humour.

Excerpted from Just Watch Me. Copyright © 2009 by John English. Reproduced by permission of publisher Knopf Canada. All rights reserved.