Pierre Trudeau and the campaign of 2011

This election may be the last on which the former Liberal PM will have had a shaping influence

Today’s voting marks the end of what might just be the last federal campaign in which it will still be possible to detect Pierre Trudeau’s astonishingly durable influence as among the most powerful shaping forces.

You don’t see it? Well, consider the campaign’s biggest surprise—Jack Layton’s Quebec breakthrough. The fact that Layton is a New Democrat to begin with is directly traceable to Trudeau, and in particular to his handling of the October Crisis. Here’s what Layton has written about it:

“Forty years ago, I was studying at McGill University when Pierre Laporte was murdered by the FLQ. Like so many, I found myself carried away by the popular impulse to applaud Trudeau’s drastic crackdown on the threat that the FLQ seemed to represent. Then Tommy began powerfully condemning the suspension of civil rights under the War Measures Act – risking terrible ostracism to give sober voice to principle: we mustn’t use fear as a smokescreen to trample basic rights. As the vans plucked hundreds of peaceful separatists from the streets of Montreal, something clicked and I rushed to become a New Democrat.”

So Layton is, at root, an anti-Trudeau New Democrat. No wonder he is so amenable to a Québécois nationalist positions, like extending prohibitions on English to federally regulator industries in Quebec. Similarly, Stephen Harper is an anti-Trudeau Conservative, especially on provincial autonomy and economic policy. Like Layton, though, this wasn’t a matter of dry, dispassionate policy; there was an angry edge to Harper’s reaction to the dominant political figure of his formative years.

He wrote about it in an astonishingly candid newspaper column after Trudeau died in 2000 (which I’ve written about before). He spoke of happening to see the former prime minister once as an old man on the streets of Montréal. “There I came face to face with a living legend, someone who had provoked in me both the loves and hatreds of my political passion, all in the form of a tired out, little, old man,” Harper wrote. “It was an experience at once unforgettable, nostalgic and haunting.”

My hunch, for what it’s worth, is that Harper’s single-minded determination to obliterate the Liberal party flows from his gut response. I wonder if his hatred for Trudeau and the party of Trudeau hasn’t made it hard for Harper to see the NDP as an adversary worth worrying much about, or for that matter the Bloc.

That leaves Michael Ignatieff. When he first returned to Canada to try his hand at politics, the comparisons to the last Liberal intellectual-leader came so often that he had to declare repeatedly that he didn’t see himself as a Trudeau-like figure. Still, Ignatieff was eager to counter charges that he wasn’t really very Canadian, or very Liberal, by talking and writing about the excitement he felt as a national youth organizer for Trudeau in 1968.

I never got the impression from Ignatieff, though, that Trudeau was a fraught figure in his imagination. He wrote insightfully, but not emotionally, about Trudeau’s constitutional approach in his 2000 Massey Lectures book The Rights Revolution. But the longing of many Liberals, and other Canadians, for another charismatic thinker like Trudeau seemed quite often to distort the way Ignatieff was seen.

It’s hard to imagine any future campaign will feature a bunch of leaders so clearly caught up in Trudeau’s powerful slipstream. But, then, who would have predicted his potent influence would have lasted this long?

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