In glorious black and white

Turning to check out my own story (naturally) in the issue of Maclean’s that appeared today, I was struck by the vintage black-and-white shots of Pierre Trudeau used to illustrate it. It’s appropriate: I touch on the classic 1974 Liberal campaign, which vaulted Trudeau from minority back to majority, as an entry point for a discussion of the current state of the party.

Just looking at the images, though, got me thinking about how unavoidable Trudeau’s memory is even now in our politics—and I don’t mean because Justin is running.

Stephen Harper can’t be understood without close consideration of how much he loathed Trudeau. I’ve long thought that perhaps Harper’s most revealing bit of writing (from back when he quite often wrote or spoke from his authentic core) was a column he published not long after the former prime minister’s death in the fall of 2000.

(I can’t find the column online, but I believe it was in the National Post on Oct. 5 that year, and I discuss it in this old Harper profile.)

In it, Harper told of running into Trudeau, sometime in the previous year, 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.”

When was the last time you heard Harper say something so unmistakably in his own voice? He goes on to tell us how it was anger over Trudeau’s National Energy Program that sparked his earliest real interest in economics, and then he takes aim at Trudeau for “centralism, socialism, bilingualism,” among other things, like “taking a pass” when it came to opposing the Nazis and the Soviets. Hard stuff. It pretty much explains what Harper is about.

Stéphane Dion is quite another story. Coming from Quebec, and as the son of an influential political science professor, one might imagine Trudeau’s shadow falling heavily on his life, too. Yet I’m not sure it does. In her fine biography “Stéphane Dion: Against the Current,” Linda Diebel tells a fun story about how, as a hockey-mad 12-year-old, Dion missed seeing the first period of a crucial Canadiens-Bruins playoff game, because the TV broadcast was delayed until Trudeau won the Liberal leadership, on the fourth ballot, in that spring’s famous convention.

Beyond that, however, I can’t remember hearing about any very vivid Trudeau memories shaping Dion, although obviously he hasn’t been able to avoid contending with Trudeau’s political and constitutional legacy. Is it possible that Dion is, at least emotionally, not Trudeau-haunted? If so, that makes him a refreshing rarity among federal party leaders, of the recent past, the present and, perhaps, the near future. After all, Michael Ignatieff counts among his formative political experiences attending that 1968 convention—which to Dion was mainly notable because it kept his Habs off the air—as a  Trudeau organizer and delegate.

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