The case against Trudeau: that’s it? (UPDATED)

The usual charges that Trudeau mishandled Quebec and the economy are overstated

Reading David Frum’s assault on Pierre Elliott Trudeau in this morning’s Ottawa Citizen, I kept waiting to feel hurt. I admit it: Trudeau was a boyhood hero of mine. Although I’ve long since come to recognize his serious shortcomings, it’s like the hockey player you idolized as a 10-year-old—you never entirely get over it.

Yet that sick feeling I feared never came. Frum’s indictment boils down to two familiar charges: Trudeau mishandled the October Crisis and generally inflamed serparatism; he mismanaged the economy and left his successors a deficit problem.

That’s it? I won’t be tearing up my signed Trudeau rookie card on that basis.

“Pierre Trudeau was a spending fool,” Frum says, noting that he tripled spending through the 1970s. Like bell bottoms, though, it was the style at the time. U.S. federal spending rose from $195.6 billion in 1970 to $590.9 billion in 1980. But Trudeau was crazy for economic intervention, Frum tells us, as evidenced by his nutty wage-and-price controls. Sure, sort of the like Nixon’s 1971 wage-and-price control gambit  in the U.S. and Britain’s 1972-74 “Statutory Incomes Policy.”

Yet such a “statist” was Trudeau, we’re reminded by the eminent Republican, that he actually instituted a system for reviewing foreign investments. Of course, his Liberals never actually blocked any takeovers—that didn’t happen until Stephen Harper’s evidently even more statist Conservatives rejected major foreign investments in Canada’s satellite and potash industries.

However, it wasn’t the economy, but rather the nation itself on which, Frum asserts, Trudeau “inflicted his greatest harm.” It all started with his terrible mishandling of FLQ kidnappings. Never mind that William Tetley’s 2007 book The  October Crisis, 1970 makes a cogent, insider’s case that the excesses of Trudeau’s response have been overstated and the dangers of the moment underplayed. And pay no attention to John Engish, who concludes (in a biography Frum finds useful in other respects): “After 1970… kidnappings ended in Quebec, and democratic governments of the twenty-first century are more likely to follow the pattern set out by Trudeau and his colleagues than the one recommended by his opponents…”

Leaving aside the troubling complexities of 1970, here’s a breezy thought experiment: with Rene Levesque’s folksy brand of separatism ascendant after his 1976 provincial election win, how might the cause of federalism have fared under a Prime Minister Stanfield? Or, during the 1980 referendum, under a Prime Minister Clark? Frum doesn’t seem to have pondered those counterfactuals. He just says Trudeau left a national unity mess for those who came after him—and I guess that means Brian Mulroney—to sort out. If he seriously thinks Mulroney somehow had no choice but to plunge recklessly into deep constitutional waters, he might want to read this fresh Michael Bliss piece on the Meech Lake fiasco.

Trudeau was far from perfect. He admitted later in life that as a very young man he shamefully failed to understand what the Second World War was all about. His National Energy Program was a spectacularly bad idea. More broadly, however, his weakness on economic policy mostly reflected the shared confusion of governments in the age of oil shocks and stagflation. And his record on national unity is strong: it’s hard to imagine much support in Quebec for Canada today had he not pushed ahead with bilingualism in federal institutions.

Frum’s piece sums up his side of a debate with Lawrence Martin over Trudeau, sponsored by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Martin’s case for the defence is slated to be published tomorrow.


And, as promised, today brings us Lawrence Martin’s bid to uphold Trudeau’s reputation, complete with a gutsy explanation of (apology for?) the NEP, and an astute reminder that Trudeau’s lasting allure must be understood in light of his “uninspiring” predecessors at 24 Sussex Dr.

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