The new anti-Trudeau book: I’m in there, just not recognizably

John Geddes
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau at a Constitutional Conference Sep. 11, 1980 in Ottawa. The Canadian Press Images/Paul Chiasson

Finding your name in the index of a real, honest-to-goodness, hardcover book, especially if you toil making short-lived works of journalism, is generally an ego-replenishing moment. So it was for me—if only fleetingly—when I saw a little something I’d written cited in Bob Plamandon’s The Truth About Trudeau, the Conservative commentator’s newly published bid to “set the record straight” about Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

Plamondon touches on a blog post I dashed off for the Maclean’s website one morning back in the fall of 2011. With my coffee that day, as I recall, I read a David Frum piece in the paper about what a terrible failure Trudeau had been, and I found his arguments flimsy. To sum up very briefly, Frum slammed Trudeau for mismanaging the economy and fomenting national disunity. But hadn’t governments all over, I thought, struggled in much the same way Trudeau did with 1970s stagflation? And wasn’t Trudeau the guy who held off René Levesque’s compelling brand of separatism in the anxious 1976-1980 period?

So I wrote up a little rejoinder. Plamondon’s account of it is not what I would have expected. He’s right that I credited Trudeau with standing up to separatists, but where did he get the impression that I admitted the prime minister of my youth “failed in just about every other important dimension”? I conceded nothing of the sort.

In fact, in that blog post I pointed out how Trudeau’s economic-policy shortcomings were largely the product of confounding times, not a distinctive failure of his government. On issues related to Quebec’s place in Canada, I lauded his bilingualism policy, argued that he was the essential counterbalance to Levesque, and mentioned two authors (William Tetley and John English) whose books cast his controversial actions during the October Crisis in a favourable light.  The only signal Trudeau failure I touched on specifically was the National Energy Program, though I guess I could come up with others if pressed.

But that was supposed to be the task Plamondon took on in writing The Truth About Trudeau. I’m not sure how well he succeeds. On Trudeau’s economic record, for instance, he seems to imagine this packs a wallop: “As a share of Canada’s economy, federal spending under Trudeau increased from 17.1 per cent of GDP to 24.3 per cent.” Anybody gasp at that? No? Me neither. It’s just not an outlandish figure. For comparison’s sake, U.S. federal spending as a share of GDP hovers around the 20 per cent mark.

I thought I might find the chapter entitled “At war with the Canadian military” more persuasive. It’s certainly true that defence’s portion of federal spending dropped during Trudeau’s years in office. But I read along wondering how Plamondon would incorporate into his narrative the Trudeau government’s watershed decisions after 1975 to initiate a spate of major military purchases, including new Leopard tanks, CF-18 fighter jets and naval frigates. (Experts tell me these multibillion-dollar buys underpinned the sense of renewal in the military, as the new equipment was delivered and put into service, during the early Brian Mulroney years. ) But Plamondon passes over the procurement boom, devoting space instead to other telling details, like Trudeau’s meeting with John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

Plamondon fair-mindedly credits Trudeau’s approach to official languages. “Trudeau’s policies and programs have not only been endorsed and expanded upon by his political successors of all stripes, but the public has increasingly come to support the notion of Canada as a bilingual nation,” he writes. However, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, according to Plamondon, “remains a divisive document.” I suppose that’s so among academics, but poll after poll shows the Charter to be solidly popular with the people.

Perhaps the most serious charge Plamondon levels is that Trudeau resorted to the War Measures Act in 1970, not in response to “kidnapping and terrorism,” but to counter “the separatist cause itself.” He writes: “That was the real political issue Trudeau sought to confront, even if he required the army and the suspension of civil liberties to do it.” It’s entirely valid of course to debate, as many have, whether suspending civil liberties was justified by the FLQ kidnappings and their immediate aftermath; but to assert that Trudeau merely used those events and that climate as a pretext is another matter.

I look forward to real experts—historians, policy specialists, people who were actually there—hashing over this dark claim, and much more, in what I expect will be a thoroughly enjoyable debate over this book. If I had already decided that Trudeau failed in just about every “important dimension,” I suppose these arguments wouldn’t matter much to me. But that is assuredly not where I stand.