Lorne Gunter - Pierre Trudeau died 10 years ago this week, so of course the tributes and legacy analyses have been coming thick and fast. Among my favourites was offered up by Chantel Hebert, one of the few people worth reading at the Toronto Star.
Well, I have one, too. But unlike most commentators, I come to bury Trudeau (or at least make sure he’s still buried), not to praise him.
While he certainly had a profound impact on Canada, it was mostly destructive. Even the few positive changes he made might be called inevitable; they were the type of changes that were coming to every western society by dint of cultural evolution anyway.
Trudeau was by and large a social engineer convinced of his own intellectual superiority and the cloddish unimaginativeness of nearly everyone else. Not only was he arrogant enough to believe that the natural laws of society and economics can be ignored by determined central planners without consequences, he was also arrogant enough to imagine the light had been given to him more than anyone else, so that he alone possessed the superior knowledge required to see what needed doing and everyone else should defer to him.
Some have argued that legalizing abortion, divorce and homosexuality were bold innovations by Trudeau. Yet nearly every Western nation did the same at around the same time. Trudeau merely ensured Canada was riding the same waves as the rest.
Give him some due. Trudeau faced down the FLQ during the October Crisis of 1970 and a decade later, while much of our chattering class trembled with fear at the prospect of Quebec separation, he shouldered the burden of defeating the sovereigntists in Quebec’s 1980 referendum.
Still, he backed down the separatist terrorists by invoking the War Measures Act and proving just how shallow his vaunted commitment to individual liberties truly was at crunch time. And he won the 1980 referendum at the price of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — which opened the Pandora’s box of judicial activism — as well as two decades of expensive Quebec appeasement that ended in Adscam.
Of course Adscam came long after Trudeau left office. Still, it was a natural and predictable outcome of throwing gobs and gobs of money at Quebec in an attempt to win the province’s federalist loyalty. When the first money thrown failed to buy Quebec’s love, more and more was thrown until there was so much money being sloshed around at projects of diminishing significance that it was inevitable sticky fingers would grab up some.
While not directly Trudeau’s fault, Adscam was a by-product of his chosen method of fighting Quebec nationalism.
His impact on culture was devastating. He implemented official bilingualism in the vain hope that Quebecers would feel more at home in Canada if they knew the post mistress in Houston, B.C. was fluently bilingual. In the process, though, he failed to placate the Quebecois, but managed to alienate millions of anglophones.
Today, four decades and several billion tax dollars later, we are barely more bilingual as a nation than we were when Trudeau began this social experiment and just as divided (or more so) along linguistic lines.
He imagined that multiculturalism would unify us in our diversity – although he never explained how, practically, that logical non sequitor was supposed to happen. Instead, it has led to divisive ethnopolitics, political correctness dictating national policy, the importation of overseas animosities and the ghettoization of large blocks of new Canadians. Even the inflow of refugee claim jumpers can be traced back to the way that Trudeau thought multiculturalism and easy immigration would make Canada more cosmopolitan.
Human rights commissions are part of his legacy, as was the Court Challenges Program that paid minority plaintiffs to file court cases demanding that they be given Charter rights.
After he left office, Trudeau frequently insisted he had fought for a Charter of Rights to protect individuals from the state, and claimed Court Challenges and the Charter’s provisions authorizing judges to “read in” in rights had both been meant to make that protection easier.
Activist judges and activist special interest groups quickly learned they could use one another to advance a radical social remake of Canada, and Ottawa would pay for their court appearances. What was meant to be a shield from the power of the state instead created a cozy little cabal among lefty legal scholars and judges that simply shifted the might of the state from the elected Parliament to the unelected judiciary. Both are, after all, branches of government. So the Charter didn’t protect citizens from the excesses of the state, it merely managed to change the whip from one had to another.
Sure, having politicians vote away our rights is bad, but is it really worse than having overreaching judges do the same? At least the politicians we can vote out of office from time to time. Thanks to the Charter, the new boss is the same as the old boss, only also unreachable by the people.
The CRTC is a Trudeau creation, the people who tell us what we may watch on television and listen on radio. So, too, is the notion of the CBC as mouthpiece of social and political activism.
But as bad as that litany is, it is probably on the economy that Trudeau was at his worst.
Inflation, national debt, lost opportunities due to protectionism and economic nationalism — all were Trudeau’s legacy. Because he understood so little about economics and entrepreneurship, Trudeau was easily convinced that history would leave capitalism behind and replace it, if not with socialism, then with some form of command-and-control economy.
His reforms to unemployment insurance (now euphemistically renamed Employment Insurance) ensured our labour market would be badly distorted for nearly 30 years. His scheme of regional transfers — that at one time accounted for 40% of have-not provinces revenue — helped freeze poorer regions’ economies in amber and delay the day when their own desperation would lead to innovation and growth.
He presided over the largest expansion of government in our history; from 1974 to 1976, alone, Ottawa’s spending increased by 50%. He believed we could inflate our way out of debt, so never concerned himself with budget deficit, the consequence of which is an enduring national debt (although Conservative prime ministers have helped him out there). And he implemented wage-and-price controls that further damaged the economy they were meant to resurrect.
He even convinced himself it made sense to beggar a productive region — the West – for the enrichment of less productive ones. So he implemented the National Energy Program, which hurt both the economy and national unity.
Trudeau may have been a great theoretician, but if a solution required even a centesimo of practical understanding — and all successful solutions do — he wasn’t interested.
He may have had more impact on Canada than any other 20th century prime minister. Yet on balance, that impact was mostly bad.