Making Trudeaumania and the St. Jean Baptiste moment

The last couple of weeks of debate over Canadian airstrikes against ISIS have not been kind to Justin Trudeau. The Liberal Party leader’s failure to properly handle the serious issue of military action had led some to question whether his popularity has peaked.  It’s one that was sometimes levied against his father in 1968 during the height of Trudeaumania, but we often forget that Pierre Trudeau’s election to Liberal leader and first election as Prime Minister all took place within six months.  There was little time for Pierre Trudeau’s popularity to wan.

In February 1968, Trudeau was the Minister of Justice for a minority Liberal government and battling with Quebec over a proposal for “special status.”  Quebec Premier Daniel Johnson was asking that Quebec be given a distinct status within Canada over that of other provinces, and Trudeau skillfully rejected his appeals.  Trudeau did not want to see Quebec become a “ghetto” for French Canadians, and wanted them to feel welcome anywhere in the country.  Johnson was furious.

Trudeau’s response was a stark contrast to the diplomatic tone usually adopted by then-Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson.  It thrilled journalists, always eager for a character to build a story around, and English Canadians especially, who seemingly wanted a strong stance against Quebec’s insistent push for recognition and rights.  When Johnson snidely commented that Trudeau was acting more like a leadership candidate than a Minister, journalists were quick to file their stories about Trudeau’s capabilities.  Here was a leader unlike which Ottawa had ever seen – if ever.

Trudeau had only arrived in Ottawa three years earlier in 1965, when he joined the Liberal party along with Gérard Pelletier and Jean Marchand.  Together, they were dubbed “the three wise men” when they declared their candidacy as Liberals in late 1965 in preparation for the December election. Each were prominent Quebec figures who decided they could best shape the future fortunes of their province in Ottawa. Somewhat surprisingly, they had chosen the Liberal Party as their vessel.  All three could have easily joined the federal New Democratic Party, as they were considered leftists who had criticized the Liberals previously.

In 1968, Gérard Pelletier counselled Trudeau about the possibility of a leadership run.  Pearson had announced his retirement and various candidates were organizing and formalizing their campaigns that winter.  “Trudeaumania” had already begun, an echo of the sort of pop sensation that John Kennedy had evoked in the United States five years prior and his brother, Bobby, would again as he prepared his own heart-breaking run for the presidency.

Trudeau’s biographer and historian John English recounts the meeting between Pelletier and Trudeau as the Minister of Justice doubted whether or not he should run for Liberal leader.  Pelletier insisted that Trudeau should not worry about his widespread popularity.  “If that myth settled on the shoulders of an incompetent, a candidate without vigour, he would be crushed.  But it happened that Trudeau had a certain stature.  He would never be crushed by the myth.  On the contrary, he had what was needed to sustain the myth and make it reality.”  The wise words kept Trudeau in the race.

On 16 February 1968, Trudeau announced his leadership bid.  It was a heady time for the West.  The Tet Offensive was halted as popular protests against the Vietnam War continued across the United States.  The Paris Student protests began that May against the government of Charles de Gaulle and a million French students march through the streets.  Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April, as was Bobby Kennedy that June. 

The year was a tumultuous one, and Trudeau seemed to embody both the revolutionary spirit in the air, as well as become a symbol of calm for Canada.  In the leadership campaign of March-April 1968, Trudeau coolly debated his opponents with a rose in the pocket of his suit jacket. His academic debate style was detached and seemed out of step with his sometimes insolent and quick wit. But the combination was an appealing one to Liberals and Canadians alike.  Trudeau became Canada’s Prime Minister on 20 April.  His opponents misjudged the young Quebec intellectual as he swept aside established names to take the job.

One of his first comments as Prime Minister reassured the country that he was essentially a pragmatist.  Observers were puzzled – Trudeau was a known leftist, but he immediately dampened any suggestion that he himself would revolutionize Canada. It was a combination of political savvy and natural ambiguity.  Trudeau himself didn’t know exactly what he would do as Prime Minister.

In late April he announced an election and the power of Trudeaumania was apparent. Crowds gathered where ever he went.  Trudeau would be there, shaking hands, kissing babies, and personifying the stories that everyone had heard and come to witness. The Liberals had first flirted with television and more professionally run campaigns with Lester Pearson, but Trudeau practically embodied the new age of media.  He was made for television and sound bites, John English writes, and was soon effectively living parts of his life as performance.  Trudeau’s charm was obvious and compelling.

The election was set for June 25.  The day before was St. Jean Baptiste Day and Trudeau attended a parade in Montreal.  Supporters of Quebec independence protested Trudeau’s presence.  They shouted “Trudeau au poteau” (Trudeau to the gallows) and the crowd began throwing bottles and stones at the stage.  Trudeau refused to leave the stage and simply stared out at the crowd. His symbolic stand against Quebec separatism sealed his win the next day.  Here was a man who was not afraid to stare down Quebec.  The Liberals won 155 out of 264 seats in the House of Commons.

Trudeaumania soon burned itself out.  Trudeau the Prime Minister had policies to draft and legislation to enact, and like instance of idealism versus reality, enemies were made far quicker than friends.  Today, we remember Trudeaumania as a phenomenon that propelled Pierre Trudeau into power, but it was in fact a relatively short time in political theatre.  From February to June of 1968, Trudeau could seemingly do no wrong. His warm charm seduced Canadians, but he revealed the cold steel beneath that night in Montreal. 

His son Justin does not possess quite the same gravitas as his father – at least, not yet. He and his Liberal handlers have mastered the new media age of the internet, and obviously Justin has inherited his father’s charisma.  Watching the younger Trudeau in a crowded room of strangers is an exercise in political suavity. Yet, he has not yet had a moment like the elder Trudeau had on St Jean Baptiste Day in Montreal.  Does Justin have the spine to stand up for what he believes in?

Most commentators would say no today.  Trudeau in 2014 has had a harder time of it – he did not get a six month Trudeaumania or even a chance to show his capability as a government Minister.  Instead the Liberals have had to manage Trudeau’s reputation without being in government and few real opportunities to prove his measure.  But Gérard Pelletier’s advice to his father must echo ominously as we approach 2015, especially after the poor performance on Canadian air strikes: “If that myth settled on the shoulders of an incompetent, a candidate without vigour, he would be crushed.”  Does the son have the will to fill the father’s shoes?

Many journalists, who still love a good character for their stories just as they did in 1968, have discussed at length the parallels between Justin and Pierre.  Hopefully journalists and Liberals alike will recognize that Trudeaumania did not show Canadians their future Prime Minister. It was the night of June 24 when we saw the Prime Minister that Pierre Trudeau would become.  The man who unflinchingly stared back at the crowds was the one who would dare the FLQ to continue their terrorist campaign in 1970 (“just watch me”), or would shut Quebec out of the constitution to assure it passage, or return to politics in the late 1980s to stop constitutional changes he did not support. 

Justin Trudeau’s popularity should not show us anything of who he will be as Prime Minister – so Canada awaits his St. Jean Baptiste moment.  If it does not come, perhaps we do have an answer after all.