Question: Was Pierre Trudeau a disaster?

A few years ago, an Ottawa public policy think tank – The Macdonald-Laurier Institute hosted a lively debate on the resolution: Pierre Trudeau was Canada’s most disastrous Prime Minister. The Institute brought David Frum to speak to the affirmative and Lawrence Martin to speak against the resolution. Decades after his departure from Parliament Hill, the question of Pierre Trudeau’s impact on our country still is a topic of heated discussion. Here are abbreviated highlights from the opening statements of both arguments regarding P.E.T.’s record in office.

David Frum: Yes, Trudeau was a disaster.

  • It has taken nearly 30 years to recover after Pierre Trudeau nearly bankrupted and split up the country.  Three subsequent important prime ministers — Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien  and Stephen Harper — invested their energies cleaning up the wreckage left by  Pierre Trudeau.
  • Between 1969 and 1979 — through two majority governments and one  minority — Trudeau tripled federal spending. In 1981-’82, Canada plunged into recession, the worst since the Second World  War. Trudeau’s already big deficits exploded to a point that Canada’s lenders  worried about default. Pierre Trudeau was a spending fool.
  • He believed in a state-led economy, and  the longer he lasted in office, the more statist he became. The Foreign  Investment Review Agency was succeeded by Petro-Canada. Petro-Canada was  succeeded by wage and price controls. Wage and price controls were succeeded by  the single worst economic decision of Canada’s 20th century: the National Energy  Program.
  • To win the 1980 referendum, Trudeau promised Quebec constitutional changes to  satisfy Quebec nationalism. Instead, he delivered a package of constitutional  changes that tilted in exactly the opposite direction. The government of Quebec  refused to ratify the new constitutional arrangement, opening a renewed  opportunity to separatists and bequeathing a nightmare political problem to  Trudeau’s successors.

Lawrence Martin: No, Trudeau was not a disaster.

  • Pierre Trudeau is beloved because he liberated Canada from old men, old thinking, narrow  traditions and colonial caution. To understand Trudeau’s impact we need first recall the type of Canadian  leaders who came before him. All these [past] leaders thought along conventional lines. Then came this phenom  with a roman cut, sandals and an air of Jesus Christ. Pierre Trudeau combined  intellectual electricity, star-power charisma, and a contrarian’s independent  mind.
  • Think of the ways in which he [transformed Canada], the ways in he became the country’s  liberator. With his repatriation of the Constitution, Trudeau liberated us at  long last from Great Britain. With his Charter of Rights and Freedoms, he  liberated us from the authority of the state. With his bilingualism and  multicultural polices, he liberated us from unilingual, unicultural trappings;  from anti-pluralist prejudice that had rarely seen a woman in top governing  posts, that saw no Jews in the cabinet or on the Supreme Court.
  • With ice in his veins Trudeau liberated us from the blackmail of FLQ  terrorism. With the same he took down the threat posed by René Lévesque in the  1980 referendum. With his never-back-down resilience, he provided a sense of  freedom from American encroachment, this at a time when the giant next door was  mired in war, racism, Watergate and economic nationalism.
  • Standards of living grew appreciably in the  Trudeau years, far more so than in the three decades following when they have  flatlined. Under Trudeau, the percentage of Canadians living in poverty dropped  from 23 per cent in 1968 to 13 per cent in 1984. Repeat, from 23 per cent to 13  per cent.

To read the full arguments, for and against, visit the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s website, where they have reprinted the Ottawa Citizen columns containing David Frum’s and Lawrence Martin’s opening statements. Click here.

Chris George is an Ottawa-based government affairs advisor and wordsmith, president of CG&A COMMUNICATIONS. Contact:



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