(Excerpted from Sandra Martin’s Working the Dead Beat:50 Lives that Changed Canada, which has been longlisted for the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction)


As enigmatic as he was complex, as combative as he was charismatic, Pierre Trudeau was the fifteenth prime minister of Canada. He championed bilingualism, multiculturalism, and national unity; he patriated our constitution and gave us the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which has defined modern Canada and become a model for the world.

Trudeau arrived in the House of Commons in 1965, as the junior member of the federalist trio led by Jean Marchand and Gérard Pelletier, whom Prime Minister Lester Pearson had recruited to bolster the Quebec wing of his caucus. A law professor and a neophyte politician who had worked briefly in the Privy Council Office more than a dozen years earlier, he was an intellectual who had studied at Harvard, the London School of Economics, and L’institut d’études politiques in Paris and then travelled the world, juxtaposing theory with the rough realities of life on the road.

An athlete and an outdoorsman, he was given to testing himself on rugged canoe trips, punishing treks, and daredevil ski runs. A shy and introspective bachelor who lived with his widowed mother well into his forties, Trudeau was also a renowned ladies’ man who cut a mean figure on the dance floor. Abidingly Catholic, independently wealthy, a graduate of the elite Jesuit-run Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf, he had flirted with militant ultra-nationalism as a student at the Université de Montréal, protested against conscription in the Second World War, and failed to enlist in the armed forces. Yet he grew out of his insular pro-nationalist phase, emerging as a civil and human rights activist who defied repressive Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis in Cité libre, the political magazine he co- founded in 1950.

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