This is the full text of David Frum's opening statement at a debate over the late prime minister's legacy hosted by the MacDonald-Laurier Institute. Arguing for Trudeau was Lawrence Martin. The debate, moderated by Michael Bliss, was held Tuesday Sept. 27, 2011 at the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa.
Under the strict rules of debate, my opponent can win if he proves that Trudeau was something less than a disaster for Canada: a misfortune or even merely a disappointment. I hope you will hold him -- and Trudeau -- to a higher standard. I hope you will require him to prove that Pierre Trudeau was affirmatively a good thing for Canada, actually a successful prime minister.
If so, he cannot possibly win.
Debating this resolution in Toronto against Prof. John English, I was very struck that my opponent readily conceded that Pierre Trudeau was a very poor manager of the Canadian economy. Prof. English argued more strenuously that Trudeau's foreign policy record was not as bad as it looks. I'll take up that issue later.
Prof. English hung everything on Pierre Trudeau's alleged services to national unity. He described Pierre Trudeau as a very flawed man who also happened to be the savior of his country.
My answer then, which I'll repeat again tonight, was that on the contrary, Pierre Trudeau did more than almost anyone in Canada to strain and break national unity. Through his own tactlessness and arrogance, he consistently aggravated the problem. In order to justify his own mishandling of the national unity issue, Trudeau in his retirement, concocted a ridiculous story that separatism had been defeated by him in 1980 -- shrugging off the inconvenient fact that separatism raged for another two decades, that a second referendum in 1995 proved even closer than the first -- and that in the end separatism was quelled not by Trudeau-style constitutional amendments but by economic and demographic change inside Quebec itself. If Pierre Trudeau had spent his entire life as an international playboy -- instead of just the first half of it -- the story would have ended in almost exactly the same way, except very possibly... sooner.
Canada today is a very successful country. It has suffered less from the global economic crisis than any other major economy.
So Canadians may be tempted to be philosophical about disasters in their own past. Hasn't all come out right in the end? But I want to stress: Canada's achievement overcoming Trudeau's disastrous legacy should not inure Canadians to how disastrous that legacy was.
Three subsequent important prime ministers -- Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien and Stephen Harper -- invested their energies cleaning up the wreckage left by Pierre Trudeau. The work has taken almost 30 years. Finally and at long last, nobody speculates any more about Canada defaulting on its debt, or splitting apart, or being isolated from all its major allies.
Yet through most of the adult lives of most people in this room, people in Canada and outside Canada did worry about those things.
And as you enjoy the peace, stability and comparative prosperity of Canada in the 2010s just consider -- this is how Canadians felt in the middle 1960s. Now imagine a political leader coming along and out of ignorance and arrogance despoiling all this success. Not because the leader faced some overwhelming crisis where it was hard to see the right answer. But utterly unnecessarily. Out of a clear blue sky. Like a malicious child on the beach stomping on the sand castle somebody else had worked all morning to build.
That was the political record of Pierre Trudeau.
When Pierre Trudeau was elected prime minister in 1968, Canada faced a small but militant separatist challenge in Quebec. In 1970, that challenge erupted in terrorist violence: two kidnappings and a murder of one of the kidnapped hostages, Quebec cabinet minister Pierre Laporte.
Trudeau responded with overwhelming force, declaring martial law in Quebec, arresting dozens of people almost none of whom had any remote connection to the terrorist outrages. The arrests radicalized them, transforming many from cultural nationalists into outright independentists. As he did throughout his career, Trudeau polarized the situation - multiplying enemies for himself and unfortunately also for Canada.
At the same time, Trudeau lavished economic benefits on Quebec at the expense of English-speaking Canada. Unsurprisingly, English-speaking Canada resented this favoritism -- with the result that Trudeau polarized English Canadian politics too.
In 1968, Trudeau's Liberals won 27 seats west of Ontario. In 1980, they won two. I'm always glad to see the Liberals lose a seat. But a political system in which each of Canada's two main parties piles up huge super-majorities in one region of the country -- while being blanked out of another -- is not healthy.
Trudeau's provocative policies failed to achieve their stated goals. They failed to prevent the election of a separatist government in Quebec in 1976, eight years after Trudeau started "saving the country." They failed to prevent a referendum in 1980, 12 years after Trudeau started "saving the country."
To win his 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.
For the next 15 years, Trudeau's successors had to grapple with the consequences of Trudeau's constitutional bad faith.
Aggravating their difficulties was Trudeau's other legacy: his disastrous debt. In the early 1990s, Canada looked like an over-mortgaged property. Many Quebeckers - who might have wished to remain inside an economically successful Canada - saw in separatism an inviting opportunity to escape a burden and start fresh.
It's not a coincidence that separatism truly ebbed only as the debt burden was overcome -- and as quitting Canada, not staying, began to look like the losing economic proposition.
Defenders of Trudeau's disastrous governance habitually rally around one great accomplishment: the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Well, Herbert Hoover had some excellent wilderness conservation policies, but we don't excuse the Great Depression on that account. Would it really have been so impossible to achieve a Charter of Rights without plunging Canada into two recessions, without wrecking the national finances, without triggering two referendums, without nationalizing the oil industry, without driving not only Quebec but also Alberta to the verge of separation?
To me, one story will always sum up Pierre Trudeau.
1979. Trudeau had lost that year's election. His career seemed finished. Reporters awaited in the driveway of 24 Sussex Drive as he stepped into his gull-winged vintage Mercedes to speed away into history.
One shouted: "Mr. Prime Minister -- any regrets?"
Pierre Trudeau pondered. He remembered something that Richard Nixon had said after losing the California governor's race in 1962 and revised Nixon's words to his own very different purpose. "Yes," he said. "I regret I won't have you to kick around any more."
It's long past time that Canadians in turn resolved: no longer to be posthumously kicked by this bad man and disastrous prime minister.
I ask you to vote yes to the resolution.