‘Just Watch Me’: How Pierre Trudeau Established Canada’s Modern Regime

Nic Amaya/Abbotsford, Canada

Canadian multicultural liberalism is a perfect exemplar of what liberalism itself presents as among its greatest achievements.

The country is often perceived—and desires to be perceived—as tolerant, liberal, multicultural, cosmopolitan, and free of the ethnic and religious strife of so many nations. Republican electoral victories in the United States result in traditional Democratic murmurings about a move north. British and European liberal politicians see Canada as a demonstration that their principles work.

For both its advocates and opponents, the Canadian liberal system is tied to the figure of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Prime Minister more than once, for a total of over 15 years, his public image made him the face of the liberal program. However, he was also one of its great intellectual architects. Throughout the 1950s-60s, he edited the liberal journal Cité Libre, which promoted a federalist vision of civic liberalism. Many of the positions it advocated later became embedded in Canadian political and constitutional life.

Trudeau’s work reveals a deep and abiding belief in the notion of social progress. But these same writings show a much different account of how liberalism is actually established in a country: by political power and ideological will. This is not the story we are told. Liberalism is supposed to be about progress toward the liberal end-state via the objective forward movement of history, not power manipulating procedural outcomes to achieve liberal ends. Nevertheless, the story of Pierre Trudeau is the story of exactly such a project.

Trudeau’s own words and actions paint a picture in which the liberal order resulted from the power of particular classes and the actions of particular people, and in which neither its advent nor its survival is inevitable.

In particular, Trudeau’s political conflicts in Quebec shaped his view that the Anglo-French relationship was the core conflict which had to be resolved. Many of his political battles can be interpreted as a move to isolate Quebec’s political power. This comes through both in his early years writing about Canadian and global politics, and in his constitutional policies once in government. Much of Trudeau’s work attempted to create a political order in which the Anglo-French conflict could be favorably resolved. The entrenchment of this conflict in and of itself meant that such a political order would take imagination and force of will to construct, and was by no means guaranteed.

Much of early Trudeau and Cité Libre writing took place during the last years of Quebec before it entered the period of secularization and liberalization known as the Quiet Revolution. Politically, those years were defined by the premiership of Maurice Duplessis and his Union Nationale. Under his establishment, Quebec’s government was devoutly Catholic and staunchly anti-Communist, and stood for rural relief, education, and economic development. Supported by the clergy and rural communities, the party had tense relations with labor unions. The cultural shifts in 1960-70s Quebec often painted Duplessis as a dark and reactionary figure, dubbing his era the “grande noirceur” (great darkness). Duplessis lost favor among liberals for his social traditionalism and among separatists for his federalist policies.

Pierre Trudeau stood out in this era among the Quebec government’s leading opponents, accusing it of authoritarianism and corruption. Writing in response to the Union Nationale’s 1952 election win, he detailed a theory of what drove this state of affairs in the pages of Cité Libre, in a piece entitled “Reflections on Politics in French Canada.” Trudeau saw the problem as not being tied to particular parties so much as to Quebec’s entire relationship with the Canadian system since the British conquest in 1760:

We had one sole passion: survival. And when viewed from this perspective, universal suffrage could very well prove to be a useful instrument. Moreover, by importing the English parliamentary system one piece at a time, our secret goal was not only to use it, but also to abuse it.




Unfortunately, cheating is habit-forming. A subtle game of casuistry allowed us to break the rules of the political game, until ultimately the game itself slipped out of the whole realm of morality. We had done so well at subordinating the Canadian public weal to the French-Canadian public weal that we lost any sense of obligation to the former. Apart from times of strife…everyone pursued his own interest, to the detriment of the community. In other words, our sense of civic responsibility was perverted.

This trajectory of thought grew to identify key Quebec institutions as enforcers of an illiberal and anti-civic politics. In his 1958 essay “Some Obstacles to Democracy in Quebec,” Trudeau went so far as to call Quebec’s governors “political immoralists” and targeted the Catholic Church as a hindrance to the development of Quebec civic life:

When Canada passed into British hands, the Church naturally concerned herself with safeguarding the faith by protecting her authority. And, as it turned out, she discovered that her position had in a sense improved…So, after difficult beginnings, both powers found it advantageous to work out a modus vivendi. Loyalty was bartered for religious freedom, and the Church was as good as her word. During the wars of 1775, 1812, 1914, and 1939, the Catholic hierarchy preached submission to His Majesty’s government…




A conquered people therefore not only faced a state which they feared as a creature of a foreign nation, but also belonged to a church which distrusted that state as a rival power and as a child of the Revolution…

Trudeau concluded that not only French-Canadian political culture but the very civic institutions of Quebec itself had been built to win ethnic political conflicts. He ended pessimistically:

If my hypothesis is right, the current vogue for preaching political morality in Quebec will by itself be of little avail. For so long as people do not believe in democracy there is no reason why they should accept its ethics. Political behaviour in Quebec can be described as immoral, objectively speaking; but subjectively the people are not conscious of wrongdoing, and consequently they see no reason to change that behaviour.

Trudeau used his experiences to identify obstacles to the liberal vision in terms of entrenched political interests. But this in itself could not create a political program. For that, Trudeau turned his analysis to the questions of nationhood and sovereignty themselves, ultimately critiquing both concepts. Trudeau framed cultural issues as something which should be protected within the framework of a civic polity focused on the individual rights of citizens. By the 1960s, Trudeau was articulating a broader theory of nationalism. It is articulated in the well-known essay “New Treason of the Intellectuals,” first published in 1962:

Democracy indeed opened the way…by which all could participate in the exercise of political power. The state then appeared to be the instrument by which eventually all classes—that is to say, the entire nation—could assure peace and prosperity for themselves. And quite naturally all wished to make that instrument as strong as possible in relation to other states. Thus nationalism was born, the child of liberal democracy and the mystique of equality.

In Trudeau’s reading, the result of this desire for sovereignty was a shift toward the will for national power. Anglo-Canadian nationalism began with the fear of the Loyalists in the face of the French majority of the time. It ultimately became cloaked in democratic language as they became a popular majority with institutions of responsible government. French-Canadian nationalism, as we have seen already, began as a survival mission after the British conquest and became a quest to exploit federal institutions for French benefit. Even the left-leaning French separatists of the time were labelled “politically reactionary” by Trudeau. His own view of social progress was bound instead to internationalism and what he saw as the growing cooperation of populations.

So, could the principle of nations be reconciled with the principle of progress? Trudeau saw hope in political federalism. With the existence of various groups in a polity, there is pressure to reconcile differences so that each has some threshold of investment in the overall regime. Trudeau saw this as the triumph of reason over untamed mass passion in political life. However, his theoretical views proved to contradict the actual policies used to cement the federalist liberal political order in power. Passages such as the following, from his 1964 paper “Federalism, Nationalism, and Reason,” starkly contrast with his actual strategies once in power:

[T]he exercise of sovereignty will not only be divided within federal states; it will have to be further divided between states and the communities of states. If this tendency is accentuated the very idea of national sovereignty will recede and, with it, the need for an emotional justification such as nationalism. International law will no longer be explained away as so much “positive international morality”, it will be recognized as true law, a “coercive order…for the promotion of peace”. Thus there is some hope that in advanced societies, the glue of nationalism will become as obsolete as the divine right of kings…

Trudeau’s political work is underpinned by this fascinating contradiction. Seeing political sovereignty as less important in theory, at least in the long run, he made it a vital tool in practice. This was most evident in the constitutional battles in which Trudeau pursued legal recognition of a federal sovereignty and the promotion of rights such as bilingualism through federal power.

Despite the uncertain origins of Trudeau’s project, it has had staying power in large part due to a strategy which presented itself at the start of Trudeau’s second period in office. Rather than pursuing a series of laws which could simply be repealed by future governments, much of the project was written into the Canadian constitution itself. Before 1982, Canada’s highest law was the British North America Act, which was under the authority of the British parliament and enacted in 1867 with the birth of modern Canada. After decades of attempts frustrated by political and ethnic tension, Pierre Trudeau patriated that law to Canadian parliamentary authority, and seized the opportunity to update it.

Trudeau had often emphasized the necessity of federal backing so that provincial separatisms (either the French of Quebec or the English of the western provinces) couldn’t undermine a new constitutional order. However, the reliance on federal power to outmaneuver provincial obstruction to this goal became most evident during the ensuing negotiations of 1980-81. With the stakes high, Trudeau had been correct in his assessments. Quebec Premier René Lévesque leaked during early negotiations and formed an alliance with a number of opposed Anglophone provinces, including much of the west. This situation culminated in one of the most controversial uses of federal power by the Trudeau government to ensure the passage of the constitution despite provincial opposition.

In September of 1981, the Supreme Court of Canada gave its decision on the federal government’s power to patriate the constitution without provincial consent. By a vote of 6-3, the court found that despite a convention of provincial consent, they could not enforce such a custom as law. This granted the Trudeau government legal power which diminished the bargaining positions of dissident provinces. In particular, the Quebec premier’s decision to even cede a direct provincial veto suddenly placed that province in a particularly bad position. Trudeau, dismissive of the sovereignty principle in theory, had been aptly aware of its consequences in fact. Ten years later, he stated the following in an address later published as the piece “Fatal Tilt”:

The federal government took the position…that the right of Canadians to have a constitution of their own should not be subordinated to the open-ended process of satisfying any premier’s insatiable desire for increased provincial powers….

There were only two ways to solve the conundrum. The government could recognize the “compact theory”, recognizing that our country was nothing more than a community of communities…Or the government of Canada, as the sole governing body empowered to act in the name of all Canadians, could reject the compact theory, hold that Canada was something more than and different from the sum of its parts, and proceed to patriate the constitution unilaterally. We chose the latter course…

The ultimate fate of federal-provincial negotiations following the Supreme Court decision shaped the constitutional problem even past its patriation. The intense discussions reached their climax in a brutal overnight hammering-out of a final agreement. However, the Quebec delegation had chosen to stay in a hotel across the Ottawa river—and was not notified until the next morning. The perceived betrayal would become known as the “night of the long knives” and led to Quebec’s refusal to sign the final deal. But Trudeau had already won the key battle of sovereignty. Despite this refusal, he used the federal rights to patriate Canada’s new constitution. It was a major victory for anchoring Canadian institutions in the liberal project.

It is evident in Trudeau’s own reflections that the obstacles of provincial interests were front and center in his mind while making this decision. Just as he had charged Quebec’s political masters with reaction and insular thinking years before, he continued to attack what he viewed as their efforts to undermine the constitutional order after his time as Prime Minister. In 1987, then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney tried to gain Quebec’s assent to the constitution via agreements to decentralization.

Trudeau used his still-considerable influence to attack the attempted deal. He condemned the negotiations as a craven affair and Quebec’s role as particularly corrupt. Ideologically, it was the civic liberal nature of the constitution which Trudeau saw as under threat. The desire of Quebec to be recognized as a “distinct society” in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was for Trudeau a veiled opportunity to give ethnic politics backing from the highest law of the country. In a 1992 article published in the popular Canadian magazine Maclean’s, he laid out the terms of Canada’s liberal settlement:

The charter, whose essential purpose was to recognize the fundamental and inalienable rights of all Canadians equally, would recognize thenceforth that in the province of Quebec these rights could be overridden or modified by provincial laws whose purpose is to promote a distinct society and more specifically to favour the “French-speaking majority” that has a “unique culture” and “a civic law tradition.” There is a very good chance, then, that Quebecers of Irish, Jewish, or Vietnamese origin—even if they speak perfect French—would have trouble claiming to belong to this “distinct society”…And even an “old stock” Quebecer would risk losing his fundamental rights if he were rash enough to pit them against Quebec laws passed for the promotion of “collective rights”.

Nevertheless, even this civic identity which Trudeau cedes to Quebec in terms of language and territory ultimately has an implicit conflict with the civic identity of Canada as a whole. He stated in a 1996 Montreal Gazette article:

With the Quiet Revolution, Quebec became an adult and its inhabitants have no need of favors or privileges to face life’s challenges and to take their rightful place within Canada and in the world at large…In the era of the global village, the very notion of sovereignty is becoming obsolete, and it is to protect what is left of it that large-scale amalgamations are being formed.

Although Quebec has pursued more particularist laws around language and culture than Trudeau might have desired, there is no doubt as to whose vision has dominated Canada as a whole in the decades since. Multiculturalism is viewed as one of Canada’s defining traits and part of its core identity. Trudeau’s vision of Canada shapes not only the domestic, but also the international image of the country. Yet as we have seen, Canada’s liberal political order was by no means inevitable or even certain. It was Trudeau’s political acumen and formidable will—and that of his allies—which were able to translate his theory into action.

Yet this same will exposed contradiction between the theory and practice of the liberal idea. Nowhere is this more evident than Trudeau’s thought regarding the idea of sovereignty, which is the concrete expression of state power. Rather than a fading idea of past centuries, it became a vital tool to overcome the interests which he saw as forces of reaction. Trudeau’s recognition of this was obvious during and after his time in government, especially when that legacy was under threat. Yet there never seems to be any recognition in Trudeau’s work or that of his political successors that sovereignty and state power were not to fade away quietly, but instead to be the mechanisms used to establish, institutionalize, and provide continuity to the liberal regime.

There are consequences to this recognition, namely that the narrative of progress and liberal inevitability is undermined. Liberalism is not a political project of unfolding history, but of will, intention, and power by particular political interests. While Trudeau often questions the means and motivations of his opponents in Quebec and elsewhere, he does not devote much writing to those of liberalism itself.

If Trudeau’s liberal project is in fact a capture and restructuring of sovereignty, this implies that the international society he imagines does not leave those facts behind either. Even within the theoretical global society, there are still legislators, enforcers, and governors. But in a society from which there is by definition no emigration, the question as to what interests drive these governors is more vital than ever. Populist movements in North America and Europe have arisen in response to the fact that democracy is seen to exist at the level of the nation-state, but not in the international institutions which have been established to supersede them. In that case, the legislators are not only exercising power, but power gained outside of any kind of liberal civic polity.

Moreover, in an age where religious and cultural conflict are as present as they have ever been, one must ask whether liberalism’s demands are in fact as reasonable as Trudeau presents. If cultural and religious questions are absent from the public sphere, what does this leave? Is politics in fact merely the realm of individual rights and economic treaties? Trudeau devotes too much thought to culture to attribute that position to him, but it is difficult to see what the purpose of individualism itself is.

The fact that Quebec’s youth embraced separatist, socialist, and nationalist ideals even as their wealth had increased implies that economic stability did not put politics to rest. Indeed, the observation that nationalist sentiments arose with the bourgeoisie and the post-Enlightenment idea of the nation-state should cause us to question whether individual security is a sufficient political principle. While Trudeau may favor reason over sentiment, the social, cultural, and religious nature of human beings does not make it a rational position to exempt most of human life from the political sphere.

The project of Trudeau has lasted for several decades and remains one of the great examples of liberal politics. It is unlikely that a man without Trudeau’s willpower and ability would have been able to achieve the successes of Canadian liberalism. As one of liberalism’s great advocates and implementers, Trudeau’s work continues to merit reading from fellow-travelers and critics alike. But the contradictions between Trudeau’s theory and the mechanisms of that achievement demonstrate that neither power, nor sovereignty can be so neatly relegated to the past. Nor can we assume that its banishment of religious, ethnic, and national concerns from the political sphere will be lasting in a time when these issues are as prominent as they have ever been.

The strength of Trudeau’s political will is captured in a moment that has become iconic in modern Canadian history. During the October Crisis of 1970, Trudeau sent in federal tanks and soldiers without hesitation to crush violent FLQ Quebec separatists on the streets of several cities in the province, mocking the “bleeding hearts” who didn’t like to see “helmets and guns.” A CBC reporter caught up with him to complain of the threat that troops occupying Quebec under the War Measures Act posed to democracy.

“At any cost? How far would you go with that? How far would you extend that?” the CBC reporter interrupted.

“Well, just watch me,” Trudeau replied.


Ash Milton is Contributing Editor at Palladium Magazine. You can follow him at @miltonwrites.