By Alicia Barsallo
I had yet to live a year in Canada when, working as a secretary for the Habitat Conference taking place in Vancouver in
the mid 70s, I saw a slim, elegant figure come up a flight of stairs to shake the hand of every worker on the floor. It
was Pierre Elliott Trudeau - then Prime Minister of Canada. He took my hand and simultaneously did what almost seemed to
be a slight bow. His gesture made me smile but at the same time impressed me, and left me wondering why I, a leftist,
would find the greeting of a definitely pro-capitalist prime minister refreshing and welcomed. I would find the answer
later. It had been my first lesson in Canadian liberalism.
Trudeau's greeting was a token gesture to be sure, but it carried with it an element of true feeling. One could
describe Trudeau's interactive style as a small part of a liberal project to dress capitalism with shades of
egalitarianism -- the liberal atonement for considering economic equality an impossibility.
One could also describe it as part of a project to rule not just by fear or the force of power, but by exacting
conviction. Trudeau, the liberal, could be ruthless (War Measures Act/Wage Controls) but he seemed truly worried about
the legitimacy of Liberal governments in the long run. He seemed to work hard trying to link capitalism with broadly
upheld values. His confidence that he could philosophically defend his position in a public debate, could be respected
in that he did not have to rely on a plethora of mainstream media misinformation. Though enclosed in a capitalist
framework, he seemed to search not for the next narrow profitable move but for a philosophy -- a subtlety missed now, in
the age of crass politics.
Amidst the emergence of the new capitalism which all over the world ushers into power absurdly short-sighted profit
agendas, Trudeau, the classical liberal of days gone by, leaves as a symbol of days we might have thought of as
imperfect but which we could long for now. Trudeau's passion for the Charter shines brightly now that our society
descends to depths unknown and new political elites unapologetically equate "quicker" with "better" and "lie" with
"truth;" now that "equality under the law" sounds subversive; and now that there's little possibility of a fair public
That Trudeau is a figure of gigantic proportions in the Canadian scene is indisputable, but his figure is endearing to
us more than anything else because of the bleakness of our current political landscape. The making of a giant requires
the existence of dwarves [not that I have any thing against cute little elves], and we've got plenty of them now, in
politics and in the media -- masterful in the creation of phobias, prejudices, and artificial crises; artful in
minimizing the tragedy of others; manipulators of information... without a saving grace, without a human side to hang on
to... no decent challenge for those of us who fought Trudeau from the left.
Now, after more than a quarter of a century in Canada, I do mourn the death of Pierre Trudeau and wonder if at the same
time I am morning the death of Canadian liberalism.
founding member of the BC LATIN AMERICAN CONGRESS
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