Political commentator Bob Plamondon, author of two books on the Conservative Party of Canada, has turned his attention to a much-needed topic, debunking the myths surrounding Pierre Trudeau. In The Truth about Trudeau, he usefully goes through Trudeau’s record from foreign policy to social policy, from his handling of the economy to his fiddling with the constitution, and finds that by most standards the third-longest serving prime minister in Canadian history comes “well short of the mark” and below the performance of “all other two-term prime ministers.”
Few Canadians understand how thoroughly Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau remade the country in liberalism’s image. Plamondon focuses on Trudeau’s role and diminishes Pearson’s, because his agenda in the book is to aggressively attack Trudeau. That is all fine, but results is an incomplete political history. This book still comes highly recommended for the author’s otherwise thorough examination of the Trudeau years, and how his policies refashioned the country, in many ways for the worse, and which threatened the unity of the nation. From energy policies to a repatriated constitution that did not include Quebec, Trudeau’s four terms in office literally threatened the existence of Canada.
It is in social policy that Plamondon’s book is weakest because it betrays both the author’s own social liberalism and the stridency of the argument by faulting Trudeau for either not doing enough to advance supposedly liberal causes, or saying he unduly gets credit for doing so. The author notes that under Trudeau, immigration levels dipped slightly and under the “allegedly ‘anti-immigrant’ Progressive Conservatives of the Mulroney era” immigration went up; this, however, Plamondon relies on slight-of-hand to make this argument by differentiating between immigration and granting citizenship and playing games with numbers. Likewise, the author gives no credit to Trudeau for ending capital punishment because none had been carried out anyway during his time in office. It seems a little churlish to not recognize the importance of changing the statutes, regardless of one’s position on the death penalty.
But it is on abortion where Plamondon’s own prejudices get the better of him, as it appears the author charges Trudeau with not being pro-abortion enough.
Plamondon says “a review of the evidence reveals that he was not as ‘progressive’ as his reputation would imply.” His scant “evidence” is one paragraph. Plamondon correctly noting that the Omnibus Bill of 1969 liberalized “access to abortion” by permitting it in cases approved by “therapeutic abortion committees” when it was determined that the mother’s life or health was or was likely to be endangered. The author notes that legal abortions increased from three per 100 live births in the first year under this new regime and 14.9 per 100 live births in 1975, and increasing again to 16.5 in 1978. Yet there is no discussion of how these committees were obviously giving their rubber stamp approvals, evidenced by the 500 per cent increase in abortions in less than a decade. Yet Plamondon began his discussion of these facts by denying Trudeau did much to change abortion in Canada. Neither will Plamondon credit or blame Trudeau for liberalizing divorce laws, saying only that the prime minister was reflecting “the societal views of the day.”
Plamondon does rightly chastise Trudeau for his creation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the prime minister’s denial that the Charter would result in judge-made law trumping the rights of Parliament to debate and decide topics of import to the country. He correctly highlights abortion as one such area of policy.
Overall, The Truth about Trudeau is a very good and useful book. The Trudeau myth of an electoral juggernaut who ruled Canada wisely is false and desperately needed rebutting. But in several important areas, Plamondon gets the criticism wrong. Interim readers know enough of the history to correct the mistakes, but the general public might not.
Paul Tuns is editor of The Interim and author of Jean Chretien: A Legacy of Scandal.