On 29 February 1984 Pierre Trudeau resigned as leader of the Liberal Party. Newspapers, having expected the decision for some time, at once published their assessment of the career of the man who, except for nine months in 1980, has been Prime Minister of Canada since April 1968.Most recognized that Pierre Trudeau’s role had been a major one. First place was given to his efforts to ensure political unity between English and French-speaking Canadians at a time when Quebec nationalism had been moving towards separatism. Today, for the first time in Canadian history, large numbers of English Canadians understand the need for bilingualism, and French-speaking Canadians feel that something has actually being done towards removing their second-class status. With respect to the language issue, the Ottawa of 1984 – like the armed forces, the civil service, the post office, the RCMP, and politicians themselves – is much improved over the Ottawa of 1968.
Political commentators also gave the Prime Minister high marks on constitutional questions, federal-provincial relations, the economy, foreign policy, human rights, and the peace movement. And, as always, Trudeau the man continued to fascinate them. In this process of evaluation, however, hardly a single journalist mentioned, even fleetingly, the 1969 amendment of the Criminal Code whereby the killing of the unborn became legal and acceptable. For the media and politicians, this is an issue to be avoided. Joseph Clark, for example, when he was leader of the Progressive Conservative Opposition, was asked at a convention in Ottawa in February 1981 to support a party plank against abortion; he brushed the request aside, remarking that the abortion issue was of little importance. Shortly thereafter the microphones went dead and the meeting adjourned.
The 1969 amendment is more representative of Trudeau and his government than any other act or event of the entire sixteen years. That legislation is also indicative of something beyond the Canadian political scene. It represents the full flower of the “permissive society,” and the changes this has effected in Canada during the Trudeau years are more profound than any economic, social, or technical arrangements taken to manage the Canadian political household. As Minister of Justice in 1967, Trudeau personally and on his won initiative introduced the Liberal government’s proposal for legalizing abortion, ignoring even the hearings which were being conducted on this subject by a joint House-of-Commons /Senate committee. As he explained to the Calgary Herald in December 1967, he deliberately placed abortion amid 108 other items in an omnibus bill in order to weaken resistance to it. The omnibus bill as a whole, together with the proposed divorce legislation, provided Trudeau, hitherto practically unknown in English Canada, with nationwide publicity which helped identify him as Lester Pearson’s successor. It was thought that in a time of reform the country needed a reformer.
Trudeau saw to the legalizing of abortion
As Prime Minister, and having won a second mandate, in July 1968 with slogans as “The state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation,” Pierre Trudeau pushed ahead with his reforms. It was also in July 1968 that Paul VI issued his encyclical Humanae vitae which opposed contraception and other – “liberalising” measures, but Trudeau let it be known what these views were of no consequence to the government. However, he did find it useful on his first trip abroad as Prime Minister – the Commonwealth Conference in London in January 1969 – to make a quick side trip to Rome where, as customary, he had his picture taken standing beside the Pope. On his return from Europe, Trudeau saw to it that the legalization of abortion was enacted successfully by May 1969. Afterwards, no opposition to the new law was tolerated in his cabinet or even from the public; a demand for a review in the spring of 1975 which had over a million signatures was buried swiftly and efficiently. A climax of sorts was reached on 22 May 1975 when, according to the Globe and Mail, Trudeau hailed Dr. Henry Morgentaler, the leading abortionist in Canada, as “a good friend, a fine humanitarian and a true humanist.” As late as 27 November 1981, five days before the final vote on the repatriation of the Constitution and the Charter of Rights, Trudeau personally again intervened in the abortion controversy by preventing members of his party from voting for an amendment introduced by David Crombie, MP (PC) that “nothing in this Charter affects the authority of Parliament to legislate in respect of abortion.” The amendment was defeated 129 to 60 (six Liberals and three NDPs joined the fifty-one Conservatives in the House). Trudeau claimed that a vote in favour of the amendment was a vote against the entire constitutional package because any new amendments needed the approval of the provincial premiers. There is no evidence, as far as I know, that any of the premiers, who had all been contacted about this issue, would have opposed this harmless proposal. A motion in the Liberal-dominated Senate to amend Section 7 of the Charter in favour of protection for the unborn was also defeated.
He denies the existence of God
One can understand why Henry Morgentaler, as a member of the Humanist League of Canada, favours and promotes the “right” to abortion. He denies the existence of God, and he rejects the immortality of the soul. It is more difficult to comprehend why Pierre Trudeau, a practising Catholic, should have been behind legislation which has created the situation of virtually abortion on demand. The answer to this puzzle can be given in two words: “political liberalism.” They provide the key to evaluating Trudeau’s political activity and the inheritance he has left to his successors.
When liberalism is spelled with a small “l” it refers to that nineteenth-century political philosophy that claimed religion was irrelevant to public life; that politics is a practical science by which man makes do with what he can achieve on his own. It has been Trudeau’s contribution to Canadian political life to articulate the view of secular political liberalism that, in modern times, God and religion have nothing to do with public and political life. He struck a decisive secular note at the very beginning of his career in public life when, as Minister of Justice, he engineered extensive changes in the Criminal Code with respect to contraceptives, divorce, and abortion. As recorded in Hansard in the debate on divorce of 5 December 1967, after explaining some of the practical reasons why the law should be changes, he stated:
“… the concepts of the civil society in which we live, are pluralistic, and I think this Parliament realizes it would be a mistake for us to try to legislate into society, concepts which belong to a theological or sacred order.”
He added: “These are very important and sacred concepts no doubt, but they should not by themselves be considered as a sole guide for a government of a civil society.”
The latter proved to be only theory. Events immediately showed that in practice “sacred concepts,” far from being the “sole guide,” could no longer even be mentioned. The few Créditistes who did so in the House of Commons in 1968 and 1969 were laughed at by the politicians and mocked by the media.