Pierre Trudeau’s legacy

petcanoeI have banged on and on and on, to the annoyance of some of my readers, about how Pierre Elliot Trudeau reshaped Canada, almost entirely, in my considered opinion, for the worse. I have singled out, frequently, his evident distaste for the  Canadian military and his very real isolationism and reluctance to have armed forces, at all.

There is a lot of documentation about Pierre Trudeau and his views and attitudes, much StLaurentKarsh001of it laudatory, some of it critical. I make no secret of the fact that I assert that one Canadian prime minister (perhaps, in my opinion, Canada best-ever leader) the great Liberal Louis St Laurent, gave Canada a coherent, principled, liberal, values-based grand strategy 1302664079168_ORIGINALin the late 1940s and then, just 20 years later another Liberal, Pierre Trudeau, tore it all down, threw it all aside and imposed new, very illiberal, values on Canada ~ all because, I guess, he could not reconcile the facts that stared him in the face in the late 1940s with his own personal choice to have stood, firmly, on the wrong side of history in 1944 when he elected to continue to study (this time at Harvard) rather than to join in the fight to crush Hitler.

M St Laurent and M Trudeau could not have been more different. Louis St Laurent was an internationally respected lawyer, he was “a man of the world,” neither an anglophile, like Sir Wildred Laurier, nor and anglophobe like Trudeau, he was secure in being a Canadian. He came to politics reluctantly, as a duty, but he quickly became known to, respected by, and, indeed, often friends with Harry Truman, George Marshal, Dwight Eisenhower and Dean Acheson, with Anthony Eden, Ernest Bevin, Clement Atlee, Sir Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan, and with Tage Erlander of Sweden, Jawaharlal Nehru and V. K. Krishna Menon in India, Sir Robert Menzies of Australia, Tunku Abdul Rahman in Malaysia and leaders, from the West, the East and the non-aligned states. Pierre Trudeau, on the other hand, was a small, very parochial man who did not, really, pierre-trudeauunderstand Canada, beyond French-speaking Québec. He became “famous” for opposing Maurice Duplessis ~ something, I have suggested, that would not be much beyond the intellectual capabilities of a somnolent house cat. He travelled the world but never seemed, to me, to have acquired the respect that was accorded to Louis St Laurent or Mike Pearson … except, perhaps from Fidel Castro.

All that aside, I have been criticized for having a “blind hatred” of Pierre Trudeau (and his son) and for that hatred being both “unreasoned” and “unsupported.”  A declassified (in 2009) CIA report from 1985 suggests that my distaste for Pierre Trudeau’s policies and political leanings was neither unique nor unsupported by evidence.


The report says that “Canada’s military capabilities declined as a result of 16 years of neglect by the government of Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau … [and] … During Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s tenure — 1968-1984 — Ottawa devoted little attention and minimal resources to defense. Between 1968 and 1977, for example, Trudeau showed, according to a noted Canadian historian, an almost malevolent attitude toward the Canadian Forces.”

But it wasn’t just Pierre Trudeau, as the report notes: “In our view, Trudeau’s deliberate neglect of the armed forces was facilitated by negative or ambivalent Canadian attitudes toward defense. First, Trudeau himself was profoundly anti-military and saw little merit in defense spending when the funds could be used to address social problems. Second, and more importantly, Canadian society is to a great extent ambivalent toward the military, and generally considers only the enforcement of sovereignty regulations and international peacekeeping duties as the proper tasks of the CF. Since 1945, for example, with the near-universal approval of the Canadian public, Ottawa has aided UN peacekeeping activities in Cyprus, the Suez Canal Zone, and the Golan Heights. Likewise, once Trudeau formally established sovereignty protection as the CF’s major task in a White Paper in 1971 — even though he introduced few measures to assist the Forces in performing such a task -. the public quickly approved and supported this role. Both these tasks detracted from the importance the public attached to Canada’s NATO role, and thereby allowed Trudeau’s neglect of the capabilities of the armed forces to pass virtually unnoticed — except for some Tories, military analysts, and the NATO allies.” In my opinion, Pierre Trudeau and his inner circle both understood and exploited Canadia society’s ambivalent attitude towards the military and international, strategic matters, in general. To a large extent Canadian attitudes, from circa 1960 to the present, nearly mirror US attitudes from 1900 to the early 1940s. I am sure that St Laurent, Diefenbaker and Pearson also understood Canadians’ attitudes but they were pursuing a leadership role for Canada in the world, not advocating a retreat into some sort of a mythical social-democratic or even doctrinaire socialist nirvana

The CIA analysts had high hopes for the Mulroney Conservatives, but, they said, “After winning a massive victory in September, 1984, however, Mulroney and his colleagues quickly discovered that they had inherited an economic mess from the Liberals — including a deficit ($27 billion) larger as a percentage of GNP than that of the United States and that precluded them from fulfilling their defense pledges. Indeed, one of the Tories first acts was to cut $154 million from the defense budget — supposedly an adjustment for lower than expected inflation. More recently, Ottawa permitted to expire an option to buy 20 additional CF-18 fighters at the same cost as an earlier group, and has failed to place the follow-on order for more ships under the Canadian Frigate Program. In our opinion, these actions are evidence neither of Tory insincerity nor duplicitity on defense — indeed, we believe the Tories are intent on modernizing and moderately expanding Canada’s defense capabilities — but are rather the result of severe budgetary constraints.” This is what we heard in late 1984 and in ’85 (I had just been posted back to Ottawa (from Europe) as a senior staff officer (in a coordinating function) for a very senior officer who sat very near the top of the defence procurement system): “the Tories mean well, but the coffers are empty, or worse,” was the mantra in National Defence Headquarters in the mid 1980s.

The CIA report deals with two other political drivers: the bureaucracy, especially at External Affairs, as it (Global Affairs) was then, and the media:

  • First, relative to the bureaucracy, “The Department of External Affairs (DEA) has long regarded the Canadian Forces’s role in NATO — particularly its assignment in West Germany — as an essential condition for Ottawa to have political weight in the Alliance. The hoary chestnut that a military contribution “keeps Canada’s seat at the NATO table” is not an inaccurate synopsis of this attitude. Throughout Trudeau’s years, therefore, it tried to insure that the largest portion of the sparse resources allocated to defense went for NATO commitments, even though such a course meant that the defense tasks which the Prime Minister designated as higher priorities — e.g., sovereignty protection and continental defense — were underfunded or not funded. We believe this attitude continues to hold the field in the Department under the Tories. At a recent conference on Canada-US security, for example, several senior External Affairs officials indicated that they favored Canada seeking release from its commitment to NATO’s northern flank — that is, the Canadian Air and Sea Transportable (CAST) Brigade’s duties in Norway — and boosting Canadian ground forces in West Germany to their pre-1971 strength. Moreover, External Affairs Minister Clark is committed to improving Canada’s political influence in the Alliance, and we believe that he supports his Department’s position favoring a greater military contribution to NATO. This does not, however, ‘insure that Clark would favor a greater ground force commitment in Europe since it would provide few of the domestic economic and political benefits that he and other Tories, with an eye toward the election due in 1988, are seeking. In our opinion, Clark and the DEA bureaucrats will produce nearly irresistable pressure within Tory councils for a defense policy emphasizing the NATO commitment … [and] … The Department of National Defense (DND) was in political eclipse throughout the Trudeau era, and was usually headed by rather nondescript ministers. In the Cabinet, the Defense Department wielded virtually no influence, and the Defense Minister seldom sat on the priorities and Planning Committee (PPC), the most important Cabinet committee. Although Defense ostensibly has been refurbished under the Tories and Nielsen now sits on the PPC, we believe that the DND will have minimal influence on the formulation of the Conservatives’ defense policy. The Green Paper/White Paper process the Tories had promised for defense appears now to have been folded into and replaced by the Green Paper being prepared by Clark and External Affairs. Because Mulroney and Clark are primarily concerned with the foreign policy implications of defense policy — and because Nielsen has a full plate of domestic issues to focus on for the immediate future — the Defense Department will have little to say regarding what tasks are assigned to it. Moreover, because it is enjoying a degree of political prominence and media attention — if not influence — which it has not had in more than 20 years, we believe that the senior Defense bureaucracy would be loathe to risk that prominence by pushing for policies conflicting with the wishes of Mulroney and Clark. In our opinion, although Defense probably would be much more willing to accommodate a redefinition of defense tasks than External Affairs, it probably will not actively pursue them in the near or medium terms, and will be content with the political necessity of stressing the NATO role.” That, too, conforms to what I heard from my second or third-row seat at the meetings of the military “mighty;” and
  • Regarding the media, “The oppostion parties — the Liberals and the New Democrats (NDP) — and the media are making the development of Tory defense policy a frustrating, acrimonious, and time-consuming affair. Because the Tories’ parliamentary opposition consists of little more than a tattered rump — 40 Liberals and 30 New Democrats in a 282-member Parliament — it must necessarily focus on issues that will win it media attention and will strike most deeply at public sensitivities and paranoias. Since Parliament convened last September, the opposition has fixed its attacks largely on defense-related issues, and has demonstrated an ability to unnerve and enfeeble the government, arouse the media, and worry the public. The opposition portrayed, for example, the modernization of the Distant Early Warning radar system — now the North Warning System — as part of the US Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). The result of this tactic has been an on-going, sulphurous parliamentary debate that apparently has convinced much of the public and media that such a connection exists and that the Tories are bending to US wishes. Likewise, the government’s decision to dispatch 1,200 additional troops to West Germany is being characterized widely by the press and opposition as a move aimed more at pleasing: Washington than improving Canada’s NATO contribution. In large measure, Mulroney caused much of the latter problem by announcing the decision just before meeting President Reagan at Quebec City in March … [and] … The opposition’s attacks are aided and made more effective by most of the Canadian media. The media tend to treat the United States and the Soviet Union as equals in regard to military matters, and describe various actions by Washington and Moscow in similar unflattering terms. The media also exude pride in the fact that Canada has no nuclear weapons on its soil or in the CF’s control, and manifest particular delight in lecturing the superpowers on the issues of disarmament and arms control. Thus when the opposition is able to link, even tangentially, a government defense or foreign policy to nuclear weapons — the NDP’s attacks against the Liberals’ decision to allow the testing of US cruise missiles in Canada, and the current attacks on the supposed link between the NWS and SDI are two prime examples — the ‘media hop aboard and sound a clarion call for the protection of Canada’s supposed nuclear virginity. In our view, the consistent success of the opposition and media in gaining the public’s attention via tenuous claims and allegations is evidence both of the unsophisticated nature of the defense debate in Canada, and the almost universal failure of the general populace, most of the media, and many politicians to perceive the existence of an external threat.” That, again, is almost wholly consistent with my memories of the 1980s.

I have commented, more than once, before on the big lie about strategic missile defence. It was a Russian lie but it was gleefully supported by the Liberal Pary and by an incredibly ill-informed (on both strategic matters and technology) knee-jerk anti-American media. I vividly recall a conversation with a fairly well-known journalist. He could not understand, I mean that literally, that while an intercontinental ballistic missile travels faster than a bullet, that the Russia propaganda about missile defence being impossible ~ because it was like Screen Shot 2019-07-31 at 13.33.30“shotting down a bullet with a bullet” ~ was a lie. He could not wrap his brain around the fact that while missiles can travel very fast they travel over a very, very long distance and other (equally fast) missiles have time to intercept them but a rifle bullet, which only travels at about 2,500 feet per second, only travels, at all, for a couple of seconds and so another (human) shooter cannot hit it except by a freak accident. He was not a stupid man, not by any stretch of the imagination, but he was profoundly ignorant about e.g missiles … that did not stop him from writing, quite persuasively I’m sad to say, about why missile defence could not work.

The Mulroney Tories could not reverse the trajectory on which Pierre Trudeau had set Canada’s defences … not even though, I think, many wanted to do that. Brian Mulroney had other, more important fish to fry, including a Canada-USA free trade deal. There were six defence ministers in the eight years that Brian Mulroney was prime minister: Bob Coates, Eric Neilsen, Perrin Beatty, Bill McKnight, Marcel Masse and Kim Campbell. Two or three were just “place holders,” one was incredibly overcommitted, being also deputy prime minister and responsible for government operations, and only one or two were, in my opinion, and in the opinions of some more senior officers, really committed to the portfolio. Economic reality, public opinion and attitudes and competing priorities kept national defence on the back-burner.

I fear that Pierre Trudeau’s legacy will also impact the next responsible government ~ which I hope we will elect in October. By “responsible,” of course, I’m not referring to a Westminster type of responsible, parliamentary government vs a (representative) US-style government, rather I mean “responsible” in the sense of being run by adults who put Canada’s interests ahead of their own. Pierre Trudeau did enormous damage to Canada’s place in the world. He was able to do so because Canadians, by and large, simply do not care about defence, foreign policy or grand strategic issues. Pierre Trudeau understood that exploited it to advance his socialist, isolationist, anti-American (anti-Western) agenda. Better leaders like Brian Mulroney, Paul Martin and Stephen Harper wanted to change that but they all ran up against the same obstacles; so will the next grown-up prime minister. Canada needs a leader who will see the problems and see ways to go over, under around and through them.

Published by Ted Campbell

Old, retired Canadian soldier, Conservative ~ socially moderate, but a fiscal hawk. A husband, father and grandfather. Published material is posted under the "Fair Dealing" provisions (§29) of the Copyright Act for the purposes of research, private study and education.

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