Trudeau Serves as Canadian Prime Minister Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Pierre Trudeau’s administration inaugurated a period of dramatic changes in the nation’s constitutional structure, witnessing Canada’s first constitution among a host of other legislation and reforms.

Summary of Event

Pierre Trudeau, one of modern Canada’s most remarkable leaders, was born in Montreal on October 18, 1919. The son of a millionaire, he grew up speaking English and French with equal facility. Trudeau attended the prestigious Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf, received his law degree from the University of Montreal in 1943, and did further study at Harvard University, the École des Sciences Politiques de Paris, and the London School of Economics. From 1949 to 1951, he worked with the Privy Council Office in Ottawa, Ontario, then returned to teach law at the University of Montreal. Prime ministry, Canadian;Pierre Trudeau[Trudeau] Parliamentary elections, Canadian;1968 [kw]Trudeau Serves as Canadian Prime Minister (June 25, 1968-June 30, 1984) [kw]Prime Minister, Trudeau Serves as Canadian (June 25, 1968-June 30, 1984) [kw]Canadian Prime Minister, Trudeau Serves as (June 25, 1968-June 30, 1984) Prime ministry, Canadian;Pierre Trudeau[Trudeau] Parliamentary elections, Canadian;1968 [g]North America;June 25, 1968-June 30, 1984: Trudeau Serves as Canadian Prime Minister[09830] [g]Canada;June 25, 1968-June 30, 1984: Trudeau Serves as Canadian Prime Minister[09830] [c]Government and politics;June 25, 1968-June 30, 1984: Trudeau Serves as Canadian Prime Minister[09830] Trudeau, Pierre Lévesque, René Marchand, Jean Pelletier, Gérard

Trudeau quickly established a reputation as being keenly interested in civil liberties and workers’ rights. In particular, he fought against the oppressive regime of Maurice Duplessis, the long-serving Quebec premier who held the province in a tight political grip. Trudeau also questioned the insular values and innate conservatism of French Canadian society. To this end, he cofounded the Cité libre Cité libre (periodical) in 1961, a lively journal in which some of the most talented and progressive French Canadians of the time debated the future of their society. It was during this period that the two guiding principles of Trudeau’s career emerged: He passionately believed in the freedom of the individual, and he wanted to counter the rising tide of Quebec sovereignism. Trudeau maintained that if Canadian federalism could be rejuvenated, if it could show itself capable of allowing the French language and Québécois culture to flourish within the Canadian state, then sovereignist sentiments could be quashed.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

(Library of Congress)

In 1965, along with two close colleagues, Jean Marchand and Gérard Pelletier, Trudeau entered federal politics as a member of the Liberal Party Liberal Party, Canadian . All three were elected that year, and in 1967, Trudeau was appointed minister of justice and attorney general. He piloted legislation through the House of Commons that liberalized existing laws concerning divorce, homosexuality, and abortion. In 1968, he was chosen to be leader of his party and won a stunning electoral victory. During his lengthy career, he would stand in five general elections and serve as prime minister from 1968 to 1979 and again from 1980 to 1984.

His extraordinary personality contrasted sharply with that of most Canadian politicians. He was charismatic and flamboyant, projecting a youthful, playboy image; on his serious side, Trudeau was an intellectual, widely read in the classics and possessing razor-sharp debating and analytical skills. Loyal and affectionate to friends, he could also be dismissive toward his enemies.

Shortly after the election of 1968, he set about his main task: to fight Quebec sovereignism Canada;Quebec sovereignist movement Quebec sovereignist movement while simultaneously transforming Canada into a bilingual country. The Official Languages Act (1969) Official Languages Act, Canadian (1969) mandated that the federal government offer services across Canada in French and English in order to make Quebecers feel that all of Canada was their homeland, not simply Quebec province, but this policy was misunderstood and bitterly resented in western Canada. In October, 1970, the Front de Libération du Québec Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ), a terrorist organization Terrorist organizations founded in 1963 and dedicated to achieving an independent Quebec, kidnapped the British trade commissioner and the provincial minister of labor. Trudeau pressed the Quebec government to act firmly, sent the Canadian army into Quebec, and invoked the 1914 War Measures Act, War Measures Act, Canadian (1914) suspending many civil liberties. The episode became known as the October Crisis October Crisis (1970) , and for his actions Trudeau was criticized vigorously by civil libertarians. Opinion polls, however, revealed his measures to be immensely popular.

Like many other Western leaders during the 1970’s, Trudeau seemed unable to cope with devastating inflation and high unemployment. Moreover, the election of a sovereignist party in Quebec in 1976 suggested that his policies had failed to contain the rise of Quebec nationalism. His Liberal Party lost the 1979 election, and Trudeau announced his retirement from politics, but fate intervened. The new Conservative government was unexpectedly defeated in a Commons vote, and new elections were called in 1980. Because there was too little time to settle the leadership issue within the Liberal Party, Trudeau was asked to lead the party once again. He did, winning a clear majority.

Now began the most important work of Trudeau’s career: securing for Canada a new constitution Constitutions;Canada , creating a federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and defeating the sovereignist movement in Quebec. In 1980, Quebec held a referendum on the issue of separation from Canada. Initially, prospects looked good for the sovereignists, but Trudeau threw himself and the resources of the federal government into the antisovereignist movement. The result was that the sovereignists lost the referendum by a decisive margin of three to two.

Trudeau then set about to give Canada a new constitution. He envisioned Canada as a politically mature country that should eliminate its constitutional dependence upon the United Kingdom. The centerpiece of the new constitution was a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, establishing individual rights for all Canadians as well as collective rights for certain minority groups. While Trudeau’s interest in civil liberties was genuine, it was equally true that he viewed the new charter as a means of increasing the prestige and power of the federal government, especially the Supreme Court of Canada, at the expense of provincial autonomy.

Initially, opposition to the new constitution and charter was strong, not only from Quebec but from most provinces as well. Provincial premiers feared the centralizing trends of the federal government and the loss of regional and provincial powers. Through skillful negotiating, which included all sides resorting to political trickery, unkept promises, and back-room deals, Trudeau managed to obtain the assent of all provinces to accept the new constitution, with the important exception of Quebec. In these negotiations, Trudeau was able to outwit his nemesis, René Lévesque, the sovereignist premier of Quebec. The new Constitution Act Constitution Act, Canadian (1982) was signed into law by the queen of England, Elizabeth II, at an elaborate ceremony held in Ottawa on April 17, 1982.

Foreign policy never engaged Trudeau as domestic events did, but he did try in an unsystematic way to make Canada more independent of the United States and to project a more forceful image for Canada on the international stage. The Foreign Investment Review Agency (1973) and National Energy Program (1980) were attempts to prevent foreign domination of Canada’s economy. Trudeau’s government recognized the communist People’s Republic of China, improved trade with communist regimes, reduced the number of Canadian soldiers serving in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and supported a North-South dialogue on removing the vast disparity of wealth between the two areas. In 1983 and 1984, Trudeau went on a series of peace missions to a number of countries in the hope of reducing Cold War tensions, but despite much publicity, he achieved little. He often was accused of lacking consistency in foreign policy, ignoring the advice of diplomatic experts, and acting as a dilettante.


Despite his achievements in the constitutional realm, Trudeau still was bedeviled by economic problems; the western provinces continued to remain disaffected by his federalist policies, especially on energy issues; and he had largely alienated the powerful province of Quebec by forcing an unpopular constitution upon it. Feeling his major work was done, he resigned from office on June 30, 1984. This move spared him from the electoral debacle to come, when in September of that year the Liberal Party went down to its worst-ever electoral defeat—a disaster largely crafted by Trudeau himself.

Trudeau’s retirement was generally tranquil, save for his aggressive and successful opposition to the Meech Lake Accord (1987-1990), which would have amended the constitution in favor of Quebec. Despite all Trudeau’s efforts to promote federalism and Canadian unity, Canada would witness an explosion of regional and provincial resentment against federal centralization in the years to come. Prime ministry, Canadian;Pierre Trudeau[Trudeau] Parliamentary elections, Canadian;1968

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clarkson, Stephen, and Christina McCall. Trudeau and Our Times. 2 vols. Toronto, Ont.: McClelland and Stewart, 1990-1994. Scholarly, entertaining, and balanced; arguably the finest study of the Trudeau era.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crelinsten, Ronald D. “Internal Dynamics of the FLQ During the October Crisis of 1970.” In Inside Terrorist Organizations, edited by David C. Rapoport. 2d ed. Portland, Oreg.: Frank Cass, 2001. Study of the interrelations between FLQ leaders and members during the Quebec crisis, comparing the group to other terrorist organizations. Bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fraser, Graham. Sorry, I Don’t Speak French: Confronting the Canadian Crisis That Won’t Go Away. Toronto, Ont.: McClelland & Stewart, 2006. Analysis of Canadian language policy, theory, and practice in the early twenty-first century. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Granatstein, J. L., and Robert Bothwell. Pirouette: Pierre Trudeau and Canadian Foreign Policy. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 1990. This well-documented study by two able scholars claims that Trudeau’s foreign policy tended to lack commitment and consistency, resulting in few substantive accomplishments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Laforest, Guy. Trudeau and the End of a Canadian Dream. Translated by Paul Leduc Browne and Michelle Weinroth. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995. Argues persuasively that Trudeau’s confrontational policies shattered any possible accommodation between Quebec nationalism and Canadian federalism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Trudeau, Pierre. The Essential Trudeau. Edited by Ron Graham. Toronto, Ont.: McClelland & Stewart, 1998. A collection of essays, speeches, and interviews by the former prime minister of Canada.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Federalism and the French Canadians. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1968. A collection of speeches and articles by Trudeau on the relationship between Quebec and the federal government.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Memoirs. Toronto, Ont.: McClelland & Stewart, 1993. Relatively brief and superficial, with little additional information about major events in Trudeau’s career but with excellent photographs.

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Categories: History