Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 1968–2000
By John English. Knopf Canada, 789 pp, $39.95, hardcover
If you’re old enough to remember Pierre Trudeau at the height of his powers, the name alone will bring a twinge of either nostalgia or old grievance. Few Canadian politicians—few citizens of any stripe in this country—have been so divisive, and for so many years.
But the facts about Trudeau have always been too tangled for ideology or individual memory to handle. That’s why the work of historians like University of Waterloo professor John English is invaluable. Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 1968–2000, the second and final volume of English’s exceptionally readable biography, is sure to grip fans and foes alike with its expert mix of narrative, analysis, and insiders’ perspectives. Those who think of the Trudeau era as a time of unmatched statesmanship and keen wit will be reminded how briefly the honeymoon period of Trudeaumania lasted, and how often the man known for his energy and eloquence seemed listless or downright sloppy. Those who think of him less fondly, perhaps as an autocrat with an elitist’s distaste for the workings of business, may realize they’ve forgotten how well the Canadian economy fared against other western economies during the turbulent and baffling ’70s, and how central Trudeau was to the development of the western oil industry, specifically the tar sands (much to the cost, in hindsight, of his pioneering environmental stances).
No one before or since has wielded federal power in the same way—a cause for regret or relief, depending on your view. And rarely in Canada have there been official dramas to match the public unravelling of Trudeau’s marriage, or his enthralling exchanges with René Lévesque during the run-up to Quebec’s 1980 sovereignty referendum. It all makes for an engrossing read, as well as a remarkably clear-eyed evaluation of a man who, as English sums up, will be “forever linked with remaking a country where anglophone prime ministers spoke no French, where public servants could not serve a quarter of the population in their own language, where politicians could not break from constitutional links with Britain”¦and where great existential challenges of the nation’s future had not been faced for over a century.”