Trudeau's speeches 30 years ago were his finest hours

His series of pre-referendum speeches in 1980 sealed the win for the No forces

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The Gazette, Saturday, May 8, 2010

Thirty years ago next week, Pierre Trudeau gave the last of four important speeches that had a decisive impact on the 1980 Quebec referendum.

The federalist forces, much in need of a champion, found one in Trudeau, in the role of a lifetime, in truth the role for which he had been preparing his entire life.

By the time he gave his famous "Elliott" speech six days before the referendum, the campaign had already been won. A poll taken the previous weekend, and published the day after the speech, pointed to a 60-40 outcome for the No, which is where it came out on referendum day, May 20.

While Trudeau's May 14 address was breathtaking to behold, it was his three earlier speeches that turned the tone and tide of the campaign decisively in favour of the federalist option.

In fact, the emotional highlight of the campaign was Trudeau's appearance the previous week at the convention centre in Quebec City, where in a single sentence he brilliantly articulated what he meant to Quebec and what Quebec meant to him.

Just that morning, he said, he had been in Vancouver with his colleague, Prime Minister Ohira of Japan, who asked if he would be going to Yugoslavia for the funeral of Marshall Tito. Trudeau replied that he would be flying into Quebec instead, "not because I thought you needed me to give you a hand, but because I felt a need within myself to be among family."

You never heard such cheers and applause. It was the precise moment that the Canadian idea prevailed.

Not only was he among family, he personified the pride of "l'appartenance canadienne," the sense of belonging to Canada as well as Quebec.

He expressed it himself in his first referendum speech in a hushed House of Commons on April 15. "What is the feeling of belonging to a country, which we call citizenship?" he asked. "And what is the feeling of loving a country, which we call patriotism?"

Where René Lévesque had asked Quebecers to give him "le bargaining power" with Ottawa, Trudeau elevated the debate to a higher ground. And then, with rigorous and remorseless logic, he demolished the ambiguous referendum question seeking a mandate to negotiate sovereignty-association.

Levesque, Trudeau told the House, "must first recognize that, to associate, one must associate with someone." And Levesque would have no one with whom to associate, neither the prime minister nor the other premiers. As for sovereignty alone, Levesque wasn't seeking it, and only two months previously, Quebecers had just re-elected Trudeau with 74 out of 75 seats in Parliament. "We have therefore," declared Trudeau, "just received from the people of Quebec a mandate to exercise sovereignty for the entire country."

And then, at the Chambre de Commerce in Montreal on May 2, Trudeau pursued the association argument in suggesting that the president of Haiti might want to associate with Canada, but that didn't mean Canada had to associate with him. Lévesque freaked out at the comparison to Baby Doc Duvalier, then the Haitian dictator.

And finally in that first Montreal speech, Trudeau put the cat among the pigeons. "I wish that everyone would ask the leader of the government of Quebec, Mr. Levesque, 'what will you do if Quebec votes No?' "

So that by the time Trudeau made the second Montreal speech, he had already won the argument on behalf of Claude Ryan's No forces. All the same, he delivered one of the great Canadian speeches of the 20th century.

On a stage of the Paul Sauvé arena that had always belonged to the separatists, Trudeau made the headline of the campaign with his promise that his Quebec MPs, "will put our seats on the line for constitutional reform, and we won't stop until it's done."

But he made history with the "Elliott" part, arising from Levesque's comment that he was a not real French Canadian because his mother's name was Elliott.

"Bien sur que mon nom est Pierre Elliott Trudeau," he declared, "Elliott etait le nom de ma mere, voyez vous?"

And then he rattled off a list of Parti Québécois luminaries with English names, including Pierre Marc Johnson.

All of this was committed to memory, without a single scrap of paper at the podium.

What should never be forgotten about that campaign is that it was conducted on each side with respect for the other's opinions, with a serene acceptance of the outcome. A fundamental question of country was debated and settled without a single shot or any civil unrest. Democracy was the winner, and there was an absence of bitterness on the losing side.

It was only a brief season, but it was the moment for which Trudeau was made, and it was his finest hour.

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