Pierre Elliot Trudeau: Running the Show like Willy Wonka, or a Colo(u)rful Diversion like a Munchkin?

For the core seminar in the PhD program in Canadian Studies, we composed brief discussion papers based on the course readings for the month.  This is my March 2011 paper on the late, possibly great, Pierre Elliot Trudeau.

[Like Willy Wonka, Trudeau dressed ostentatiously, behaved erratically, quipped endlessly, and had quite a following.  He also strikes me as Oscar Wilde-ish, sporting flowers in his lapel, and per Palmer’s description (165).  Yes, I was asked to explain my title page in class and validate this comparison.]

Canadian Studies truly is Serious Business, in LOL-Cats fashion, but featuring a queen, Prime Minister, and puppy instead.

Le PET: Villain or ‘political superman’ (Rutherford in Litt, 39)?

When a group of 18-year old Canadian students first explained Pierre Elliot Trudeau and the October Crisis to me in 2003, they implied that Trudeau’s famous “Just watch me” quip was hollered at reporters before he ran off into the night wielding a machete against the unruly French-speaking, politician-slaying population of Canada.  Having since viewed the “Just watch me” clip on the CBC Archives for numerous Canadian Studies classes, I have come to the conclusion that they were exaggerating the feats of this Willy Wonka-esque character ever so slightly.

However, much like my cohorts in First Year, many Canadian historians seem share an interest in Trudeau’s legendary behavior.  From his shrugs, famous quips (Litt 36), pirouettes (mentioned in Justin Trudeau’s eulogy for his father and repeatedly elsewhere), and trips down banisters to canoe trips (Nemni & Nemni 17) and tumbles down the stairs, Trudeau seemed to be more flash and flair than substance.

Per Litt: “[Trudeau] could always be counted on for a quip or pseudo-profundity, and he provided the visuals that the medium required: an interesting gesture, flips off a diving board, boogying beside a broken campaign bus, a fake fall down a staircase” (52).  Like a fist bump between the Obamas, his behavior made headlines.  In particular, the CBC Archives, NFB films, Paul Litt, and Bryan Palmer offer fruitful lenses from which to explore the image- and myth-making in the media hype surrounding Trudeau.

With the odd nod to hegemony and Gramsci, Litt explores Trudeaumania as a cultural phenomenon and unpacks some of Trudeau’s more flowery behavior as an ironic, self-parodying exploitation of the media for political gain.  Per Litt: “His image was made by mocking the image making, by satirizing the drama in which he starred even as it unfolded, by questioning the role of the media in a process that it increasingly mediated…  Trudeau connected through the media both directly and ironically with an audience of increasingly self-conscious media consumers.”

Like Kennedy, Trudeau “gave good television” (Litt 52) and used the medium to his advantage (per Palmer’s copious mentions of McLuhan). [Unlike Kennedy, however, Trudeau was never assassinated.  Props to Litt for pointing this out: “Canadians could draw comfort from the fact that their Kennedy, Pierre Trudeau, was alive and well and mixing with crowds, in the thick of an election tour of the country” (43).]  Even 9-year-old students interviewed by the CBC agreed that Trudeau was the best candidate, in part because he was a swinger.

They were likely quite keen on anyone who got them out of school for a day.  One student elaborated on why Trudeau was better than Tommy Douglas: “Tommy Douglas is the worst. He says if someone has a million dollars and somebody has two, the person with a million dollars has to share!” (per Trudeaumania: A Swinger for Prime Minister, CBC Archives).  [Tommy Douglas, credited with developing Canada’s current health care system, is the Greatest Canadian according to a 2004 CBC poll.]

Likewise, Palmer celebrated Trudeau—“the product of a uniquely Canadian union”—and his “new style of politics” (157).  Asserting that “[t]here was no doubting his brilliance” (158) and that “[h]he had more [substance] than any other prime minister of the twentieth century” (163), Palmer glosses over the similarities between Duplessis’ Padlock Law (160) and the events of the October Crisis.

The mythic proportions attributed to Trudeau during and after his political career show that, for better or for worse, he captured a part of the Canadian imagination.  Like other popular folk heroes (consider Batman), Trudeau underwent a youthful journey of discovery and adventure (Nemni & Nemni 17).  Like another citizen of Canada, Santa Claus [who was, appropriately enough, mentioned in Justin Trudeau’s eulogy for his father – more on this later], the iconic Trudeau has become shrouded in a Northern mystique that requires some suspension of disbelief to wholeheartedly commit to his deification.

The Marvel fleet of Canadian superheroes, Alpha Flight, experienced a surge in sales from a Trudeau cameo in early plot lines, in yet another example of how people bought in to (and helped to make and re-make) his image, leaving us with hilarious NFB and CBC Archives footage.

Our case study of this Canadian hero (or villain, depending on your political disposition) is greatly enhanced by access to such audio-visual materials.  Why does our access differ so much from other topics (such as those found on wikileaks, or queer materials discussed by Gentile and Maynard in October’s readings)?

If we agree that ‘the medium is the message’ (McLuhan), what does our exploration of Trudeau in a PhD seminar say about Trudeau?  Moreover, what does this case study say about our preoccupations with the past?  What would Connerton or Gordon (December reading) have to say about reinforcing Trudeau’s cultural value through the forum of education?


Bryan D. Palmer, Canada’s 1960s: The Ironies of Identity in a Rebellious Era Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.

Max Nemni and Monique Nemni, Young Trudeau: Son of Quebec, Father of Canada 1919-1944 Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2006.

Paul Litt, “Trudeaumania: Participatory Democracy in the Mass-Mediated Nation,” The Canadian Historical Review 89:1, March 2008.

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3 Responses to Pierre Elliot Trudeau: Running the Show like Willy Wonka, or a Colo(u)rful Diversion like a Munchkin?

  1. Judith Hazlett says:

    Trudeau gave us pride in our country — we weren’t just a colony of England, nor a poor relative of the U.S., but an actual real country. He tried to get us back control of our industries (subsequently thrown away by the Conservatives) so that we could control our own economy, and our own lives. Trudeau put a lot of effort into getting Canadians acquainted with one another, and as one of the many young people who journeyed across the country in the many exchange programs he promoted, I can attest to the value of this.

  2. Pingback: Pierre elliot trudeau pictures

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