Liberalism and the politics of equality: Part I


The federal election of 1968 now has deep roots in our collective memory. By some combination of reality and retroactive eulogizing – probably a bit more the latter – we regard that year as the zenith of Canada’s postcolonial “coming of age” and associate it with consecrated pieces of national iconography like Expo ’67, the Maple Leaf, and Official Bilingualism (whether they actually belong to it or not).

The 1968 federal election was dominated by “Trudeaumania”, a phenomenon whose continued resonance belongs as much to the real, if vapid, excitement it generated at the time as it does to the stardust which it later accreted in the hands of Trudeau’s many hagiographers.

In actuality a month-long televisual orgy of baby kissing and notably nonspecific platitudes about a Just Society (not to mention the bizarre transformation of a bookish 50 year old intellectual into a sex symbol) it swept Trudeau, enthusiastically endorsed as a commodity by media guru Marshall McLuhan, to power with a strong majority.

Trudeau, it hardly needs saying, was Prime Minister from 1968 until 1984 (with only a brief interlude after a negligible defeat by the principled but hapless Joe Clark in 1979) and, by the time of his death, had thoroughly completed the transition to national institution. His most significant achievement, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, undoubtedly makes his legacy a real and lasting one. It nonetheless came more than a decade after “Trudeaumania” had expired and, just like that phenomenon, is now embedded in the national psyche as if it had emerged from the ether amidst unmitigated euphoria and proceeded with little controversy. (In actuality, the repatriation of Canada’s constitution took years of wrangling and provoked bitter infighting between the provinces and the federal government. Its implementation despite the protests of Rene Levesque arguably triggered events that nearly led to national disintegration during the 1990s).

One has to wonder what Trudeau’s official legacy might have been had he resigned in defeat, as planned, in 1979. The Liberal governments of the 1970s oscillated between popularity and unpopularity, their rhetoric vacillating in equal measure from left to right depending on the economic mood. Just four years after Trudeau’s first election he was reduced to a minority and compelled to acquiesce to demands for, among other things a national energy policy, made by David Lewis and the NDP

Trudeau’s early years as Prime Minister are certainly not to be dismissed outright. His continued perseverance in the national memory, though partly the product of hype, also owes itself to real and lasting achievements like official bilingualism and multiculturalism. But even these need to be put in context. Canada was itself increasingly multicultural and a newly self-assured Quebec was rapidly coming into its own, having made a startling transformation from patrimonial conservative backwardness to social democratic dynamism in barely a decade.

While Trudeau’s written works from the 1950s and 60s prove that he was himself a true believer in the “French Fact”, small-l liberalism, and individual rights, such achievements should be viewed largely as the products of their times rather than the nation-building wizardry of a Philosopher King. Though some conservatives earnestly regard Trudeau’s economic record as a sort of benign Stalinism it was really an inoffensive, vanilla variant of the managed capitalism that prevailed across much of Western Europe at the time. During the economic troubles of the latter 1970s Trudeau’s government abandoned Keynesianism entirely and embraced a version of the monetarist strategy pursued, albeit more ruthlessly, by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

This is not to mount any exceptional criticism of Trudeau, since his government simply followed the course pursued by most democracies during the 1970s. It is only to point out that the fanfare which accompanied the 1968 election – and is now an inextricable part of our official national story – was hardly proportionate to its actual outcome. Canada got an articulate Prime Minister who swung, swaggered, seduced Barbara Streisand, and could hold sustained conversations about Plato and Proust in both Official Languages.

But neither the aura of excitement which then surrounded Trudeau – exaggerated so much by the televisual spectacle of modern political campaigning – nor its later consecration as the dawn of Canada’s “grownup” existence can finally conceal the fact that little if anything fundamentally changed. Those changes which did occur, several of which I have alluded to, were far from structural and represented responses (often quite skillful ones) to issues and forces already in existence. This fact probably eluded most during the swinging summer of ’68 and certainly contradicts much of the subsequent folklore.

The most striking thing about the Trudeau phenomenon wasn’t the actual changes it brought about. As the postwar generation came of age, Canadian society was already in a state of flux. What Trudeau did successfully was to give the zeitgeist a popular articulation in the form of seductive if largely undefined idioms like the Just Society. “Participatory democracy”, another one of his favourite themes, was in practice an affirmation of representative government as it already existed, though as usual he spoke about it in a far more articulate manner than most. For all its flare and rhetorical flourish, then, it was a reactive rather than a proactive mode of politics. As Ed Broadbent wrote in 1970: “Trudeau may charm as he responds, but he still merely responds”.

Trudeaumania successfully harnessed the liberalizing attitudes and ambitions for change that were prevalent during the late 1960s, but it stripped them of any genuinely revolutionary aspirations. It offered a compelling narrative of social progress without asking for or doing much in return.

As Charles Taylor wrote two years on:

 “[Trudeaumania] provided the ideal psychological compromise between [two]…contradictory drives. The Trudeau image offered all the excitement of change…while offering the reassurance which the average man could read in the benign reactions of power and privilege – that no serious challenge would be offered to the way things are. The act looked terrific, but everyone knew that no crockery was going to be broken. Everyone could relax and indulge the yearning for change without arousing the fear of novelty.”


Pierre Trudeau is not so much the subject of this post as the occasion for it. More than any other figure in Canadian political history he exemplifies what political liberalism (that is Big “L” Liberalism) aims to do and reflects its overall outlook. He was also a consummate image politician of the kind irrepressibly bred and maybe even required by the “Information Age”. In both senses he was and is exemplary of the style of politics that has come to dominate modern democracies and has arguably been more hegemonic in Canada than in perhaps any other country: namely, a politics of the liberal “centre” which speaks the language of consensus rather than that of populism, formally endorses and affirms widely shared values such as “freedom” and “equality of opportunity”, and is essentially managerial in outlook. He therefore makes for a particularly interesting case study, additionally because he was a more thoughtful exponent of political liberalism than most of the people who practice it.


The election that had produced Trudeau as a national figure – and helped inaugurate the legend that would be – was incidentally the first to feature a nationally televised debate between the major party leaders (in this case Trudeau, PC leader Robert Stanfield, NDP leader Tommy Douglas, and Réal Caouette of the Creditistes).

“Live, and in colour”, as the debate was introduced to the TV audience, each leader was given three minutes to make an uninterrupted statement of their political program, the carnival of the campaign trail temporarily paused.

Two of these are reproduced below in full.

Trudeau: “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I am happy to be with you hear their evening. This election campaign I have been saying that I believe in dialogue and debate. I do believe that the government of a democratic country must be essentially based on intelligence and reasoning. I believe that in an election campaign we have been trying to exchange ideas with the people. We feel that a good government can exist only if it is supported by the people. Some say that there might have been some risks for a prime minister to accept this type of debate. I would think that the risk would exist if we didn’t accept a debate. Because a democracy is essentially an exchange of ideas between those who govern and those who are governed

And a good government can only exist if there is this exchange of ideas, this kind of confrontation between those who aspire to lead the people.

I believe in Canada. I believe in this exciting and growing country of ours. I know there are problems. I know these problems especially affect especially, the poor, those who do not have enough housing, the old people who can’t make ends meet, those who don’t find enough jobs.

This is why we have government in a democracy. In order that the people be able to express these problems; in order that those who govern them be able to discuss the solutions; and it’s in this sense that we can have a good government if we share not only the problems but also hopes for the future. And this is what we want to do in this election and this is what we hope to be doing in the future.”


Douglas: “These are troubled times in which we live. The world around us is wracked with dissension and violence. Here in Canada so far we have escaped these dangers, but all of us are concerned about our country and its future. We’re concerned because of the danger of disintegration from within and the threat of absorption from without.

We’re disturbed because Canadians in some regions have less social and economic opportunities than those in others. We’re disturbed because our economy is not expanding fast enough to find jobs for all our people, and because some half a million Canadians live below the poverty line. We’re disturbed because rising living costs and inadequate housing is bringing frustration and resentment into our lives. We’re disturbed because thousands of our farmers and fisherman are caught in an economic squeeze.

But things don’t have to be this way. The answer lies in a strong federal government capable of initiating programs to cope effectively with these problems. I believe this can be done without violating the traditional linguistic and cultural rights of the French-speaking community. I believe that we can marshal the human and material and financial resources of this country to eradicate poverty, inequality, and insecurity. 

But to do this we must be prepared to revise our scale of values. Cooperation must take precedence over competition. People before profits. Planning before drifting. I believe in this country, its people, and its future. With our vast resources, with our technical know-how, we can make this a land where every child will have enough to eat; where every young person capable of absorbing an education will be able to get one; where every person who wants to work can find a job, and where every family who wants a home will be able to own one; a land where our old people can live out their days in dignity and security, and where our young people can live useful and meaningful lives.

As Canadians, you and I can strive for nothing better. And surely, we should settle for nothing less.”


On June 25 1968, amidst much fanfare, Pierre Trudeau was re-elected in Mount Royal with more than 90% of the vote and a huge majority in the House of Commons.

Tommy Douglas lost his seat in Burnaby-Seymour.

The 1968 federal election debate can be watched in full at:


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