Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau

Liberal Prime Minister of Canada for 15 Years

Pierre Trudeau, Former Prime Minister of Canada
Pierre Trudeau, Former Prime Minister of Canada. Hutton Archive / Getty Images

Pierre Trudeau had a commanding intellect and was attractive, aloof and arrogant. He had a vision of a united Canada that included both English and French as equals, with a strong federal government, based on a just society.

Prime Minister of Canada

1968-79, 1980-84

Highlights as Prime Minister

Birth: October 18, 1918, in Montreal, Quebec

Death: September 28, 2000, in Montreal, Quebec

Education: BA - Jean de Brébeuf College, LL.L - Université de Montréal, MA, Political Economy - Harvard University, École des sciences politiques, Paris, London School of Economics

Professional Career: Lawyer, university professor, author

Political Affiliation: Liberal Party of Canada

Riding (Electoral Districts): Mount Royal

Early Days of Pierre Trudeau

Pierre Trudeau was from a well-to-do family in Montreal. His father was a French-Canadian businessman, His mother was of Scottish ancestry, and although bilingual, spoke English at home. After his formal education, Pierre Trudeau traveled extensively. He returned to Quebec, where he provided support to the unions in the Asbestos Strike. In 1950-51, he worked for a short time in the Privy Council Office in Ottawa. Returning to Montreal, he became co-editor and a dominant influence in the journal Cité Libre. He used the journal as a platform for his political and economic views on Quebec. In 1961, Trudeau worked as a law professor at the Université de Montréal. With nationalism and separatism growing in Quebec, Pierre Trudeau argued for a renewed federalism, and he began to consider turning to federal politics.

Trudeau's Beginnings in Politics

In 1965, Pierre Trudeau, with Quebec labor leader Jean Marchand and newspaper editor Gérard Pelletier, became candidates in the federal election called by Prime Minister Lester Pearson. The "Three Wise Men" all won seats. Pierre Trudeau became the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister and later Justice Minister. As Justice Minister, his reform of divorce laws, and liberalization of laws on abortion, homosexuality and public lotteries, brought him national attention. His strong defense of federalism against nationalist demands in Quebec also attracted interest.


In 1968 Lester Pearson announced he would resign as soon as a new leader could be found, and Pierre Trudeau was persuaded to run. Pearson gave Trudeau the principal seat at the federal-provincial constitutional conference and he got nightly news coverage. The leadership convention was close, but Trudeau won and became prime minister. He immediately called an election. It was the 60's. Canada was just coming out of a year of centennial celebrations and Canadians were upbeat. Trudeau was attractive, athletic and witty and the new Conservative leader Robert Stanfield seemed slow and dull. Trudeau led the Liberals to a majority government.

Trudeau Government in the 70s

In government, Pierre Trudeau made it clear early on that he would be increasing the francophone presence in Ottawa. Major positions in cabinet and in the Privy Council Office were given to francophones. He also put an emphasis on regional economic development and streamlining the Ottawa bureaucracy. An important new piece of legislation passed in 1969 was the Official Languages Act, which is designed to ensure that the federal government is able to provide services to English- and French-speaking Canadians in the language of their choice. There was a good deal of backlash to the "threat" of bilingualism in English Canada, some of which remains today, but the Act seems to be doing its job.

The biggest challenge was the October Crisis in 1970. British diplomat James Cross and Quebec Labour Minister Pierre Laporte were kidnapped by the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) terrorist organization. Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act, which cut civil liberties temporarily. Pierre Laporte was killed shortly afterward, but James Cross was freed.

Trudeau's government also made attempts to centralize decision-making in Ottawa, which was not very popular.

Canada was facing inflation and unemployment pressures, and the government was reduced to a minority in the 1972 election. It continued to govern with the help of the NDP. In 1974 the Liberals were back with a majority.

The economy, especially inflation, was still a big problem, and Trudeau introduced mandatory Wage and Price Controls in 1975. In Quebec, Premier Robert Bourassa and the Liberal provincial government had introduced its own Official Language Act, backing off of bilingualism and making the province of Quebec officially unilingual French. In 1976 René Lévesque led the Parti Québecois (PQ) to victory. They introduced Bill 101, much stronger French legislation than Bourassa's. The federal Liberals narrowly lost the 1979 election to Joe Clark and the Progressive Conservatives. A few months later Pierre Trudeau announced he was resigning as Liberal Party leader. However, just three weeks later, the Progressive Conservatives lost a confidence vote in the House of Commons and an election was called. The Liberals persuaded Pierre Trudeau to stay on as Liberal leader. In early 1980, Pierre Trudeau was back as Prime Minister, with a majority government.

Pierre Trudeau and the Constitution

Shortly after the 1980 election, Pierre Trudeau was leading the federal Liberals in the campaign to defeat the PQ proposal in the 1980 Quebec Referendum on Sovereignty-Association. When the NO side won, Trudeau felt he owed Quebeckers constitutional change.

When the provinces disagreed among themselves about the patriation of the constitution, Trudeau got the backing of the Liberal caucus and told the country that he would act unilaterally. Two years of federal-provincial constitutional wrangling later, he had a compromise and the Constitution Act, 1982 was proclaimed by Queen Elizabeth in Ottawa on April 17, 1982. It guaranteed minority language and education rights and entrenched a charter of rights and freedoms that satisfied nine provinces, with the exception of Quebec. It also included an amending formula and a "notwithstanding clause" which allowed parliament or a provincial legislature to opt out of specific sections of the charter.

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Munroe, Susan. "Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Munroe, Susan. (2021, February 16). Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Retrieved from Munroe, Susan. "Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).