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Alone at the Top
The Path to Power
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Banner: First Among Equals Pierre Elliott Trudeau banner
Pierre Elliott Trudeau.


1919 - 2000

"I believe a constitution can permit the co-existence of several cultures and ethnic groups with a single state." --  Trudeau, September 30, 1965

Pierre Trudeau held his philosophy of one Canada and a strong federal government before he became prime minister and he maintained it throughout his political career. His response to the FLQ Crisis, his rejection of the Quebec separatist movement, as well as his patriation of the Constitution and promotion of official bilingualism are all manifestations of this belief.

Pierre Elliott Trudeau was born in Montreal in 1919; his father was Québécois, his mother of Scottish descent. He went to a local school, Académie Querbes, and then to the Jesuit college, Jean-de-Brébeuf. In spite of the Depression, Trudeau's father had become a wealthy man in the 1930s and the family toured Canada and Europe frequently. In 1940, Trudeau began studying law at the University of Montreal. As a student, he was required to join the Canadian Officers Training Corps during the war, but like many Quebeckers, Trudeau was opposed to conscription.

After graduating in 1943, he passed his bar exams, and then enrolled in a Master's program at Harvard. In 1946, he went to Paris to study at the École des sciences politiques, and then at the London School of Economics in Britain. By 1948, Trudeau was on a backpacking tour of Eastern Europe, and the Middle and Far East, areas of considerable turbulence in the post-war world. After many adventures, he arrived back in Canada the following year.

Trudeau worked in Ottawa as advisor to the Privy Council before returning to Montreal. He began supporting labour unions, especially during in [sic] the Asbestos Strike, and criticized the repression of the Union Nationale under Premier Duplessis. With other outspoken intellectuals, Trudeau started the journal Cité Libre as a forum for their ideas. In 1961, he began teaching law at the University of Montreal. In 1965, the Liberal party was looking for potential candidates in Quebec; Trudeau and two of his colleagues, Jean Marchand and Gérard Pelletier, were invited to run for the party in the federal election that year. They won their seats, and in April 1967, Trudeau became Minister of Justice. Within a year, he had reformed the divorce laws and liberalized the laws on abortion and homosexuality.

When Lester Pearson resigned as prime minister in 1968, Trudeau was invited to run as a candidate. He won the Liberal leadership convention and called an election immediately after. Capitalizing on his extraordinary popular appeal, labelled "Trudeaumania" by the press, he won a majority government in the June election. One of the most important bills passed by his government was the Official Languages Act, guaranteeing bilingualism in the civil service.

A serious threat to national security occurred in 1970, when the terrorist group, Front de libération du Quebec, kidnapped a British diplomat. Upon the request of Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, Trudeau imposed the War Measures Act. The situation was quickly resolved and the terrorists apprehended, but not before Quebec Cabinet Minister Pierre Laporte was murdered and hundreds of people arrested and held without charges. In 1972, the Liberals were returned with a minority government, but regained a majority in 1974. This decade experienced a period of high inflation, which Trudeau's government attempted to contain with wage and price controls. These economic difficulties and a sense of alienation in Western Canada led to the defeat of the Liberals in 1979. Deciding not to serve as leader of the Opposition, Trudeau announced his resignation from politics. However the Conservative comeback was shortlived; their minority government was defeated within six months. Trudeau was persuaded to return as party leader and the Liberals won the election the following year.

His last term in office was devoted to national unity in opposition to the separatist goals of the Parti Québécois who governed Quebec. Trudeau campaigned vigorously for the "No" supporters in the Quebec referendum on sovereignty-association in 1980. He also set about patriating the Constitution and drafted a Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The cooperation of the provinces was required to accomplish this; the eighteen-month federal-provincial negotiations were drawn-out and highly contentious, with dissenting ministers and rulings from the Supreme Court and various provincial courts. Consent was finally achieved in 1982, but without the cooperation of Quebec Premier René Lévesque. In a ceremony on Parliament Hill, the Queen signed Canada's new Constitution Act on April 17, 1982.

Having accomplished his goal of strengthening Canadian federalism, Trudeau turned his attention to international affairs, campaigning for world peace and improving the relationship between the industrialized nations and Third World countries.

After a total of sixteen years as prime minister, he resigned from politics in 1984. He returned to practicing law, travelled extensively and published his memoirs. His death on September 28, 2000, just short of his eighty-first birthday, prompted an outpouring of grief and tributes from across the country.

Source: Canada's Prime Ministers, 1867 - 1994: Biographies and Anecdotes. [Ottawa]: National Archives of Canada, [1994]. 40 p.

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