More details Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau of Canada, Jimmy Carter, Margaret Trudeau and Rosalynn Carter at State Visit arrival. Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Parliamentary reporter Karl Nerenberg opens 2018 with a special historical series, which looks forward to the coming year in politics by looking back. In this collection of articles, we travel back through 50 years of history, one decade at a time. Read the full series, spanning 1968-2018, here.

History does not provide a guide to the future, nor does it necessarily teach lessons we can use now. In fact, there might be no reason at all to pay any attention to history, be it recent or ancient. This writer happens to find it to be of an intrinsic interest that is almost aesthetic, akin to a symphony or great painting.

In this series, going back 50 years, one decade at a time, from 2018 to 1968, I have been interested in looking at events of the still recent past from the standpoint of the way many of us now see such current issues as the environment, inequality, Indigenous people, youth and women.

Today we travel back four decades to a time when this writer was a mere 30 years old.


In 1978, P.W. Botha became the last hardline head of government of South Africa. His successor, F.W. de Klerk, freed Nelson Mandela and negotiated an end to the Apartheid system.

Botha’s reign was marked by intense, brutal and violent repression of the anti-Apartheid movement. This writer was in South Africa during that time, when the regime’s police and soldiers would routinely shoot and kill peaceful protesters, many of them children not yet in their teens.

During the same year, in Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria, a period of military rule was about to give way to what would turn out to be a brief interlude of electoral democracy.

More than a decade earlier in Nigeria, a daring and murderous junior officers’ coup had led to a senior officers’ counter-coup, which in turn provoked the attempted secession of the oil rich Eastern Region, Biafra. A civil war ensued, in which mass starvation became a military tactic. Although more than a million died, the world, especially the West, has largely forgotten that conflict. Military rule continued after the civil war, but in 1978 the military was ready to hand power back to an elected government. A constituent assembly drafted a new constitution for what would become Nigeria’s Second Republic. Five years later the military seized power again.

In Canada, in 1978, Pierre Elliott Trudeau had been prime minister for a decade. In the U.K., sunny Jim Callaghan was still hanging on as Labour prime minister (but not for long). In France, the aristocratic Valéry Giscard d’Estaing governed as a centre-right president, the first non-Gaullist to hold the job since de Gaulle created the Fifth Republic 20 years earlier. And in the U.S., Jimmy Carter was in the middle of his one and only term as U.S. president.

Carter, a Georgia Democrat, was an economic conservative. But, unlike virtually all of his post Second World War predecessors, Carter promoted the idea of human rights as a significant goal of U.S. foreign relations. That was a novelty for a country that had, for many decades, happily allied itself with military dictators throughout the world, and had forcibly overturned elected governments in the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Iran — to name only three notorious cases.

Jimmy Carter would lose his bid for re-election to the great communicator, former B-movie actor, Ronald Reagan. Human rights would then go out the window. Central America (and other regions) would be bathed in blood once more.

Trudeau and the White Paper on Indigenous affairs

In 1978, Pierre Trudeau had yet to fashion himself as a world ambassador for peace. He would only do that toward the end of his next term.

In the decade from 1968 to1978, his government had picked up the Pearson Liberals’ work of building the Canadian welfare state, and did so, in considerable measure, in partnership with the NDP.

Among the Trudeau government’s accomplishments were: official bilingualism; expansion of regional economic development and unemployment insurance (notably for seasonal workers); the Foreign Investment Review Agency, championed by Windsor MP and cabinet minister, Herb Gray; vastly increased immigration from Asia, Latin America and Africa; and, with the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry headed by B.C. judge Tom Berger, the beginnings of a federal environmental assessment process for mega-projects.

Trudeau’s government showed its less progressive and enlightened side when it proposed an assimilationist policy for Indigenous people. Abolishing so-called Indian status was the key recommendation of Indian Affairs minister Jean Chrétien’s White Paper.

Trudeau argued that all Canadians should be equal and unhyphenated, and, further, that the notional legal status for Indigenous people was a demeaning colonial relic. On the latter point he was largely correct. The solution was not, however, to take all legal and treaty rights away from Indigenous people and communities — even if those rights were more frequently observed in the breach than in practice. The protests against the White Paper were so vehement that Trudeau and Chrétien ditched it.

Pierre’s son has made reconciliation and a renewed relationship with Indigenous people a central focus of his government, although progress has been mixed so far. Still, Justin Trudeau’s approach represents a huge shift from that of his father.

Trudeau-père opposed anything that resembled rights afforded to groups or communities rather than individuals. He never accepted, or even seemed to comprehend, the Indigenous peoples’ argument that their communities had treaty and aboriginal rights to land, resources and self-government which Canadian governments were obliged to respect.

In the wake of the massive constitutional reform of 1981, which gave us the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Trudeau had been forced to accept a series of First Nations leaders’ and First Ministers’ meetings on self-government for Indigenous people. It was a painful exercise in futility. Trudeau expressed mystification as to what Indigenous people wanted. They had rejected assimilation and even seemed to oppose integration, he sighed in frustration. So what did they seek? Even when he received an answer, Trudeau had great difficulty hearing it.

In the end, of course, Trudeau was not the main obstacle to progress at those talks. It was provincial premiers who scuttled the exercise. They were jealous of their powers, especially when it came to natural resources such as oil, gas, forests and hydropower. Forty years later, First Nations are still awaiting meaningful self-government arrangements.

A tired and listless government

In 1978, talks on Indigenous self-government were still in the future. The entire issue was far off the political radar. As for Pierre Trudeau’s government, it was getting long in the tooth. Trudeau had won a majority in the previous election, in 1974, by promising there would be no wage and price controls to tamp down inflation. Then, he went back on his word and imposed them.

As well, there were scandals. Liberal Senator Louis Giguère was charged with influence peddling, to his own considerable monetary benefit, in the renewal of the license for the duty-free shops at Montreal’s airports — the Sky Shops affair.  Although the senator was acquitted at trial, two of his business associates were found guilty. The affair contributed to public disaffection with Trudeau’s Liberal government

Most vexatious for Trudeau, however, was the shadow of a serious separatist threat in Quebec.

René Lévesque’s Parti Québecois (PQ) government had only been in office for less than two years as 1978 began and it was still highly popular. At that point in its history, the PQ tilted social-democratic. It had introduced: public auto insurance, dental care for children, protection for agricultural lands, and had nationalized the asbestos industry. It also brought in a law banning scabs at striking workplaces, and even phased out the private hunting and fishing clubs that once dotted the Quebec countryside, replacing them with community controlled Zones d’Exploitation Controlées (ZECs).

Trudeau had started his political career, in the late 1940s and 1950s, as an opponent of the conservative, authoritarian Maurice Duplessis regime in Quebec. Although Duplessis employed nationalist rhetoric, he meant it only in the sense of provincial autonomy vis-à-vis Ottawa. When it came to the economy, Duplessis was the best friend forever of foreign, especially American, investors.

In 1949, there was a long and brutal strike at several asbestos mines owned by U.S. companies, including Johns Manville. Duplessis dismissed the miners as saboteurs and subversives. The Quebec premier used violence one observer described as Gestapo-like to put down the strike. Trudeau, along with such allies as Jean Marchand and Gérard Pelletier (who would later join him in Ottawa and become part of his government), actively supported the strikers.

For Trudeau, the asbestos strike heralded the beginning of, in his words, “a new era.” Over time, however, the anti-Duplessis progressive forces split. Some supported sovereignty as the only means for Quebec to truly emerge from its historic colonial status. Others supported a mitigated Quebec nationalism. They wanted to be “maître chez nous” but did not think their demands required full political independence for Quebec.

Trudeau found himself entirely, and without equivocation, in the pro-Canada, federalist camp. He had scrapped his predecessor Lester Pearson’s tepid support for a Canada of two founding nations and strenuously argued for a united Canada, with a strong, activist federal government. When Progressive Conservative leader Joe Clark evoked the notion of Canada as a “community of communities,” Trudeau dismissed it as a “federation of shopping centres.”

In 1978, as a fully engaged confrontation with the separatists loomed, the Canadian people were growing weary of the Liberals, who had been in power for nearly 15 years. When Trudeau lost the election of the next year, having exhausted his five-year term, it looked like he would not get to have his big battle with Levesque and the fearsome spectre of Quebec separation.

It did not turn out that way, of course, but that is all another and much longer story.

Photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia

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Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...