There's more to the story, but to tell it in shorthand, 40 years ago Canada's then-prime minister called on three public-affairs intellectuals to participate in the country's public affairs. Until then, Jean Marchand, 47, Gerard Pelletier, 46, and Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 46, had been in the wings. In 1965, Lester B. Pearson invited them to centre stage. The trio of observers, activists and commentators became players.
Pearson's decision to install the "three wise men" (as they came to be known in English Canada; French Canadians referred to them as les trois colombes, or the three doves) was to have profound consequences for the country's political ethos. Whether they were the consequences Pearson foresaw and intended is harder to say.
The three French-Canadians were federalists. Pearson no doubt recruited them at least partly for this reason, for he aimed to defeat Quebec separatism. The three were also socialists, not by formal ties as much as by inclination. Cite Libre, the journal Trudeau had helped to found, was essentially a socialist periodical. The Catholic Workers Confederation of Canada, which Marchand had led during the Asbestos Strike in Quebec, was less Catholic than syndicalist. While Pearson was undoubtedly aware of this, I wouldn't propose that he invited the three wise men aiming to change Canada from a liberal to a social democracy. I'd argue, though, that this turned out to be the result.
Inviting the three wise men ushered in the Trudeau-era. Though looking like "a fish out of water" in the beginning -- as a journalist described him during the leadership campaign of 1968 -- Trudeau soon made the transition from intellectual to politician, becoming the most charismatic public figure of his period, not only in Canada but possibly in the world. His rule lasted for 15 years; his influence on the country's political culture has lasted to this day.
During the Trudeau years, the first domestic argument in Canada was between free enterprise and the interventionist economy, and the second between the unitary and the devolutionary state. Internationally, the main argument was between liberal democracy and totalitarianism.
It's safe to say that in the first and the third of these arguments, Trudeau took the wrong side. The jury is still out on the second one.
Some would argue that Trudeau didn't take the wrong side between liberal democracy and totalitarianism, only the middle ground. This is silly. One cannot take the middle ground between life and death.
Having a soft spot for a Mao or a Castro, as Trudeau did, exceeds ordinary political latitudes. There's a material difference between alternate ways of looking at the world and apologizing for mass murder. If Trudeau had a similar weakness for Nazi-type regimes and rulers, it would have made him a pariah, and rightly so.
The wise men's economic ideas turned out to be a quasi-Keynesian, quasi-Marxist muddle. Trudeau embraced wage and price controls, deficit financing, confiscatory taxation, intrusive social engineering and the National Energy Policy. The last, apart from the harm it did to individuals, created a sense of alienation in Western Canada second only to the separatist sentiment in Quebec.
Les Trois Colombes offered French Canadians the vision of a bilingual, bicultural country in exchange for giving up the dream of an independent Quebec. Their unarticulated but unmistakable suggestion to the francophone elite was that being a big fish in a small pond was a foolish ambition. Why should francophones be satisfied with ruling Quebec, they intimated, when they could be masters in their own house -- which was the whole of Canada?
If Canada was to be a bilingual country with most power concentrated in Ottawa's federal government, in the nature of things it would be francophones who would end up occupying most positions of authority in it. The inclination is always stronger for minorities to learn the language of a majority. Anglos weren't going to be bilingual in significant numbers. Francophones would be, and so rule the land. This part of the three wise men's vision was addressed to the mandarinate in Quebec, actual or aspiring; francophone civil servants, chattering classes and company executives grooming their sons and daughters to be the bureaucrats, politicians, journalists, entrepreneurs and administrators of the next generation.
As a counterweight to Quebec's special status in Confederation, the three wise men advanced multiculturalism. According to this notion, all inhabitants of Canada from any part of the world could retain -- forever, if they wished -- their separate identities and traditions. The whole mosaic would be Canadian, while the constituent bits in it could remain as distinct as they have ever been. But none, not even the Quebecois, would be more distinct than any of the others. Trudeau & Co. cleverly proposed to abolish special status by offering special status to all.
How did it turn out?
The social models the three wise men promoted, admired or apologized for never fulfilled their promise. Communism imploded. Free enterprise outperformed the command economy. Bilingualism didn't do the trick. Non-traditional immigration and multiculturalism may have changed the face of Canada, but did little to either unify or imbue it with a new sense of identity. Today Canada is as much a nation of "two solitudes" as it was in 1945 when Hugh MacLennan coined the term.
If anything, Canadian society became more fragmented than it was before the Trudeau era. Some of the concepts that contributed to Canada's splintering into hostile, self-seeking xenoliths were inspired by the three wise men's ideas, and some evolved as reactions to them, but in either case the result was the same. Multiculturalism, Western alienation, interest group-politics, the gender wars and aboriginal separatism only created an increasing number of solitudes.
The legacy of the three wise men isn't less significant for being ironic. Separatism hasn't been defeated as a political idea in Canada. On the contrary, it has spread from Quebec to points west. It's liberalism that has been defeated. By now, it's been replaced by a culture of statism within the ruling Liberal party. Ideas have consequences, though not necessarily the ones intended.