An author, political activist, and professor from early in his adult life, Trudeau was a charismatic figure who dominated the Canadian political scene and aroused passionate reactions. "He haunts us still," biographers Christina McCall and Stephen Clarkson wrote. Admirers praise the force of Trudeau's intellect. They salute his political acumen in preserving national unity and bringing into force the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Detractors fault Trudeau for arrogance, deplore economic policies that increased the national debt, and criticize him for increasing a sense of political alienation in western provinces. Nevertheless, few would dispute the assertion that Trudeau was a towering figure who helped redefine Canada.
Trudeau led Canada through some of its most tumultuous times and was often the centre of controversy. Known for his flamboyance, he sometimes wore sandals or a buckskin jacket in the House of Commons; dated celebrities; occasionally used obscenities to insult his opponents, and on May 7, 1977, did a pirouette behind the back of Queen Elizabeth II.
As prime minister, Trudeau espoused participatory democracy as a means of making Canada a "Just Society." His desire for greater citizen involvement in government appears to have been frustrated by lack of support within his party, and he later opposed greater involvement for citizens in representative democracy. He vigorously defended the newly implemented universal health care and regional development programs as means of making society more just.
During the October Crisis of 1970, when the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) kidnapped Quebec Labour Minister, Pierre Laporte (who was later murdered) and British Trade Consul James Cross, Trudeau responded by invoking the War Measures Act. Although this response is still controversial and was opposed as excessive by figures like Tommy Douglas, it was met with only limited objections from the public. Trudeau presented a determined public stance during the crisis, answering the question of how far he would go to stop the terrorists with "Just watch me." Five of the FLQ terrorists were flown to Cuba in 1970 as part of a deal in exchange for James Cross' life, but all members were eventually arrested. The five flown to Cuba were arrested after they returned to Canada years later.
Trudeau's first years would be most remembered for the passage of his implementation of official bilingualism. Long a goal of Trudeau, his legislation would require all Federal services to be offered in French and English. The measures were very controversial at the time in English Canada, but would be successfully passed and implemented.
Trudeau was the first world leader to agree to meet John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono on their 'tour for world peace'. Lennon said, after talking with Trudeau for 50 minutes, that Trudeau was "a beautiful person".
On March 4, 1971, the prime minister married Vancouver socialite Margaret Sinclair, a woman who, at 22, was less than half Trudeau's age. They had three children and were the subject of enormous press coverage before their well-publicized legal separation in 1977. Their divorce was finalized in 1984. Their children attended Rockcliffe Park Public School, in Ottawa.
In foreign affairs, Trudeau kept Canada firmly in the NATO Alliance, but pursued an independent path in international relations. He made Canada the first western power to establish diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China (to Richard Nixon's fury), and went on a state visit to Beijing. He was known to be a friend of Fidel Castro and Cuba.
In the last years of his life, Trudeau was afflicted with Parkinson's disease and prostate cancer, and became less active, although he continued to work at his law office until a few months before his death at the age of 80. He was devastated by the death of his youngest son, Michel Trudeau, who was killed in an avalanche in November 1998.