You learn a lot about people’s ethics when money is involved. Even really rich people can take the wrong route for money.
The current Trudeau family scandal may be a litmus test. Mother, brother and wife received fees from a charity that received federal government funds.
This may be how Justin Trudeau will be remembered, overshadowing any accomplishments. He’s been an MP since 2008 and is in his second term as prime minister. This may be a defining moment, fairly early in his career.
Conversely, his father Pierre served as PM with a short interruption for 16 years with no personal financial scandal. He was elected in 1965 and quickly became parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Lester Pearson, then minister of Justice and then prime minister in 1968.
Thirty-five years after Pierre Trudeau left office and 20 years after his death, there’s never been the controversy around the former prime minister Trudeau that there is with the sitting one.
Both Pierre and Justin grew up wealthy. Pierre’s father sold his string of gas stations for $1 million in 1932, and the family enjoyed a chauffeur and domestic help. Pierre made frequent trips to New York City, spent summers at Old Orchard Beach, time in the Laurentian Mountains and canoeing. He could go places and do things his contemporaries couldn’t.
Many people who grow up with money are frugal. Many just don’t carry any money – a common rich person’s habit. There are many stories of Pierre’s frugality and some may even be true. He’s said to have had the lapels narrowed on his suit jackets when styles changed, and even the collars of his shirts removed, turned over and sown back on to give them new life.
Justin has a net worth in the millions, family property and income from several sources, including his father’s book royalties. He has made as much as $450,000 annually in speaking fees. He makes $357,000 as prime minister and taxpayers look after many expenses. His mother Margaret is about as wealthy and Justin will likely inherit a good portion of that.
Justin dominates a room, as his father did. An old joke in his father’s years was that when Pierre came into a room, the room changed. When his rival Joe Clark came into a room, someone sent him out for coffee.
Anyone who ever met or even saw Pierre Trudeau was pretty impressed. Even those who didn’t like his policies were left with an indelible impression of the man. Take the pictures of him at the 1970 Grey Cup game. First, he looks like no other person in the crowd. He’s in a cape (!) and a fedora, and wears both well. Even the good old boys in the crowd wearing Stetsons look enthralled with the man, but likely hated his policies.
I encountered the former prime minister a few times, first at a famous dinner at the Seaforth Armoury in Vancouver. He went outside, punched a protester, came back in, borrowed my cutlery and was completely charming for brief bursts. I bumped into him on the street in Montreal after his retirement and at a news conference launching his book. I got the same icy stare to size me up as everyone else got.
My father knew Pierre better. He said he had innumerable intense, 90-second conversations with him as an MP, minister and prime minister. These were because Pierre lived in Cantle House on the corner of Peel and Sherbrooke streets in Montreal. It was one of the first apartment-hotels, used by the great and near great for Expo 67. My father had supervised construction, and then leasing and management of it and the rest of a small real estate empire.
Somewhere in my late father’s papers are a few letters from Pierre Trudeau that come to mind.
Even before he became Justice minister and rose to prominence, Pierre was dapper, sometimes in an ascot and sometimes in sandals. He was proper, known for having female guests to wait for him in the lobby while he changed. Perhaps it was just necessity – he had a bachelor apartment with little more than books and art.
On being elected, sycophants left Pierre magnums of champagne, flowery notes, flowers and such. My father, being a skinflint, placed a two-ounce bottle of rye from an airplane in the Trudeau apartment. He used the back of his business card to write “for all those little headaches.” Trudeau’s rejoinder letter featured a sprawling PS: “No headaches so far. …”
The relevance of this perspective about Pierre to the current scandal involving son Justin is twofold. Pierre was a skinflint bad as or worse than my father.
Mirabel would be a functioning airport in the Montreal region if this were not the case.
In a cabinet meeting at which Dorval’s shutdown was being discussed, someone noted that it would be about a $150 round trip taxi ride to Mirabel in the near future. Frugal Pierre hadn’t spent much of his own money on daily expenses for years. For him, $150 was a good suit or a weekend in New York, and thus Dorval remained open. As of this writing, $150 is not a bad deal to get to and from major airports in big cities.
Pierre was leaving Cantle House or other circumstances required some moving of personal effects. My father kept a gang of workers on staff in the little real estate empire, so made arrangements to move the Trudeau effects, likely from Cantle House to his mother’s home. It seems my father offered to do this for nothing, having rejected a higher estimate with a moving company, but also noted the few hundred dollars the move actually cost. Pierre wrote a gracious letter indicating he’d pay the reduced and actual amount. Smart move. Good ear for a new PM and his good ear trumped his parsimonious nature.
Shame Justin doesn’t have the same ear. If he doesn’t, staff should. If they don’t, cabinet colleagues should.
This current scandal involves an enormous amount of money – many times the sponsorship scandal of the turn of the century – and also involves the prime minister’s family members and at least one cabinet member’s family.
Judging by the amount of money at stake, and cabinet and family involvement, this may be the largest scandal in Canadian history.
Pierre would not be pleased.
Dr. Allan Bonner, MSc, DBA, is a crisis manager based in Toronto.