The end of the sexual revolution, the start of a new awakening?

Justin Trudeau must set a new standard for sexual propriety in great part because his father dismantled traditional values

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It feels like good fortune to watch this full circle moment when the son must grapple with what the father wrought.

Mere weeks ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke emphatically about his insistence on proper conduct between the sexes on Parliament Hill and, by extension, among Canadians generally.

While North America grapples with the newest variation on age-old tensions between men and women, Trudeau was clear his calibration point for sexually-related impropriety is zero tolerance.

“We have no tolerance for this … we will not brush things under the rug … we will take action immediately (by) modelling (what) we hope to see across the Hill (and) throughout workforces and workplaces in Canada,” he told The Canadian Press. 

Yet when the prime minister faced media questions about a cabinet minister who’d stepped down over allegations of sexual harassment, he complained of being in uncharted territory. 

“I don’t have a rulebook that’s been handed down to me from Wilfrid Laurier as leader of the Liberal Party on how to handle these situations,” he said. 

The case of the ex-minster (and the case of a member of the prime minister’s office facing similar accusations) are in due process and need no further comment here. Yet their very existence underscores the difficulty Justin Trudeau faces, in large measure because of what former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau brought about. The son must now man up to overcome his father.

Pierre Trudeau certainly didn’t create the sexual revolution in Canada. He was, though, its public, legal and political catalyst. The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation, he famously declared. As federal justice minister, then as prime minister, his business was dismantling existing models of sexual propriety.

For many at the time, Pierre Trudeau’s undermining and demolition of sexual mores constituted the destruction of millennia of Judeo-Christian defences against libertinism. Others welcomed it as liberating elimination of impediments to human sexual flourishing. Temporarily, Trudeau the liberator won. History appeared to be on his side, not on the side of the traditional values. 

Although Pierre Trudeau died in September 2000, the course he mapped for Canada long ago has defined what’s politically, socially and culturally possible to collectively think about sexual conduct. We followed his path from 1967 until Sept. 27, 2017. 

That day the music died for the sexual revolution. Hugh Hefner expired. His death at 91 confirmed how old, how enfeebled, how irrational, how, frankly, creepy the embedded revolution really was.

Whether by the active hand of God or not, the Harvey Weinstein scandal erupted on the front page of the New York Times 11 days later. Ensuing images created a tableau vivant of how revolutions die: corpulent, corrupt, ripe with solipsistic cruelty, quasi-barbaric.

Now we meet the maelstrom of confusion and opportunity that embodies the delivery of one historical era into another. We saw it relatively recently when the 1917 Russian Revolution came to its irrevocable end in 1989.

A key difference is that its signature event was breaking down the Berlin Wall as a harbinger of freedoms long denied. We, by contrast, face relearning how to rebuild solid boundaries because what began as an exercise in liberty foundered in libertinism for far too long.

As someone old enough to see the circle come fully around, I’m just barely wise enough to refrain from giving advice on reconstruction. But therein lies the challenge for Justin Trudeau. Indeed, for all of us. Where do Canadians learn what they no longer know? Where do they go to re-know what they no longer know they do not know?

Trudeau deserves our respect for being willing to lead the quest. But there are some fair questions to ask him:

Where will he find the rulebook he craves? What limitations does he face as the son of the father who catalyzed the abolition of age-old understandings? And what are we to do with the legacy of the elder Trudeau, who left us having to stand and watch this very difficult and uncertain future unfold?

Peter Stockland is senior writer with think tank Cardus and publisher of

trudeau, sexual revolution

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

Peter Stockland

Prior to joining Cardus, Peter Stockland was vice-president of English-language magazines for Readers' Digest Magazines Canada Ltd. He was also a former editor-in-chief of The Gazette newspaper in Montreal, a former editorial page editor of the Calgary Herald newspaper. He's worked as a journalist throughout Canada during a 30-year career in the media.

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