WATERLOO, ON. (CUP) — She carries one of the most famous last names in Canadian history; a name that remains synonymous with the highest order of politics – a moniker that still brings to mind both success and scandal in almost equal measure.
“Trudeaumania,” recalls Jim Tate, a Wilfrid Laurier Univeristy alum who graduated in the 1960’s. “It was unbelievable. When [Pierre Trudeau] would show, there would be girls screaming after him.” It was this type of high-profile, paparazzi-buzzing environment that Margaret Trudeau was thrust into when she married the former prime minister and became the first lady of Canada at the tender age of 22.
“She was known as a flower child,” says Tate about the vivacious young woman who, along with attending White House dinners and entertaining dignitaries, was famous for dancing at Club 54 and partying with the Rolling Stones. “She was very young : and it was a lot of pressure.” All the publicity concerning her marriage and the burden of being a first lady took its toll on Margaret Trudeau – she separated from Pierre after six years of marriage, with their divorce becoming official in 1984. But she remains irrevocably tied to the Trudeau legacy and the ever-present public role that comes with it. “Would I marry a prime-minister now? Hmm : maybe if he was a cute enough one,” jokes the former first lady, at Laurier for a recent WaterCan event.
Now approaching her sixties, Trudeau feels far more comfortable with a fame she once may have been reluctant to embrace. “I would have been much better prepared for the role of prime minister’s wife with what I know now instead of what I didn’t know when I was only 22,” she says. “I was very good for raising children and doing what my husband wanted to do for the good of the family … as for being able to make a big contribution, I tried my best.”
The way she speaks about her children, one gets the sense that nothing means more to her. She inadvertently reveals how her eldest son, Justin, still refers to her as “mommy,” and her voice is noticeably brighter when she talks about him. Perhaps it is her nature as a loving parent that drives her to work for WaterCan, an Ottawa-based non-profit organization that travels to developing countries to provide better access to clean drinking water and proper sanitation. She is at Laurier to honour the fundraising efforts of its students: professor Robert Christy and his sociology classes have raised nearly $8,000 for WaterCan since 2002, with $2,000 raised this year alone.
As the honourary president of WaterCan, Trudeau accepts this donation gratefully. She has been to some of the most desolate places in the world, places where contaminated, undrinkable water is killing thousands of people – mostly children – everyday. When she visits with women who have suffered through such tragedy, she relates to them. In 1998, her son Michel, an avid outdoorsman, was caught in an avalanche, his life cut short at age twenty-three. In northern Uganda, a freshwater well now stands in Michel’s memory thanks to his mother.
“I know the tragedy of losing a child, but to lose all your children from something that could be prevented…” she says, shaking her head. “It’s humiliating to die the way they die.” By helping villagers install easily-maintained hand-pumps and protecting springs with concrete, a sustainable and clean drinking source is created. It is something that she says is improving the quality of lives. When she goes back to visit these places, after they have had clean water, she asks the women what the biggest difference is.
“Our children are not dying,” is the response.
“Water is precious – we take it for granted because we are water-rich, but most of the world does not have safe, clean water,” says Trudeau. She warns that developing nations like Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Ethiopia are not the only places in the world that must worry about water. Canada itself, abundant as it is with clean water, will play a role in what Trudeau calls “a looming water crisis.”
She says that Canada must maintain control over this important natural resource, and fears that American interest in Canadian water could lead to over-consumption and perhaps irreversible damage in the future. She points out that American companies have unlimited use of water when they operate in the tar sands of Alberta. “Canada will play a role as the “?water jug’ of America,” she says.
It’s a role that will undoubtedly be filled by the Canadian youth of today. Trudeau says that despite all the reasons to feel pessimistic – the reckless abuse of water in North America contrasted by the desperate struggle for something clean to drink in places like Ethiopia – she sees hope in the Laurier students that raised $2,000 for the cause. The donation she has just received is not just any cheque; it’s an indication that this generation of Canadians is looking towards the future.
“I think young people are our hope. They’re the ones who are actually going to make a difference.”
Youth is something that Margaret Trudeau still remains connected with. Though she’s no longer the famous flower-child of the 70’s, vitality continues to radiate from her. Very few individuals have had to live with more public scrutiny than she has, but there is nothing world-weary in the way she interacts with people. One gets the impression that a part of her still remembers what it was like to be one-half of Canadian history’s most charismatic couple.
“I think I woke up some minds then – I hope to continue that.”