Pierre Trudeau – Connoisseur and Perfectionist – on the Hanbury by David Silcox

Pierre and David

We had had a long, strenuous day. The brisk west wind had stiffened considerably by mid-morning and made the crossing of Hoare Lake, an inescapable part of our route, a tense and dangerous one. Following that, we had to face the rough and lengthy portage around Dixon Canyon, a second brutal test, even if no one was likely to drown. Traversing the lake had begun with a nervous debate about whether to go around the perimeter (safely near the shore, but taking at least four hours and probably more), or to chance going straight across (about a mile in perhaps less than an hour, but at high risk). The waves were already ominously high for open canoes and were getting whiter and choppier while we fretted in a huddle on the windward shore. We were several hundred miles from anywhere on the Hanbury-Thelon river system in the Northwest Territories, and it was August 1979.

Each of us knew that, if a canoe capsized in the middle of the lake, it would be almost impossible to save anyone without imperilling everyone.

“What happens if one of our canoes capsizes?” was the unanswered question on everyone’s mind. And then someone asked it. We all looked into the distance, or at our feet, or shuffled, or scratched ourselves. Trudeau answered the question.

“I guess we just sing louder and paddle harder,” he said. And so, with a forced laugh, we got into our canoes. Although one canoe had to do some bailing, we all reached the far shore and headed on down the river.

Dixon Canyon

We reached Dixon Canyon well past the normal dinner hour. The portage was over rocky terrain and early enough in the trip that the weight of food and fuel were still near the maximum. The freezer box that – as the self-appointed chef – I was experimenting with, while of modest dimensions (an eighteen-inch cube), was awkward to carry and an irritant to everyone when it was their turn to hump it. Nevertheless, I thought it, and the little box of spices I had carefully prepared, would greatly improve the boring and pedestrian meals we’d been subjected to on earlier trips.

David & Craig Route Planning

We made camp on a rocky knoll overlooking the canyon. Everyone was hungry and on the verge of grumpy. While the “happy hour” of daiquiris was being served up by our chief bartender, Craig Oliver (Trudeau, who had said he didn’t want any alcoholic drinks, was always in with his cup), I got busy with my first “coup” in the kitchen. My ambition was to serve great one-pot main courses that had variety nutrition, were not unduly heavy to carry, and were relatively quick to cook.

Over the fireplace, in the largest pot, I began my first creation. I started by heating the white wine that I had brought in my personal pack. As it was warming, Trudeau came over to ask what was for dinner. Like the others, he didn’t want to have to wait too long to get at it, whatever it was.

“Cheese fondue,” I answered cheerfully. He paused, thinking perhaps I was pulling his leg, and then asked, as if he didn’t know the answer, isn’t made with white wine?”

“That’s what’s in the pot,” I said. “And a good wine too.” I flashed the empty Meursault bottle at him.

“What kind of cheese do you have?” he asked next. “I’ve got Emmenthal and Gruyere, of course,” I replied, pointing these out to him on a plate. I hadn’t really eaten either of these very often before this, so I was taking a recipe on faith. This seemed to satisfy him temporarily, yet, as he wandered off, I thought he was still skeptical, either believing the choice of dish inappropriate, or expecting that the result of my labours would be less than perfect.

A few minutes later he was back again, settling in near the fire, as if presence could hurry things along.

“Hasn’t cheese fondue traditionally been made with a bit of kirsch?”asked, by now disguising his doubt with a smile. He didn’t want to be too critical, lest his dinner be held hostage. By his tone he didn’t want to insulting either, but at the same time he seemed to want to be on the record that certain standards for cheese fondue were expected.

I reached into my little box of carefully measured spices and special ingredients (Cointreau for the mandarin oranges, for example) and held a small vial of clear liquid as an answer. He smiled and conceded.

Cherries Jubilee

“And if you’d like a little freshly grated nutmeg to top it off, I have it too.” At that point, he decided I was The Chef. Our subsequent meals, which featured such items as watercress and mulligatawny soups, a memorable rabbit stew, great fish chowder, and Cherries Jubilee, I think, reinforced his decision.

Trudeau had been a national celebrity for more than a decade before I met him on our 1979 canoe trip, during the time the Liberal government was temporarily in opposition. His political philosophy and his personal life had been dissected so extensively that I thought I knew whom I was going to meet. The readiness for intellectual debate I expected, the sly irony and humour, and the daring man ready to run any rapid anyone else did, I expected too. But three things about him surprised me completely, and they became clear to me over the two weeks or so, every day and hour we spent together in the Arctic.


First, he was a perfectionist. This showed itself in myriad ways. He always did his very best, and he expected others to do the same. He packed his canoe very carefully, after bundling his own gear up meticulously. He wasn’t fastidious or fussy about these things; he just wanted them to be right, and well and properly done. When it was his turn to wash up the dishes after dinner, he did it better than anyone else.

Once, when I was preparing dinner, he wandered behind me as I worked on the kitchen counter (an upturned canoe), and I heard him stop at the fireplace that someone else had just made and say “Merde!” half in disbelief and half in disgust. As I heard rocks hitting rocks, I turned in time to see him kicking the whole rather awkward structure apart. He then proceeded to build a proper fireplace, and certainly a more practical and functional one, out of the same stones.

Second, he was shy and personal. The arrogance that has often been remarked about him, I attribute to his shyness – a combative overcompensation for wanting, really, to disguise his essentially gentle nature. Whenever any of our mutual friends were mentioned, his first question always was “How is he/she?” or “Is he well?” or “Is everyone in his family well?” or “How are he and his wife?” This concern for the personal well-being of colleagues, past and present, was an aspect of him I did not expect.

When he and I flew out together, in a little two-passenger Cessna, a four-hour flight from Hornby Point, we had a long chat about Margaret, from whom he was then separated. He was both worried about her and sad for her – a sort of melancholy sadness. Certainly there was no malice and no recrimination or resentment expressed, and I sensed that he would have done almost anything to help her.

Pierre and Jean

Lastly, I didn’t know about his immense reverence for and delight in being out in the wilderness. I knew that he canoed and liked camping but, given his highly keyed sensibilities, I was not prepared for the exultation he felt in being in that vast, unforgiving expanse of tundra.

Sometimes we talked about the profound sense of time’s immensity that one feels so acutely there, where life is so transitory in the summer, where eons seem visible in the etched stone and the tenacious lichens, where change takes place over centuries, and “forever” seems like a real possibility. We were, we decided, the most transitory of travellers in a special time and place, children of a long-lived and implacable nature, both enthralled by and fearful of our awareness of our own brief lives.

This aspect of Trudeau was evident when we talked about our trips over lunches in later years. I’ve never seen it much referred to, yet I suspect that, like the religious side of his life that came to the fore upon his death, it was a larger part of his character and formed more of the basis of his view of the world than anyone can imagine.

Helen Falls, on the Hanbury River – August 1979

L-R Back: John Gow, Peter Stollery, Craig Oliver, Jean Pelletier, John Godfrey. L-R front: David Silcox, Tim Kotcheff, Pierre Trudeau.