Talking with Pierre by Ted Johnson
Ted Johnson was Executive assistant to Pierre Trudeau, 1980-84; canoe partner; and friend.
In 1996, roughly the same canoe team on the Stikine assembled for three days in midsummer to paddle the Petawawa River in Ontario’s Algonquin Park. Pierre was then in his late seventies, in fine condition, and keen to be out in the wilds. I remember well his quiet frustration at how slow some of our number were to load our copious equipment into our canoes and get on the river. He travelled light – a minimum of gear in one well-travelled pack, a well-used paddle, and no camera. His memory served as his camera.
Once on the river, he loosened up, literally and figuratively. Canoes would come together and paddle side by side for a shared conversation, then drift apart for a few miles before someone would begin a story or toss out a controversial thought, and we’d bunch up again to chew the fat. It was the same in the evenings around the campfire – warm conversation followed by contemplative silences followed by more chat.
Friends ask, “What would Trudeau talk about?” The fact is, he listened more than he talked, though he’d join in, particularly when a topic was controversial. Inevitably we’d get on to politics and history. Thucydides, Rimbaud, and Robert Frost were occasionally referred to. And he was quick to correct the record if one of us made a half-baked assertion. Canoeing was itself a popular topic, and he enjoyed recounting stories of his James Bay trip, or the latest excursion with his good friends the Mason family in the Gatineau. And he would talk enthusiastically about his boys. The three of them were the centre of his universe.
But I think it’s fair to say we were all particularly struck by his curiosity. He loved to ask questions on just about any topic under discussion and, with his razor-sharp intellect, he was able to come up with the tough, higher-order questions that would force us to think harder or (rare for our boisterous and opinionated gang) intimidate us into silence.
A canoe trip is a communal operation. The work is shared fairly equally, and Pierre went out of his way to do more than his bit. When it was his turn to wash the dishes by the shore of the river, the blackened cooking pots would come back as shiny as when they were new. (Some of us resented this, as we thought well-blackened pots were a badge of outdoor experience.) Indeed, on the Petawawa trip -where he was a good eighteen years older than the next-oldest participant – I found him carrying two full-sized packs across a long portage. I decided I had to do something.
“Pierre,” I said, “I have to ask you to carry a lighter load; you’re undermining the morale of the younger men on the expedition!”
When our canoes nosed up on the beach on McManus Lake at the end of the Petawawa trip, none of us knew it was the last time we would paddle together with Pierre. For each of us, the memories of our excursions with him are strong. The pleasure of tripping with this energetic, thoughtful, fascinating, generous, and considerate paddler was a privilege given to very few.