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How views of Pierre Trudeau led RCMP to provide first close security for an ex-PM

OTTAWA — With threats against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spiking in recent years, newly released historical records reveal the security concerns the RCMP had when his father was getting ready to leave office.
Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau gets a final slaute from RCMP guard as he leaves 24 Sussex Dr. June 30, 1984 after resigning as prime minister. Trudeau drove his Mercedes sports car to Harrington Lake for the weekend. With threats against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spiking in recent years, newly released historical records reveal the security concerns the RCMP had when his father was getting ready to leave office. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

OTTAWA — With threats against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spiking in recent years, newly released historical records reveal the security concerns the RCMP had when his father was getting ready to leave office.

Pierre Trudeau retired in 1984 after serving as prime minister for two stints adding up to 15 years. He had been first elected in 1968.

As Trudeau prepared to retire, records show that security officials did not see any current threats against him — but that they believed his track record could invite future ones.

And the documents show that those potential threats led the RCMP to recommend heightened security for a former prime minister for the first time.

"It is fair to say that Prime Minister Trudeau's years in office were often marked by controversy," reads a threat assessment labelled "secret," dated April 25, 1984.

"His perceived aloof personality, provocative political style and stance on several domestic and international issues elicited strong emotive reactions from Canadians of all political stripe," the document says.

"The prime minister has initiated legislation, formed government policy and expressed views on many issues that continue to aggravate, embitter or irritate sectors of the Canadian public."

Among the issues officials listed were the 1982 Constitution, the former National Energy Program, official bilingualism and the decision to allow the U.S. government to test cruise missiles in the early 1980s. 

Others ranged from the separatist movement in Quebec to Trudeau's 1970 use of the War Measures Act — which would later be replaced by the Emergencies Act, first invoked by Trudeau's son last year to clear the "Freedom Convoy" blockades.

The 1984 assessment, which was first released to a requestor under the Access to Information Act and later obtained by The Canadian Press, states that while is it expected for a prime minister's record to be judged, "public reaction to Mr. Trudeau's stand on several issues ... runs the gamut from outright rejection to unabashed approval."

Historian and author Robert Bothwell, who studied Pierre Trudeau's time in power, said that from his earliest days as prime minister, there were groups who despised him.

"You couldn't even put it in a category. ... They look at Trudeau, and I think that was enough."

For Steve Hewitt, a professor at the University of Birmingham who specializes in intelligence and the RCMP,  the documents symbolize "the emergence of a Canada into a modern security era."

One "where even former prime ministers remain at potential risk and this protection for them must continue even after they leave office," he said in an email.

Indeed, one year before Trudeau even announced his plans to step down, the former director of protective policing penned a letter forwarded to the then-RCMP commissioner that said the government would likely request such security. 

"This would be a first as past prime ministers have never been given close personal security after leaving office," the letter reads.

"I should further qualify this by stating that the threat situation in Canada, and throughout the world, has slowly escalated during the past 10 to 12 years."

Ultimately, then-RCMP head Robert Simmonds recommended to Canada's top civil servant at the time that despite police not knowing of a direct threat against Trudeau, "a reasonable level of security should be maintained for some time to come," and assessed by spring 1985.

"There are those who will praise him for everything that has taken place, and unfortunately, those who will blame him for almost everything that has not developed to their liking," Simmonds said in the recommendation.

He specified the plan was for Trudeau and his children to receive 24-security at his Montreal residence and escorts on "all movements."

After reviewing the documents, Hewitt suggested that officials might have been thinking about the 1981 attempted assassination of U.S. President Ronald Regan by John Hinkley, a man whom a jury declared not guilty by reason of insanity in 1982. 

The assessment for Trudeau, prepared two years later, concluded that "the greatest threat to the prime minister's future safety would appear likely to come from (a) mentally disturbed individual," while risks from "extreme left-wing and right-wing groups" were minimal. 

Since 1979, the assessment says, at least 20 threats had been made to Trudeau's life. That included one that threatened his children.

The fact Trudeau had three children also posed a special risk, Hewitt suggested — regardless of the political enemies he made over his years in office, during which he did not shy away from confrontation.  

The documents also detail the kind of security the former prime minister was comfortable with, and how police planned for his return to private life in Montreal.

The French-language documents show that security provisions included installing telephones in the limousines Trudeau travelled in.

And they detail how he requested that officers keep their distance while during a trip with his sons to Quebec's Gaspé Peninsula in August 1984. 

By February 1985, documents say that Trudeau's security in Montreal determined that he and his kids no longer needed a personal detail at all times.

Instead, they would only be provided with such security when Trudeau was attending official events or when a specific threat was levelled against him.

Trudeau had been part of the conversation around how much security was needed. 

The documents say, for example, that he expressed he didn't think the family would need security escorts while on the ski slopes during a different trip. 

Justin Trudeau would have been a teenager at the time. 

Later in his life, as a newly elected prime minister in 2016, the fact that body guards accompanied him and his family while snowboarding in Whistler, B.C., made headlines.

Unlike his father, Trudeau governs in the age of social media, which experts agree has only amplified the anger against him and other political leaders. 

Public opposition to his government and health authorities' handling of the COVID-19 pandemic with policies such as vaccination and mask mandates — measures that have nearly all since disappeared — saw crowds of angry protesters following Trudeau at his public appearances during the 2021 federal election campaign. 

That anger culminated in January 2022, when thousands of protesters descended on the streets around Parliament Hill and at several border crossings, many of them waving anti-Trudeau flags emblazoned with expletives and demanding he leave office.

Bothwell said he sees some similarities in how both Trudeaus became targets for people's anger — and at times their hate.

But the father and son had "very different personalities," he said.

"Pierre would have never put up with the convoy."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 16, 2023. 

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

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