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

As threats to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have surged in recent years, newly released records show security concerns at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) as his father prepares to leave office.

Pierre Trudeau retired in 1984 after serving two terms totaling 15 years. He was first elected in 1968.

As Trudeau prepares to retire, records show security officials see no current threats against him — but they believe his record could invite future threats.

Those potential threats led the RCMP to recommend, for the first time, increased security for the former prime minister, the documents show.

A April 25, 1984, threat assessment marked “confidential” reads: “It is fair to say that Prime Minister Trudeau’s years in office have been often controversial.”

“His perceived aloof personality, provocative political style, and positions on several domestic and international issues elicited strong emotional responses from Canadians of all political stripes,” the document said.

“The Prime Minister has initiated legislation, set government policy, and expressed his views on many issues that continue to aggravate, irritate, or enrage the Canadian public.”

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

Others range from the separatist movement in Quebec to Trudeau’s use of the War Measures Act in 1970 – which was later replaced by the Emergency Act, which was first invoked by Trudeau’s son last year to clear the “freedom convoy” blockade.

The 1984 assessment, first released to requesters under the Access to Information Act and later obtained by The Canadian Press, noted that while judgment was expected on the prime minister’s record, “the public’s perception of Mr. Trudeau’s performance on several issues Questions of reaction to the position … ranged from outright rejection to unabashed approval.”

Historian and author Robert Bothwell of Pierre Trudeau’s administration said that from his earliest days as prime minister, he was despised by some groups.

“You can’t even put it in one category. … They look at Trudeau and I think that’s enough.”

For Birmingham University professor Steve Hewitt, who specializes in intelligence and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the documents symbolize “Canada’s entry into the modern era of security.”

“Even former prime ministers remain at potential risk and their protection must continue even after they leave office,” he said in an email.

In fact, a year before Trudeau even announced his plans to step down, the former conservation police chief wrote a letter forwarded to the then-RCMP commissioner saying the government might demand such security.

“This will be the first time since the previous prime minister has never been given close personal security after leaving office,” the letter read.

“I should further substantiate this by pointing out that over the past 10 to 12 years, the threat landscape in Canada and around the world has slowly escalated.”

Eventually, then-RCMP chief Robert Symonds suggested to Canada’s top civil servant at the time that, although police were unaware of the immediate threat Trudeau faced, “a reasonable level of security should be maintained for some time to come,” and in 1985 will be evaluated in the spring of each year.

“Some people will praise him for everything that happened, and unfortunately some people will blame him for pretty much everything that didn’t turn out to their liking,” Symonds said in his recommendation.

He specified that the plan is for Trudeau and his children to be subject to 24-hour security at his Montreal residence and to be escorted “in all operations.”

After reviewing the documents, Hewitt suggested that officials may have been considering John Hinkley’s attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan in 1981, which a jury found in spirit in 1982. He was acquitted on grounds of insanity.

An assessment of Trudeau two years later concluded that “the greatest threat to the prime minister’s future security appears likely to come from (a) unhinged individuals”, with little risk from “extreme left-wing and right-wing groups”.

Trudeau’s life has been threatened at least 20 times since 1979, the assessment said. Among them was a man who threatened his children.

Hewitt said the fact that Trudeau has three children also poses a particular risk — no matter how many political enemies he has made during his tenure in office, he has not shied away from confrontation.

The documents also detail what kind of security the former prime minister is comfortable with and how police plan to return him to his private life in Montreal.

The French-language documents show that the security rules included installing a phone in the limousine Trudeau was traveling in.

They also detail how he asked officers to keep their distance when he traveled with his sons to Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula in August 1984.

By February 1985, the documents say Trudeau’s security in Montreal determined that he and his children no longer needed personal details at any time.

Instead, they get that security only when Trudeau attends official events or there are specific threats against him.

Trudeau has engaged in conversations about how much security is needed.

For example, he indicated that on another trip, he didn’t think the family needed a security escort while they were at the ski resort, the documents said.

Justin Trudeau was a teenager at the time.

Later in his life, as newly elected prime minister in 2016, bodyguards made headlines when they accompanied him and his family on a ski trip in Whistler, British Columbia.

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

Public opposition to his government and health authorities’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic through policies such as vaccinations and mandatory mask wearing — measures that have all but disappeared — saw hordes of angry protesters follow Trudeau in 2021. Public appearances during the 2008 federal election campaign.

The anger reached its peak in January 2022, when thousands of protesters, many of them waving anti-Trudeau banners emblazoned with expletives, flooded the streets around Parliament Hill and several border crossings, demanding his resignation.

Bothwell said he saw some parallels in how Trudeau became a target of anger — and sometimes hatred — in people.

But he said the father and son had “very different personalities”.

“Pierre will never tolerate the convoy.”

Stephanie Taylor, Canadian Press

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