Margaret Trudeau talks 2011 Canadian Election

Margaret Trudeau

Margaret Trudeau jokes, "24 Sussex is the crown jewel of the federal penitentiary system." (Julia Pelish photo)

If you want to get inspired about Canada, about Canadian politics, about the qualities that make so many of us proud to call this country home, forget the people running for election and go listen to Margaret Trudeau speak.

On Sunday afternoon, I attended a fundraiser in Kingston in which Trudeau was the headline speaker. Bubbly, warm, radiant, hilarious and tear-provokingly candid, Trudeau showed more spirit in one half-hour than either Stephen Harper or Michael Ignatieff has demonstrated in two weeks.

In describing her fight with bi-polar disorder, she told the audience at Kingston City Hall about hitting “rock bottom” after the deaths of her son, Michel, in 1998 and then her “beloved Pierre” two years later.

“I wore a mask, so many of us wear masks to hide who we are, and it was so much effort to keep that mask on,” she said in a moving account of her struggles and triumphs over mental illness.

She declared herself to now be “joyous and happy,” and genuinely looked it.

Married at 22, the wife of a Prime Minister, the focus of a nation and now a grandmother, cheerleader for her politician son and staunch advocate for the mentally challenged, Trudeau wants action. When I asked her why mental-health isn’t a topic of conversation among the candidates for the May 2 Canadian federal election, the reply was blunt.

“They’re all staying away from the mental-health issue, which they always do,” she said. “It’s just not a sexy issue. Yet one out of three Canadians will suffer depression in their lifetime. Every family is affected by mental illness. The help that is offered is wonderful but it’s not enough.”

While promoting her bestselling memoir, “Changing My Mind,” Trudeau, 62, took a few minutes to answer some more questions about the upcoming election and her past. Here are her statements, some of them given to me, others to the audience at the Horizons of Friendship Fundraiser, which benefits developing communities in Central America and Mexico.

On her son Justin Trudeau’s chances of defending his Parliament seat in the Papineau, Quebec riding: “Oh, he’s going to do wonderfully. He works very hard in his riding. He’s a fighter.

“I wish more young Canadians will get into politics and change the face of politics. I hope Justin will be able to do that.”

On hearing that I plan on not voting for the first time: “I’m so sorry to hear that. If we don’t vote, it shows a level of apathy and lack of engagement in our society and in fact that’s what we need more of. On a community basis, we need people to care.”

On life as a Prime Minister’s wife: “I have always said that 24 Sussex is the crown jewel of the federal penitentiary system.”

On editing of her memoir: “I don’t care if this book doesn’t sell a single copy anywhere outside of Canada. I wanted this book to be for Canadians, for Canadian women and for all of those who struggle with depression in some form.”

On women’s health: “I have always said that whoever in the future is able to cure hormonal imbalance in women, so our hormones and brain chemistry are in sync, will win the Nobel prize. But not for medicine, for peace.”

On the FLQ Crisis: “Everything changed after that. It was agonizing for Pierre and for me. Here he was, a great champion of democracy having to decide to impose martial law of all things. … But he has been proven right. He was able to nip it in the bud.”

On changing writers from Englishwoman Caroline Moorehead to Canadian Larry Scanlan toward completion of her memoir: “The book wasn’t so much a collaboration as — dare I use the word — a coalition of forces.”

More on mental health: “Mental health-care is the second-biggest cost to our health-care system after cardiovascular care. It’s a big, big need, and I just see it from travelling across the country as a public speaker and talking to mental health care workers and seeing that they are underfunded.”

“I hope that the electorate will understand that we need more social programs for the mentally challenged. We need more beds instead of jail cells. We need to have that for the community, for the health of our society.”

Other authors in attendance included Karen Connelly, Charles Foran and Carolyn Smart, and singer-songwriter Ian Tamblyn performed.

Horizons of Friendship raised $29,000 last year and has raised more than $74 million since 1973, when it was created to fight poverty and build healthy communities in developing nations such as Costa Rica and Nicaragua.


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