Trudeaumania Part II: Passionate Politics in a Canadian 21st Century Media Event

Emily West


In 2000 former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, age 80, died, and was remembered in a televised state funeral in his native Montreal after four days of vigils and round-the-clock coverage. Trudeau had dominated the Canadian political scene over three decades, launching into it in 1968 on a wave of what was described then and since as Trudeaumania. Some dubbed the public response to his death as a new, more subdued version of Trudeaumania. It was deemed to be unprecedented, both in its scale and its emotional intensity. Based on a large sample of both English and French-language newspaper, magazine, and television coverage, this paper uses the media coverage of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s death and funeral to investigate contemporary rites of national mourning, their representation by the press, and their evaluation by scholars. The concern was voiced by some at the time of Trudeau’s death that for funerals of public figures like these the news media drop even the pretense of objectivity, and slip into “memorial broadcasting.” My analysis leads me to argue that, generally speaking, the news coverage of the Trudeau funeral framed the event as a time of national mourning and idealized Canadian emotional unity in remembering Trudeau, while simultaneously acknowledging the political dissent and division that he inspired. Despite divided opinion about what exactly Trudeau had meant for Canada, he provided a common object of attention and memory – “everyone” participated in the remembering, even if they came to different conclusions about the same events. The felt obligation or compulsion to remember and observe did not necessarily indicate reverence and respect for the man and his policies, but acknowledgement of his relevance to national group membership, even when that group membership was resented (as for many Québécois). I suggest that both the way the events were covered in the press and scholarly responses to these kinds of rites of national mourning point to a distrust of the emotional authenticity of ritualized crowd response. The prominence of emotional scripts in public mourning creates doubt about the authenticity of the motivations or emotions of mourners, leading to an insistence upon the spontaneity and voluntary nature of crowd participation by reporters and commentators. This paper argues that critiques of political spectacles and their media representations need to go beyond suspicion of ritualized group emotion, and attend to the conditions of crowd production and the nature of its media representation.

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