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Style within the centre: Pierre Trudeau, the War Measures Act, and the nature of prime ministerial power

Authors

  • H.D. Munroe


  • The author is a doctoral candidate, Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, University of Calgary. The late Professor Peter Aucoin both inspired this article and provided very helpful suggestions during its preparation. Thanks are also due to Kaija Belfry for advice, insight and comments; the Hon. Marc Lalonde and other participants in this research for sharing their experiences; Mr. Lalonde for authorizing access to the Personal and Political Documents Series of the Trudeau Fonds; a number of anonymous reviewers for their comments; and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their support of this research. An earlier version of this article was presented at the annual conference of the Canadian Political Science Association, 3 June 2010, in Montreal.

Abstract

The notion that the prime minister of Canada wields autocratic power is common in popular and academic discourse. Donald Savoie's work on the subject implies that this is an inevitable result of centripetal forces in Canadian politics, combined with a process of centralization that began with Pierre Trudeau in the late 1960s. Peter Aucoin's analysis of the role of prime ministerial management styles, however, suggests that there may be more scope for individual agency than a narrow reading of Savoie implies. An investigation of the decision-making process in the Trudeau government that led to the invocation of the War Measures Act in October 1970 lends credence to the view that, despite centralizing pressures, the exercise of prime ministerial power is significantly shaped by personal style. This suggests that the putative “elected dictatorship” of the prime minister is not an inevitable consequence of the current institutional configuration of power, as is sometimes suggested.

Sommaire

L'opinion que le premier ministre du Canada exerce un pouvoir autocratique est répandue dans les débats populaires et universitaires. Les écrits de M. Savoie sur le sujet impliquent que cela est un résultat inévitable des forces centripètes de la politique canadienne, combinées à un processus de centralisation qui a commencé avec M. Trudeau vers la fin des années 1960. L'analyse de M. Aucoin sur le rôle des styles de gestion des premiers ministres donne à penser cependant que l'individu joue un rôle plus important que ce qu'implique une interpretation étroite des écrits de M. Savoie. Une recherche sur le processus de prise de décisions du gouvernement Trudeau qui a conduit à l'invocation de la Loi sur les mesures de guerre en octobre 1970 laisse à penser que, malgré les pressions centralisatrices, le style personnel influence énormément la manière dont le premier ministre exerce le pouvoir. Par conséquent, la présumée « dictature élu » du premier ministre n'est pas une conséquence inévitable de la configuration institutionnelle actuelle du pouvoir, comme on l'insinue parfois.

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