'Know yourself and love yourself. Spend a lifetime doing this and you will connect with the reason you are here and know you are not alone.'

Unforgettable moments

Unforgettable and unforgettably human encounters with Pierre and Margaret Trudeau

By Alberte Villeneuve-Sinclair
True North Perspective

Alberte Villeneuve-Sinclair is the author of The Neglected Garden and two French novels. Visit her website to learn more, www.albertevilleneuve.ca.

Alberte Villeneuve-Sinclair

Last Sunday, I met my good friend Bobbi Florio Graham for dinner at Tuscanos in Gatineau. After spending two hours at Le Salon de la femme at the Hilton du lac Leamy, being duly impressed by all that is offered today's women and smiling at Dawn's, "You've come a long way, baby!", I was looking forward to a good meal and stimulating conversation.

As most women when they get together, Bobbi and I talked about everything under the sun. At one point, we talked about special encounters that had ultimately made us feel more self-confident or good about ourselves. I told Bobbi one of my most memorable meetings was spending half an hour with Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Bobbi was impressed! "When did that happen?" she inquired.

I laughed, "It's quite a story!"

1975! Here I was at the Civic hospital, waiting to give birth to my first baby. It was a slow process. People have often teased to the effect I only have one speed: SLOW! I had been in the delivery ward since early morning and still, around 11 p.m., labour hadn't progressed. Of course, I hadn't been given dinner ... just in case! The doctor had suggested I walk the hallway to speed things up. So I paced the floor, dressed in a blue gown opened at the back with another one on top, worn open at the front. Imagine how gorgeous I looked! I was hungry, thirsty and tired. I asked if I could please have a cup of tea. The nurse instructed me to head over at the end of the corridor where small lounge sofas provided a quiet and private sitting area. She would bring me some tea.

The Trudeaus.
The Trudeaus in an undated photo.
Margaret Kemper in 2007
Margaret Kemper in 2007.

While I was waiting, Pierre Trudeau showed up and sat down in front of me. He had just brought Margaret in. Her contractions had started during a concert at the NAC. He joked about the two older boys being born on Christmas Day ... Now, this was the first day of October and because of a full Harvest moon, the ward was running full-capacity with several deliveries due that night. Of course, I was first on that list and would remain there for a quite a while... There was nothing pretentious about Pierre Trudeau and my condition did not embarrass or otherwise bother him. He explained Margaret had enjoyed easy deliveries and had nursed both boys. This time, they were hoping for a baby girl ...

I innocently told Pierre my contractions had started the night before and because I couldn't sleep, I had cleaned kitchen cupboards since we had an unwelcome visitor in the house: a mouse. This prompted fresh stories of country living. Pierre and Margaret loved spending time at Harrington Lake and of course had encountered the same problem. So for a magical half hour, the prime minister of Canada was no different than you and me. He was the caring husband, a proud father, a friend, an unassuming man ... When a nurse announced he could now join his wife, he wished me a safe delivery and went on his way.

Of course, Margaret delivered her third son way before my daughter was born and since the maternity ward was full and I didn't give birth till 4:47 the next morning, they gave me a room in the obstetrics wing, close to the suite reserved for Margaret Trudeau. The next day, I was up and about, bursting with pride. Again, I met Pierre Elliott as he stepped out of the elevator with his two sons and two body guards. He remembered me and asked whether the baby was a girl or a boy. (No ultrasound back then) I proudly said it was a healthy 7 pounds 13 ounces baby girl. He congratulated me and announced Justin and Sacha had a new baby brother, born at 2:35. And, they didn't have a name for him yet ...

The following day, I met Margaret and congratulated her. She admitted they had only chosen one name "Zoé" and had no clue what to call this baby boy. She asked if she could see my daughter. I very proudly introduced Baby Adèle and she showed me her son. Again, conversation with Margaret was easy. We seemed to connect on a special level ... maternal love or maternal instinct, age... Who knows? In the days that followed, we walked the hallway together and chatted. It felt strange because two body guards followed us. My life was very private, not hers. I knew it bothered her and I understood.

We left the hospital within minutes of one another. But before parting, Margaret wrote in Adèle's baby book: "With our best wishes for a full and happy life, Adèle. Love, Margaret Trudeau and baby #3". She left with her entourage, amid the flashes of photographers. I waited for my sister to pick me up on her lunch hour. My husband had refused to leave work and take us home.

As I explained to Bobbi, after meeting our prime minister while dressed in a plain hospital gown with flip-flops on my feet, no makeup and having to catch my breath every few minutes because of contractions, I felt I could meet anyone and be comfortable.

As years went by, I followed the Trudeau family with great interest. I felt we shared a common bond. So like many, I was totally surprised when Margaret went off to New York and acted irresponsibly. This sassy, unpredictable woman was not the one I had met at the Civic. Then everything became crystal clear. Like my husband, Margaret was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (manic-depression in those days) at about the same time. I can't tell you how I admired her courage for going public with her problem. In those days, depression was a dirty word. We had been warned not to talk about my husband's diagnosis as it might ruin his chances for promotions.

Of course, the Trudeau marriage didn't survive. They divorced and I became a young widow. We were now living parallel lives, that of single parents. Margaret remarried and had two more children. I remarried in 1994.

Tragedy struck the Trudeau family in 1998. Michel, then 23, was swept away into a frigid lake by an avalanche in British Columbia. Brian, my British-Columbia born husband, and I felt so sorry for Margaret and Pierre and we worried for both. Overwhelmed by grief, Margaret drifted into a deep, depressive state. She couldn't eat, couldn't sleep or manage the pain. Depression had taken away her ability to cope, a condition I was all too familiar with. I firmly believe Pierre never fully recovered from the loss of his son. And when he died in 2000, Margaret totally lost control and went into a manic state of the disease.

She was finally admitted and spent three months at the Royal Ottawa Hospital where my first husband had been admitted years before. It would take another three years of talk therapy, trial medication and adjustments, diet and exercise before she could feel like herself again. They say "Happiness comes from what you feel, not who you are" and Margaret wanted to feel normal, in touch with her feelings.

As Margaret and I know, "mania" is the most out-of-control side of bipolar disease ... a time where one takes crazy chances, spends too much money and believes one is invincible. And as she admitted herself, "The collateral damage, especially to relationships, is terrible". Her marriage to Fried Kemper was one more casualty.

Margaret Trudeau now lives in Montreal, close to her children and grandchildren. She continues to be a spokesperson and ambassador for Watercan, an organization that brings clean water to communities in the developing countries. Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, Justin's wife, has shared this responsibility with her mother-in-law, traveling to Ethiopia for Watercan. Margaret also is an active speaker who challenges the stigma of mental illness and advocates for better treatment.

Sophie reminds me of the young Margaret. Her message to women is "Know yourself and love yourself. Spend a lifetime doing this and you will connect with the reason you are here and know you are not alone." She stresses that our biggest problems stem from fear and anxiety ... Remarkable wisdom for a young woman who credits motherhood for helping her to mature and find "real connection"!

Margaret's children and grandchildren are the emotional centre of her life. Through the joys and the hardships, she finds this "special connection". Margaret tries to live life with compassion. She doesn't envision another full time relationship. She needs her space and her life is full of love.

"Love is an act of faith and whoever is of little faith is also of little love. To love is to receive a glimpse of heaven."

I am sure Margaret, Sophie and Adèle would agree! I do too!

To Margaret: I hope our paths cross again one day.

To Bobbi: Thank you for inspiring this story.

To Carole: Now you know the story of my extraordinary encounter with Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Margaret.

Cheers to all!

2 April 2010 — Return to cover.