By Patrick Rogers
October 16, 2000 12:00 PM

Once, in the 1970s, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was enjoying a canoe expedition with friends in the Arctic wilderness when they came upon a gang of grizzly bears on the river bank. To the astonishment of Craig Oliver, a journalist on the trek, the Canadian leader paddled ashore and chased the bears up a hillside, leaving Oliver behind with a gun. When he caught up, Oliver, now 61, chided Trudeau: “That was foolish. You could have been killed.” Trudeau looked him coolly in the eye and smiled. “How many bullets were in the rifle?” he asked. “Six,” Oliver replied. “There were only five bears,” said Trudeau.

That reckless flair, coupled with his intellectual brilliance, movie star looks and passion for justice, captured the imagination of Canadians and Americans alike during Trudeau’s 16 years as his nation’s premier—from 1968 to 1984 (save one nine-month period out of power). “His eyes were like lasers,” says Peter Mansbridge, chief correspondent for CBC News. “He disarmed you. And when he left, it was like the oxygen was sucked out of the room.”

After he died at age 80 on Sept. 28, losing a long battle with Parkinson’s disease, prostate cancer and pneumonia, tens of thousands lined up to view his casket as he lay in state in Ottawa and then Montreal, many bringing a rose in memory of Trudeau’s signature boutonniere. “Trudeau put Canada on the map,” says James Blanchard, a former United States ambassador to Ottawa. “He made Canadians proud.”

He also kept them vastly entertained. Amid political milestones like giving Canada its own constitution and a bill of rights, the Montreal-born politician once performed a pirouette in front of reporters at Buckingham Palace and entertained John Lennon and Yoko Ono at his office in Ottawa. Both a playboy and an early proponent of women’s lib, he dated Margot Kidder and Barbra Streisand, who later ruefully told a reporter, “Trudeau was a man I wasn’t ready for.” His 1971 marriage to Margaret Sinclair broke up six years later, after Margaret, a former flower child 29 years his junior, began hanging out with the Rolling Stones.

Yet for all of his public panache, Canada’s most famous politician tended to keep his feelings to himself. “He’s private, even from our perspective,” Trudeau’s son Sacha, now 26, said on TV last year. “I guess he’s had kind of a lonely life.”

Trudeau was the middle son of a wealthy French-Canadian entrepreneur and his Scottish-French wife. He earned a law degree in Montreal and studied at Harvard, in Paris and at the London School of Economics before winning a Liberal party seat in parliament in 1965. Appointed minister of justice two years later, Trudeau liberalized laws on divorce, abortion and homosexuality. He ran successfully for prime minister in 1968—and “Trudeaumania,” as pundits called the public’s approbation, was born.

During Trudeau’s years in office, he sometimes irked his country’s giant neighbor to the south by personally greeting American draft evaders at the border and befriending Cuba’s Fidel Castro. At home, Trudeau established a bilingual Canada and thwarted the sometimes violent separatist movement in French-speaking Quebec. Eventually voters cooled to Trudeau, who resigned in 1984.

As a private citizen he devoted himself to his children: Sarah, 9, his daughter with constitutional lawyer Deborah Coyne, 45; and his three sons with Margaret—Justin, 28, Sacha and Michel, who was killed in an avalanche in 1998 at age 23. Devastated, Trudeau saw his own health rapidly decline after Michel’s death. “I noticed a big difference,” says classical guitarist Liona Boyd, 50, a former lover. Even so, she feels Trudeau never lost his magnetism. “You can’t fake that,” Boyd says. “He was born with a twinkle in his eye.”

Patrick Rogers

Constance Droganes in Toronto, John Hannah in Los Angeles, Linda Killian in Washington, D.C., and Steve Erwin in Montreal