This week, heads of state from all across the French-speaking world are landing at Yerevan’s Zvartnots airport for the official kickoff of the 17th Francophonie Summit. For most of these leaders, this is a first visit, official or otherwise, to the land of apricots. However, for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, this trip will be somewhat unique. While this will indeed be the first trip by a sitting Canadian Prime Minister to Armenia, most may not know that this won’t be his first experience with Armenian hospitality.
While researching a previous piece on the upcoming Francophonie summit for the Weekly, I received an intriguing email from my uncle. In it were old photographs of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau—Justin Trudeau’s father—visiting the Armenian Genocide memorial at Dzidzernagapert.
The photos, depicting the newly-retired former Prime Minister Trudeau holding a red carnation—in the company of Prof. Lavrentiy Ashoti Barseghyan, then-Director of the Armenian Genocide Institute—were dated 1984; judging by the weather and the clothes worn, probably in the summer. Justin Trudeau, who would have been thirteen years old at the time, does not appear in any of the photographs. However, knowing that he had been sighted with his father in Moscow (all flights in and out of the USSR back then went through Moscow), I was willing to bet that may have been present in Yerevan as well. Sadly, our only link to the photograph, Prof. Barseghyan had passed away, and his family could not recall any specific details about that day.
Left with little choice but to piece together a moment in the lives of a former prime minister, and that of a sitting one, from bits of information and deductions, I dug through government archives for anything I could find about this trip.
By the time he left office in June of 1984, Pierre Trudeau had served as Prime Minister of Canada for the better part of sixteen turbulent years. A polarizing figure in Canadian politics since he first won my home riding of Mount-Royal in 1965, he was praised by supporters for introducing official bilingualism, multiculturalism and patriating the Canadian Constitution. Known as the ‘Swinging Prime Minister,’ his natural charisma and dapper style earned him his very own cult of personality, dubbed “Trudeaumania”; a moniker which would later be applied to his equally ‘selfie-genic’ son, Justin. Wary critics, however, denounced his cozy relationships with communist dictators, his disastrous economic policies and hedonistic lifestyle.
By the end of his last term, it was clear the job had taken its toll on the Prime Minister. He had presided over a hostage crisis in Montreal, an independence referendum in Quebec and a very public divorce. Throughout this time, he had managed to alienate Canada’s NATO allies, and at home, polarized both French-Canadian nationalists and the Western provinces.
Following a walk in a snowstorm, the philosopher-Prime Minister tearfully announced his retirement on June 30, 1984. Taking a break from public life, he and his children got on a plane and headed on the path of the ancient Silk Road. Their journey took them to the Soviet Union (his third trip to the country), and eventually, Yerevan.
That’s when he was introduced to Prof. Barseghyan who was overseeing the construction of the then-unfinished Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute. There is very little public information about this trip, and surprisingly, Pierre Trudeau doesn’t even appear on the list of notable visitors to the Dzidzernagapert. A throwaway comment did provide an essential clue to the current prime minister’s whereabouts in 1984. In a walking-interview at this year’s Davos Forum, Trudeau was filmed telling a journalist from Georgia’s First Channel that Tbilisi was “a wonderful city” when he was a kid. The Station’s website (erroneously) dates that visit to 1982, despite the Trudeaus not being known to have traveled to the Soviet Union then.
Placing a young Justin Trudeau in Tbilisi in 1984 and a photograph of his father less than 200 miles away in Yerevan that same year, I could safely deduce that father and son must have traveled together. Armed with this assumption, I contacted a confidential source in the Prime Minister’s office currently in Yerevan to oversee the final preparations for his arrival. She was able to confirm that Justin Trudeau was indeed in Yerevan back in 1984, even asking to include this never-before-seen photograph in the Prime Minister’s archives.
The original photos, which Prof. Barseghyan had allowed my uncle to snap pictures of back in the early 1990s may have since been lost to history. One can speculate that they may either be in his family’s personal files or hidden away in the Museum’s archives. As this article goes to press, Justin Trudeau is just stepping off his CC-150 Polaris jet for what the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation just confirmed to be his second visit to Armenia. He may find that things have changed after 34 years.
As I continue to reconstruct the details of his original visit, anyone with additional information about the trip should feel free to contact me.