Justin Trudeau’s First Trip to Armenia…was in 1984

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.

Newly retired Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau at Dzidzernagapert with Professor Barseghyan, Yerevan 1984

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.

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Raffi Elliott

Raffi Elliott is a Canadian-born entrepreneur and occasional journalist who likes to ramble on about socioeconomic and political issues in Armenia. He lives in Yerevan with his family. He also holds a masters degree in International Relations.

14 Comments

  1. Dear Raffi Elliott, thank you much for interesting article, anyway I would like to mention, that photos are taken not in Armenian Genocide Museum as at that time this museum was not yet, only the memorial. At 1980 s’ professor Barseghyan was the director of Armenian National Museum of Ethnography in Sardarapat memorial complex. The photos are taken there as one is precisely showing the entrance of the that museum, so may be you can find more information about your article in this museum archives ?

    • Hi David. Than you for the comment. In fact I had the same initial thought. (Despite the photo being black and white) the wall behind them looks like it’s made of red tuff reminiscent of Sardarabad (you could see it in the pamphlet Trudeau is holding ). However when i pulled up photos of the archways at Sardarabad, i could not find a match (Sardarabad as sculpted walls while the one in the photo is smooth) when I contacted the family, they also insisted that it was Dzidzernagapert. Anyway even though I had my doubts, I chose to use the written location. Thanks again

    • Hello Raffi, I insist on that it is National Ethnography Museum of Armenia, which is different than arch of memorial complex of Sardarapat, which you right is sculptured, the photo precisely is in front of the museum. Another argument is that in 1984 there was not established Armenian Genocide Museum, so professor Barseghyan could not be the director of that museum and he was the director of National Ethnography Museum in Sardarapat. So I think that facts are for Sardrapat related to these photos and you right this is the old pamphlet of the museum … Thank you, anyway, already the prime minister of Armenia interpreted the photos as pulled out from the archives of National Security Service and presented them with the scene of Memorial complex of Tsitserankaberd…) Thank you again for interesting article.

  2. Notably, Pierre Trudeau was the only world leader to meet with John Lennon. Lennon called Trudeau the sort of leader that every country should have.

  3. Thanks for sharing this Raffi. Most illuminating. Keep researching. Hope to meet one day and talk of our mutual experiences in Yerevan.

  4. Hello Raffi, very interesting article.
    On the CBC article they cite Justin Trudeau who mentions a 1988 visit:
    “Trudeau told Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan during a brief introductory encounter at the NATO summit in Brussels in July that he visited Armenia in 1988 together with his father, former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and has good memories of his visit.”

    So, 1982, 1984, or 1988?

    1984 seems more plausible.

  5. Hello Raffi. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told today, during his meeting with Pashinyan, that he was in Armenia on summer of 1988 with his father.

  6. 1984 or 1988, what difference does it make; what is the relevance between Justin the kid at the time accompanying his father, versus Justin Trudeau the Prime Minister of Canada now. What is the historical importance?

    We had a major Francophonie Summit in Yerevan with leaders from French speaking countries, including France’s Macron attending. It was an opportunity to showcase Armenia, Yerevan in particular, and develop stronger relations, specially in economical development with these countries.

    Instead of covering the summit and what impact it will have if any, we are arguing when Justin Trudeau visited Armenia as a kid. Give me a break please!!!

    I do not wish to offend or upset anyone, but with the issues and challenges facing Armenia should not the focus be on that.

    Vart Adjemian

  7. What is this critism of the nature of this article? Different people are interested (writer and reader alike) in different things and they can chose/ find / write/read articles that is in their interest and pass if not. This is a monir very interesting and cute fact. Any informaiton is a good information. Thank you Raffi.

  8. Thank you Raffi Jan for yet another very interesting article and kudos to the AW for being the first to publish this scoop. As you can see in this video from Famous jeweller Pierre Akkelian’s FB page: https://web.facebook.com/pakkelian/videos/10160948109430537/ see minute 3:15 (or – 8:23) PM Trudeau has acknowledged being in Armenia, but he himself is now quoting 1986 as the year of his visit, without much certainty!!! Have we forgotten that 1986 was the year of the Chernobyl nuclear accident? I cancelled our trip to Armenia and lost all my Intourist deposits then because of Chernobyl. I would be surprised if Pierre Trudeau would have brought his children anywhere near the USSR then. But for those interested, perhaps readers can identify the other individuals on the Trudeau photos, they look younger than Prof. Barseghyan, and they may still be around to remember.

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