September 28, 2020

BY LAURIE SNELL

 
A different kind of Trudeau-mania hit Kitchener on Oct. 9. Kitchener Collegiate Institute hosted Margaret Trudeau, former wife of the iconic Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. She took to the stage to speak honestly about her mood swings, depression and bouts of mania in and out of the public eye over the last several decades.

The school’s students and staff, health professionals and members of the community filled the auditorium where powerful images – such as empty shoes on a rooftop ledge, the sun beaming over a waterfall, large gears turning, young people curled up in sadness and hands in hands – were displayed prior to Trudeau’s speech about her personal experiences with mental illness.

Tracy Elop, the Grand River Hospital board chair, welcomed the audience and explained the significance of the images in the background. “Each photo was taken by students as an exhibit (of) mental health journeys,” Elop said, adding that it was a competition to engage students in an understanding of mental health perceptions.
Jim Hallman of the Lyle S. Hallman Foundation said, “Talking about mental health and removing stigma (is important) to understanding … what has amazed me is the determination and desire to overcome obstacles in mental health.”

With KCI, the Lyle S. Hallman Foundation and Grand River Hospital collaborating on the event, Trudeau began her two-hour talk at the very beginning of her relationship with Pierre at Club Med. At the young age of 18, “I wasn’t relating, I wasn’t connecting,” Trudeau said, at the time, unaware that she would fall in love and move to Ottawa to be with the then-prime minister. “He didn’t know I was going to rush headlong into mental illness – he thought I was perfect and so did I,” Trudeau said, laughing.

After two years of privately dating, Pierre and Margaret wed and she began her life as “the crown jewel of the federal penitentiary system … I was lonely. He was clear he didn’t want me to have a public life,” Trudeau said, adding that boredom and isolation largely contributed to her mental illness. “It was like the light had been turned off in me.”

Her depression came in waves of mood swings and bouts of mania – where you feel an extraordinary euphoria on the highs, and in contrast, a crippling low. “I lost so many pieces of my life by not getting treatment I needed … if it had been now, I would have been diagnosed right away and there would have been a plan,” Trudeau said.

Overcoming the loss of her son Michel in a tragic avalanche accident, Pierre’s death years later and coming to terms with her own mental stability, she finally agreed to three years of cognitive behavioural therapy after a family intervention in Vancouver.

“The shame is not in having a mental illness, it’s having one and not going for treatment to be better and be the best (that) you can be,” Trudeau said. “I’m already branded so why not surprise people with my recovery.”

The purpose of Margaret Trudeau’s talk was to emphasize that mental illness can happen to anyone and that society needs to remove the stigma attached to it to better understand it.

Trudeau left all of five minutes for political small talk. “The one thing I’ll say about Prime Minister Stephen Harper – he’s building these super prisons and the crime rate is going down, down, down. One of the biggest reasons crime is going down in the western world is the number of people on antidepressants,” Trudeau said, explaining how unfortunate it is that we now live in a two-tiered mental health system. “It’s very expensive to be mentally well in our country … and I happen to know someone who may be in government – so I’ll get him on that,” she mused.

Trudeau wrote a book about her experiences, to share with others her tragic experiences and struggle to overcome the illness. After her keynote speech the audience was invited to the library for a meet and greet and book signing. With stacks of her book for sale at the KCI library and a lineup of supporters waiting to meet her, her memoir, Changing My Mind, sold out almost immediately.