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MAY 9, 1979 – Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau Addresses Liberal Party Campaign Rally, Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto

With over 18,000 sets of eyes focused on his every step, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau makes his way to the foot of the stage at the massive Liberal Party rally at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto.

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Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau at Maple Leaf Gardens rally, 1979 federal election campaign / Copyright (c) 1979 by William C. Stratas. All Rights Reserved.

The Canadian federal election of May 22, 1979 pitted the Liberal Party of Pierre Elliott Trudeau (in office since 1968) against the upstart Progressive Conservatives under new leader Joe Clark. The Conservatives ran a predictable campaign theme — It's time for a change — that was drawing considerable nationwide support.

Less than two weeks before election day, Trudeau and the Liberal Party set in place an aggressive plan to win back momentum and create heightened focus on leadership, which was their traditional campaign theme. Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto's legendary hockey arena, would set the stage for the largest election campaign rally in Canadian history. Over 18,000 screaming Liberal supporters packed the building for what commentators predicted would be Prime Minister Trudeau's all-time greatest political speech.

Sweeping onto the floor of the darkened, cavernous building, Prime Minister Trudeau was illuminated by a single overpowering spotlight. The whole arena erupted, deafening all. Moments later the main bank of lights erupted with blinding power, and all eyes followed the Prime Minister as he swept along a wide pathway, lined with frenzied outreaching supporters, toward the stage at north end of the arena.

Opening his speech with requisite political one-liners and an acknowledgement of the enormity of the event, Trudeau then proceeded to put the frenzied audience to sleep with a call for a renewed mandate to fight Quebec separation. The long, lecturing speech was a curious detour for a campaign solidly focused to that point on economic issues and leadership, however it was vintage Trudeau. He had his eye on the fundamental long-term issue of Canadian unity, and sensing possible electoral defeat, wanted to put his policy vision solidly on public record.

Indeed, the Progressive Conservatives under Joe Clark were victorious in the May 1979 election, but Clark's minority government mishandled a budget vote in December that year and was resoundingly defeated by the Liberals in a snap election two months later. As a result, history took a turn once again and Pierre Elliot Trudeau earned back the opportunity to follow through on his national unity platform first put forward in a steamy hockey arena one historic evening in May.

AUDIO COMMENTARY: The photographer, William Stratas, describes the dramatic scene as Trudeau entered the arena (2:40)

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