KEMPER, Margaret

Author Tags: Women

"Fairy tales don't happen, real life happens." -- Margaret (Sinclair, Trudeau) Kemper

Born as Margaret Sinclair in September of 1948, she burst into national prominence on March, 4 1971 when the so-called 'flower child' and daughter of West Vancouver's leading federal Liberal Party official James Sinclair, a former federal Fisheries Minister, wed 51-year-old Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in a private ceremony in Vancouver. The newlyweds took a skiing honeymoon in Whistler, B.C., with the world's media in tow.

Margaret Sinclair studied English literature at Simon Fraser University. At age 18 she was vacationing in Tahiti when she met Pierre Trudeau, then Minister of Justice, but she did not recognize him and this encounter was not particularly memorable for her. He nonetheless began to pursue her. Prior to their separation in 1977, she gave birth to three sons (Justin, Sacha and Michael). She resented her husband's prolonged absences and was often criticized for her free-spirited behaviour at some formal government events. "Tenderly, without realizing he was doing it, Trudeau set her inside a bell jar and cut her off from life," wrote Richard Gwynn in his Trudeau biography entitled The Northern Magus. It didn't help that she was suspected of having a romantic interlude with a U.S. Senator believed to be Ted Kennedy or that she wore a see-through t-shirt in Cuba. Intolerant of weakness, Pierre Trudeau was nonetheless compassionate about her bouts of depression. She spent her sixth anniversary with the Rolling Stones, having flown to Toronto and taken photos of them during their performance at the El Mocambo club. She was seen in Mick Jagger's limousine afterwards but emphatically denied having an affair with him. It turned out she had a tryst with Rolling Stone guitarist Ronnie Wood. The Daily Mirror in London proclaimed "Premier's Wife in Stones Scandal." After the public collapse of their marriage, she would be victimized by sensational headlines linking her to drugs and her trysts with actors Jack Nicholson and Ryan O'Neal. She tried to rebound with two volumes of memoirs, Beyond Reason (1979) and Consquences (1982), the first of which was timed to appear near the outset of the federal election campaign that Pierre Trudeau lost to Joe Clark and Conservative Party. Pierre Trudeau was re-elected to power in 1980, at which time the parents agreed to share custody of their children. The Trudeaus were divorced in 1984 but they increasingly set aside acrimony in order to work together constructively as parents. She had a brief career as a television host prior to marrying Ottawa real estate developer Fred Kemper, with whom she had two children.

Margaret Trudeau Kemper's links to British Columbia were tragically renewed in 1998 when her son Michel Trudeau died in an avalanche at Kokanee Lake, near Rossland. Margaret Kemper and Pierre Trudeau--as an old man--were seen hand-in-hand at Outremont's St. Viateur Church for Michel's funeral, reunited by grief. Margaret Kemper separated from her second husband Fred Kemper six months later, and rekindled her friendship with the ailing ex-Prime Minister. Fred Kemper died in 2000. She was at Pierre Trudeau's bedside when he died in the same year. Margaret Kemper became Honorary President of WaterCan, an Ottawa-based organization dedicated to helping the poorest communities in developing countries build sustainable water supply and sanitation services. She later was invited to become a board member of the newly formed Institute of Mental Health at the University of British Columbia. [See below]

[Margaret and Pierre Trudeau with son Sasha at Vancouver International Airport, 1976]


Beyond Reason (Grosset & Dunlap, 1979)
Consequences (Bantam Books, 1982)

[BCBW 2004 / 2008] "Women"

Speaking At UBC, March 7, 2008

After two medical experts in the field of mental ill health spoke to an audience of approximately 150 people at The Chan Centre auditorium on March 7, 2008—in front of the dramatic set of an original Canadian opera production, The Dream Healer, featuring an ascending modern staircase, representing Carl Jung’s Bergholzi Clinic near Zurich in the early 1900s, as a backdrop—Margaret Trudeau spoke cheerfully and informally at the podium, without notes, for approximately half an hour, as a newly appointed board member on the UBC Mental Health Institute. She mainly described her private life in terms of how she has coped with her bi-polar disorder. “It’s like you’re on roller coaster,” she began.

Her voice sounded remarkably unchanged from decades before, even though her path to the stage had been a tumultuous. She said she had had a happy and healthy childhood in North Vancouver, “with no indication of the rocky road that lay in front of me.” As a so-called flower child in the 1960s, she says she “took to marijuana like a duck to water.” Years later, when she was forced to realize she was addicted to marijuana as a personal crutch, she came to understand how over-use of marijuana can trigger bouts of mania in someone suffering from bi-polar symptoms.

Everyone in the room knew about her fairytale romance with the dashing, much older and often aloof Pierre Elliott Trudeau, so there was little need to recount her public history. Her symptoms surfaced at age 23, immediately following the birth of her second of three sons, Sasha. Feeling alone and isolated, “put in a role that I was ill-prepared for,” she almost didn’t want to hold her baby. Taken to see a psychiatrist, it was suggested she might have ‘the baby blues,’ now often referred to as post-natal depression. Or it might be a ‘hormonal thing.’

Although there was some history of mental instability in her family, as a usually vibrant and attractive woman, and as a Cinderella figure for the nation, Margaret Trudeau was not diagnosed as someone who might have a long-term affliction. Her sickness was hidden from the public. She was not hospitalized in a ward for mental illnesses; she was discreetly housed in a Montreal ward for older men suffering from afflictions such as prostrate cancer. It would be the first of her numerous stints within institutions, often against her will.

Her spirits were revived somewhat by participation in one of her husband’s successful election campaigns. She enjoyed recalling their visit to Humboldt, Saskatchewan, where she convinced the Prime Minister to discard his prepared speech about the economy and grain in favour of speaking off the cuff. Much to the consternation of Liberal Party aides, she continued to convince Pierre Trudeau that he should loosen up and essentially have some fun—to give people parts of himself instead of relying on droll speechifying—and, in turn, he invited her to participate more openly on the hustings.

But the euphoria of travel and humour in the limelight soon faded after the election triumph. At the time, her well-documented descent into unhappiness, culminating in the overt failure of their marriage, was blamed mainly on her tendency towards ‘loose behavior’ and her lack of discipline. But her mental torment was more complicated than that. “It was bewildering,” she said, “when I walked out the door of 24 Sussex.”

Now she understands her own story differently. “I was manic when I ran off with a Rolling Stone,” she laughed. [In recently published memoirs, guitarist Ronnie Wood discreetly acknowledged their mutually satisfying fling, but he did so sympathetically, and without exploitation, insinuating there was some genuine friendship between them.]

Officially divorced in 1984, she soon married Ottawa real-estate developer Fried Kemper, with whom she had two children. Her new-found equilibrium did not last. She assumed she was coming down with rheumatoid arthritis in the mid-1980s. Her joints ached. A smalltown physician she visited during a vacation, hoping for some pain relief, suggested she might have fibril myalgia. She wasn’t sure exactly what that was—but she willingly accepted the relief that his prescription of Prozac quickly wrought. “Spring came back into my life,” she said.

But instability persisted. During a trip to the West Coast in 1998, with her husband, she was taking reckless chances on the ski slopes. Delusional and taking inordinate risks with her behaviour, she was committed by her family to St. Paul’s Hospital. “I spent some time in padded cells,” she said. Unwilling to be a passive patient, she found herself in a power struggle she couldn’t win with a female psychiatrist. Ultimately she relented and feigned obedience.

By the time it was determined she was well enough to return to her home in Ottawa, “I had lost 80% of my liver function from the drugs I was taking. I was really turned off of medical treatment. Then my son died and my world just collapsed. I didn’t mourn well. I isolated myself. I stopped eating. I wasn’t sleeping.”

Her mental breakdown in response to the death of her youngest son, Michel, after he was swept by an avalanche into Kokanee Lake and his body was not found in November of 1998, led to her second divorce. Soon afterwards, she was at Pierre Trudeau’s bedside when he died in 2000. Despite her criticisms of Pierre Elliott Trudeau in her two books, she retains fond memories of the man she first met while on vacation in Tahiti at age eighteen.

“After Pierre died, I got hooked again,” she said. “I smoked way too much weed. After Pierre died, that was really the end. By the time my son [Sasha] discovered me in December, I was so sick. It took them all day. It finally took the police to come and get me and take me to the hospital.”

She entered extensive talk therapy, ultimately admitting her reliance on marijuana amounted to an addiction. “There have been lots of perks being Pierre’s wife,” she noted, including privileged access to medical treatment. One of her doctors taught her that “being a sad complainer was not going to help.” She also has accepted that she has long suffered from a chemical imbalance of “not enough seratonin in the brain.” She credits one physician in particular for giving her the tools to manage her disease.

“One of the great parts of my recovery was getting a job,” she said. It was a relatively low-paying job, helping families get themselves readjusted when they came to Ottawa, but she recognized she was being useful and stuck with it. She also adapted to a regimen of taking vitamins. “I have to take a certain amount of medication for the rest of my life,” she said, “but it’s night and day, the life I have now. I have no more shame. Nobody can knock me down anymore.”

[Remarks recorded by Alan Twigg during "Compassionate Approaches to Mental Health," a panel discussion at the Chan Shun Concert Hall featuring Margaret Trudeau; Bill Wilkerson, Co-Founder and CEO of Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health; and Allan Young, Co-Director of the UBC Institute of Mental Health. Presented by UBC Department of Psychiatry, UBC Institute of Mental Health and UBC Opera Division.]