February 28, 1984: The Long Sauna
On February 29 1984, Pierre Trudeau, who had been Prime Minister of Canada since 1968 and for the better part of 16 years, announced his retirement. As the media and public asked questions about the events leading up to his announcement, Trudeau described the previous day and the process leading to his decision:
“I went to judo, with my boys. A very good judo lesson, because nobody was there because of the storm, so we had the teachers all to ourselves. And I went home, discussed with the boys, put them to bed, and walked till midnight in the storm. Ah, interesting, eh? And then I went home and took a sauna, for even an hour and a half. I was all clear I was going to leave. But I went to sleep, just in case I’d change my mind overnight, and I didn’t, I woke up, it was great. To use the old cliche, this is the first day of the rest of my life, and here we are.”
The 24 Sussex Sauna
Any regular sauna user will notice here that a 90 minute sauna is no casual session. As it turns out, Trudeau was no casual sauna user. Years earlier in 1975 he had set his mind to constructing a poolhouse at the Prime Minister’s official residence, 24 Sussex Drive. To avoid spending taxpayer money on the project and avoid public criticism about Liberal Party public spending, Trudeau raised $200,000 for the project ($844,000 in 2015 dollars) through private donations. Architect Stig Harvor was selected to design the building. Harvor, who was working for the federal public works, had originally immigrated to Canada in 1945 when he was 16, arriving with his Norwegian family from Finland. Harvor developed a modernist Scandinavian design with a long skylight and an all-cedar interior, and Trudeau himself specified the details for the sauna. Currently long-overdue renovations are being discussed for the house at 24 Sussex, and Harvor is curious about how the poolhouse has weathered over 40 years. And despite his design credentials, he still hasn’t had a chance to try out the sauna.
Ottawa developer Bill Teron was there for the inaugural sweat and he recalls Trudeau encouraging guests to jump in the snow before returning to the hot sauna. Teron had this interesting perspective about the sauna at 24 Sussex: “It was well known that Pierre Trudeau, who like other busy public people, was very conscious of his role as father with his children and his family life. He apparently went home at 6 PM every possible day to be with them. The swimming pool and sauna became an important centre of their family life. Many people wonder where did Justin obtain his insights and values about life, and how much of this did Justin learn from his father. As you know, much time in the sauna is spent chatting about life. Can you imagine the years and thousands of hours that Justine spent with his father and family, chatting about human and social values? Pierre Trudeau used the sauna to ‘transfer’ his prime ministerial knowledge and social values to a next generation Prime Minister, his son Justin Trudeau.”
Canada Sauna Day
So in 1984, the Prime Minister who institutionalized multiculturalism in Canada who spoke of his last day in office working on Aboriginal rights, followed by a Japanese martial art workout, a walk in the snow and a Finnish sweat bath. Had any previous Prime Minister spoken so casually about a daily agenda spanning culture from three continents? I wonder if his description of this day was an intentional ode to multiculturalism, or just a typical day. Significantly to the Canadian imagination, the lead up to his resignation became known as “the Long Walk in the Snow”, rather than “the Judo Lesson” or “the Long Sweat”.
In commemoration of this interesting event in Canadian history, we’d like to invite you to join us this February 28 to enjoy Canada Sauna Day. Sweat bath culture unites many different people in Canada and around the world. Whether it’s a visit to a First Nations sweatlodge, a Japanese mushiburo, Russian banya, Korean hanjeungmak, Turkish hammam, or even a simple hot bath or another sweat bathing tradition, February 28 is an opportunity for all Canadians to have a long sweat, reflect on our life path and perhaps make a big life decision we’ve been mulling over, much like Pierre Trudeau did those many years ago.
Watch Trudeau describe his long sauna:
Bill Teron, personal correspondence, 26 Feb 2016
Stig Harvor, telephone conversation, 25 Feb 2016