Max and Monique Nemni created quite a stir with the first volume of their intellectual biography of Pierre Trudeau, which portrayed the young Trudeau as a radical French Canadian nationalist harbouring anti-Semitic sentiments and authoritarian sympathies.
Their sequel, Trudeau Transformed, traces the intellectual itinerary of Trudeau from the mid-1940s to the beginning of his political career in 1965, and is much less likely to occasion controversy.
If the first volume was an exposé, revealing some of the more disturbing trends in 1930s and ’40s Quebec politics and society, this second volume is a defence of Trudeau’s role as an intellectual, and perhaps more important, his identity as a French Canadian who cared deeply about the future of Quebec.
Both Trudeau’s reputation as a political thinker and his identity as a “real” Québécois have frequently come under attack from the Quebec intelligentsia. Among others, the Nemnis quote Léon Dion, the eminent Quebec political scientist (and father of former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion), who dismissed Trudeau’s “meagre contribution to genuine political thought.”
The image of Trudeau as a rootless outsider, no true son of Quebec, has also been widely prevalent in his home province.
Such views are successfully challenged by the Nemnis, who demonstrate Trudeau’s intellectual productivity and vitality, particularly during the 1950s and early ’60s, when he became a leading writer and commentator on contemporary Quebec and Canada. Trudeau’s commitment to Quebec, and the extent to which his concerns were shaped by Quebec’s social and intellectual milieu, is even more evident. Trudeau’s desire to “build a radiant French culture, creative, freed from the most terrible oppressions: insecurity and fear” (to borrow his words), runs like a red thread throughout the book.
However, Trudeau Transformed is compromised by a number of flaws. The first is the question of audience. The book provides far too detailed a look at Trudeau’s intellectual development to appeal to a wide reading public. The early chapters, which follow Trudeau’s postgraduate studies from one term paper to the next, are very slow going.
And in general, the book suffers from too close a reading of Trudeau’s many articles, speeches and radio and television appearances from the 1940s to the mid-1960s. While the book’s frequent quotations from Trudeau’s writings allow us to get a sense of his voice as an intellectual and polemicist, the Nemnis could have been more confident in summarizing his ideas and priorities.
If the wealth of detail is likely to turn off a lay audience, then the Nemnis’ casual writing style may also alienate scholars, experts and many other readers as well. While it is clear that the Nemnis are attempting to write an accessible intellectual history – not an easy task, to be sure – their writing often seems to get in the way of the book’s argument.
The authors have a tendency toward cliché and overstatement (“The mere act of drawing up a list of his intellectual activities and campaigns leaves us breathless,” for example, and, “[Trudeau’s book]exploded like a bombshell and its thunder rolled across the province and the rest of Canada”).
They also include frequent asides that distract from their larger narrative. Do readers need to be told, “Thanks to the magic of the Internet, we were able to lay our hands on this now rare book”? Or to hear the Nemnis’ indignant remarks about the failings of Quebec’s university system during the 1950s: “Unbelievable, but true!”
The book’s hurried conclusion – a paragraph listing Trudeau’s later political achievements – leaves a number of questions unanswered. Though the Nemnis have been successful in reclaiming Trudeau’s identity as an intellectual and as a Québécois, they could have offered a much more sustained reflection on the role that ideas played in his political life, or indeed, on his place in Canadian intellectual history.
Instead, the book ends rather abruptly as Trudeau heads to Ottawa, and to quote the Nemnis “as the saying goes, ‘The rest is history.’ ”
But surely an appraisal of one of Canada’s few scholar-prime ministers deserves more than that? This is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Trudeau Transformed. While maintaining that today’s Canada – the Canada of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, of multiculturalism and bilingualism – is the result of Trudeau’s legacy, the Nemnis offer few thoughts on that inheritance. With this book, we know more about Pierre Elliott Trudeau, but it is not clear that we understand his world, or the liberal Canada he created, much better.
Joseph Dunlop is pursuing his doctorate in history at St. Antony's College, Oxford. His work focuses on Catholicism in Quebec during the years leading up to the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s.