Lucky biographer. Pierre Trudeau, the subject of Waterloo University historian John English's two-volume study, was the most provocative, controversial, flamboyant and yet intellectually profound prime minister in Canada's history.
He saved the country from Quebec's secession. He rewrote and patriated the Constitution, vesting in Canada a logic that withstood all attempts to inflect it with the vision he had fought and vanquished, that of "two founding peoples."
As a bonus, Trudeau's mother, then Pierre himself, collected every personal scrap of paper that ever left his hand. English obtained full access to the treasure trove when he was approved as official biographer by Trudeau's trustees. He had proved his competence in his award-winning biography of Lester Pearson. A Liberal since student days, he served in Parliament from 1993 to 1997. Jean Chrétien made him minister of intergovernmental affairs. No ivory tower academic, he.
English takes a broad approach, devoting nearly as much scrutiny to Trudeau's personal life as to his political one. He examines Trudeau's close relationship to his mother, Grace Elliott, and his tempestuous marriage to Margaret Sinclair.
And did I mention the love letters? They provide the most striking revelation of this second volume, which takes Trudeau from his capture of the Liberal leadership on April 6, 1968, to his funeral in October, 2000.
Trudeau had remained a virgin until his mid-20s, inhibited by his eight years of indoctrination as a student of the Jesuits. But when he broke free, how he made up for lost time.
We glimpse what is to come on the very evening of Trudeau's convention victory. "Before long, Trudeau spotted Bob Rae's striking young sister, Jennifer, across the room, and fastening his penetrating blues eyes on her, he came close and whispered, 'Will you go out with me some time?' She later did, but he also remembered the fetching teenager [Margaret Sinclair]who had spurned him in Tahiti the previous December but had willingly accepted his eager kiss that afternoon as he left the convention floor."
Trudeau would appear in public sporting stunning young women on his arm. We didn't know that his secret life, with the connivance of his RCMP guards, included clandestine trysts with a series of women at 24 Sussex and Harrington Lake.
Unlike John Kennedy, he pursued more than a quick fix, engaging deeply with his conquests, sometimes over many years. It seems that only with women - first his mother, then all the others - could he truly reveal himself unguarded. He exchanged letters with his lovers, actually proposed to Carroll Guérin while he was courting Margaret and, after the breakup, to Barbra Streisand.
Trudeau's first election campaign was truly a love affair with Canada. After the dreary Diefenbaker and Pearson years of quarrels and scandals, suddenly politics came alive, glamorous - and mattered. Canada seemed poised for a golden age. The youth responded with Trudeaumania.
English spins well the tale of that enchanted season, and the torrent of lows and highs that cascaded afterward. He did due diligence, interviewing the story's principal characters and guiding his students' research on Trudeau. From both private and published sources, he culled anecdotes that spice the account and relieve sometimes dry explanations of policy.
A period of high drama began on Oct. 5, 1970, with the kidnapping of British diplomat James Cross, and intensified the following week with the kidnapping and execution of deputy premier Pierre Laporte. "The October Crisis became the watershed for Trudeau's supporters and opponents, and his words - 'just watch me,' 'bleeding hearts,' and 'go on and bleed' - became texts for future debates," English writes. Trudeau's firmness in resisting the demands of the Front de Libération du Québec was in contrast to the insistence of Claude Ryan, René Lévesque, Jacques Parizeau and others that the government negotiate the release of FLQ "political prisoners."
On a personal note, Richard Doyle, then editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail, wrote an editorial much to the same effect, though without the shameless reference to "political prisoners." I, then a Globe reporter, argued with him. He replied: "James Cross must be got back safe, whatever it takes." I replied: "Then none of your reporters are safe when they are in Quebec."
In the event, despite recriminations that continue to this day, Trudeau's response put an effective end to terrorist outrages, while they continued in countries that negotiated deals with terrorists. English's account of the episode is full and fascinating.
We live through Trudeau's purgatory, grappling with stagflation during the 1970s and imposing the wage and price controls he had ridiculed during the 1974 election. His popularity plummeted. He alienated Bay Street by his left-wing past and his musings: "We haven't been able to make it work, the free market system."
But his greatest failure was to alienate Western Canada. His priorities - imposing bilingualism nationally and rewriting the constitution - went against the grain. In 1968 Trudeau won 27 out of 68 western seats. By 1980, only two of 77.
English corrects the hostile misunderstanding of the famous sentence, "Why should I sell your wheat?" But he also documents Trudeau's bitter struggles with Peter Lougheed, as Alberta was made to pay for the lower-than-world oil prices enjoyed in Eastern Canada.. The National Energy Program haunts Alberta still.
When he was defeated by Joe Clark in 1979 and announced his resignation, he had failed to achieve the main objectives that, in 1965, drew him to office.
But Joe Clark's miscalculation saved him. Again prime minister for the 1980 referendum on sovereignty-association, Trudeau was able to outgun René Lévesque and, later, outwit him at the 1981 first ministers conference on patriating the Constitution. He achieved at last the happy ending to his major obsession, chaining Quebec's nationalist demons in a made-in-Canada constitution that consecrated the equality of English and French in all federal institutions and ensured the right to French schooling across the country. That, rather than a more powerful Quebec government that would turn Quebec's members of Parliaments into eunuchs because they could not vote on issues that were federal in the rest of the country but provincial in Quebec, was where the true interests of French Canadians lay.
English, recalling Trudeau's speeches before the referendum, disproves the myth still propagated by Quebec's politicians and pundits that Trudeau set a precedent in 1980 by accepting that a bare majority Yes vote would legitimate Quebec's secession. Trudeau, in fact, said that even 100 per cent would not do: "The wishes of Quebeckers may be expressed through a democratic process, but that cannot bind others - those in other provinces who did not vote - to act as Quebec decided." He stated categorically that he would never negotiate sovereignty-association.
This book now becomes the standard biography of Trudeau for the sheer scope and thoroughness of the research on all major aspects of Trudeau's life. English is even-handed, rarely praising, blaming or psychologizing, but he explains and invokes all the different views on the events recounted. And it's a good read.
But it does have one important flaw. English deals episodically but not analytically with Trudeau's struggles with Quebec nationalists. He never defines sharply Quebec's specific nationalism and the common denominator that underlies its many manifestations, namely the doctrine that Canada was founded as a compact between two founding peoples: the French Canadians and the English Canadians. Its logical corollary was that Quebec must be reconstituted as an ethnic state, the French-speaking people's homeland.
Trudeau the dialectician drew a sharp line between his vision and his opponents'. The true cleavage was not between federalism and separatism, but between federalism and the incompatible concept of Canada as a pact between two founding peoples.
Trudeau defined the difference most clearly in 1971 as he announced his policy of multiculturalism: "There cannot be one cultural policy for Canadians of British and French origin, another for the original peoples and yet a third for all others. For although there are two official languages, there is no official culture, nor does any ethnic group take precedence over any other. No citizen or group of citizens is other than Canadian."
This shocked Quebec's political class. But Trudeau knew that ideologies are like railway tracks: Once committed, you are driven toward a specific destination. He knew where recognizing two founding peoples led because he had been there as a young separatist. It meant demanding ever more powers for Quebec's government until, logically, all powers were recovered. When such demands were refused, Quebec festered in resentment.
Political scientist Stéphane Paquin traced the history of "two founding peoples" in his 1999 study, L'Invention d'un mythe: Le Pacte entre deux peuples fondateurs. Without foundation in 1867, it came to full flowering in the 1956 report of Quebec's Royal Commission on Constitutional Problems. Then, from Jean Lesage to Jean Charest, through Daniel Johnson Sr., Robert Bourassa, René Lévesque, Claude Ryan, Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard, all Quebec's leaders have embraced the myth. And separatists have invoked its non-realization as a breach of contract, justifying secession.
English, because he fails to probe deeply the dialectics of Quebec nationalism, is at a loss to explain Trudeau's virulent reaction to Meech Lake and the Charlottetown Accord.
Trudeau knew that if the whole Constitution was to be interpreted in the light of Quebec's mandate to "promote its distinct society," it would vest in the Constitution precisely what he had always attacked: the premise of Canada as two founding peoples. As Gil Rémillard, Quebec's constitutional point man, explained the Meech Lake game plan, "the Quebec government wanted to establish on a solid basis the foundations of a comprehensive constitutional reform to come in a second stage of negotiations." Quebec's empowerment would follow the assertion of the principle.
All in all, though, John English has delivered a biography that rises creditably to the challenge posed by his formidable subject.
William Johnson covered Pierre Trudeau as reporter and columnist for The Globe and Mail. As researcher and translator, he shared in the 2007 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing for Young Trudeau: Son of Quebec, Father of Canada 1919-1944, by Max and Monique Nemni.