Son of Quebec, Father of Canada,
By Max and Monique Nemni
Translated by William Johnson
McClelland & Stewart,
343 pages, $27.99
From 1867 to 1967, a great malediction fell upon Canada. It had no George Washington, no John F. Kennedy, no Martin Luther King and no Daniel Boone. Celebrating its centennial, Canada was thus in desperate need of a hero. On the eve of the convention that was to elect Pierre Elliott Trudeau leader of the Liberal Party, Lester Pearson joked that Canadians expected their next prime minister to be a combination of Abraham Lincoln and Batman. Wise but also hip, coldly rational yet passionate, Trudeau was then perceived as, and is still today considered to be, the perfect embodiment of an ambivalent Canadian nation.
One would imagine that the preparation required to perform such an immense role would command years of hard work. To be sure, this assumption is correct. But one would be incorrect in venturing to think that the upbringing of such a remarkable man must have been rooted in the values of openness and tolerance that characterize contemporary Canada. And it is Max and Monique Nemni's great accomplishment to shed light on a past that is quite alien to the golden legend that has pervaded most of Trudeau's biographies up to now.
The Nemnis, retired university professors who spent most of their working lives in Quebec (they now live in Toronto), were friends of Trudeau. He encouraged them to become the editors of Cité Libre and agreed to let them write his intellectual biography. Drawing on never-before-consulted private documents and intimate notes, their book is a fascinating yet troubling account of Trudeau's formative years (1919-1944). The biographers' findings have deeply shaken many assumptions about his early life.
We used to entertain the image of a young student who lived his teenage years paddling against the current, when in fact he abided faithfully with religious and intellectual authorities. We see the mature politician, who warned his compatriots against the sirens of nationalism, engaged in 1942 in a secret organization planning a "national revolution" to establish a Catholic, French, corporatist and authoritarian regime. "We condemn parliamentary democracy and liberalism," its manifesto stated.
That same year, in a speech given to support the Bloc Populaire, a conservative nationalist party, the future paragon of democracy said: "As far as I'm concerned, the present [Canadian]government is made up of two species of big shots: the big shots who are traitors, and the big shots who are honest. The traitors should be impaled alive."
On a more personal note, Trudeau, whose father died in 1935 having accumulated $6-million, lived his life in relative asceticism. The young eccentric, who appreciated practical jokes, pirouettes and theatrical stunts, conscientiously dedicated himself to intellectual studies. The Liberal candidate, who supposedly entered active politics with reluctance, set himself to become a statesman while attending classical college. Finally, the minister of justice, who declared that the state had no place in the bedrooms of the nation, insisted in the 1940s that religion transcended his entire existence.
All through their richly documented book, the Nemnis' perspectives on these facets of Trudeau's activities and personality are extremely stimulating and enriching. Perhaps the only disappointment in their 300-plus-page biography is the extent to which their vision of 1950s Quebec society verges on the simplistic. A reader unfamiliar with Quebec's most recent academic work will be fed a review of quite outdated literature (most of the history books consulted were published a quarter century ago). The general tone is vividly expressed in the structure of the narrative, which opens with the dark ages of Ignatius of Loyola (Brebeuf College, 1932) and ends with Adam Smith's Enlightenment (Harvard University, 1944).
The only explanation the Nemnis offer for Trudeau's engagement with ultra-nationalist groups is the prevalence of a xenophobic and authoritarian ideology in Quebec. Why did Trudeau succumb to such a conservative philosophy? The biographers' answer is limpid: Because that was the prevailing cultural climate. But why were so many Québécois intellectuals turning to nationalism? Regrettably, this is a question the book does not endeavour to address.
Consider the controversy surrounding conscription during the Second World War. Fifty years after the imperialist Boer War massacres, and only two decades after the devastating First World War, a majority of French Canadians obstinately refused to see how the new conflict, radically different from the previous military ventures, pitted barbarism against civilization. They could not rally behind the Union Jack and run to defend the besieged "mother country" as readily as their English compatriots. Their pale attempts to justify their fight against conscription render their isolation and blindness even more pitiful. But the Nemnis are content to argue that people err because they are wrong, and that they are wrong because they err. This flimsy moralizing will certainly disappoint readers who are not satisfied with the superiority of their own rectitude.
Will Trudeau's myth survive the first volume of this biography? Of course. From Thomas D'Arcy McGee, who started his political career as a supporter of the annexationist movement to the United States and died a Father of Confederation, to Marcel Rioux, who was a proud federalist in the 1950s before converting to Quebec sovereignty, Canada has had its share of reversals and turnabouts. We should judge people not by their origins, but rather by their achievements.
When thinking of Trudeau, one conjures an image riddled with paradoxes. But this complexity is perhaps the key to understanding the intense fascination he garners to this day. Did he not try to reconcile the rights of ethnic communities (multiculturalism), the rights of provinces (federalism), the rights of individuals (the Charter of Rights and Freedoms) and the rights of the two main linguistic charter groups (bilingualism)? Find another country in the world in which these oppositions peacefully cohabit and perhaps, if you are lucky, you may find another Trudeau.
Jean-Philippe Warren holds the Research Chair on the Study of Quebec at Concordia University. His many books include histories of the Roman Catholic Church, the Quiet Revolution and the development of social sciences in Quebec.
Readers can find the first chapter of Young Trudeau today on our website, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/bookclub.