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So a new book on the early life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau says that he once embraced the idea of an independent Quebec. It says he endorsed a separate state for French Canadians, Catholic and corporatist, and that he was ready to take up arms to create it.

He joined a secret revolutionary group founded by Catholic priests. Its manifesto called for "national revolution." To that end, the group planned to blow up enemy munition plants, among other acts of terrorism.

The book is called Young Trudeau: 1919-1944, Son of Quebec, Father of Canada. It was published in French yesterday and will appear in English in June. There is no point trying to discredit it. This is, no doubt, a true story. It doesn't come from the paranoia of the St. Jean Baptiste Society or the antipathy of an undernourished sovereigntist determined to prove that the former prime minister was a closet fascist all along.

Rather, it comes from the pen of Max and Monique Nemni, formidable federalists and respected scholars, who were also friends of Mr. Trudeau. Indeed, Mr. Trudeau gave them access to his personal papers, which contained these early, unpublicized writings. He supported their plans to write an intellectual biography and made no effort to hide his past. Typically, he didn't seem to care.

In other words, there is nothing for Trudeauphiles to deny here. The goodwill of the authors isn't in doubt; they came to praise Trudeau, not bury him. No one has questioned the authenticity of the material (though we will have to see how historian John English interprets it in what is expected to be the definitive Trudeau biography).

So what to make of it, then? Do we discard our image of Mr. Trudeau as father of the Charter of Rights, tribune of bilingualism, champion of civic nationalism? Do we erase his name from schools, parks and mountains, raze his statues, erase his likeness, burn his books? Do his admirers turn on the gas or hang themselves in a loft?

On the face of it, this is indeed an unflattering portrait of the great man as a young man. His flirtation with this kind of raw, ethnic nationalism of 1930s and 1940s Quebec is naive and woolly-minded. If it were not dangerous -- as blowing up factories can be -- it would be safely sophomoric, a kind of opéra bouffe.

In fact, that is what it was -- an adolescent fantasy entertained by a restless, intellectual adventurer. As far as we know, this plot was never more than an idea; in the words of Marc Lalonde, Mr. Trudeau's friend and colleague, the group was hatched by "a very small group led by a couple of Jesuit priests."

Mr. Lalonde, for his part, did not even know about this group until he read the book. He calls it an expression of the nationalist thinking among Roman Catholic intellectuals in Quebec between the wars. The same crowd also opposed involvement in the Second World War, and fought against conscription, a political flashpoint for French Canadians.

What this is, then, is a youthful flirtation, a kind of an intellectual odyssey for an unorthodox thinker and natural rebel who was 23 years old in 1942. His views, which seemed less like a commitment than a caprice, would change.

From what we know of a young Pierre Trudeau, this kind of outrageousness was thoroughly in character. As an adolescent, the fatherless Pierre craved attention. In how he spoke, how he dressed, how he acted, how he thought, he liked to cause a stir. His classmates found him brash and combative. At College Brebeuf in Montreal, he called himself " un original," and delighted in defying convention and challenging teachers (he would open the classroom window, as if letting out hot air, if one become too rhetorical).

But this kind of intellectual jesting was no joke when Canada went to war in 1939, and Mr. Trudeau sat it out. He preferred riding around the Laurentians on a motorcycle wearing a pointed Prussian army helmet. Today, it seems indefensible, even immoral. Even if everyone he knew in Quebec was against the war, Mr. Trudeau was not just anyone; he was a proud non-conformist, widely read and well educated, who had visited Europe in the 1930s, but was blind to the evil of nazism.

Perhaps this book or John English's forthcoming biography will offer some context on this chapter of Mr. Trudeau's life. It was not his finest hour, and he never fully acknowledged it or explained it.

Still, Mr. Trudeau moved on. He led the strikers at Asbestos in 1948, he challenged Maurice Duplessis and the Catholic Church in the 1950s, he opposed nuclear proliferation in the early 1960s. In a long, glorious life of 80 years, his ideological obsession in his 20s was largely inconsequential.

Leaders change, for good or ill. René Lévesque was a federalist before he was a separatist. Fidel Castro was a nationalist before he was a Communist. Richard Nixon was an anti-Communist before he went to China. Abraham Lincoln once thought abolishing slavery was less important than preserving the union. John Kennedy overcame the influence of his father's anti-Semitism, defeatism and isolationism. Franklin Roosevelt rejected the prejudices of the aristocracy he had known in his youth in Hyde Park, becoming a "traitor to his class."

The measure of greatness is what we learn along the way. Some, like Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein, learned nothing; as Ralph Waldo Emerson warns, "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

If Pierre Trudeau was what he is said to be, it was a phase. Our imaginary terrorist would go on to crush the terrorism of the FLQ. Our fanciful bomb-thrower would throw nothing more than a punch at a classmate, or a snowball at Lenin's Tomb. Our romantic authoritarian entrenched rights and freedoms in a Charter. Our Little Quebecker became the Great Canadian, perhaps the greatest of them all, who patriated its Constitution and preserved its unity.

And today, his puerile indulgences a distant memory, he remains the standard by which we judge our leaders, from Stephen Harper to Michael Ignatieff, and his vision of the country is the one by which we judge all others. We labour, all of us, in his shadow, in his Canada.

Andrew Cohen is co-editor (with J.L. Granatstein) of Trudeau's Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. A professor and journalist, he has been nominated for a National Newspaper Award this year for his columns.

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