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Pierre Trudeau and Lester Pearson share a laugh during the 1968 federal election campaign.

The Globe and Mail

John English has written biographies of Pierre Trudeau, Lester Pearson, Robert Borden and Arthur Meighen. He served as the Liberal member of Parliament for Kitchener from 1993-97.

On a Tuesday just before Easter 1977, René Matte, a nationalist Social Credit MP, rose in the House of Commons and asked prime minister Pierre Trudeau whether he had ever been a militant member of a “secret” separatist movement. Mr. Trudeau shrugged, Liberals shouted “shame,” and a Tory MP shouted that Mr. Trudeau had “nodded yes.” The Speaker saw Mr. Trudeau’s head nod and let the comment stand.

Journalists missed the moment. Mr. Trudeau therefore was not compelled to come to terms with the anti-Semitic play he wrote while at Brebeuf College or with his bitter opposition to the Second World War, when he associated with a group of separatists who stocked guns for a revolutionary uprising. His memoirs are completely silent on his separatist and militant past.

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Many knew but they kept their silence. On his last day in Parliament in 1984, Mr. Trudeau and Brian Mulroney jousted over Mr. Mulroney’s call for the government to apologize to Japanese Canadians for their internment during the Second World War. Mr. Trudeau asked where would it end, with so many historical grievances and with so many crimes against the peoples who came together to create the Canadian nation. Mr. Trudeau argued that the past was a source of conflict and divisions that the present could neither fully know nor arrogantly judge.

Just as he would not have wanted to be judged on what he had so wrongly done and believed in 1941, neither should we cavalierly judge others. In his final words in the House, Mr. Trudeau said that we cannot right the past, we can only be “just in our own time.” Thus, he concluded, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was created in the present to prevent the past’s wrongs in the future.

When a reporter asked Justin Trudeau what his father would have thought of his blackface performances, including one at Brebeuf, he hesitated but then said he would not have approved. Pierre would likely have been more nuanced.

In the time of Twitter, when nuance is rare and forgetting is forgotten, a politician’s past behaviour has become the tinder for political conflagrations whose fire and smoke obscure the differences among leaders and parties. Is Pierre’s argument that we can be just only in our own time still possible or legitimate?

In writing biographies of Pierre Trudeau and Lester Pearson, I was – echoing Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s description of his reaction to the younger Trudeau in blackface – “sucker-punched” twice.

In the case of Pierre, there was his confused but unmistakable anti-Semitism in the 1930s and foolish participation in violent separatist and anti-war groups in the early 1940s. The evidence contradicted everything I knew about him as a political leader, what he said and what he did. And he never told his family.

In the case of Mr. Pearson, his memoirs told a good war story, even an amusing one, about how he was hit by a bus and sent home before he could take on the Red Baron. One day, reading a 1918 copy of the Guelph Mercury, I discovered that Mr. Pearson’s parents welcomed home their son, who had suffered a “failure of nerves.”

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A curious Pearson family allowed me to examine Mr. Pearson’s medical records. His condition became clear. He suffered what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder but what many then called cowardice. The reports indicated he stuttered, shook, slept constantly and was unable to fight. Even when he wrote his memoirs in the 1970s, he kept his silence. And he had never told his family.

Had Canadians known in 1957 of Mr. Pearson’s wartime problems it is doubtful he would have become, according to a Policy Options poll of journalists and academics, Canada’s best postwar prime minister. If information on Pierre’s earlier beliefs had become widely known in 1968 as he campaigned for the Liberal leadership, Robert Winters, a unilingual Nova Scotia business person, would have become Liberal leader and prime minister, just as separatism crested in Quebec.

In their humanity and ideas, neither Mr. Pearson nor Pierre were, in their political times, the person they once had been.

Justin Trudeau’s bizarre appearances in blackface were, in his own words, “unacceptable” and “racist.” Contrary to his son’s claim, Pierre would have agreed that Justin’s actions, like his own youthful excesses, were terribly wrong. Nevertheless, he would have likely told him that the past was a foreign country increasingly covered in ashes. He should close the past and build the future by unremittingly seeking justice in his own time.

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