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Why didn't Pierre Elliott Trudeau destroy the damning material that shows during his youth he held all the beliefs against which he would relentlessly fight throughout his political career? Why did he keep, stashed in his basement -- and later the National Archives -- the evidence that he was, until 1944, a right-wing Quebec nationalist with a high degree of tolerance for the most vicious anti-Semitic tirades and an outspoken admiration for authoritarian regimes, and who even at one time flirted with the idea of fomenting a revolution to build a "Catholic, French and corporatist" society modelled on fascist regimes?

Since the sins of his youth were dutifully hidden from the public by his long-time friends, Mr. Trudeau could have gone into the history books as the uncompromising liberal democrat and civil libertarian who relentlessly fought all his life against bigotry and ethnic nationalism. But Mr. Trudeau kept everything: his school essays, his articles for students' papers, the notes he studiously scribbled about the books he read, and even the drafts of letters he would send to friends.

Did he believe, as he half-jokingly wrote in 1941, that no biographer would have the courage to delve into "the immense paperwork" that he would leave behind him? Well, he didn't know Max and Monique Nemni, two energetic academics who carefully read all the material, and emerged stunned and horrified from their search. The Nemnis were actually Mr. Trudeau's personal friends and among his most unconditional admirers. So when he allowed them unprecedented access to his personal archives, he probably didn't imagine that they would push so hard to find the truth (or maybe he did, and didn't care).

I was extremely shocked by the first tome of their intellectual biography, Trudeau, fils du Québec, père du Canada (the English version will appear in June). I knew that, like many of his contemporaries, Mr. Trudeau had been appallingly indifferent to the horrors of the Nazi regime, that he had stood by as the war raged on, and that he had spoken at a rally against conscription alongside fascist sympathizers. But the reality is much worse than I thought. For instance, as late as 1944 (he was 25), he admired the writings of notorious French anti-Semite Charles Maurras, and attributed to England the responsibility for the war (a war based on "false principles") against Hitler.

The authors attribute his attitude to the fact that he interiorized the teachings of his Jesuit teachers and the predominant prejudices of then-Quebec's society. Still, not all Quebeckers fell into this black hole. At the same time, René Lévesque had enlisted as a reporter in the American army. Writers like Jean-Charles Harvey supported conscription. And from 1939 to 1944, Quebec lived under the Liberal, open-minded government of Adélard Godbout.

It was possible to escape the dominant ideology and many did. That Mr. Trudeau didn't shows that far from being the free-minded spirit he appeared to be later on, he was a conformist who quite blindly absorbed his teachers' ideology. Even at the age of 27, when he was a student in Paris, he would still ask the authorization of the church to read books that were à l'Index (condemned by the Vatican). This greatly exceeded the behaviour of most Quebeckers (my father, who was slightly older than Mr. Trudeau and came from a comparable background, would freely read, as a young man, books that were censored by the church).

Although he remained a devout Catholic throughout his life, Mr. Trudeau eventually morphed into the man Canadians came to know. Such a metamorphosis is not so unusual. The most ferocious critics of Marxism I know are former Communists. If one examined the earlier lives of many political icons, they would discover similar, surprising trajectories.

A key element's missing in the Nemnis' book, though. Focusing on French Quebec, they ignore the larger picture and forget to note anti-Semitism was a well-spread scourge: At the same period, McGill University had quotas against Jews, and the federal government refused to allow entry to Jewish refugees from Germany. This period was dark from coast to coast.

lgagnon@lapresse.ca