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So Pierre Trudeau's son, Justin, will play Talbot Papineau in a television series about the First World War, ostensibly because Mr. Papineau was, like the former prime minister: bilingual, bicultural, a foe of narrow Quebec nationalism and an ardent Canadian.

Except that the Pierre Trudeau we remember, and the memory his son naturally cherishes, was not at all the Pierre Trudeau of the 1930s and early 1940s. That Pierre Trudeau was the antithesis of Talbot Papineau, soldier and patriot.

The young Pierre Trudeau railed against Canada's participation in the First World War, opposed fighting in the Second World War, expressed anti-Semitic views, admired right-wing authors, believed in every French-Canadian nationalist myth about the evils of les anglais. He dreamed and plotted (in an amateurish way) of making a revolution that would render Quebec French, Catholic, authoritarian, corporatist and independent.

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England provoked the Second World War, Mr. Trudeau wrote in notes commenting favourably on a work by French fascist writer Charles Maurras, by opposing Mussolini's mediation between Hitler and the democracies. "Then, when the blow fell," Mr. Trudeau argued, "England wanted France to bear the full impact." To those who approved of the Pétain (Vichy) regime in France -- the one created by Hitler after France's defeat -- Mr. Trudeau added his support, because Pétain stood for " Travail, Famille, Patrie." Conscription in both wars, Mr. Trudeau believed, represented a plot by English Canadians to bleed French Canada of its youth so as to fight "perfidious England's" wars overseas.

We are not making this up. The young Trudeau, student at the elite Jesuit College, Brébeuf, and l'Université de Montréal, was a brilliant snob, Catholic reactionary, committed nationalist, erstwhile revolutionary -- the toxic combination that reflected the kind of teaching that went on in those institutions, the dogmatic grip of the Roman Catholic Church on the intellectual climate of Quebec and the angry, corrosive, defensive nationalism of the time.

The Pierre Trudeau whom Canadians knew never spoke much about these years, and his friends covered up for him. The public record about his youth is thin, compared to the detailed and revealing private record, because Mr. Trudeau wrote voluminously about what he read and ideas that interested him. He kept all that written material away from the prying eyes of researchers.

Mr. Trudeau, coming to his life's end and having long seen the errors of his youthful ways, was honest enough to know that in death a more rounded picture of his life should, or at least eventually would, emerge.

So he agreed, when his friends Max and Monique Nemni asked about writing a biography, that they should have access to his private records. What a trove they discovered. What a different Pierre Trudeau, a dangerous, narrow Pierre Trudeau, but nonetheless a product of his time and place.

Even they, his friends, were shocked at what they found, as they write occasionally in the first volume of their biography, Young Trudeau, Son of Quebec, Father of Canada, a book excellently translated by another Trudeau admirer, journalist and author William Johnson.

With war raging in Europe, and Nazi forces conquering countries, murdering Jews and others, bombarding Britain and invading the Soviet Union, Pierre Trudeau mocked the brief officer training he and other students were obliged to take.

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The war and its atrocities seldom penetrated his consciousness, except to enrage him that war might mean mandatory military service. Already an accomplished polemicist, he gave slashing public speeches and wrote cutting satires against the war, Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King and, of course, conscription.

Mr. King, worried about Quebec public opinion, asked Gen. Georges Vanier, then in England, to visit Quebec to arouse support for the war effort. As Mr. Vanier wrote in his memoirs, he was shocked by support for Pétain in Quebec, the hostility toward the Free French under Charles de Gaulle (an irony, given Quebec nationalists' subsequent infatuation with the general), and the widespread opposition mixed with lukewarm support for the fight against fascism and nazism.

These attitudes were utterly consistent with those of the Catholic Church in Quebec until the war's later years. They were perfectly reflected in the young Pierre Trudeau and in many of his contemporaries. Only in 1944, when Mr. Trudeau went to Harvard University instead of enlisting for war duty, did his political views begin to change toward more acceptance of free-market economics, liberal politics, individual rights and the separation of church and state. For someone who dreamed from his youth of a career in public life -- the notion of Trudeau as a reluctant politician is a myth -- getting out of the Quebec of the 1940s was the best thing that ever happened to him.

Why, the Nemnis speculate, did so few contemporaries come forward in later years to fill in the blanks of Mr. Trudeau's (and their own) public records? Perhaps, as the great journalist André Laurendeau once wrote, an entire generation gave itself a dose of collective amnesia because the truth of what they thought and did in those years was too painful to explore.

We sensed before, and now we know in vivid, painful detail courtesy of the Nemnis' arresting book, that the young Pierre Trudeau was no Talbot Papineau. jsimpson@globeandmail.com

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