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Ramsay Cook’s Elegy

Ramsay Cook, The Teeth of Time: Remembering Pierre Elliott Trudeau (McGill-Queens University Press, 2006, 224 pp. HB $29.95)

The Teeth of Time is an historian’s account of a 39 year friendship “with a remarkable person”. The remarkable person was Pierre Elliott Trudeau, a man few today—even his ideological enemies—can plausibly argue was not remarkable. So what’s the big deal? Who is Ramsay Cook and why, a half decade after Trudeau’s death is he publishing a spare 183 page memoir of that friendship?

I think this book is a very big deal, but let me answer the easy questions first. Ramsay Cook is a distinguished Canadian historian, now in his mid-70s, the author or co-author of a half dozen major historical studies, a contributor to many more, and the general editor of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. He’s won a Governor General’s non-fiction award, is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and he’s an Officer of the Order of Canada . Among Cook’s less generally known accomplishments have been his authorship of Trudeau’s seminal 1968 campaign speech “The Just Society” which remains, almost 40 years later, the blueprint for progressive federalism in Canada. He also took the intellectual point position in defeating the Meech Lake and Charlottetown constitutional Accords that would have given Quebec special status as a “distinct society” within Confederation. Had either gone forward, Quebec would likely be well on the way to becoming a unilingual American satellite, and the rest of Canada would be a loose federation of more-dependent-on-the U.S. banana republics.

Ramsay Cook is well-connected and patrician, in other words. But there’s more to him than a man with automatic entrance to a thousand stuffy banquets. Cook is an admirable human being in his own right, an unheralded Manitoba social democrat who earned his accolades on merit, mostly by being more interested in making up his mind while fully informed than in making out. He became, by virtue of his intellectual acuity and curiosity, a part of the firmament that Trudeau created around himself without ever becoming a camp follower. In part this was the product of his ambivalence about the chase and theatre of political power; in part because he is, in his own words, a “minoritarian”; and in no small part because Trudeau preferred him as an independent intellectual collaborator rather than a political operative.

The basis of his friendship with Trudeau was that from the mid-1950s on, both men held the same basic beliefs about how to take Canada into its future successfully and justly—the need for a balancing charter of rights against Quebec’s ethnic nationalism; strong federalism to cope with centrifugal force of the power-hungry provinces; and a strong belief in the notion that Canada’s best future lies in embracing its cultural diversity within a federal framework that includes but does not privilege French Canada except by making French an official language.

Cook was tacitly offered, and respectfully declined, the privilege of being Trudeau’s official biographer. Therein lies the subtext to this memoir, which has been written with elegance and often startling restraint. Cook explains his decision, in so many words, by quoting Laurier biographer J.W. Dafoe, about whom Cook wrote a biography himself: “Men may fail to be heroes to their valets, but they are more successful with their biographers.” Cook was never Trudeau’s intellectual valet, and he did not want to become his apologist. He was among Trudeau’s accepted intellectual equals—there weren’t many—and that is the governing narrative of the book: a record of intellectual companionship and a friendship between two very different men.

What Cook also offers is a historian’s close reading of what Trudeau wrote, said, and then acted on, provided with an occasionally deliberate reluctance to interpret. What Cook is after, and manages to present with great credibility, is the intellectual narrative of Trudeau’s career freed of the contingency that so often hamstrings political initiative, and is, for most politicians, its reality. For Trudeau, Cook makes clear, that was not the case.

Yet there is nothing cold-blooded about Cook’s approach. In fact, it allows him to reveal his clear and abiding affection and admiration for his subject, and the reminiscences confirm, often movingly, all the best personal qualities already generally conceded to Trudeau: his thoughtfulness, both social and scholarly, his capricious sense of fun and his abiding love of irony, his decisiveness and the degree of intellectual rigour and consistency that makes those who have followed him in the office seem like air-headed schoolboys caught in a policy version of the Chinese Fire Drill. That Cook has been able to draw this portrait with discretion—he has little to say about Trudeau’s stormy marriage to Margaret Sinclair except to offer a few genuinely sweet anecdotes about what a loving parent Trudeau was and remained to the end, and gives an extremely reserved account of October 1970 and the proclamation of the War Measures Act—is itself competent friendship as well as honourable testimony.

At the root of the beliefs Cook and Trudeau held in common was an understanding of the distinction between patriotism and nationalism best defined by George Orwell: “By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people. Patriotism is by nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”

Pierre Trudeau was a Canadian and Quebecois patriot, and an anti-nationalist where matters concerned either Canada or Quebec. Everything, from Trudeau’s incisive articles for the Montreal magazine Cite Libre from the mid-1950s into the mid-1960s, through to his decisive attacks on the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords at the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s, were grounded in that distinction, and in the conviction that Quebec’s ethnic nationalism was toxic to the interests of Quebec, Canada and to democracy itself. The recently published Young Trudeau: Son of Quebec, Father of Canada, by Max and Monique Nemni, makes clear the intimacy Trudeau had with Quebec nationalism by depicting his climb out of its chauvinist cauldrons. Cook traces for us the astonishingly consistent intellectual trajectory of ideas and policies that led to the Charter of Rights and the patriation of the Constitution, and makes it clear how steely the will behind it had to be—and was.

For all his intellectual fastidiousness, Cook isn’t above a few writerly vices. Happily, most of these are charming, and their exercise justified. In several choice passages, he excoriates Brian Mulroney, who he clearly views as a venal bungler, and in his description of the debate over the Meech Lake Accord, he takes a subtle but evident pleasure at chopping down ill-informed fellow academics. Nor does he hesitate to administer an intellectual beating when he’s seriously annoyed, which he clearly is at ex-Trudeau constitutional advisor Gordon Robertson’s embracing of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords.

To a long-time Social Democrat like me—one who liked and admired Trudeau but couldn’t quite bring himself to vote Liberal—Cook’s utterly convincing account of the ideas that fuelled Trudeau’s life project is a revelation. I wish I’d been paying closer attention, because I missed a remarkable intelligence saving a country from a set of 200-year-old contradictions that were spinning out of control in the 1960s and 1970s and turning it instead into perhaps the best model of multi-ethnic polity going. I’m also, I ought to confess, slightly ashamed of myself, having discovered that I’ve been without a coherent narrative of my country during my own lifetime—until now.

About the only thing Cook and Trudeau both got wrong, I think, was the effect that Quebec’s language law, the much-reviled-by-Anglos Bill 101, would have. However draconian those laws may have seemed when proclaimed and however absurd the anecdotes of their enforcement, they’ve clearly worked, in unexpected and mostly positive ways. More than any single measure they’ve secured Quebec’s economic and cultural confidence, with the result that Quebeckers on (at least) the western side of the Province are now the most casually bilingual citizens in the country. The French language was in danger within an increasingly globalized North America , and securing it did secure Quebec’s culture without engendering any new strains of ethnic chauvinism or the cultural homogenization both men feared. That those effects did not emerge is likely because the countervailing instrument of the Charter of Rights was in place. Culture in Quebec today is more secure than in English Canada, which continues to be under assault from the American culture juggernaut and economic globalism’s repugnant imposition of the economic marketplace as the sole model for human interaction.

Still, this is a minor quibble, and does not detract from Cook’s achievement. This profoundly modest man’s narrative of a 40 year intellectual journey in company with a man Canada was immensely fortunate to have had as a citizen and political leader constitutes a crucial and heretofore largely missing part of our national narrative. I salute it, and about all that’s left to do is to reveal the elegiac private motive Cook has for writing the book. It lies in the remaining lines of the W.B. Yeats poem that the typical discreet and restrained Cook quotes at the end of the book: Those other lines read as follows:

Let the new faces play what tricks they will In the old rooms; /night can outbalance day, Our shadows rove the garden gravel still, /The living seem more shadowy than they.

You can’t conclude an official biography with lines like those of Yeats. I’m glad Cook did, because it returns our focus to the human story. And I’m glad he wrote the book the same way.

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1600 words. October 17, 2006

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Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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