Young Trudeau: Son of Quebec , Father of Canada , by Max and Monique Nemni (tr. William Johnson, McClelland and Stewart, 2006, 343 pps, pb, $27.99)
This spring I ran into ex-McClelland and Stewart publisher Doug Gibson at a Toronto gathering of environmentalists, one of whom was an author of his. Gibson has been among our most competent cultural patriots as a book publisher, with a long record of trying to do the right thing, publishing books that support Canadian culture even when they don’t make money and the Globalist Zeitgeist doesn’t want to hear what they have to say. He’s a guy whose intentions I generally trust even when I don’t agree with them because I agree with where he’s coming from.
During the conversation we had that evening, the subject of Pierre Trudeau’s youthful memoirs came up, and Gibson expressed his dismay that Trudeau had permitted the writings on which they’re based to be deposited within the National Archive of Canada toward the end of his life. Salicious rumours were already flying when we spoke—mostly out of Quebec —that the memoir demonstrated that the youthful Trudeau had ideas that didn’t exactly coincide with the federalist Trudeau we know and either revere or loathe. In the years before the end of the Second World War, the rumours were shouting, the father of our constitution was a proto-fascist, an anti-Semitic separatist busily plotting ways to take Quebec out of Canada and out of the anti-Fascist alliance fighting Nazi Germany. Gibson was clearly bothered by these disclosures, and as the book’s editor (he now has his own paperback imprint at M&S, and seems happy to have left management to pursue his true motive for getting into book publishing in the first place), he was more or less confirming that the rumours were true.
I pointed out to Gibson that Quebecois luminaries like Lysiane Gagnon are all too willing to do what they can to discredit Trudeau even if all they had to work with was a photo of him blowing his nose on his sleeve (she was “extremely shocked” at the biography). Then I argued, without having seen the book, that it simply meant that Trudeau possessed the capacity to evolve, noting that nearly all of us had funny ideas while we were young. I mentioned that I believed in the inevitability of an American invasion of Canada during the late 1960s, and that I’d demonstrated the sincerity of my belief by buying a hunting rifle so I could defend our borders. It was a foolish belief, and I changed it when I understood the world better. What’s the problem?
The look on Gibson’s face told me he’d had no funny ideas in his youth, but never mind that. As I reran our conversation in the days that followed, I was reminded of one of the most important lessons I learned in university from Robin Blaser: that competent intellectuals are not permitted to blame those from the past for not knowing, say, in 1941, what was uncovered in the decade that followed and is now common knowledge and/or fact. Context, in other words, is only an optional parameter if you’re training to be a Mullah. Equally important, it is poor intellectual method to be blaming people in the past for not agreeing with whatever happens to be swirling around your own dopey head as received wisdom.
I think Gibson was worried, as a Central Canadian and a federalist, that the revelations about Trudeau’s wacky post-adolescent ideas would undermine Trudeau’s reputation as the father of 21st century Canadian polity. And given that our universities have degraded the conditions of knowledge sufficiently that it is now common practice to judge the past by present standards—don’t get me started on the intellectual Mullahism that has become a non-denominational vice in Academia—his concern is probably legitimate. He might also have been feeling just a little guilty about the marketing of the book, which includes Gagnon’s patently insincere “shocked” declaration, and is, on balance, pretty sensationalizing.
This is no doubt merely marketing hype, because on every other count, there’s nothing very shocking in Young Trudeau, now in print in William Johnson’s translation, and much that is of interest both to scholars of French-English relations and to the general reader. It offers a clearly sympathetic view of a privileged young French Canadian growing into and through his Jesuit intellectual training, which heavily prejudiced orderly obedience over freedom of inquiry. Did young Trudeau hold immoderate views? Yes, of course, particularly in terms of today’s received wisdom.
We should remember that until Trudeau himself helped to transform Quebec in the second decade after World War II, the province was a closed society run by the Catholic church and a wealthy oligarchy of self-serving xenophobes. Was it a hotbed of anti-Semitic Nazis sympathizers during the 1930s and into the Second World War? Yes, but mainly in degree compared to the rest of the country, which didn’t exactly have a shining record either, particularly over the issue accepting Jewish refugees. Moreover, Quebec ’s hostile response to conscription during both world wars is surprising only to those who don’t understand that the Province’s sentimental connection to France really began with de Gaulle’s notorious 1967 declaration of solidarity with Quebec separatism. In the first half of the 20th century, France was everything Quebec’s theocratic elite despised: a liberal republic, cosmopolitan and politically chaotic—hardly the ideal of censorious Jesuit dreams.
A close reading reveals that even if Trudeau was immoderate, he wasn’t ever a fool. He read well beyond the prescribed Jesuit canon—not easily done in those years—took copious and articulately critical notes, and made discriminating judgments about what he was reading that are often interesting in their own right. A 1941 entry, for instance, concerning the drawbacks of democracy cites “ignorance, credulity, intolerance, hatred for superiority, the cult of incompetence, an excess of equality, versatility, the passions of the crowd, the envy of individuals”. Those are the weaknesses of democracy, past and present, even if they’re being drawn up by a very young man who spent eight years being indoctrinated by Jesuit priests. Then there’s democracy’s virtues, the loyalty to which, without an understanding of the weaknesses, is merely sentimental faith, itself a dangerous kind of Anglican indifference we’re drowning in today.
Considered without the partisan hysterics, the Nemnis’ portrait of Trudeau is that of a thoughtful, high-spirited young man lodged securely in the values of his time and society. If there’s a dramatic development within the book it’s the surety with which Trudeau crawled out from under them. One gets the sense that his intellectual energy and precision of mind prepared him—perhaps forced him—to move beyond the limitations of his training and his heritage. When he reached Harvard at the end of the war, the transformation to more cosmopolitan views was predictable, and it arrived swiftly. In both its totality and its detail then, the Nemnis’ biography of Pierre Trudeau as a young man provides further texture to Trudeau’s singularity and greatness.
That makes it a book worthy of our close attention, particularly given those who have held Trudeau’s office since his departure from politics.
1200 words September 26, 2006