We’re Still Watching

Will our obsession with Pierre Trudeau ever end?

I don’t know about you, but I’d sure like to read more about Sir Robert Borden. Now there was a prime minister. He served for nearly nine years—longer than Pearson or Diefenbaker and almost as long as Mulroney. To last that long, right through World War One, he built Canada’s only formal coalition government on a policy of conscription that provoked a national unity crisis on a scale few of us today can imagine.

Borden introduced rural mail delivery, the income tax and the National Research Council. He was fearful of U.S. dominance, so he won the great reciprocity election of 1911 by opposing free trade. He was loyal to Britain, but adamant that that must not mean Canada could let itself be slighted for its mighty war effort. By the time he was done, this country was far closer to real independence than had seemed possible when he started. Through it all, his management style was the damnedest thing: more than once, when his factious caucus seemed too much to handle, he handed in a resignation letter and let them realize they had to beg him to stay. Again.

There is a great big book to be written about Borden, just as there is more to be said about Louis St. Laurent and, still, about Mackenzie King and Laurier. For that matter, we could stand a big, thoughtful political history of Canada since, say, 1988: if that year’s second great reciprocity election was about Canada coming out of its shell to assume a global, or at least continental, destiny, then surely it is not too soon to ask how that is going.

But we’re not going to get any of those books. Instead we’re going to get another book about Pierre Trudeau, Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 1968–2000, the second volume of John English’s two-part life of Trudeau. And after that, we are going to get another book about Trudeau, from Max and Monique Nemni, whose first volume on Trudeau stole a march on English’s own first volume by revealing, a few months before he did, that Trudeau had shown fascist sympathies as a young man. A little further down the road we can look forward to another book about Trudeau (the Nemnis’ third volume), along with a few Trudeau books and, if we are really lucky, maybe a Trudeau book.

These new projects follow full-dress Trudeau biographies by George Radwanski, Richard Gwyn and, of course, Stephen Clarkson and Christina McCall, along with the twin French- and English-language CBC biographies and the accompanying quickie “memoir,” the CBC miniseries with Colm Feore and countless hey-let’s-put-Trudeau’s-name-on-the-cover meditations, essay collections, reminiscences, picture books, ice cream flavours, video games, thumb puppets and couture wallpaper designs.

Is it snubbing Trudeau unduly to suggest that even his shoulders are a bit slender to support the weight of all this undying adulation? Sure, he modernized our justice system, stared down the FLQ, fought a mighty referendum battle against elements of his own lifelong intellectual clan, brought home the constitution and inserted a charter of rights in it. Left the economy in a shambles and made Alberta radioactive for generations of Liberals, too. You know the old songs as well as I do. You ought to: their rhythm and tune have been pounded into our heads by legions of hagiographers almost since the day the events in question happened.

Probably, to be fair to the Trudeau industry, this is not a zero-sum business. Probably more Borden biographies would not have sprung up if the authors of a few Trudeau books had shown more restraint. But what the heck: I’d take restraint anyway. At some point, 
as Trudeau shelves fill Trudeau libraries, as rivers of Trudeau empty into a vast and deepening Trudeau ocean, even a resolutely pro-charter, bilingual, federalist, oil-price-fixing-amenable, convertible-loving bachelor such as myself wants to shout: Basta. Enough.

So it was with a feeling not far removed from dread that I approached English’s latest instalment, and it is only fair to point out right away that if, as a society, we are overdosing on Trudeau, very little of the blame for that should be put at English’s feet. A new Trudeau biography wasn’t even his idea. He was Lester Pearson’s official biographer and produced a tidy, thorough pair of volumes on that worthy fellow, so it was the Trudeau family who approached him, dangling unprecedented access to Trudeau’s private archives. English has written that he was reluctant even then: he barely knew the man and wondered what he could usefully add. But English is a professional historian (University of Waterloo) and a recovering politician (one term in the back benches of the Jean Chrétien Liberals), so the lure of those archives was too much to resist.

He has made a valiant go of it, and the result has real value. English follows Trudeau from the day he became Liberal leader to the day Justin Trudeau pronounced the eulogy at his father’s funeral. His approach is purely chronological. He takes pains to give appropriate space to all the myriad issues that tugged at the prime minister’s sleeve during a period of global upheaval and wrenching domestic change. English has spent enough time on a campus to know future generations of essay writers, if they can be coaxed away from Google, will turn first to the latest full-blown biography when they begin to delve into Trudeau’s life. English is conscientious enough to ensure the book they pick up will be a fair-minded survey.

Perhaps his most welcome contribution, and the source of most of the book’s pleasant surprises, is the extent to which he has interwoven tales from Trudeau’s private life with his account of the man’s public work. Of course, there has already been a lot written about both, but until now they had tended to be kept separate: Margaret Trudeau’s memoirs (and Margot Kidder’s, and Liona Boyd’s) for the turbulent romances, and books by menfolk (leavened by Christina McCall’s heroic work) for accounts of meetings and campaigns. But nobody lives life like that. You bungle the meeting because you are in love’s first flush or its death throes. You appear detached from the affairs of state because you prefer to spend your weekends up the skirts of the latest vedette. Every life is a whole, and English treats Trudeau’s prime ministerial career as a whole to an extent none of his predecessors did.

Indeed, I daresay he views the passages that deal with Margaret Trudeau and Barbra Streisand and the others not as some grim part of his historian’s duty, but with real pleasure. Very little in this book was written with as much evident gusto as the section on the 1974 election, when Trudeau won back his majority thanks at least as much, English suggests, to Margaret’s constant companionship as to Keith Davey’s political rainmaking skills. And then the day after the election, Pierre does not call her from work and she realizes he has just won this job for five more years, and the marriage starts to collapse right there. The tired, bitter man Joe Clark would manage to beat in 1979 was worn down more by those events than by the Saudi oil shock. You will understand this more clearly after English’s book than after its predecessors.

But even there, he is mostly weaving together, with skill that varies according to the topic and moment, the work of those earlier writers. Private archives can do only so much to further illuminate the career of the television era’s first prime minister. We already know where Trudeau was at almost every hour of almost every day; a previously unpublished telegram from Streisand or Marshall McLuhan (two frequent correspondents, apparently) does not do much to alter that.

But a biography needn’t be full of fresh revelations to be valuable. A new argument about its subject, a sustained line of analysis, can be all you need. Here English comes up short, but not empty. He seems to be inching toward a set of conclusions about Trudeau that make him uncomfortable, so he stops just this side of firm judgement. The judgement, if he let himself deliver it, would not flatter Trudeau.

Trudeau once told Clarkson and McCall that in 1981 he decided the veteran official Gordon Robertson was “too much of a gentleman” to be his point man on constitutional repatriation. He replaced Robertson with Michael Kirby, who was perfectly ready to be Trudeau’s son of a bitch when needed. Similarly, while John English had the right temperament for a Pearson biography, he is too gentle a fellow to provide the late-inning reassessment of Trudeau to which his own evidence and intelligence seem to lead him.

The seeds of quite a delicious revisionist Trudeau history are here, one that would depict him as flighty, clueless on the economy, racked by domestic unhappiness and too easily romanced by fancy theories that did not work in real life. But just about every time that line of argument starts to get a head of steam, English lets it trail off.

Early on, for instance, he goes around the Cabinet table for scathing assessments of Trudeau’s attempts to impose an elaborate subcommittee system on the executive body’s work. “It reinforced the weak and frustrated the strong,” John Turner says. Another former minister calls the changes “the enemy of political common sense.” Gordon Robertson says he “never discerned any advantage to it.”

Time for the author himself to weigh in. “Perhaps,” English intones. “But governments in those times badly needed reform.” Oh well then. I’m sorry your hat killed you, but you really needed a hat. English seems most comfortable keeping conclusions at a comfortable distance from himself. “In hindsight, most political commentators today believe that Trudeau’s reform of the Canadian constitution fundamentally altered Canada.” That’s like the apocryphal New York Times reporter who, told that he couldn’t write “I believe” in a news article, replaced it with “Millions of people believe …”

In other places, English is happy to note the existence of fundamental debates without coming anywhere close to participating in them. On October 8, 1971, Trudeau introduced his “multiculturalism” policy. Few parts of his legacy would ever be more contested, especially in Quebec, where nationalist critics viewed it as an attempt to drown Quebec’s big specificity in a sea of little specificities. English addresses this debate by listing, in a single page, 14 academics and commentators who have weighed in on the policy over the years—Fernand Dumont, Ken McRoberts, Neil Bissoondath, Ian Buruma, Charles Taylor, Gérard Bouchard—and then concluding that “these debates are academic, angry, political, unresolved, and profoundly important.” Now go read about them somewhere else.

All the strengths and weaknesses of Just Watch Me stem from English’s decision, like that of the grocer Lee Chong in Cannery Row, to preside over an establishment that is a miracle of supply, not a model of neatness. Everything is in here, at least briefly, from Jean Chrétien’s lonely apostasy as a believer in economic orthodoxy at the Trudeau Cabinet table to the prime minister’s fondness for sending his lady guests to muss up the bedding in the guest room to throw the RCMP off the trail. So Just Watch Me really does bid fair to be the Trudeau book you should read if, lucky stiff, you are only read-ing one. To me, only one weakness is really egregious, and that is English’s baffling decision to devote only one short chapter to Trudeau’s life after his second, definitive political retirement. He was a former prime minister for very nearly as long as he was prime minister, and English is the first biographer with a chance to address that entire span.

Think of everything that happened in those 16 years: Meech Lake, the Charlottetown referendum, the end of the Cold War. The last bitter exchange of letters with Lucien Bouchard. The rise of Chrétien in a sort of funhouse-mirror reprise of the Trudeau years. The demonization of Trudeau as fuel for the rise of Reform and, with it, Stephen Harper. The death of Michel Trudeau and Pierre’s final, partial reconciliation with Margaret. There is a Russian novel in there, but it would take a Russian novelist to tell it. That’s not John English. He is rigorous and fair-minded, quite literally, to a fault. He has not given us the Trudeau book to end all Trudeau books. But then, it would have been foolish to try.