The Pierre We Hardly Knew

A major new biography sets the record straight on Trudeau’s “idle” years

A word to the wise: should you be tempted to enter into a factual argument with Monique and Max Nemni about Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s life and times, make sure you stand on solid ground. Otherwise, they will shame you out of the room, albeit with a smile, because the two are a kind-hearted pair. But you will be toast nonetheless. The Nemnis simply know everything about Trudeau, as they enjoyed total access to the man’s private papers—a first in the annals of Trudeau scholarship—and consolidated their vantage point by conducting painstaking research on every aspect of their subject’s life. They already established their superiority over other Trudeau scholars—none of whom were dilettantes, I hasten to add—with the first instalment of their intellectual über-biography, Young Trudeau: 1919–1944. Son of Quebec, Father of Canada, published in 2006, which earned them the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing. It was a fine read, indeed, although many admirers of the deceased prime minister were horrified to discover the separatist leanings of the young Pierre Trudeau, not to mention his overtly anti-Semitic stance as a budding playwright. But that was precisely the point: a good biography should astonish you and reveal previously unknown ground. This second volume, Trudeau Transformed: The Shaping of a Statesman 1944–1965, belongs to the same class and will disappoint no one. In fact, you will only hunger for the next volume.

The Nemnis have no competition in one precise domain: debunking myths and dispelling any conventional ideas about Trudeau, whose path here they follow from graduate school at Harvard to his first election to Parliament in 1965. We get to observe Trudeau as a student in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Paris and London in the years following the Second World War; through his eyes, we later see Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Then it is on to Ottawa in 1949, where he worked for the Privy Council for about two years. After returning to Quebec, he begins his journey as a public intellectual, without gainful employment most of the time, until he is finally able to enter the Faculty of Law of the Université de Montréal as a professor shortly after the death of Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis. He is elected to Parliament on November 8, 1965, as the Liberal member for Mount Royal, one of his many moves that surprised observers since he had seldom shied away in the past from criticizing Liberal leader Lester B. Pearson.

The impression conveyed by many a biographer before the Nemnis is that the years that are recounted here were one long, lazy holiday. With all the time in the world on his hands and his enviable bank account, Trudeau would keep busy thinking deep thoughts, socializing, driving around on his motorcycle or in his flashy sports car, dating profusely and generally enjoying himself on one expensive vacation after another in exotic places. Yes, he would occasionally publish something, but none of his activities were physically exerting, if you do not count, of course, the harrowing canoe trips in the wilds of Canada and the skiing. In short, it was supposed to be the dream life of the millionaire pretty boy who later settled in at 24 Sussex Drive as a fit, well-rested 49-year-old with a few clear thoughts of his own. No wonder he had the stamina needed to govern this difficult country; after all, he had been working on his tan and biceps while the rest of those working stiffs had done all the heavy lifting in building a Canada that he knew little about.

Reading Trudeau Transformed will put to rest that unfounded and unfair view of the man. Using a wealth of previously unmined documentation, the Nemnis convincingly show that there was more to Trudeau’s life than bar hopping in Marrakesh in pre-hippie days while workers in hard hats were building the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Manicouagan dam. In fact, he was indeed shaping the statesman he was to become, and, although the material means at his disposal were plentiful, it was hard work. Not only were his vacations in far-off countries more of the busman’s holiday kind, he did not exactly travel first class. In fact, he was much more the backpacking-and-roughing-it type, eating local food, taking the bus like the average Joe and using every opportunity to get close to the indigenous populations he encountered. Life in Club Med it was not.

Moreover, in his supposedly “idle” years in Montreal, from 1951 to the early 1960s, the young man had a busy schedule. Just to mention a few activities, he founded his magazine, Cité libre, which became an influential voice in challenging Maurice Duplessis’s rule; he served as an advisor to trade unions; he wrote a seminal book about the asbestos strike; he worked as a union arbitrator and defended his friend, polemicist Jacques Hébert, before the courts pro bono. Not bad for a do-­nothing playboy.

In fact, the young man had had a plan all along. Already, in his application for Harvard, in 1944, Trudeau speaks of his “burning desire” to become a statesman. I doubt very much that he would see himself then as the future prime minister of Canada, but with the war coming to a close, with newly defined centres of power popping up everywhere, he could easily dream of a life in some new avatar of the defunct League of Nations or helping a former colony reach full statehood. (Like Senegal or Kenya, for instance. Or what about Canada? That qualified as a good choice too.) He then set about acquiring the knowledge that he needed to pursue his dream. So there was no goofing off at Harvard. Quite the contrary, he was busy mastering the tools of his future trade in economics and political science. True, as the Nemnis do point out, he completed the required schoolwork for a master’s and a doctorate all the way to the comprehensive examination, but he never wrote his PhD thesis: perhaps the inaugural chapter in the legend of the brilliant slacker. However, the record of his readings and private papers amply shows that he did not come out of Harvard with an empty brain.

It was an intellectually well-equipped Trudeau who then went to Paris to attend lectures at the Institut d’études politiques. There was no course work involved, but Trudeau used every opportunity to further his knowledge and fine-tune his own political thoughts. He attended conferences, went to the theatre where he saw plays that Quebec censors never would have allowed here, read abundantly, met political thinkers and took a close look at one of the most important schools of thought of the age, personalism.

This chapter is perhaps the best in the book in that the Nemnis do not content themselves with glossing over Trudeau’s personalist days. Quite the opposite, they provide a detailed and much nuanced view of personalism, a philosophical approach that concentrated on the significance and inviolability of persons and their unique status among living beings in general. Although he was fortunate enough to meet Emmanuel Mounier, the primary thinker of personalism and publisher of the periodical Esprit, Trudeau did not buy his theory wholesale. In fact, personalism was a multi-faceted current, and Trudeau picked and chose. For instance, there was a faction of the movement, Mounier’s in fact, that was close to the communists and thought that collective rights trumped individual rights. Trudeau took precisely the opposite point of view and adhered to the principles of a lesser-known proponent of personalism, Nicolas Berdyaev, a critic of nationalism who wrote in his book Slavery and Freedom: “I believe in a real aristocracy of the person … I do not believe in the aristocracy of a group which is founded upon social assortment.” Precisely the idea that later estranged Pierre Trudeau from his nationalist friends such as René Lévesque and Camille Laurin: he believed in the inalienable rights of the individual while they believed in the supremacy of the nation.

It was also during his stay in Paris that Trudeau penned the article “The Promise of Quebec,” the basis of which was a presentation given to the Robert Aron Group at the École normale on April 3, 1947. Here we find an articulate summary of Trudeau’s thought, which he would further refine and defend throughout the rest of his public life. For the first time, he blasts the idea of sovereignty for the nation and exalts the virtues of federalism and, again for the first time, he speaks of Quebec as his homeland and of Canada as his country. Now, remember that Trudeau was then barely 27 years of age, but his political Weltanschauung was already well defined. A year later, Trudeau tried to publish his article in Le Devoir, but the deputy editor-in-chief, André Laurendeau, turned him down because of one contentious passage about the state of affairs in Quebec: “Ecclesiastical guardianship over education and particularly social education has smothered us to the point where tragically we have to seek emancipation outside of the Church of Quebec.” In those few words, you find the whole thrust of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution. Just remember the year again: 1947.

From there, the Nemnis take us to the London School of Economics, where Trudeau studied under Marxist philosopher Harold Laski. It is another fine chapter where we see Trudeau’s vision of the world mature. What follows is Trudeau’s sojourn in Ottawa where he finds his first real job as a junior civil servant at the Privy Council, under the tutelage of Gordon Robertson. Impeccable timing, as the Nemnis point out, for his task in 1950 was to assist “the federal team in establishing its position in the forthcoming negotiating with the provinces.” What did that task entail? Well, discussions over the patriation of the British North America Act, adding a bill of rights to the Constitution, improving Canadian federalism. Sound familiar? But the real surprise is a passage from “Federalism Revisited,” the paper that he submitted to his superiors: “The BNA Act could be amended by adding Section 101A, giving the provinces a certain measure of control over the number of Supreme Court judges, and over their mode of nomination.” And here you have it: the essence of the future Meech Lake accord. That should debunk for good the myth of Trudeau the diehard centralist and the dogmatic thinker who would never change his mind.

Although Trudeau Transformed is catnip for political junkies, I would say there is something missing. Oh, some 30 or 40 pages perhaps, which the Nemnis are welcome to add in their next volume. The missing part is about Trudeau the homme de lettres and the art lover in his relationship with Quebec’s intellectual bourgeoisie of the time. Trudeau was at home with poets, singers, playwrights and film makers before and after politics. As a young man, as the authors point out, he even dared purchase a painting of Paul-Émile Borduas, a bold and accomplished artist who was turned into a pariah by the political masters of the day. When it came to politics, though, Trudeau and the members of the thinking caste parted ways. Moreover, his toughest and most eloquent adversaries in Quebec were not the politicians but the tenured thinkers and the artists of his beloved bohème, such as sociologist Marcel Rioux and Hubert Aquin, a sharp-tongued essayist who was also in his time Quebec’s finest novelist. They are mentioned in the book but almost only in passing, and that is sad. For instance, one who deserves some attention is poet Gaston Miron, a Trudeau tormentor of the first order. When he and Trudeau met in Paris in 1960, the two discussed the separatist option, a novel idea then. Watch out, said Pierre to Gaston, if Quebec becomes an independent nation, you might lose all your rights as a citizen. Ten years later, Miron’s civic rights were trampled indeed, but by Trudeau’s government: he was thrown into jail in the wake of the War Measures Act. A painful irony for the politician and the poet, no doubt.

I would also welcome further scrutiny of the book Trudeau co-wrote with Jacques Hébert, Two Innocents in Red China. Only one page is devoted to that opus here. In light of the recent criticism it garnered given the authors’ excessive optimism about the country, to put it charitably, a sharper analysis would be needed. Okay, so let’s add another five pages, and I’ll stop here.