Two men of letters
On the relationship between friendship and politics, perhaps the definitive pronouncement is that attributed to Aristotle: “O my friends, there is no friend.” This enigmatic insight haunts the pages of the remarkable correspondence between the friends and political adversaries Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Pierre Vadeboncoeur, recently published in Quebec and generating much discussion there.
The figure of Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada from 1968 to 1984 (with a brief interruption in 1979–80), still looms large for many, even more than twenty years after his death. These letters will only add to the fascination. Vadeboncoeur, who died in 2010, was a trade union activist and philosophical essayist whose writings place him among the most important of Québécois thinkers.
The bitter struggle between nationalism and federalism that divided Quebec in the latter half of the twentieth century and spilled over into the rest of Canada during the two referendums of 1980 and 1995 is usually personified in the rivalry between Trudeau and René Lévesque. Yet while the latter was a gifted politician, he was not the former’s match as a thinker; Lévesque himself deferred to Vadeboncoeur as the primary intellectual maître of contemporary Québécois nationalism. The most significant nationalist intellectual response to Trudeau’s anti-nationalist Federalism and the French Canadians, published the year he first became prime minister, was Vadeboncoeur’s La dernière heure et la première, published two years later.
In those two books, we find a fierce marshalling by adversarial political thinkers of the principal arguments pro and contra concerning Quebec and Canada. But in J’attends de toi une oeuvre de bataille, we encounter something very different: a testimony, at times moving, to a friendship that would have transcended politics if it could have. The letters, assembled by Jean‑François Nadeau, a columnist for Le Devoir, with explanatory notes by Jonathan Livernois, a professor at Université Laval, were published with the cooperation of Trudeau’s and Vadeboncoeur’s families.
The correspondents actually met when they were ten years of age and classmates at the bilingual Académie Querbes. After Querbes, they attended the elite Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf, then studied law together at the Université de Montréal. Their letters span more than fifty years, from 1942 to 1995, beginning when both were in their early twenties and shortly before Trudeau left Quebec for graduate studies at Harvard. Within this fifty-year period, there is a yawning gap of twenty-three years, directly attributable to the “traumatic” (Vadeboncoeur’s word) break that occurred when Trudeau decided to enter federal politics as a Liberal candidate in 1965. They resumed writing in 1995, when, in their seventies, they tentatively reached out to each other again.
The correspondence attests to a rare form of friendship, based not on convenience or utility or mere familiarity but on the sharing of ideas. For two recent graduates of law school, there was surprisingly little professional talk but many references to literature, art, and philosophy, including an impressive array of France’s leading writers: Racine, Balzac, Claudel, Rimbaud, Valéry, Mallarmé, Flaubert, Maritain, and Péguy, among others. While their thoughts on books and ideas were infused with an intellectual curiosity valued for its own sake, they seem ultimately directed toward the fulfillment of high ambition. Both young men, as privileged members of the elite, took it for granted that their destiny was to be leaders within Québécois society, and both lamented the difficulty they experienced in identifying clearly the role they should play. Vadeboncoeur aspired, above all, to be a writer. But of what kind? A novelist, a playwright, a poet, an essayist, an art critic, a political pamphleteer?
Most of Vadeboncoeur’s writerly energy in these early years seems to have been poured into his letters; apologizing for their length and frequency, he confessed to Trudeau that it was only in drafting them that he was able to sort out his thoughts. In a letter from 1946, Trudeau advised his twenty-six-year-old friend to find his focus: “For a long time I’ve been awaiting from you a work of battle.” He suggested that if Vadeboncoeur wanted to know what he meant by a “work of battle,” he should think of Charles Péguy’s Notre jeunesse, written in defence of the struggle to exonerate Alfred Dreyfus in the face of entrenched right-wing antisemitism in the French military and government. In offering such advice, Trudeau acknowledged an uncertainty as to where to apply his own talents, if indeed he possessed them at all:
I want to clarify something about my own character, which might be useful to you too. It’s about the parable of the talents in the Gospel, but applied to the natural order. The talent confided to me by the master of the house was of meagre coinage; this certainty came to me from an early age. All the more reason, I told myself, to nurture it with all the care possible, so that in the final accounting I don’t come off too pitifully. This might help you understand the prudence and so to say parsimony that this tightwad among your friends puts into his life. For example, the real reason I neither smoke nor drink is that, as a child, I was very frail, and resolved never to do anything that might weaken my health for no good reason.
Apart from the rather astonishing modesty, one is struck by the sense Trudeau had of preparing himself for a significant career. Vadeboncoeur himself seemed to take it for granted that his friend’s future would involve a major leadership role in public life.
The letters are not all bookish idealism. Various pranks and escapades also feature. Vadeboncoeur, for instance, told how one night he and another of their friends snuck into the Jesuits’ living quarters at Brébeuf and urinated into their next day’s soup. Trudeau, who was then studying in Paris, assured his friend of the huge burst of laughter that erupted from him on reading of this “incredible joke played on the Jesuits, your old teachers.” Trudeau frequently addressed his friend as “mon vieux Pott” or “mon cher Pott,” the affectionate nickname being short for “Pott à merde.” In return, Trudeau was frequently “mon cher Copola,” the “one copain in the entire world I most like to make laugh.”
There are references to women in their lives, though these are infrequent and oblique. Vadeboncoeur, in particular, spoke of those to whom he was attracted but also lamented his debilitating shyness and gaucherie when it came to approaching them. He declared that he would “give all the poetry in the world for a single true love.” Trudeau often asked after their mutual female friends, from the “little gang” that had formed in their Brébeuf and university years, but he almost never spoke of erotic matters. In the context of an exchange about the needs that define the whole person, as distinct from secondary needs, he reflected: “If you were to tell me to sleep with women, I would respond . . . that this would offer me a great momentary sense of power, but it would diminish my person (vis‑à‑vis my own conscience).”
This sort of reflection is very much in keeping with their inclination to examine their own characters and each other’s, without any polite holding back. Trudeau frequently urged his friend to order his personality more coherently: “Sometimes it’s the poet in you that you want to satisfy; and sometimes the philosopher; and sometimes the mystic; and sometimes the joker. But it’s never Pierre Vadeboncoeur.” Trudeau bemoaned the other’s “refusal to show your whole self to those around you.” Judging this to be actually a psychological infirmity, he gave his friend the name of a psychiatrist; indeed, on another occasion, he lent him money to attend a health camp that purported to heal the psyche through intense physical culture.
It seems that during his twenties, Vadeboncoeur suffered from depression (more likely to be diagnosed as “neurasthenia” in the 1940s). While usually solicitous about his friend’s malady, on one occasion, Trudeau asked him bluntly if perhaps it was becoming an excuse for not getting on with that “work of battle” it was within him to write. Vadeboncoeur was equally direct and incisive about Trudeau’s character, comparing him to a puppet master operating the strings of a social persona:
You manipulate the strings more well than badly of your puppet, which is besides a charming puppet, especially for the women (I have been led to understand). Now I’m not at all sure that a man . . . doesn’t end by preferring the philosophy of his puppet. . . . The man who is led . . . kills the man who does the leading, kills the real man and his tenderness. . . . What is this mélange of hostility, tension, tenderness, fear, pride, lack of satisfaction with self, delicacy, compassion, anxiety . . . ?
In particular, Vadeboncoeur took Trudeau to task over what he regarded as his excessive piety. Those who still think of Trudeau primarily as a trendy secular liberal — who, as justice minister, opined that “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation”— will be surprised to learn how devout his Catholicism was, even in those early years when he almost went out of his way to thumb his nose at social convention. Vadeboncoeur, who was later to write penetrating philosophical reflections on belief and unbelief (Essais sur la croyance et l’incroyance and Fragments d’éternité), charged his friend with being too faithful to doctrine, suggesting that religious faith should involve something more profound than obedience. In response, Trudeau admitted that it was “unfortunately true that I hold more often to the letter of the Church. . . . If you wish, it’s a guide fashioned for the vulgar; but it is a guide, dear Pierre, and since I can’t do better on my own, I follow it.” He went on to confess that he lacked the gift of hope —”in God, in human beings, in myself. . . . Probably I haven’t prayed enough to deserve it.”
These troubled words indicate that there was nothing complacent or self-satisfied about Trudeau’s piety. Nor was it lacking in philosophical depth, as it was deeply informed by the Catholic personalism of Emmanuel Mounier, whom he met in Paris a few years later. A letter he wrote to Vadeboncoeur on Christmas Day, while travelling alone in India around this time, reads as a sort of spiritual manifesto: “A little while ago I read the Christmas Office, and I have never found it so beautiful. . . . I am on the path toward peace. . . . The secret is so simple: ‘peace on earth to all people of good will.’ . . . I will live my destiny only inch by inch, I will know it only from second to second, calling to my aid the means demanded by the occasion. And I will do my best to integrate it with the immense order that surrounds us.” Anyone looking for some connection, however tenuous, between Trudeau’s religiosity and his politics might start with this avowal.
The letters frequently addressed the friendship itself, measuring it against an ideal that the two might have imbibed from their familiarity with the French classics: perhaps, for instance, Michel de Montaigne’s relationship with Étienne de La Boétie, described in his acclaimed essay “On Friendship.” Such a meeting of souls, Montaigne claimed, was so rare as to occur only once in three hundred years. While Trudeau and Vadeboncoeur made no claim quite so exalted, they certainly regarded their relationship as a unique phenomenon. Vadeboncoeur marvelled at how their intellects were like two highly attuned rackets in a match, while with others he had to make do with all sorts of inferior instruments: “ends of wood, hands, etc.” He was struck by the unimportance of personality in their relationship: “Intelligence alone suffices.” Trudeau did not disagree, though he complained of the other’s lack of confidence in him in everything that did not concern “the pure intellect.” In discussing the gift of one of Vadeboncoeur’s framed drawings, Trudeau expressed his sense of the “great debt” he already owed his friend, regretting that he lacked the creativity to offer something comparable in return. (It might be noted that what he did offer from time to time was loans from his considerable fortune, for the therapeutic camp already mentioned, for a publishing venture, and for Vadeboncoeur’s first house in Montreal, recorded in legal contracts, though with humorous twists, drawn up by a lawyer who was a mutual friend.)
Vadeboncoeur referred to their friendship as “éternelle,” and Trudeau doubtless shared this view of its permanence. Although they would likely have considered it to transcend politics, the relationship took on a political aspect quite early. Trudeau, writing from London when he was twenty-eight, spoke of his resolutely political orientation, which, even though it ran counter to the “natural turn” of his spirit, was something he planned to take on as a matter of “duty towards other human beings.” Vadeboncoeur was fond of imagining a long-term project for the renewal of society, spearheaded by a small group of thinkers imbued with a strong moral sense of justice, who would form a sort of “bureau of the good” aiming for a government of wisdom, rather than power.
As they moved from their twenties into their thirties, their intellectual friendship became also a practical alliance. Their target was the conservative nationalist regime of Maurice Duplessis, which they believed was stultifying any possibility of a Québécois nation able to evolve into a viable modern democracy. Both became prominent and vocal supporters of the asbestos miners whose strike inaugurated that turn in Quebec history known as the Quiet Revolution (the miners called Trudeau “St. Joseph,” because of the beard he then sported). Vadeboncoeur ran (unsuccessfully) for office as a candidate for the Quebec wing of the Co‑operative Commonwealth Federation; Trudeau gave a speech supporting him from the back of a truck. They both wrote articles for the new journal Cité libre, which aimed to shape public opinion in favour of a progressive Quebec freed from the dominance of both Anglo-American capitalism and the Catholic clergy.
The two also commented on each other’s writing efforts, again without holding anything back. Regarding an article by Trudeau on democracy, Vadeboncoeur condemned an immature tendency to play Don Quixote, tilting at windmills: “Your impetuosity always enters on the scene the moment your reason wavers.” He also criticized Trudeau’s French style: “While one feels oneself in the presence of someone who could write excellently, one is forced to say you don’t write well.” Trudeau was later to acknowledge, in his memoirs, that it was Vadeboncoeur who taught him how to really write in French. However, he could be critical too: after being asked by his co-editor at Cité libre, Gérard Pelletier, to scrutinize an article by Vadeboncoeur, he rejected it for lacking sufficient logical justifications and factual citations. In a letter, Vadeboncoeur retorted, “Je rejette votre refus” (the “votre” indicating his annoyance), and then reminded his friend that, unlike those of independent means, he didn’t have the time to write like a university professor. Mutual criticism was always part and parcel of the friendship, which did not suffer mortal wounds from it.
But the near-fatal wound did come in September 1965 with the announcement in Le Devoir that three leading progressive figures in Quebec — Jean Marchand, Gérard Pelletier, and Pierre Elliott Trudeau — were going to run in the forthcoming federal election for the Liberal Party led by Lester Pearson. The “three wise men,” as they were dubbed, were going to Ottawa to shape the destiny of Quebec within Canada from a position of Liberal power. Ironically, in a letter to Trudeau written shortly before this announcement, Vadeboncoeur jokingly, but with underlying seriousness, addressed his friend as “the Future Honourable Prime Minister of Québec” (which might hint at a premonition of what was coming).
Vadeboncoeur’s letter to Trudeau three days after the Le Devoir announcement was an expressive mix of shock, anger, and disappointment. He was “floored” by the news, then observed that the “pyramid” of Trudeau’s logical reasonings “hides many things from him,” above all that his decision meant the loss of that “fidelity” they both had upheld throughout their lives: fidelity to Henri Bourassa’s defence of the French fact in North America, to the Paris Communards rather than the bourgeois capitalism of the Third Republic, to Péguy and the Dreyfusards rather than their reactionary opponents. He charged Trudeau with one of the biggest defections in Quebec since 1867: “a beautiful gift to the coalition of swine who make politics.” Since there is no extant direct reply to this letter, one can only imagine what Trudeau made of this historical contextualization of his political decision. Vadeboncoeur ended on a sombre note, predicting that their friendship might not survive this turn of events.
The prediction was to prove true — and yet, perhaps, not entirely. Certainly, the letters became scarce, and their subject matter more mundane, largely concerned with financial matters (Vadeboncoeur still owed money to Trudeau, by now prime minister, for his house). In one note, Vadeboncoeur said that while in Ottawa on a family matter, he thought of dropping by Sussex Drive, but then concluded that it would be more fitting for the prime minister to go out of his way to salute the writer. In another, he declared that while their differences had proven more profound than they ever realized, theirs had nevertheless been his “greatest friendship.” While Trudeau acknowledged that he now represented power — for which Vadeboncoeur had “always entertained a solid contempt”— he didn’t think their differences were really so profound. In what was likely, for him, a rare display of hurt feelings, he noted that because of their friendship, he could not remain insensitive to the harsh treatment he had received in some of Vadeboncoeur’s writings, which seemed more like an “investigative trial” than true politics.
The letters ceased entirely after 1972, the last year of Trudeau’s first term as prime minister. However, Vadeboncoeur’s subsequent political writings, especially La dernière heure et la première, can be seen as extending the correspondence by other means. Reading that book in the light of these letters, one has the uncanny sense that it was above all Trudeau whom Vadeboncoeur was addressing.
Trudeau might have been right, after all, in his assessment that their differences were not so great. Both entered politics to defend the Québécois from the marginalization within modernity portended in Duplessis’s regime. Faced with the hopeful future that the Quiet Revolution opened up, they came to different conclusions. Looking at their political writings now, one can see that Trudeau badly underestimated the cultural and democratic vitality of Québécois nationalism, partly because of the progressivist Anglo-American liberalism he imbibed at Harvard and the London School of Economics. Vadeboncoeur, on the other hand, badly underestimated the capacity of Canadian federalism to create space for the flourishing of the Québécois people, partly because of the cultural Gallomania that left him supremely indifferent to non-francophone Canada.
When it entered the practical political arena, their “eternal” friendship foundered on the inevitable limitations of political perspectives. As Montaigne would have put it, they became “citizens more than friends.” Vadeboncoeur said rather wistfully in one of his last letters, “It’s friendship that should command politics; that would be crazy, but that would be good.” When, after twenty-three years of not writing, speaking, or seeing each other, Vadeboncoeur reached out to Trudeau in December 1995, it was to send him an essay about the love of art, which drew on memories of a classmate of theirs at Querbes. In response, in his final letter, Trudeau affirmed the connection, which now existed only in the memory “of that happy time of our youth when there grew up timidly between us a friendship that would last more than thirty years.”
As for Vadeboncoeur, we learn from other correspondence that by this time he knew that his dream of a sovereign Quebec was effectively dead, and that this outcome was attributable, above all, to the political career of Trudeau (see my “Separation Anxiety,” from the April 2019 issue of this magazine). Yet it was likely the same memory of their youthful “happy time” that prompted him, in a letter to Le Devoir five years after Trudeau’s death, to defend his old friend against a sovereigntist columnist’s charge that he was “arrogant, contemptuous, and full of himself”— a common view of the public Trudeau, and not only in Quebec. “This might surprise you, but he was certainly not arrogant, contemptuous, and full of himself,” Vadeboncoeur wrote, insisting that this was merely the “rather forced persona” adopted for a career of political struggle. “He was on the contrary charming, attentive, without pretension, and everyone, quite naturally, loved him.”