Widely revered and reviled as Canada's fifteenth prime minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau (1919-2000) cast "a silhouette sublime across the canvas of his time." Despite this notoriety, there have been few detailed examinations of his formative years. In Young Trudeau, the first volume of a three-volume intellectual biography, Max and Monique Nemni attempt to fill this historical void. Although their effort contains some flaws, the coauthors contribute to a more expansive understanding of Trudeau's political philosophy.
Unfortunately, this book has been overshadowed by Citizen of the World, the excellent first volume of a biography written by John English, which describes Trudeau's life from his birth to his election as federal Liberal Party leader. By concentrating exclusively on his early years, the coauthors of Young Trudeau are more detailed in documenting and analyzing the conflicting intellectual currents that affected the future prime minister's educational evolution.
Max Nemni, a political science professor, and his wife, Monique Nemni, a linguistics professor, served as editors (1995-2000) of Cite Libre, a magazine co-founded by Pierre Trudeau in 1950 during Quebec's Quiet Revolution. Trudeau befriended the coauthors, and gave them access to his private papers, although this is not an authorized biography. The two professors also consulted extensive secondary sources that are discussed in the endnotes.
The major focus of this book's content is a study of Trudeau's twenty-five year socialization process in the religious, political, social, and economic context of French-Catholic Quebec from his birth to his departure for Harvard University in the fall of 1944. Contrary to the consensus of earlier biographers that Trudeau was a born rebel, the coauthors prove convincingly that he was a conformist who integrated into his social environment, shared its fundamental values, and was a model of Quebec Jesuit education. Far from being the reluctant leader, Trudeau was preparing for political office during his youth as a member of a French Canadian Catholic elite at Brebeuf College.
Because of the immense suffering caused by the Great Depression, many political philosophers challenged the established social order. Some elements of corporatist theory were adopted by fascist movements in Italy, Spain, and other countries. As an enthusiastic young reader, Trudeau expressed naive support for certain radical ideas that were popular in Quebec. Surprisingly, he advocated the separation of Quebec from Canada, and its transformation into an independent, Catholic, and French state. He was involved in composing a manifesto for a French Canadian nationalist revolution as a member of a secretive group known as "L.X."
Shortly before leaving for Harvard, Trudeau began to move away from this immature political philosophy toward economic liberalism, Canadian federalism, and the personalism of French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain. After World War II, Maritain served as France's Ambassador to the Vatican, was a close adviser to Giovanni Battista Montini (the future Pope Paul VI), and influenced the philosophy of Pope John Paul II.
In addition to its many strengths, this biography contains occasional weaknesses. The thesis that young Trudeau was a conformist is not original. In the Foreword to Against the Current (1996), Trudeau stated that he had been a conventional thinker in his youth who eagerly received knowledge from his parents, friends, teachers, and the Church. The coauthors wait until page 81 to acknowledge this important admission. Second, although Trudeau praised certain aspects of radical philosophies, this did not mean that he totally embraced these philosophies, or approved of how they were subsequently twisted by dictatorships. Third, in the absence of direct historical evidence, the coauthors sometimes ascribe specific opinions and actions to Trudeau by inference, extension, or association with others. For example, they claim at page 254 that Trudeau must have participated in anti-conscription demonstrations because "university students were caught up in the frantic atmosphere of the times", and Trudeau's "opposition to the war reflected the views of everyone in his circle." Finally, the coauthors' outlook is sometimes affected by an anticlericalism emanating from the secularism of Quebec's Quiet Revolution.
Trudeau has always been a study in contradiction: the reserved man who was the flamboyant leader; the millionaire's son who was the social democrat; the conservative Catholic who became a "cafeteria" Catholic; the civil libertarian who imposed the War Measures Act, and then entrenched the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms; and now the quintessential Canadian federalist who had been a young Quebec separatist. Historians will continue to debate whether Trudeau was an unprincipled opportunist who loved power, or a dynamic leader who was a political visionary. Above all, this book demonstrates that Trudeau was engaged in a lifelong process of self-education which only death could end.
The coauthors have written a focused study that provides detailed insights into the formative years of a gifted, flawed, and fascinating historical figure. As for the controversy caused by these recent revelations, the provocative Pierre would be pleased. In death - as in life - Trudeau makes us think.