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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. During the ensuing conversation, the subject of Pierre Trudeaus youthful memoirs came up, and Gibson expressed his dismay that Trudeau had permitted the writings on which theyre based to be included in the material he deposited within the National Archive of Canada at the end of his life. When we spoke the rumours were already flying-mostly out of Quebec-that Trudeaus memoir demonstrated that in his youth he had ideas which didnt exactly coincide with the federalist Trudeau Canadians know and either revere or loathe. In the years before the end of the Second World War, according to the rumours, the father of our constitution was a proto-fascist, 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 books publisher (he now edits his own paperback imprint at M&S, and seems happy to have left management to do what drew him to book publishing in the first place), he was confirming that they were true.
I pointed out to him that Quebecois luminaries like Lysiane Gagnon would be all too willing to do what they could to discredit Trudeau (she was extremely shocked), and I argued, without having seen the book, that this simply meant that Trudeau possessed the capacity to evolve. I also noted that nearly all of us have had funny ideas while we were young. I believed in the inevitability of an American invasion of Canada during the late 1960s, and I 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. Whats the problem?
But as I reran the 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 can not permit themselves to blame thinkers for not knowing, say, in 1941, what was uncovered only in the decade that followed. Context, in other words, is not an optional parameter unless youre training to be a Mullah. Equally important, it is poor intellectual method to be blaming people in the past for not agreeing with whatever now happens to be swirling around our dopey heads as received wisdom.
I think Gibson was worried that any revelations about Trudeaus wacky post-adolescent ideas would undermine his reputation and discredit federalism. And given that our universities have by now degraded the conditions of knowledge sufficiently to make common practice of judging the past by present standards (dont get me started on intellectual Mullahism that has become a non-denominational vice in Academia), his concern is legitimate.
The Nemni biography, now in print in William Johnsons translation, offers a clearly sympathetic view of Trudeau as a privileged young French Canadian growing into and through his Jesuit intellectual training, which valued order and obedience over liberty. Did young Trudeau hold immoderate views? Yes, of course, particularly in terms of todays values. But we should remember that until Trudeau himself helped to transform Quebec in the 2nd 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 near fascists? Yes, but only in degree compared to the rest of the country. Quebecs hostile response to conscription during both World Wars is surprising only to those who dont understand the provinces sentimental connection to France began with de Gaulles notorious 1967 declaration of solidarity with Quebec separatism. In the first half of the 20th century, France was everything Quebecs theocratic elite despised: a liberal republic, cosmopolitan and politically chaotic-hardly the ideal of censorious Jesuit dreams. Pierre Trudeau would have had to be autistic not to have picked up those views.
Yet if Trudeau was immoderate, he was not quite a fool. He read well beyond the prescribed Jesuit canon, took copious notes, and made discriminating judgements. For instance, a 1941 memoir entry, 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. Then there are its virtues, the loyalty to which, without an understanding of the weaknesses, is merely sentimental faith, itself a dangerous kind of extremism were drowning in today.
The authors portrait of Trudeau is of a young man lodged securely in the values of his time and society. Even then, his intellectual energy and precision of mind prepared him-perhaps forced him-to move beyond its limitations. When he reached Harvard at the end of the war, the transformation to more cosmopolitan views was predictable, and not long in coming. In reality, the Nemni biography has provided a further texture to Trudeaus greatness. It is a book worthy of our close attention.
Brian Fawcett (Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada
Max and Monique Nemni are retired university professors who spent most of their working lives in Quebec. They were friends of Trudeau, who encouraged them to become the editors of Cité Libre and agreed to let them write his intellectual biography. The authors have both been much published in academic publications in both English and in French. They now live in Toronto.See all Product Description