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Skeleton in jackboots? An intellectual historian makes sense of Young Trudeau's "shocking" papers.

Young Trudeau: 1919-1944 Son of Quebec, Father of Canada Max and Monique Nemni Translated by William Johnston Douglas Gibson Books 343 pages, softcover ISBN 10: 0771067496 ISBN 13: 9780771067495

Young Trudeau: 1919-1944, Son of Quebec, Father of Canada, a highly critical account of the youth of a man and written by self-described admiring friends, is as paradoxical as its subject. Max and Monique Nemni befriended Pierre Trudeau after meeting him in the collective effort to resurrect Cite Libre to fight Quebec separatism in 1991, confided their interest in writing his intellectual biography and were eventually given access to his closed private archives. But unlike the official biographer, John English, who has been working in those archives for years, the Nemnis were so "shocked and troubled" by their discoveries about the early period in Trudeau's life that they decided to publish them in a stand-alone work: the resulting account of Trudeau's intellectual development ends with his departure for Harvard in 1944, at age 25.

What the Nemnis found in Trudeau's archives was not the rebel of legend, but evidence that the fatherless adolescent was a dutiful and deferential student of the Jesuit fathers, taking extensive notes on the books they recommended even when their program of studies was hopelessly outdated. (The Nemnis found only half a cahier of notes on the spectrum of early modern or modern authors, not a one on political science, but three on ancient Greek language and literature.) They were particularly struck by the student's pages of notes, punctuated by occasional admiring comments, on the texts of militant French nationalist Charles Maurras and on Man the Unknown, by Nobel Prize-winning eugenicist Alexis Carrel. Another revelation is Trudeau's authorship of a satirical play performed at his school in May 1938, which caricatured the innocence and naivete of a French Canadian against the wily mercantile qualities of a Jewish businessman.

Beyond a politically incorrect sense of humour, this callow teenager also displayed an insular focus on Quebec issues. Trudeau showed little interest in the international struggle against fascism: in 1941, he made a 1,600-kilometre canoe trip tracing the historic route of Pierre-Esprit Radisson from Montreal to Hudson's Bay instead of preparing, with others of the French Canadian elite, to help Lord Mountbatten test those German coastal defences at Dieppe.

In fact, the Nemnis detect in Trudeau's notes a strong attraction to conservative, militant and authoritarian European thinkers, whose ideas seem to have shaped his early vision for Quebec politics. The year 1936 was a dramatic one as Spanish Republicans were burning churches and stoking bonfires with nuns and priests--as was widely reported in Quebec. Catholics exasperated liberals, progressives and pluralists by insisting that local communists were controlled from Moscow by secret agents. Charles de Gaulle, with his friends from Ordre Nouveau (a movement that, as the Nemnis reveal, Trudeau admired), advocated the creation of a praetorian guard to help save their country from a feared Stalinist coup d'etat. That same year, Robert Brasillach published a glowing biography of Leon Degrelle, on which Trudeau also took extensive and appreciative notes: the firsthand account described Jesuit alumnus and brewery heir Degrelle's transformation of the docile Belgian Christus Rex Catholic youth movement into the militant anti-communist squadrons of Rex. Meanwhile in Canada, the Nemnis tell us, "preposterous, but true: in 1936, Trudeau saw himself as leading the troops that would make Quebec independent and Catholic in 1976." They likewise portray an older Trudeau, enthusiastic for the technocratic ideas of "X-Crise" and Plans/Ordre Nouveau circles at the Ecole Polytechnique, joining his Montreal student comrades in forming a mysterious group called "X-L." At their head, he allegedly intended to raise an insurrectionist army of Quebecers, allied with Manitobans and Maritimers, against an enemy whose precise identity remained undefined.

In detailing Trudeau's political development to this point, the Nemnis (and translator and former seminarian William Johnson, an alumnus of Brebeuf--the same Jesuit-run school Trudeau attended) portray Jesuit colleges as Mussolinian party schools whose students "remained convinced that they were being taught what they needed to know in order to develop their own unfettered thinking. They saw themselves as free because they had so fully internalized the values of Jesuit education that they could not conceive of not wanting to defend their people, their religion, and their language." The Nemnis, who have had their experience of fanaticism and exclusionism when growing up as Jews in Egypt and then as embattled federalist Trudeauites in Quebecois universities during the referendum debates, appreciate the damage that can be wrought by such institutions and the cultures that nurture them.

Nevertheless, it is interesting that PET, although often accused of being a self-hating Quebecois, never wrote a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man about the damage done and the glorious escape. Instead, to Max Nemni's surprise, he "never expressed any apologies or regrets." Indeed, Trudeau "seems to have repressed from his memory his own past as a narrow nationalist and separatist ... he remained silent about so much of his buried past." The Nemnis simultaneously believe, however, that "he could have maintained forever the mythical version of his life ... He intended that someone, someday, should discover and bring to light his own attitudes and actions, and those of the majority of the French-Canadian elite during those dark years."

Did Pierre Trudeau leave it to us to figure out why he never denounced the obtuse mis-shaping of his youth? One can agree with the Nemnis that there is a certain amnesia in Quebec about that period--not a high priority of Quebec's most prominent historians (such as Gerard Bouchard, brother of Lucien). Along with politicians, they like to describe Quebec as having slumbered in La Grande Noirceur until the so-called quiet revolution of the 1960s unfettered minds. This kind of caricature, however, hardly does justice to the province's sophisticated intellectual tradition. Although they may have been unmoved by Tom Paine, Karl Marx or Lord Acton, the young Quebec intelligentsia of Trudeau's generation explored the mystical Christian communitarian visions of a Cornelius Codreanu, Leon Degrelle or Emmanuel Mounier. Dr. Salazar's Catholic corporatist Estado Novo in Portugal was more appealing than the Protestant United States or the anticlerical French Republic of Leon Blum.

Curiously enough, Pierre Trudeau played an even earlier role in opening up debate over this shadowy past when, in 1992, he took an interest in the case of feisty Laval University student Esther Delisle, whose doctoral thesis on anti-Semitism in prewar Quebec was having difficulty getting accepted. She was invited to address the monthly meeting of his newly revived review Cite Libre and The Gazette published a photo of her sitting alongside him at the head table. Later vilified as an anti-nationalist Trudeauite with a suspicious first name, Delisle became unemployable in Quebec's academic institutions--and certainly never received an honorary degree from McGill like Professor Bouchard, her severe critic. She nevertheless went on to publish her thesis and then other books that described the rightwing sympathies of the young Trudeau

and his comrades, and demystified their legendary role in the Asbestos strike.

Both Delisle and the Nemnis suggest that the anti-liberal ideas of the young Trudeau were fairly typical for the intellectuals of his times. For these Quebecois thinkers, however, the "anti-Semitism and xenophobia" that the Nemnis detect in both "the nationalism inculcated at Brebeuf" and widespread in French Canada as a whole were hardly shocking. That generation believed God had a special design for French Canadians, and it did not hurt to have the ancient relics of St. Polycarpe and St. Telesphore protecting the western frontier villages of the province from the Orangemen. The Jews were even more stiff-necked than the Protestants in their reticence to embrace the social teachings of the papal encyclicals and produced a few communists besides; limiting their numbers in the professional schools and banks of Quebec was in line with St. Thomas Aquinas's guidelines for incorporating a Christian society.

For both Depression-era Vatican officials and their Quebecois sympathizers, these corporatist institutions seemed a reasonable way to safeguard Christian peoples from Nazis and Stalinists. The Nemnis are "astounded and distressed" that Trudeau's liberal instincts did not have him sign up with an anti-fascist international; these same forces, however, were attacking the priests and nuns of Spain and the missionaries in China, and the threat of communist revolution, although remote in Quebec, was real for Trudeau's favourite authors.

In a desperate economic situation, corporatist institutions were likewise designed to protect the lives and resources of working peoples like the French Canadians from exploitation, and to husband the communitarian values and concern for social justice that Catholic schools and the Catholic Action movements sought to instill in the young. (1) With this ideal in mind, was it such a scandal that Quebec engaged in affirmative action (rattrapage) to place more pure laine students in universities and graduate more attorneys, financiers and surgeons? Now functionaries, rather than the Molsons, the Bronfmans or Enron, sell Quebec's alcoholic beverages and hydroelectric power.

Even given this context, should we nevertheless still accept the Nemnis' assessment that Trudeau's thinking "was developed within the cocoon of his little religious universe where he moralized on an abstract salvation resulting from making human beings perfect," leading to--among other things--an "incredible" lack of political judgement? Was Trudeau as dense as suggested here?

Everyone who studied in a Jesuit school, not just the zealots, inscribed A.M.D.G. (Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam) on the top left corner of their workbooks and unreflectively avoided publishing texts that were "contrary to Faith and Morals." Trudeau's closest friend of those years, Pierre Vadeboncoeur, who later became one of his fiercest critics, has also recently said he never heard a word of this mysterious XL insurrectionist group whose threat to Canadian liberal democracy figures so importantly in the Nemnis' account. Trudeau's remaining "submissive to the Index [of Forbidden Books]" while a student of the law, likewise, may not mean that he "internalized the principle of banning books through the Index" in an attitude of abject servility. In fact, young Trudeau could be seen as demonstrating chutzpah in gaining permission to study things on the Vatican's index, and then applying to and attending Harvard University at a time when the canon law that forbid the faithful from studying in "secular" institutions when a Catholic institution could teach the same subjects was near universally obeyed.

While outlining Trudeau's training as a fascist intellectual, this study also establishes him as having a rigorously trained, first-rate mind with vast cultural baggage. In those pre-internet days, he had engaged in wide and attentive reading of important books: literature, the classics and the modern French intellectuals. The Nemnis therefore help us to understand why no prime minister before or since seems to have been nearly as quick, learned, articulate or original.

We learn, in passing, that the young Trudeau--thanks to his Jesuit mentor Francois Hertel and his art history professor Alain-G. Gagnon--became enthusiastic for the paintings of Paul-Emile Borduas and Alfred Pellan before the war, to the point of taking up a brush himself. Maybe Trudeau's pastels and watercolours could tell us as much about the man as that untimely student play or those extensive notes on Charles Maurras ("an active collaborator with Nazis"). The most prominent historian of contemporary art in Quebec, Francois-Marc Gagnon, has described the historical importance of the young Trudeau and his circle learning to appreciate the value of modern art before the war: this was not something current among Nazi, fascist or anti-Semitic elites. We hope there will be more in volume two about Trudeau's neglected role in promoting the arts and architecture in Canada.

It was also through his Jesuit teachers that the young Trudeau encountered Emmanuel Mounier's personalism, a communitarian philosophy that both he and Pope John Paul II embraced. Although it can be firmly authoritarian, personalism is simultaneously solicitous of social justice, liberty and spiritual values: it champions the sacred dignity of every human person's life. A personalist could, in the name of the community's higher cultural needs, curtail an individual's right to put up a sign or even educate children in the language of his or her choice, but not the individual's right to health care, housing and a social safety net. Personalists do not consider the lives of persons of any race, religion or culture less sacred than the lives of others, much less give unqualified support to a brutal government that does.

Now that the Harper government has dramatically increased military spending, endorsed the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and is committing our young people to do some of the heavy lifting in Afghanistan for years to come, this book reminds us that Trudeau came from a peculiar political culture that would not have led him in this direction. He always hoped that Canada would chart a "third way" in pursuit of a humane, caring, communitarian, tolerant and pacific society between the liberal U.S.'s callous free-market individualism and the totalitarian secular religions and racist passions that ravaged the old continent and the Middle East. But Trudeau's concerns for the people he was educated to serve were always defensive. He was photographed grandstanding in many colourful settings, but never in fighter pilot gear on the deck of an aircraft carrier, or in a distant land, smiling, in fatigues, with young people who might soon be missing an arm or leg. Since he knew so many cloistered members of religious orders, Trudeau was never tempted to send the Canadian military to liberate veiled women in the remote, priest-ridden provinces of distant lands.

The Nemnis themselves deeply admired Trudeau as a liberal, pluralistic Canadian statesman, and maintain that they will show in the second volume of their biography how the mature Trudeau became "the exact opposite" of the Trudeau they depict in volume one. Having unearthed and set up these rightwing nine pins, they will apparently knock them down one by one and prove him a Pure Liberal. But this will be a tall order.

Max Nemni has said that Trudeau was a sort of cradle or "automatic anti-Semite" and "notably less anti-Semitic" than his contemporaries, such as interned Montreal mayor Camilien Houde, future Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau or labour leader Michel Chartrand. Unfortunately, however, once this label is applied it often sticks, despite the laborious efforts to dispute, qualify or remove it. "Fascist" is a similarly persistent stigma, and although the Nemnis do not really say Trudeau was a great admirer of Hitler and Mussolini, that is already how it is playing in Le Devoir.

This volume may gain Trudeau a few admirers in the Legion of Christ, Opus Dei, and the Vatican, but lose far more in French and English Canada. It is nevertheless likely that the new book will spark new interest in Trudeau's fascinating and elusive personality, the origins of Quebec political culture and collective memory, and his role, for better or worse, in shaping Canadian political and artistic culture. Those who admire Trudeau, and appreciate the frankness, nerve and patriotism of the Nemnis, may not like this book but will welcome some clarification of our thinking about Trudeau and his legacy. His wisdom and imagination in setting a distinctive world-historical course for Canada, whatever its origins, may be appreciated sooner than we think.


(1) See Michael Gauvreau (2005), The Catholic Origins of Quebec's Quiet Revolution, 1931-1970 (McGill-Queen's University Press, Montreal).

John Hellman, professor of history at McGill University, was a member of the advisory board of the revived Cite Libre and has written several books on the history of personalism.
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Title Annotation:Young Trudeau: Son of Quebec, Father of Canada, 1919-1944
Author:Hellman, John
Publication:Literary Review of Canada
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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