Young Trudeau: Harvard turned him into a Canadian

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Aug 1 14:11:36 UTC 2006

Years at Harvard turned Trudeau into Canadian
Biographers present new insight into young Quebecer

Among his many other accomplishments, Pierre Trudeau was a world-class
pack rat. The 15th prime minister of Canada (1968-1979, 1980-1984) appears
never to have thrown anything away. While saving every scrap of paper
related to famous personalities is now the norm (even a mediocrity like
former U.S. president Gerald Ford has his own presidential library), such
scavenging usually starts after the person has become famous. One wonders
how many former prime ministers archives contain every report card, every
school notebook, every draft letter of application, from their childhoods.
Even documents that could come back to haunt him, Trudeau scrupulously

Most people censor their private writings before opening them to the
world. English novelist Evelyn Waugh, for example, was a life-long diarist
but his biographers have found pages missing from a volume during a period
when external evidence indicates he was experimenting with homosexuality.
Not so Trudeau. Even the authors of Young Trudeau, Max and Monique Nemni,
express astonishment at the material he saved. "One wonders why Trudeau
saved his writings from 1942 when he could so easily have destroyed those
stubborn witnesses to his troubling past,"  they write.

It is this troubling past the Nemnis lay bare in exquisite detail, mostly
in the words of the man himself, in a fascinating book that
authoritatively documents that as a human being never mind the politics
for the moment our most charismatic prime minister had feet of clay.
First, the Nemnis explode Trudeaus own carefully crafted persona as the
young rebel against a hidebound society who had to be dragged into
becoming a politician. As a child and young man, they show that the
Jesuit-educated Trudeau bought into all the accepted myths of 1930s
Quebec: the pre-eminence of the Roman Catholic Church, the survival of the
Quebec "race," the perfidy of the "English," the evil influence of the

Do you remember Oh Canada! Oh Quebec!, the 1992 book by the late novelist
and Montrealer Mordecai Richler? It was about Quebec language policy but
also tore a strip off the province for its long, sordid history of
anti-Semitism. Richler was roundly denounced at the time both in Quebec
and outside as wrong and paranoid. However, as the Nemnis demonstrate with
academic precision (Max is a retired professor of political science at
Laval University in Quebec City, Monique a retired professor of
linguistics at the Universite de Quebec a Montreal) Richler was right and
the prime minister in knee-pants was right in the thick of it.

The books of Abbe Lionel Groulx, a priest-historian and "a virulent
anti-Semite," as Richler describes him, were required reading at the
College Jean-de-Brebeuf where Trudeau spent eight formative years. Was
Trudeau an anti-Semite? "All told," the Nemnis say, "in comparison to what
others were saying and writing we find that Trudeau could be criticized
less for his anti-Jewish writing than for his silence, for his lack of any
critical reaction to all the anti-Jewish tirade made by his peers, his
teachers, and by the authors and "heroes" for whom he expressed so much

For much of his youth, the Nemnis show that the man who brought us the
Charter of Rights and Freedoms and defeated Quebec separatists in the
first referendum in 1980 was himself an anti-democratic separatist. The
future leader of the Liberal Party of Canada spent most of the Second
World War denouncing the conscription policies of Liberal prime minister
Mackenzie King and campaigning for the Bloc populaire canadien, an early
sovereignty-association movement, using the same narrow-minded reasoning
the separatists used against him 35 years later. The separatists called
Trudeau an outsider and his early biographers, like Stephen Clarkson and
Christina McCall, tried to add a pop psychology twist, claiming the death
of his father when Trudeau was 15 was such a crushing blow to a young
psyche that it shaped his political beliefs.

This theory is "psychoanalytic mumbo jumbo," the Nemnis say, "backed by no
convincing evidence."

The only evidence of stress they found was that the first report card
Trudeau got after his fathers death had been torn to pieces. But he saved
all the pieces. Thats as weird as it gets.

Finally, with regard to the reluctant politician faade that Trudeau
maintained, the Nemnis point out that his entire education as an upper
middle class son at a private school was geared toward producing leaders
who would preserve the cultural and religious fabric of Quebec and, in
Trudeau, it worked. In his application for a Rhodes scholarship, at the
age of 20, he said he was embarking on a career in politics. He didnt get
the Rhodes but after getting a law degree (he stood first in his class but
was bored silly), he went Harvard in 1944 to study economics.

It was there, the Nemnis say in a teaser for their next volume of Trudeaus
biography, that the Quebecer started to turn into a Canadian. William
Johnsons translation of the Nemnis French text is excellent.  Johnson is
former journalist whose life overlapped much of Trudeaus. He started at
Brebeuf the year Trudeau graduated. But then, he has wonderful material to
work with. The Nemnis started with the idea of writing an intellectual
biography and Trudeau left them much grist for their mill. He wrote
extensive notes on all the books he read, not just school boys cribs but
analyses of volumes on history, philosophy and economic theory written by
an inquiring and developing intellect.

To make it comprehensible, the Nemnis have had to provide considerable
background on Quebec and the political and intellectual movements of the
1920s and 1930s. The result is a rich examination of a young man trying to
open his mind in a closed society.

Robert Martin is a freelance writer who lives in Cow Bay.

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