Pierre Trudeau’s death in 2000 provoked some extraordinary scenes. Fidel Castro dusted down a handsome suit for the funeral mass, Trudeau’s eldest son Justin bid his father a startling Caesarean adieu (‘Friends, Romans, countrymen!’) and the UN Security Council adjourned in mourning.
Perhaps the most memorable response however was that of a random woman interviewed in Toronto as she stopped to sign a book of condolence. With the modesty of somebody who looked like she had never been ambushed by a slobbering cable journalist before, this gorgeous blonde of a certain age shyly recalled how Pierre Trudeau changed her life at the height of the Vietnamese Boat People catastrophe. Crying softly while looking at her shoes, she said:
I was sitting in a little Salvation Army church in eastern Europe when the minister said that our Prime Minister in Canada was allowing the Vietnamese people in….because we had so much to offer them… and they had been turned away by the States. And I thought that’s it. I have to go home and I decided that nursing would be my profession. I was so moved by him many miles away …
Readers who suspect a certain mawkishness here are invited to watch the clip for themselves on the CBC website. This nurse’s reaction serves as a nice synecdoche for a career so evocatively explored by John English and Richard Cook. She captured Trudeau’s fondness for a certain kind of gesture-politics that so often doubled as a well-placed knee to the groin of the Greatest Generation on his southern flank. In her grief, she exemplified his extraordinary rapport with women, ranging from the downright classy (Kim Cattrall) to more flighty specimens like his wife Margaret Sinclair. Indeed, this tribute was by no means an unworthy example of what John Henry Newman, Trudeau’s most ethereal mentor, had in mind when he appropriated the motto cor ad cor loquitur for his cardinalational seal. In doing so, Newman affirmed his belief in those rare moments in modern life when a public man finds his private following, when, quite literally, heart speaks to heart. English’s model biography and Cook’s elegiac reflection on forty years of friendship with Trudeau provide some clue as to why our nurse was not alone in her grief.
Second only to Laurier and King in impact, Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s (1919-2000) sixteen-year premiership between 1968-79 and 1980-84 remains deeply controversial. For some, he is the architect of modern Canadian political identity, one rooted in his Charter of Rights and Freedoms, his multicultural domestic policies and his stern insistence that Quebec’s rightful place was as part of a federal Canadian union based on individual rights and legal equality between the French and English languages. To his Quebecois detractors, he was simply a vendu, a local version of the self-hating Jew, the federal bully who locked Quebec out of the key constitutional negotiations in 1981, the spoilt brat son of a millionaire who mocked Quebec’s distinct kind of joual French, the fanatical opponent of even the most minimal concession to Quebec’s cultural distinctness who was rewarded with the 1995 referendum that brought Canada within a hair’s breadth of formal disintegration.
In Citizen of the World, English shows however that Trudeau’s emergence as the most formidable federalist politician within post-war Quebec was a close run thing, itself the product of an astonishing feat of personal and intellectual transformation in the aftermath of 1945. For up to this point, Trudeau was actually a rather nasty Quebec nationalist, a hopeless mama’s boy, an admirer of Pétain’s Vichy prone to casual anti-Semitism and an enthusiastic student of some of the most lethal race theorists of that era. English’s elegant analysis of his development describes the manner in which this unusually intense young man began the process of thinking his way out of the nationalist axioms he absorbed during his formative years.
Between his graduation magna cum laude from the Brébuef Jesuits in the late 1930s and his quixotic decision to run for the federal Parliament as one of Mike Pearson’s Liberals in 1965, Trudeau read and Trudeau travelled. He learned his federalism at Harold Laski’s famous LSE seminars in 1947 before completing his anti-fascist education at the École Normale Supérieur in Paris and at Harvard (where he took classes with Heinrich Brüning, Germany’s last Kanzler before Hitler.) Afterwards, he kicked the chauvinistic dust of Duplessis’ Quebec from his heels on a solitary world tour. He prayed with Taoist monks at dusk in the ancient Chinese city of Hangzhou and threw snowballs at Lenin’s statue in Red Square. Canadian embassies dreaded his arrival whilst women of various descriptions apparently swooned when he turned on the cosmopolitan charm.
When he returned to 1950s Quebec, Trudeau elaborated a critique of political nationalism that ultimately catapulted him to the premiership in 1968. Ironies abound in his intellectual development however, ironies which English and Cook track thoughtfully. He derided Quebec nationalism as economically illiterate, culturally insecure and politically illiberal. His antidote to this local nationalism was not however a rejection of nationalist categories tout court, rather their application to the larger Canadian polity. Quebec nationalism could only be meaningfully defanged if French-Canadians learned to think of Canada itself as the locus of their loyalty. Therefore, Canada had to be big and Canada had to be brash. Trudeau the taunter of ‘the nationalist brood’ in Quebec became Trudeau the noisy Canadian nationalist on the world stage. His initial strategy in the Cold War was to pinch his nose and yawn. Chancellor Schmidt and President Reagan were incensed by his primma donna performances at consecutive NATO summits, especially his decision in the early 1970s to drastically reduce Canadian troops on garrison duty in Germany and to terminate Canada’s dual-key nuclear partnership with the US.
He brought thousands of miles of the Arctic Circle under Canadian sovereignty and extended diplomatic recognition to communist China before Nixon’s famous conclave with the psychopathic Chairman in 1972. After the Korean airline disaster in 1983, he mounted a vainglorious campaign for an end to the zero-sum rhetoric and for East-West détente. His last year in office was thus stylish, provocative and wholly irrelevant, his nuclear warnings as magnificent and ephemeral as Demosthenes’ orations before the empty sea. (Trudeau’s labours here were not entirely without recompense. At his last conference with President Reagan he was rewarded with one of Ron’s more imperishable insights on the dialectics of the Middle East. ‘Look Pierre,’ he said, ‘we’re a God-fearing people, the Jews are a God-fearing people, and the Arabs are a God fearing people. Why can’t we all just get together and fight the Communists?’)
In his elegant memoir of their intellectual friendship over forty years, historian Ramsay Cook explains that Trudeau unexpectedly ran for federal office in 1965 after nearly thirty year’s study of Quebec politics when he concluded that Quebec’s new liberalism after Duplessis was itself chauvinistic. His analysis here was momentous for the future development of Canada and is in many ways his most enduring intellectual insight. Those social liberals who were also out and out Quebec nationalists in search of a sovereign Laurentie were one thing. He worried more intensely about the less strident liberals who lacked the self-confidence or the local insight to challenge separatist arguments on their merits. His falling out with the federal New Democratic Party, which might have been a natural political home for him in other circumstances, followed the socialists’ acceptance of the Quebec nationalist definition of Canada as deux nations and their fateful argument that social justice necessitated some kind of national recognition for the province.
Trudeau’s argument that liberalism was too easily mesmerised by nationalistic tantrums, no matter how feeble the arguments advanced or how momentous the consequences of the concession sought, might usefully be pondered by any number of political constituencies in contemporary debates. His insistence that nationalistic arguments were frequently just fig leaves for old-fashioned power-grabs and the grossest kind of ethnic calculation applies as elegantly to 1960s Quebec nationalism as it does to events today. Tariq Ali, after all, sees a noble nationalistic struggle in the activities of the suicide fanatics who blew up Iraq’s Askariya shrine. Naomi Klein once lamely backed Moqtada al-Sadr as Iraq’s next national leader, while most brazenly of all, Edward Herman, éminence grise to Noam Chomsky, saw Milosevic as the real victim in the Balkans nightmare, head of a nationalist people’s democracy struggling in a NATO half-nelson.
In the great Victorian debate that he knew well between John Stuart Mill and Lord Acton, Trudeau emphatically sided with Acton. Nationalism was not the logical telos of organised liberalism (Trudeau’s understanding of Mill’s argument), it was, rather, its nemesis. Cook’s moving book noted how
If Trudeau performed a spectacular pirouette so far as French-Canadian nationalism was concerned, one aspect of his life that remained constant throughout was his intense Catholic spirituality. English ’s insightful and humane interrogation of Trudeau’s Catholicism demonstrated its absolute centrality to his evolving moral and political maturation. The nature of this relationship between his soul and his scholarship will undoubtedly occupy specialists for the next few years. For all of his breathless womanising and bohemian instincts, Trudeau remained a life-long disciple of a peculiar, élite strand within post-1945 Catholic ethics, the so-called Personalist school of Emmanuel Mounier. Broadly, this school sought political equality by synthesising the economic insights of the communist avante garde with a post-Tridentine Catholic spirituality that emphasised the dignity of the individual as rooted in natural law.
Acton replied that national homogeneity threatened freedom rather than nurtured it; multinational states, where groups counterbalanced each other, were far more likely to respect and promote both individual freedom and cultural pluralism.’ Trudeau predicted the chaos in the modern Balkans and was deeply troubled by the catastrophe that was post-colonial Africa throughout his career. There can be few more compelling or more appalling vindications of Trudeau’s general insight than the images inseparable from a roll call beginning with Imin and Taylor and ending with Mugabe and Hassan al-Bashir.
The great irony of this attempt to domesticate atheistic communism was, of course, the fact that Catholicism played a major, if not actually decisive role in destroying it in the end. (Its overly long obituary was, after all, delivered in the mellifluous vowels of a Polish Catholic who had made common cause with Reagan and Gorbachev.) Drawing on a private devotion to the idea of Christ’s incarnation rather than His atonement, Trudeau the Personalist developed a theory of justice that put the individual at the heart of ethics and this in turn provided the basis for his increasingly vehement critique of collectivist political structures that undermined individual liberty at home. In the heady atmosphere of the post-war French Left Bank, not unlike his other mentor Cardinal Newman in a bygone era, Trudeau grounded his liberalism in religion, becoming in a sense a Catholic individualist, or a papal Calvinist.
The major reforms he authorised in the Canadian Criminal Code in 1967, decriminalising homosexual acts between consenting adults as well as liberalising divorce and abortion laws, were oddly enough products of a Catholic approach to rights. That modern Catholicism has had its own emphatically liberal strands has been somewhat obscured by its obsession since 1789 with maintaining its political status and policing sexual mores. Occasionally however, liberalism and Catholicism have fused in certain respects. Chateaubriand’s critique of political tyranny was based on Catholic ideas about natural rights, as were the arguments against civil discrimination advanced by the artist James Barry at the time of the UK Act of Union in 1801.
At the death of Karol Wojtyla, the twentieth century’s very own Hildebrand, Eric Hobsbawn quite correctly lamented the passing of the last major world-historical critic of robber baron capitalism and its concomitant ‘culture of death.’ Similarly, William Brennan, America’s most dynamic Supreme Court justice after 1937, based his passionate defence of Roe on an analysis of the natural rights of the sovereign individual that clearly derived from his own Irish Catholicism. (Some bishops, obviously unamused by this lamb’s venture into the realm of jurisprudential paradox, retaliated by denying him the sacraments). As far as the death penalty was concerned, Brennan and Wojtyla proved that there was more to Catholic moral philosophy than the grim logic of the Old Testament’s lex talionis. Trudeau’s social conscience and his critique of what he called ‘non-democratised global capital’ makes perfect sense in this intellectual context and interested parties can expect to read much more about this aspect of his life now that English has so deftly opened up his private papers.
There is, however, a supreme irony in Trudeau’s understanding of rights, in that it was essentially American. Ramsay Cook recalled that Trudeau was deeply agitated by the racial violence that was consuming American cities from the first few months of his premiership. He doubted America’s capacity to weather these deep generational cleavages, especially in the context of its ruinous military commitment in Indochina. And yet, for all his important criticisms of post-war American society, Trudeau’s premiership was in many ways a billet doux to a classic kind of American constitutionalism. The heart of his political legacy is the Charter of Rights that he attached to the patriated British North America Act in 1982, thereby entrenching key individual rights against both the federal and provincial governments and which empowered courts to void violative acts of parliament.
In a country with a strong attachment to the English idea of parliamentary sovereignty, Trudeau’s Charter was as epochal a constitutional innovation as Blair’s Human Rights Act or his proposed creation of a UK Supreme Court. Even though he risked what one provincial premier termed ‘the break-up of the country’ in his campaign to entrench official bilingualism in the Constitution, Trudeau was simultaneously oddly ambivalent about US-style judicial assertion, especially the inevitable encroachment by courts in the Charter-era on areas traditionally deemed ‘political.’ His acidulated attack in retirement on the Supreme Court’s Patriation Reference verdict in 1981, a decision that forced him back into negotiations with the provinces and ruined his plans for a stringent national bill of rights, was a critique of ‘judicial activism’ that might have been written by the cranky ghost of Felix Frankfurter.
It has been nearly forty years since the American political scientist Harry Eckstein showed how Catholic and democratic institutions deeply influence each other in organised polities. He argued then that the more authoritarian of the two institutions would tend to ‘infect’ the more open one. In this vein, Trudeau’s
individualistic instincts led him to Personalism, but his Catholicism also left its mark on his democratic outlook.This is one way of explaining the unmistakably authoritarian instincts in Trudeau’s intellect. He was, after all, the first Prime Minister to invoke the antique War Measures Act in peacetime, the statute he used against Quebecois terrorists who kidnapped a British diplomat and murdered a provincial minister in 1970. He taunted his critics for the rest of his premiership on this point and never seems to have doubted the propriety of using draconian legislation against a relatively small, if still lethal terrorist vanguard.
His wife recalled how an implacable bitterness seem to come over him the night the RCMP informed him of M. Laporte’s murder. Crying at the side of their bed, he warned her that he would sacrifice her and their children rather than capitulate to terrorist blackmail. (The FLQ dynamos who decided to test the mettle of what they saw as an inexperienced, rose wearing invertebrate forgot that Trudeau had preached violent revolution during his own adolescence. English reminds us that he knew the drill.) If Trudeau’s rationale for détente was essentially the same as Dr Kissinger’s, then so was his contempt for Soviet pro-democracy dissidents who got in the way of an East-West deal. His cynical cackling in old age about the time the Burmese junta jovially regaled him at dinner with their tactics for dealing with domestic dissidents was only heartless when one understands that Trudeau told this story after Tiananmen Square. His flashy official trip to Castro’s Cuba in 1976 was a diplomat’s version of ‘up-yours’ aimed at a pushy US State Department, though he had the good grace to admit when he got home that ‘El Maximo’ had taken him to the cleaners over Angola. When the scale of Castro’s lies about his Angolan meddling was revealed, he promptly cancelled the lavish bilateral trade deal signed in Havana. Dust in the eye, as Newman might have said.
Pierre Trudeau’s premiership was, in many ways, an essay in failure. The 1995 referendum in Quebec constituted a bleak return on his passionate nationalist critiques. Trudeau himself admitted in 1982 that his vision of a stringent Charter was ruined by the non-obstante clause that allowed the provinces to override some rights in certain circumstances. He also failed to understand that the hag-ridden Soviet Union needed a push rather than the qualified embrace he essayed in 1984. Even his Catholic faith disintegrated in the end as the pitiless deity that carried off his father when he was still a boy returned in 1998 to take his youngest son in a hiking accident. The dreamy Personalist became an inconsolable Job, rattling around his lonely art-deco mansion in Montreal, a broken elite of one so poignantly depicted by Cook.
And yet, the stunning national reaction to his death in 2000 suggested that in some odd way, Trudeau had changed everything about modern Canada during his career. He exposed the autism that lurks at the heart of certain kinds of liberalism when confronted with malevolent movements that masquerade as victims of a wicked world. He beat Quebec nationalism in a referendum on separation in 1980, thereby changing Anglo-Canadians understanding of the country through bilingualism and deranging the separatist movement for another decade. Though at his finest during the crazy days of MAD, stagflation and Mrs Thatcher’s handbags, Trudeau’s legacy still calls out to our addled world, one tormented by the hysteria and cruelty that are the inevitable freight of political nationalism, Benedict Anderson’s complacent characterisations notwithstanding. To this extent, in the words of an English poet who would almost certainly have loathed the entire Trudeau brand, one might argue that he somehow managed, …to prove/ our almost- instinct almost true/ What will survive of us is love.
John-Paul McCarthy, a DPhil student in history at Exeter College, Oxford, is currently writing about Gladstone’s intellectual life.