Young Trudeau: Fascist, anti-Semite, and separatist
A new biography of the former prime minister, whom Canadians have long been taught to regard as a great liberal politician, revealsthat as a youth and young man, Mr. Trudeau was an anti-Semite,admired fascist dictators such as Hitler and Mussolini, promotedrevolution and longed for an independent and Catholic Quebec that would be home only to francophones.
Pierre Trudeau confounds us still.
A new biography of theformer prime minister, whom Canadians have long been taught to regardas a great liberal politician, reveals that as a youth and young man,Mr. Trudeau was an anti-Semite, admired fascist dictators such asHitler and Mussolini, promoted revolution and longed for an independentand Catholic Quebec that would be home only to francophones.
“Wediscovered a Trudeau who was remarkably different from what we andeveryone else had assumed,” authors Max and Monique Nemni write intheir book, Young Trudeau: Son of Quebec, Father of Canada, 1919-1944.
Indeed,the book, which is to be officially released tomorrow, promises tobecome a cause celebre because it casts a shadow over the popularmythology surrounding Mr. Trudeau, particularly since his death in2000. It may well force a re-evaluation of his legacy.
Theauthors intimate this need for such a reconsideration, describing theresults of their decade of research and writing as “a voyage ofdiscovery” that led them to a young Mr. Trudeau who “has remainedunknown until now.”
“Between 1941 and 1944 the young Trudeauespoused with conviction and enthusiasm the very ideologicalcommitments that the post-1950 Trudeau would despise,” they write.
Eventhose involved in the book’s production say they were shocked at whatit reveals about the man who is widely regarded as a modern father ofConfederation.
“I was astounded and appalled by this lengthy andconvincing account of Trudeau’s intellectual journey to the age of 25,long past the age when these activities can be dismissed as youthfulfollies,” says the book’s publisher, Douglas Gibson, a long-timeadmirer of Canada’s 15th prime minister.
Such a reaction iscertainly at odds with the prevailing image of the man, who, as primeminister for 16 years, established multiculturalism as a definingconcept of the country and pushed through the Charter of Rights andFreedoms in 1982.
However, the Nemnis’ book draws on Mr.Trudeau’s own writings to demonstrate that in the late 1930s, as astudent at the Jesuit-run College Jean-de-Brebeuf, Mr. Trudeau ardentlyembraced the chauvinist francophone nationalism.
In 1936, at theage of 17, Mr. Trudeau wrote a school essay that portrayed him assomeday leading a separatist army to create an independent and CatholicQuebec. In one school essay, he sketches a fantasy of being arevolutionary blowing up “the enemies’ munitions factories.”
“Iwill return to Montreal sometime around the year 1976: the time is ripeto declare Quebec’s independence. The Maritime provinces join with us,and so does Manitoba. I take command of the troops and lead the army tovictory. I now live in a country that is Catholic and canadien.”
Mr.Trudeau’s youthful fantasy of war and revolution “hardly suggests thathe was impregnated with the culture of federalism, of democracy, or ofpluralism” that he advocated as prime minister of Canada in the 1970s,the Nemnis say.
Mr. Trudeau also demonstrated a distinct lack ofmulticultural credentials in his youth. He wrote a one-act comedy ofmanners in 1938 that “was intended to bring out the difference betweendishonest and profiteering Jews and honest but too naive FrenchCanadians.” The play was selected by the college to mark its 10thanniversary and was “a great success.”
Nor, it seems, was young Mr. Trudeau enamoured with liberalism. “Liberalism leads to excesses: to unemployment, anarchy,” he wrote in jotting down the main ideas of the “first serious book” he’d read, Pour nous grandir by Victor Barbeau.
One book Mr. Trudeau particularly admired was by Alex Carrel, who won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1912, and, in 1941, returned to Nazi-occupied Europe to become a star in the collaborationist Vichy regime led by Henri Petain. In L’homme, cet inconnu, published in 1935, Mr. Carrel denounced democracy as foolish and harmful.
“The equality of rights is an illusion. The feeble-minded and the man of genius must not be equal before the law. … The sexes are not equal.”
Young Mr. Trudeau regarded it as the “perfect” book that needed “to be assimilated entirely.”
Mr. Trudeau certainly assimilated Mr. Carrel’s lessons on asceticism. In a 1944 essay entitled “Asceticism in a Canoe,” Mr. Trudeau quoted Mr. Carrel extensively on the need to push himself physically and mentally. Mr. Trudeau, as Canadians recall, was known for his love of canoeing, for taking pleasure in pushing his body, deliberately seeking privations and trials. But if he absorbed this from Mr. Carrel, did he assimilate other elements of Mr. Carrel’s neo-fascism?
As a first-year law student at the Universite de Montreal in the fall of 1940, Mr. Trudeau wrote notes on the defects of democracy: “Ignorance, credulity, intolerance, hatred for superiority, the cult of incompetence, and excess of equality, versatility, the passions of the crowd, the envy of individuals.”
The Nemnis also explode the myth that Mr. Trudeau’s lack of support for the war effort in the 1940s was due to his ignorance of the situation. They point out that the students at Brebeuf, on average 17 or 18 years of age, were well aware of the situation in Europe, particularly after Canada declared war on Nazi Germany in 1939. “Like most other students at Brebeuf, and French Canadians generally, he (Mr. Trudeau) failed to take a stand on the most momentous event of his lifetime.”
The Nemnis sum up Mr. Trudeau’s schooling at Brebeuf, saying: “It must now be obvious that, contrary to a well-established myth that he cultivated, as did others, we nowhere could discover the young man rowing against the current.” Mr. Trudeau, in short, was a conformist.
Indeed, like most Quebecers, Mr. Trudeau was against wartime conscription. But his objection wasn’t just passive. Young Trudeau advocated what can only be regarding, considering the circumstances, as treason.
In 1942, Mr. Trudeau gave a speech supporting the anti-conscription candidate Jean Drapeau, the future mayor of Montreal. The speech, say the Nemnis, was “anti-British (and) anti-colonial.” He denounced the “military clique” ruling Canada and the “disgusting dishonesty” of the Mackenzie King government in forcing conscription on French Canadians. “And if we are not in a democracy, let the revolution begin without delay.”
Rhetoric perhaps, but Mr. Trudeau went on to denounce the Canadian government for even having declared war against Germany in 1939, “at a time when America was not threatened with an invasion, at a time when Hitler had not yet won his staggering victories.”
The Nemnis attribute Mr. Trudeau’s youthful attitude to the influence of his upbringing and the social environment in which he was raised.
Only after Mr. Trudeau left Quebec and went to study at Harvard in 1944, did he begin to awaken from the dogmatic slumbers of his youth, they say. “Little by little, he would throw off the ideology that had governed him during the most formative period of his life and come to adopt the universal values of liberalism.”
The Nemnis themselves have admitted in interviews that as friends of Mr. Trudeau, they were uncertain about revealing everything they discovered. The Nemnis, academics in the fields of political science and linguistics, describe themselves as left-leaning liberals and staunch federalists. Between 1995 and 2000, they edited the pro-federalist magazine Cite libre at the urging of Mr. Trudeau, who was one of the magazine’s founders in the 1960s.
“We were his friends and we wondered whether we should reveal this,” said Ms. Nemni, who, along with her husband, got Mr. Trudeau’s approval for the biography in 1995.
And they wonder why Mr. Trudeau saved the material, considering the damage it could do to his reputation. “We believe that he had failed to face up to the follies of his youth, but was unwilling to cheat with history.”
Perhaps so, but after reading Young Trudeau you have to wonder whether there would have been an alternative history to Canada if Mr. Trudeau had retained his youthful views as he got older. Instead of being a father of Confederation, might he have been the father of a new nation?
But then if Canadians had been privy to the past revealed in the Nemnis’ biography, Mr. Trudeau might never have become prime minister.