Source – canada.com
– Of all our passions and appetites, the love of power is of the most imperious and unsociable nature, since the pride of one man requires the submission of the multitude – Edward Gibbon,
– The photograph of Pierre Trudeau performing a pirouette behind the back of Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace is probably one of the more enduring images of the former prime minister embedded in the collective memory of Canadians. The picture, we have been led to believe, expresses his maverick anti-conformism, his democratic disdain for aristocratic pomp.
Only it’s not true. Trudeau’s supposedly impulsive gesture that day in 1977 was no whim-of-the-moment stunt. “The public saw Trudeau as a quick-witted, almost insouciant man who tossed off casual remarks, slid down royal banisters or made faces and gestures on a whim,” says Jim Coutts, who served as Trudeau’s principal secretary in the 1970s. “But he did and said little publicly that was not carefully rehearsed.” In other words, when it came to Pierre Elliott Trudeau, what you saw was not necessarily what you got.
The pirouette was a case in point. “He planned it hours before because he strongly opposed the palace protocol that separated heads of state from heads of government,” says Coutts. “The well-rehearsed pirouette was a way of showing his objection without saying a word.”
That is one way to regard Trudeau’s twirl. But might there be another way to interpret the performance — along with the banister sliding, the fuddle-duddle retort to opposition MPs, and telling western farmers they could fend for themselves? Indeed, it might well be our collective view of Trudeau is unfocused, even distorted. A newly published biography of Trudeau, Young Trudeau: Son of Quebec, Father of Canada, 1919-1944, suggests as much.
Since his death in 2000, Trudeau’s legacy as a modern father of Confederation, the philosopher-king who remade Canada into a shiny multicultural mosaic, has been burnished to a high polish. Young Trudeau, authored by Max and Monique Nemni, cuts a scratch on that polish, exposes a dark underside to Trudeau’s political legacy long hidden from public view.
The Nemnis’ book, a model of scholarly rigour and research, reveals that as a youth and young man in the 1930s and early 1940s, Trudeau was no champion of democracy and individual freedoms. He was instead an ardent Quebec nationalist who, during the worst of the war years, admired fascist dictators, regarded reports of Nazi atrocities as British propaganda, plotted treason against the Canadian state and actively promoted a revolution to establish an independent Quebec solely for Catholic French Canadians.
As the Nemnis put it, Trudeau in his youth “was remarkably different from what we and everyone else had assumed.”
For example, while still attending the Jesuit-run school, College Jean de Brebeuf, Trudeau wrote a play that described Jewish merchants in a derogatory fashion. In 1936, at age 17, he wrote in a school text that he was willing to use terrorist tactics against Canadian military facilities. The teenage Trudeau also predicted he would return to Montreal 40 years later — in 1976, no less — at the head of an army “to declare the independence of Quebec.” (The Parti Quebecois under Rene Levesque won its first election in 1976.)
In 1942, the 23-year-old Trudeau was a member of a “secret” revolutionary organization calling for a “national revolution.” “The nation that will be reborn from the revolution” would be Catholic and French. Even in 1944, when reports of Nazi atrocities could no longer be dismissed as propaganda, Trudeau was full of admiration for the writing of the now infamous French anti-Semite Charles Maurras.
This cannot be regarded as “youthful stupidity,” as one academic has suggested. Other Canadians Trudeau’s age, and younger, were scattered across battlefields around the world, fighting what Trudeau was promoting. Many were francophone. They had figured out right from wrong. What was wrong with Trudeau?
The Nemnis fault society. “Pierre Trudeau, in his youth, was perfectly integrated into his social environment, he shared its most fundamental values, and he was the very exemplar of what a Jesuit education hoped to turn out … That led him to commit himself, body and soul, to the planning for and preparation of a revolution to turn Quebec into an independent, Catholic, and French state.” In other words, contrary to the popular myth that casts Trudeau as the perpetual rebel, he was the consummate conformist.
Might this not suggest our understanding of Canada’s 15th prime minister is inadequate? If so, then maybe his influence on the country — and on our collective self-understanding — needs to be rethought.
According to polls, Trudeau is still regarded as the country’s greatest prime minister in the 20th century. His admirers see him as the man who saved the country at a time of danger. He not only prevented national collapse, he was also the founding father of a bilingual, multicultural society devoted to human rights.
Trudeau’s years in power — he was prime minister from 1968 to 1984, with a brief hiatus in 1979 — certainly wrought changes to our national institutions, as well to the nation’s psyche. How we think of ourselves is in many ways the consequence of Trudeau’s ideas and influence. As historian Michael Bliss observes, “To this day Canadians live under the Trudeau constitution.” We are, says political scientist Alan Cairns, “Charter Canadians.”
Even after he left office, Trudeau remained both a nemesis and a touchstone. When Brian Mulroney attempted to recast Trudeau’s 1982 Constitution — repair the damage, some say — to bring Quebec into the constitutional family, Trudeau twice emerged from retirement to undermine the Tory prime minister’s efforts. Many argue Trudeau’s interventions were the catalysts for defeating the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords. During the 1995 referendum campaign in Quebec, Trudeau again entered the fray — after been told by the Chretien government to keep quiet — to tear Lucien Bouchard apart for “distorting the political history of his province.” Arguably, Trudeau’s intervention influenced enough voters to prevent the separatistes from carrying the day. And even now, six years after Trudeau’s death, those seeking the Liberal leadership invoke him in promoting themselves as worthy successors.
Maybe the mantle-seekers should take a closer look. In an essay in the 2002/2003 edition of the London Journal of Canadian Studies, political scientist Paul Nesbitt-Larking examined Trudeau’s conduct in Parliament, where he once referred to MPs as nobodies and told opposition members to “fuddle duddle” themselves. Such remarks, Nesbitt-Larking writes in “The Discourse of Aggression: Trudeau in Parliament,” reflected a fundamental trait of Trudeau’s “political personality” — that of an “ideal-hungry narcissist,” a man whose behaviour accentuates “arrogance, coldness, intellectual aloofness, boastful exhibitionism and aggression.” By this view, then, Trudeau’s pirouette was not a reflection of political idealism, but the immature display of a person who craves attention.
Nesbitt-Larking argues that an awareness of Trudeau’s political personality should at least prompt us “to rethink and revisit his political life and times, his challenges, his inhibitions, his struggles, his wisdom, his poor judgment and his triumphs.” The Nemnis’ revelations reinforce that advice.
To be sure, not everyone was surprised by the Nemnis’ discoveries. As columnist John Robson observed in the National Post, Trudeau always “drifted with the intellectual tide.” An ultramontane Catholic in the 1930s and conveniently pacifist in the early 1940s, he followed many other western intellectuals later in the decade in being attracted to communism. In the 1950s, like most Quebec intellectuals, he promoted the Quiet Revolution. A decade later, in his 40s, dressed in sandals and ascots, he swept into office riding the wave of the boomers’ youth rebellion. In the 1970s, when every left-thinking person opposed the Vietnam War and American “imperialism,” Trudeau became a cosmopolitan internationalist, enjoying the company of such dictators as Fidel Castro, Julius Nyerere and Mao Zedong. By the 1980s, Trudeau was flying around the world promoting disarmament — never mind that U.S. president Ronald Reagan’s rearmament of the United States did more to bring about the collapse of the Soviet Empire than anything Trudeau could have done. As Robson says, “Talk about a walk on the tame side.”
Obviously, a man can change his mind. Abandoning the ignorant enthusiasms of one’s youth can be a sign of maturity — witness the conversion of so many leftists to conservatism after the collapse of communism. But what is puzzling is that the revelations about Trudeau’s past have taken so long to see the light of day.
It has long been known that Trudeau was desperate to avoid military service during the 1940s, and that he liked to mock les Anglais by riding around Montreal on his Harley-Davidson dressed in what many took to be German military regalia. However, scholars and commentators have tended to dismiss such conduct as youthful frivolity. To their credit, the Nemnis took such behaviour seriously. “As we carried out our research, two nagging questions persisted: Why did Trudeau, usually so direct, maintain until his death an almost total silence about this particularly explosive period of his life? And why did those of his contemporaries who were in the know, and who had become his most determined adversaries, choose to be his accomplices in covering up what he and they did together back then?”
The Nemnis, retired university professors who were long-time friends and associates of Trudeau, admit to being troubled by this reticence. They say they discussed their book with Trudeau before his death, and he approved of an “intellectual biography.” So why didn’t he destroy damaging material? “(Trudeau) could have erased all traces of this dark past, and the myth would have endured forever,” the Nemnis write.
They believe Trudeau was too intellectually honest to want to cheat history. Perhaps so, but they also acknowledge that during his lifetime Trudeau was never that honest about his past. “While he relentlessly condemned those who fed a closed and separatist form of nationalism, he, on the other hand, repressed in his memory a part of his own past.” So why, they ask, were these aspects of Trudeau’s past never previously exposed? “In the final analysis, it seemed the more convenient solution for much of the elite — including notably Trudeau — was to develop a collective amnesia … ”
The Nemnis are certainly to be applauded for their courage in revealing the reality of Trudeau as a young man. But it is questionable to suggest that even if Trudeau “never acknowledged” his youthful attitudes, he “undoubtedly overcame his past.” How can you overcome your past if you never acknowledge it?
Here’s where the Nemnis’ book, along with the kind of analysis offered by Nesbitt-Larking, is most useful: It highlights the question of Trudeau’s influence on this country. If Canada today is Trudeau’s creation, if our collective self-understanding as a nation reflects his political personality, then to perceive his character with greater transparency allows us, presumably, to understand ourselves with fewer delusions.
A BUNDLE OF CONTRADICTIONS
Trudeau is generally praised for his tough stand against Quebec separatism, particularly in adopting the War Measures Act to combat a perceived terrorist threat to Canada during the October Crisis of 1970. Historian Michael Bliss argues that while Trudeau indulged in patronage and brokerage politics like every other prime minister, he was also, at key moments, the uncompromising defender of the country’s best interests. “Was there ever a prime minister as tough as Trudeau during the October Crisis of 1970? A prime minister as determined to bring about a constitutional revolution as Trudeau in 1981? … He stood firmly on guard for Canada when it was menaced. He greatly expanded the freedoms of Canadians.”
On the other hand, his tax-and-spend economic policies — it would be too much to suggest Trudeau had a coherent economic philosophy — fostered an attitude of government-by-deficit that nearly bankrupted the country. Trudeau opposed Tory leader Robert Stanfield’s wage-and-price control proposals only to adopt them after the Liberals won the 1974 election. In 1980, Trudeau defeated the minority Tory government led by Joe Clark over the Conservatives’ budget proposal to impose an 18-cent-a-gallon gasoline-tax hike, only to institute a National Energy Program that devastated Alberta’s economy, chilled relations with the United States and pushed up federal gasoline taxes far beyond anything conceived by the Clark government.
What about official bilingualism and multiculturalism? Both are widely regarded as bedrock Canadian “values.” And today many English-speaking Canadians speak French, while francophones have a large portion of government jobs. Multiculturalism has helped aboriginals while promoting racial and ethnic equality. Says journalist Richard Gwyn: “Bilingualism, multiculturalism; cultural and racial diversity; regional variety; tolerance; civility; internationalism (and) the equality of all citizens … In his person and his ideas, Trudeau made a signal contribution to the evolution of the idea of Canadianism.”
But there are others who say such policies have fragmented the country to the point where to speak of a national identity is an oxymoron. “Multiculturalism does little more than affirm our commitment to moral and ethical relativism,” says law professor Robert Martin. “That is, it affirms that we stand for precisely nothing.”
The QUEBEC question
Then there is Trudeau’s “magnificent obsession,” as biographers put it. The 1982 Constitution and its accompanying Charter ensure Trudeau’s place in the pantheon of Canada’s political leaders. “Trudeau undertook the challenge of transforming the deferential Canadian political culture into one of genuine democratic deliberation,” says historian Michael Behiels. “As a result, Canadians are finally coming to perceive themselves as sovereign people. Trudeau’s constitutional legacy … has proved to be both enlightening and enduring.”
In Quebec, though, it seems to be a different story. “A strategy designed to transform the way in which Quebecers see Canada has little effect in Quebec, but it transforms English Canada,” says political scientist Kenneth McRoberts. “Rather than undermining the forces of Quebec separatism, the strategy strengthens them, bringing Canada to the brink of collapse … In light of the Trudeau strategy’s original purpose of securing national unity, there can be no doubt that it has failed.”
Such views might seem harsh, but considering Trudeau entered politics to solve the “Quebec question,” it is not unreasonable to judge him on the consequences of that effort.
the charter and social change
Much of the analysis of Trudeau’s legacy has focused on the Charter. Two decades after its adoption, some scholars have concluded that rather than unifying the country, as Trudeau hoped, it is proving disunifying.
As political scientist and constitutional expert Peter Russell explains, what is in question “is not the actual Charter but the Charter as a political icon and Charter worship as a misguided political fundamentalism that renders the Charter a source of disunity in Canada.” In his essay “The Political Purposes of the Charter,” Russell argues that the “negative side” of the Charter has been the transferring of policy-making “from the legislative to the judicial arena.” Such a transfer “represents a further flight from politics, a deepening disillusionment with the procedures of representative government and government by discussion as (the) means of resolving fundamental questions of political justice.”
Other critics say a “Court Party” — radical feminists, civil libertarians, social and environmental activists and academics — has used the Charter to serve its narrow interests, seeking through litigation and media pressure to effect social changes it cannot achieve by democratic means. While the Court Party might insist they are out to protect rights, the real consequence is the usurpation of government-by-consent with government-by-coercion.
“Issues that should be subject to the flux of government by discussion are presented as beyond legitimate debate, with the partisans claiming the right to permanent victory,” write F.L. Morton and Rainer Knopf in The Charter Revolution & The Court Party. “In short, court rulings replace parliamentary votes. The result, ultimately, is an increasingly divided political culture in which political opponents regard each other less as fellow citizens and more as competing interest groups.”
Even judges have become social engineers, say the critics, using the Charter to reshape Canadian society to suit their own image. Law professor Robert Martin, in his book The Most Dangerous Branch, argues that in the wake of the Charter, Canada’s Supreme Court judges now make social policy that legislators fear to challenge. Such activism usurps the tradition of parliamentary supremacy and offends fundamental principles of democracy because the judges were never elected to make social policy. “Canada,” he declares, “may be the first country in the world to have experienced a judicial coup d’etat.”
Perhaps, though, judicial activism was inevitable considering how it was advocated by Trudeau. When Trudeau was appointed Justice minister in 1967, he announced a new role for himself and his department. “Justice should be regarded more and more as a department planning for the society of tomorrow, not merely as the government’s legal advisor. It should combine the function of drafting new legislation with the disciplines of sociology and economics, so that it can provide a framework for our evolving way of life.”
Clearly, Trudeau saw himself as a social transformer. As Justice minister, he promoted social changes that expanded access to abortion, decriminalized homosexuality and made divorce easier. As prime minister, he attempted to create his Just Society through multicultural programs, women’s programs and human rights commissions. The Charter of Rights, say Morton and Knopf, “was the culmination of a decade and a half of social transformation.”
According to some scholars, Trudeau’s transformations have not worked, at least in terms of solving his main concern, Quebec separatism. As constitutional lawyer Guy Pratte bluntly states: “If the Charter really was the miracle cure to constitutional woes, why did the malady resurface with increased virulence just a few years after the prescription had been administered?
It’s a good question, and Kenneth McRoberts is one of few English-speaking scholars to try to find an answer. In his book, Misconceiving Canada: The Struggle for National Unity, McRoberts re-examines what he sees as the failure of Trudeau’s national unity strategy, setting it against the traditional deux nations framework that, he says, once maintained the Canadian political order. He argues that Trudeau’s efforts to achieve national unity through multiculturalism, bilingualism and the Charter’s guarantee of civil rights has not worked because rather than accommodating enduring historical forces of regionalism within Canada, these policies sought to smother those forces. And that, McRoberts concludes, cannot be done, at least in a democratic system. Trudeau’s strategy “has failed abysmally to change the way Quebec francophones see Canada. Indeed the attachment of Quebec francophones to Quebec as their primary identity is stronger than ever … ”
At the same time, the Charter of Rights, multiculturalism and equality of the provinces “have become central to English Canadians’ view of Canada, so they have destroyed any willingness to recognize Quebec as a distinct society,” says McRoberts. In his view, the dominance of egalitarian values in English-speaking Canada has hindered an understanding of the country’s divisions. Repeated crises of Quebec nationalism are seen in English-speaking Canada as a failure on the part of francophones to remain true to Trudeau’s vision, even though that vision has little resonance among French-speaking Quebecers. Unfortunately, says McRoberts, few in English-speaking Canada ask whether Trudeau’s ideas and assumptions might be flawed. And so, at the deepest level, the country remains fundamentally divided, perhaps more than ever.
And therein lies the paradox of Trudeau’s legacy. In the words of political scientist H.D. Forbes: “The threatening problem he had been expected to solve 30 years ago, the Quebec problem, had grown rather than diminished … Canada had come within a hair’s breadth of splitting apart and possibly plunging into civil war. Yet this did not seem to diminish Trudeau’s stature and authority. He had become a legendary figure, a symbol of mature wisdom and steadfast dedication to principle.”
Such a claim underscores the question of whether Trudeau’s vision has weakened the traditional pillars on which the stability of the Canadian political order rested, and whether abandoning that vision can better serve Canada’s existence as a sovereign and united state.
Historically, Canadians seem to have understood intuitively that it is the unending regional and ethnic tensions of our political existence and the constant continentalist temptation that make us the kind of nation we are. The most crucial reality about Canadian political life, and what makes Canada’s survival so problematic, has historically been the question of English-French relations — “two nations warring in the bosom of a single state,” to quote Lord Durham.
Canada emerged in the age of nation building. The 18th and 19th centuries saw a number of nation-states being formed as part of a worldwide movement of “national” unification. Canadian Confederation was part of this movement. But Canada’s situation was different than that of the other “new society” on the North American continent. The American founders sought to create an ideal national type that would apply to all citizens regardless of their ethnic or linguistic background. The newcomer was expected to adopt a new set of ideas — the American way of life. As Robert Martin notes, the success of the United States in sustaining a multi-ethnic democracy for the past 200 years is a testament to the vitality of this ideological concept and its primary value of individual freedom.
Canada, by contrast, consisted of two “fragment” societies — one French and Catholic, the other English and mainly Protestant — with their respective values and traditions. The differences between them made the idea of a “national” identity on which all Canadians could agree well nigh impossible. About the only thing French- and English-speaking Canadians had in common, politically, was not joining the American Republic. Hence, Canada’s political history has been characterized by the never-ending need to accommodate differences, to avoid imposing cultural uniformity, for the sake of political unity and independence from the United States. Canadian society was to be based not on a celebration of individual freedom — “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” in the words of the American constitution — but rather on “peace, order and good government.” Canada’s federation, in short, cannot be glued together by a nation-binding myth. In his essay “Canadian Ways of Thinking,” philosopher Leslie Armour sums up the situation succinctly: “We have never really been able to conceptualize Canada as a simple cultural unity and have had to think in terms of plurality, but, more importantly, that the tensions in this plurality have always been endemic to it.”
Trudeau, however, wanted to resolve this historical tension in Canadian political existence, wanted an end to the never-resolved quarrels over power and jurisdiction between Quebec and the federal government. This was, and remains, the deep purpose of multiculturalism. It was also the fundamental purpose of the Charter. Trudeau said as much even before he became prime minister. In a February 1964 article in Maclean’s, Trudeau wrote: “A constitutional entrenched bill of rights seems to be the best tool for breaking the ever-recurring deadlock between Quebec and the rest of Canada. If certain language and educational rights were written into the Constitution, along with other basic liberties, in such a way that no government — federal or provincial — could legislate against them, French Canadians would cease to feel confined to their Quebec ghetto, and the Spirit of Separatism would be laid forever.”
Trudeau, in effect, wanted to create a nation-binding faith, a national myth that would appeal to all Canadians, French and English. The Charter, along with multiculturalism, were his chief institutional means for establishing this new order. “With the Charter in place,” Trudeau wrote in his 1993 memoirs, “we can now say that Canada is a society where all people are equal and where they share some fundamental values based upon freedom.”
But for Trudeau’s critics, this vision amounted to a turning away from the “two nations” or “dualist” historical understanding that, they say, framed relations between Quebec and the rest of Canada, and, arguably, allowed the country to remain united. But even more: The Charter, in its essential philosophical principles, is an American document, philosophically, historically and culturally. It places individual freedom as the central value of political order, effectively displacing the traditional — and more communitarian — ideal of “peace, order and good government.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, English-speaking Canadians have embraced the Charter with enthusiasm. But that, says Robert Martin, only shows the degree to which they have been Americanized. The Charter, says the law professor, “symbolizes our loss of any uniquely Canadian sense of ourselves. To the extent that the Charter does provide a unifying national idea, it is an idea that trumpets the abandonment of our autonomy and our uniqueness.”
Political scientist Louis Balthazar shares this view, arguing that francophones have traditionally been faithful to the Confederation arrangement of a decentralized federal state because it allowed them to maintain a distinct society within Canada. But in the wake of the 1982 Constitution and its accompanying Charter, it was clear the Trudeau government was intent on pursuing “a quasi-American concept of Canadian union” that would not be acceptable to most Quebecers. As a result, Balthazar wrote in his essay “Quebec and the Ideal of Federalism,” Quebecers “may break from the Canadian federation precisely because recent developments have made it alien from its original intent and more similar to the American concept of national union.” Trudeau may have believed multiculturalism and the Charter would create “a new Canadianism,” but as far as Quebecers were concerned, the federal principles on which Confederation arrangement was based have been diluted.
Balthazar’s essay was published in March of 1995, only a few months before the October referendum when Quebecers came within a whisker of a majority vote for separation. Ten years later, separatist sentiment appears quiescent, at least until the economy tumbles or there’s another constitutional crisis, so perhaps the attitudes Balthazar describes have moderated. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Trudeau entered federal politics to destroy Quebec nationalism and enhance Quebecers’ attachment to Canada. Nearly 25 years later, while the “Charter Canadians” identity has sunk deep roots in English-speaking Canada, Quebecers remain estranged from the rest of Canada in terms of their constitutional allegiances and their notions of political community.
As political Guy Laforest writes in Trudeau and the End of a Canadian Dream, Trudeau sought “to break the spine of the Quebecois community in the interest of an idealized vision of the Canadian nation.” Which is to say, there’s a big gap between what Trudeau intended and the consequences of that intention.
No man can be faulted if his best intentions are thwarted by circumstances beyond his control. But he can be faulted if those intentions are rooted in a pride that refuses to admit misreading those circumstances. Did Trudeau misread what this country truly needed to remain united and sovereign?
The Nemnis’ biography suggests it was only when Trudeau left Quebec that he escaped the hold of its then prevailing intellectual climate. “Between 1941 and 1944 the young Trudeau espoused with conviction and enthusiasm the very ideological commitments that the post-1950 Trudeau would despise.” The sea-change occurred when he went to Harvard in 1944. “Little by little, he would throw off the ideology that had governed him during he most formative period of his life and come to adopt the universal values of liberalism.”
And that, scholars suggest, might be the problem. It was well and good for Trudeau to abandon the proto-fascist nationalism with which he had been inculcated, but he went too far, adopting a kind of liberalism — procedural liberalism — that tends to disregard the collective concerns of francophone Quebecers.
Generally speaking, under procedural liberalism, individual rights and non-discrimination among citizens takes precedence over any collective goals members of a society might assign themselves. This type of liberalism, strictly applied, restricts the state from promoting or protecting a public concept of the common good. As philosopher Charles Taylor argues in Reconciling the Solitudes, this kind of liberalism ill-serves Quebec, which, while not neglecting individual rights, stresses the importance of communal goals, especially the survival of French culture. Trudeau’s Charter is an Americanizing document because it reflects “the growing force of procedural liberalism,” says Taylor. Moreover, the defeat of the Meech Lake accord only reinforced the prevalence of procedural liberalism in English Canada, a form of liberalism, Taylor asserts, that Quebec can never accommodate without surrendering the defence of its collective identity.
Historian Claude Couture, in his book Paddling with the Current, echoes this argument in claiming Trudeau went astray in using the Anglo-American philosophic tradition of liberalism with its emphasis on the individual to attack the “antidemocratic” society of pre-1960s Quebec. Couture argues that after acquiring his education abroad, Trudeau adopted a distorted view of Quebec, regarding it as a “folk society” that needed the Quiet Revolution to be brought into the modern age. But in pushing this revolution without sufficiently acknowledging deeply-rooted traditions, Trudeau and his fellow revolutionaries effectively effaced Quebec’s past, and thereby opened the door for separatist leaders such as Rene Levesque and Jacques Parizeau to come forward as defenders of this past, and to promote political sovereignty as eminently logical and inevitable.
If Couture’s argument is valid, then Trudeau arguably committed one of the gravest of intellectual sins — imprudence. Trudeau acted in an absolutist manner to assert principles he had fought so hard to acquire, without due regard for the realities and traditions of Quebec. He attempted to impose on Quebec a blueprint of political order regardless of whether that blueprint could be readily accommodated without dangerous social distortion. In other words, Trudeau failed to recognize that when institutions and political structures are changed too fast, there is considerable danger of a strong counter-reaction. Or, as lawyer Guy Pratte puts it: “Trudeau’s failure was to confuse his personal convictions with the ultimate needs of the country and to refuse to adjust his official views, notwithstanding the mounting evidence that his political beliefs were not producing the desired unifying effects.”
Did Trudeau misread political history? Did pride prevent him for making a necessary compromise? Did he fear that compromising his hard-won faith in liberal individualism would awaken the shameful ideological ghosts of his youth? Did Trudeau’s principles come at the cost of national unity? Scholars will be asking such questions for a long time to come, particularly in the light of the revelations in Young Trudeau.
But it seems that less than 25 years after Trudeau left office, the stamp he put on Canada “is being undermined by a new generation of politicians who have no regard whatever for his belief in the need to maintain a strong central government,” says Michael Bliss.
The historian may be right. The notions of “asymmetrical federalism” promoted by Paul Martin and Stephen Harper’s decentralist idea of “open federalism” (never mind the behaviour of the Chrétien government that all but delegitimized the federal presence in Quebec) would be anathema to Trudeau. He would denounce such practices as weakening the national government. But is it possible we are witnessing a return to traditional accommodations, a rebalancing of the federation, the recovery of the deux nations understanding of Confederation that, as some claim, can better sustain the Canadian polity?
Regardless of the answer, it is possible, as Bliss suggests, that we may soon learn what might have happened if Trudeau had never entered politics.
Robert Sibley is a senior writer with the Citizen.