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Young Trudeau and His Times Explored at Glendon

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Anyone interested in the Canadian history and politics of the past four decades will have specific associations with the names of Monique and Max Nemni – associations with Quebec’s ‘Quiet Revolution’, the fight against separatism, the magazine Cité libre and, of course, Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

Monique and Max Nemni were the guest speakers at a presentation organized by the Glendon Research Group in Public and International Affairs (GRG-PIA), hosted by Political Science professor Ian Roberge on January 29th. They came to talk about their joint, monumental project currently in progress: a three-volume intellectual biography of the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau. The first volume, with the title Young Trudeau: Son of Quebec, Father of Canada, 1919-1944 (published by MCLelland & Stewart, 2006), is already in bookstores in both English and French, enjoying great critical and popular acclaim. In fact, it is one of the finalists in this year’s Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, offered by the Writers’ Trust of Canada.

Left: l-r: Max Nemni, Glendon professor Ian Roberge and Monique Nemni

The Nemnis are currently working on volume two, which will cover the period of 1944 to 1965, leading up to Trudeau’s formal commitment to a career in politics. The third volume will explore his years as Minister of Justice and Prime Minister, as well as the rest of his career and life, until his death in September of 2000.

The Nemnis are eminently qualified for this undertaking. Both of them are retired professors recognized for long, illustrious academic careers. Max Nemni is a specialist on nationalism and liberalism, with many articles to his credit in learned journals. Among these, his article on the Meech Lake constitutional crisis of 1995 gained Trudeau’s attention and was the starting point of a friendship which lasted until Trudeau’s death.

An interesting Glendon connection: Monique Nemni spent the first ten years of her teaching career at Glendon, where she launched the Second Language Program and was its first director. She went on to teach at l’Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) for over 20 years as director of teachers’ education programs.

During the crucial years of 1995 to 2000, when Quebec separation and the referendum loomed over the country, Max and Monique Nemni were editors-in-chief and directors of Cité libre. Founded in 1950 by Trudeau and other young intellectuals, this magazine was dedicated to fighting separatism and shaping public opinion towards the “Quiet Revolution”. In a manner of speaking, the Nemnis are thus Trudeau’s intellectual and political inheritors, as they continued the magazine’s mandate as Quebec’s only Francophone voice for liberalism and Canadian unity at that very sensitive time.

In his will, Trudeau granted full access to his personal papers to only three individuals: John English, his historical biographer, and the Nemnis. English published volume one of his biography of Trudeau in 2006, with the title Citizen of the World: the Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 1919-1968 (published by Knopf Canada in 2006), another finalist for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing. But the Nemnis had proposed a different project to Trudeau shortly before his death: an intellectual biography, a detailed account of Trudeau’s ideas, beliefs and how these were transformed over the years. Trudeau was delighted by this proposal and gave his full support to the project.

At their presentation on January 29th, Monique and Max Nemni provided fascinating insights into their work on this project over the past five years. They have done extensive reading about their subject, but are ultimately relying almost exclusively on Trudeau’s papers for source material.

His collection of memorabilia revealed a Trudeau that very few had known: he collected everything, old bus tickets, menus, concert programs, school assignments. He received his early education at Collège Jean de Brébeuf, the training ground of the French-Canadian elite of the time. This school had a profound influence in promoting Catholicism and Quebec nationalism in Trudeau and his schoolmates, inciting them to work for the greater glory of God and for the protection of the French language.

This new biography reveals some of Trudeau’s lifelong fundamental beliefs originating from this education, most notably the notion of the primacy of the individual. Some of Trudeau’s earliest essays, such as his address to his graduating class at Brébeuf, already express his fervent belief in this, urging his companions to be true revolutionaries fighting for the dignity of the individual. Another of his enduring goals, searching for the truth as an independent thinker, harked back to his Brébeuf education as well. But in his early years, Trudeau devoted himself to this search within the limitations of religion and nationalism, with a strongly ingrained respect for authority.

The Nemnis took their audience on a fascinating journey along Trudeau’s life and career, demonstrating that contrary to popular myth, he was deeply interested and involved in politics from his earliest years. His papers reveal that as early as his 30s, Trudeau saw politics as his future and his duty. He was methodically preparing for this career through his experience as a Rhodes Scholar, but also by more practical means, such as taking acting and singing lessons, in order to develop his voice and public speaking skills.

By the time Trudeau was 21 and entering law school in 1940, he was making hot political speeches against conscription and political corruption. He read a great deal and was influenced by moralist philosophers such as Henri Bergson, Jacques Maritan and Emanuel Munier. At that time, he cherished a naïve belief that a ‘new man’ and a ‘new order’ could be created within society. Trudeau believed that a new country within Quebec - La Laurencie - for Catholic French-Canadians, protecting the French language and Catholicism was the answer, thereby planting the seed of the idea of a separate Quebec state.

The Nemnis outlined the political and intellectual climate of Quebec in the early years of World War II – a total disconnect from the events in Europe. In this climate of isolationism, young intellectuals like Trudeau agitated energetically against conscription of soldiers from Quebec for the fight overseas. Their entire attention was focused on Quebec’s issues concerning language and religion.

Trudeau’s intellectual transformation began when he went to study at Harvard and later to Europe. That is when his views were challenged, and he gradually moved away from ethnic nationalism, paving the way for his later political activities.
This captivating and intimate insight into Trudeau’s early years and intellectual maturation will undoubtedly increase the public’s understanding and admiration for this man who, while maintaining his Catholic faith, overcame his early indoctrination and went on to be a fiery advocate for the separation of Church and State, and a lifelong defender of human rights.

A superbly researched and highly readable first volume, Young Trudeau: Son of Quebec, Father of Canada, 1919-1944 whets the appetite for the next two to come, which will reveal the years that Trudeau had spent in the public eye.

The Glendon Research Group in Public and International Affairs (GRG-PIA) works under the guidance of Glendon Political Science Professor Ian Roberge. This group organizes lectures with speakers on topics of current relevance, such as the recent talk on February 5th by Marc-Antoine Adam, director of strategic planning in the Québec Government’s Intergovernmental Affairs Department on The Fiscal Imbalance; another talk explored Federalism and Québec: Issues and Perspectives. The GRG-PIA also runs Working Paper Series and Student Paper Series on a broad range of topics, such as Reflections on Asymmetrical Federalism in Canada; Democracy: Proceed with Caution; and Prisoners Without Status: The Conflict Between Rights and Security in the War on Terror; to name just a few .

For more information on The Glendon Research Group in Public and International Affairs and its activities, you can visit their website at http://www.glendon.yorku.ca/english/faculty/researchcentres/api/index.html .


This article was submitted by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny


Published on February 19, 2007