Trudeau always fascinated me with his superb intellect, infinite knowledge and photographic memory. However, I must confess that I was likewise astounded and distressed, as were the Nemni's, pertaining to what they discovered from Trudeau's personal letters, notes, memoirs, and interviews with friends and relatives from the time he entered elementary school until he graduated from the Université de Montréal in 1944 with a degree in law, prior to his attending Harvard.
As the Nemni's point out in their introduction, Trudeau played many roles during his lifetime, "magician, giant, writer, joker, flirt, superb athlete, playboy and outstanding intellect." When a poll was conducted as to who was Canada's sexiest male, Trudeau at the age of seventy won hands down! No doubt, when he left the political scene, there existed a charismatic void that has never been replaced by any other Canadian politician.
What emerges from this absorbing tome is that contrary to what many believe that Trudeau was not interested in pursuing a political career, nothing could be further from the truth. When you read about his early student days and how he recognized the essential traits that an astute politician and statesman must possess, you come to a much different conclusion. He certainly was not dragged into politics in 1968 by the Liberal Party and he was very well-prepared for the role he was called upon to play in the years following his initial election.
The Nemni's first volume meticulously researches and exposes Trudeau's early student days when he attended the French Canadian elitist Jesuit classical Collège Jean-de- Brébeuf until he left Montreal at the age of twenty-five to attend Harvard in Boston.
It was here in the late 1930s and early 1940s where Trudeau was swept away by his Jesuit professors who were for the most part ultra-conservative, defensive, nationalistic and inward towards the past. The combined fundamental values that invested all the life of the college was nationalism and religion with Quebec separatism thrown in. Moreover, the Jesuits believed that it was their charge to cultivate those elite and from its ranks it was hoped that a leader would materialize who would mirror this Christian education and its values.
As the Nemni's point out, it is difficult to reconcile Trudeau's submission to these constraints, which today would seem excessive, with his often repeated claim that he could "never accept authority or the argument from authority."
It was also a climate during the period of the Second World War where many of Quebec's intelligentsia were great admirers of Pétain, Mussolini, Salazar and Franco. Anti-Semitism was alive and rampant. Popular authors at the time, whom many of these students including Trudeau read and savored without too much condemnation, were Maurice Barrès, an ultra-nationalist writer who joined the anti-Semitic movement to condemn the innocent Alfred Dreyfus, Nobel Prize winner for medicine and physiology, Alexis Carrel, who was a star of the Vichy regime and who authored L'Homme, cet inconnu, who believed individuals were not equal, nor were the races, as the white race is superior to the black, and women are inferior to men.
Moreover, many of the intelligentsia, as well as the students, were extremely naïve as to the consequences of a possible Nazi victory and rationalized that the public were being fed lies by English propaganda. There seemed to be a complete lack of concern to the holocaust as well as the political and economic problems ravaging people around the world.
What is quite noteworthy and as noted in the Nemni's research, "contrary to a well-established myth that he cultivated, we nowhere could discover the young man rowing against the current." It is quite astonishing as to how narrow was Trudeau's vision and how he was perfectly integrated into his social environment, particularly when you consider how years later Trudeau was to champion individual rights and liberal values with his Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that would turn out to be his most important legacy. As a side note, Trudeau's course I had attended in 1965 would turn out to be the principal elements incorporated into the Charter.
The Nemni's are presently working on their second volume that will examine how Trudeau evolved and how he was able to go from the first perspective to its precise opposite. Anyone seeking an insightful understanding of the political, social and cultural scenes of Quebec during the 1930s and 1940s will want to have a copy of this masterpiece on their bookshelves.
Translated by William Johnson