Against the Current:
Selected Writings, 1939-1996

340 pages,
ISBN: 0771069790

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Le Medecin en Colere
by H. D. Forbes

Trudeau wants to be remembered for what he opposed, not what he favoured. That is the conclusion suggested by reading his latest, and probably his last, collection of writings. What Trudeau opposed, above all, was nationalism, especially its Quebec variety. His anti-nationalist vocation developed slowly, he recalls in his foreword. As a child he was willing to say and do the conventional things expected by those in authority over him: parents, teachers, and clergy. But an extended period abroad (he finished his law studies in 1943, spent an unsatisfying year articling, then two years at Harvard, a year in Paris, a year in London, and a year travelling in the Middle and Far East) revealed how backward and authoritarian his home province was. He set himself to wage war against its "outdated and unrealistic doctrines". Soon after returning to Canada, he and the editor of this volume, Gérard Pelletier, began publishing a small review, Cité libre, now of legendary importance. But it was only in 1956, at the age of thirty-seven, that Trudeau really stepped onto the public stage with the publication of a substantial volume on the Asbestos strike of 1949. Trudeau's main contribution, a lengthy chapter on "The Province of Quebec at the Time of the Strike", is probably his finest work. About a third of it, on the sources of nationalism in Quebec, is reprinted in the present collection. It provoked a series of editorials by André Laurendeau in Le Devoir harshly critical of Trudeau's harsh criticisms of Quebec nationalists (including Laurendeau), but generously acknowledging, in conclusion, that "a remarkable personality has appeared."
During the next decade Trudeau became a leading figure in Quebec and began to attract attention outside it. He was sound on nationalism, it seemed, and his uncommitted lifestyle and unconventional adventures and amusements-skiing and canoeing rather than hockey and football, peripatetic intellectualism rather than cautious careerism, backpacking tourism in Asia rather than motorized assaults on Western Europe-caught the imagination of the young and the young at heart in the 1960s.
The present collection seems designed to remind us of these sources of Trudeau's authority and to make his most recent attacks on Quebec's backwardness widely available. The book begins with short essays on skiing, canoeing, and travel in Mesopotamia. It reprints only eight pieces from Cité libre, all but one of them quite short. The exceptionally long one-the longest selection in the book-is Trudeau's celebrated 1962 attack on nationalism, "The New Treason of the Intellectuals", which is complete except for the footnotes. Other lengthy selections deal with federalism and the obstacles to democracy in Quebec. Several short selections from the early 1960s remind readers that Trudeau began advocating an entrenched bill of rights more than thirty years ago. Sixty pages near the end are dedicated to Trudeau's objections to the Meech Lake accord, his defences of his actions leading up to the Constitution Act of 1982 with its Charter of Rights & Freedoms, and his angry "j'accuse" against Lucien Bouchard for rejecting his remedy for Canada's ills.
Strange to say, the collection includes almost nothing on Trudeau's favourite themes of human dignity, individual liberty, and the just society. The great practical problems of mass democracy, the global economy, sexual and commercial morality, education, and the environment get passing attention at best. There are a few perfunctory references to Canada's problems with its great neighbour to the south. The sixteen (almost uninterrupted) years that Trudeau served as prime minister, from 1968 to 1984, are represented by tiny snippets from minor speeches, press conferences, and interviews. The book concludes with two recent addresses that make clear that Trudeau is against nuclear war.
Only one substantial selection is not covered by that summary. In 1962 Trudeau published an article on "Economic Rights" in a law journal. It is made widely available here for the first time, and it shows how close Trudeau was back then to the NDP. The NDP's first platform, adopted the previous year, had committed the party to instituting a legal right to employment for all: "A Guaranteed Employment Act will enable jobless Canadians to claim a job as a social right by applying to the public local employment office." Trudeau's essay tries to provide a philosophical grounding of utilitarian character for economic rights of this kind.
What I find most lacking in this collection, given its focus on nationalism, is any statement of what Trudeau was for. Let it be agreed that nationalism is a synonym for horrible evil: but what is the better alternative to sovereign nation-states? Evidently Trudeau thinks that existing states should gradually yield their sovereignty to some kind of higher authority or world government. But should Canada line up behind the United States in chivvying backward or recalcitrant peoples such as the Russians and the Cubans into accepting this authority? Or should we complicate the problem of building a new world order by loudly demanding respect for the equality of all nations? And what about the status of ethnic groups or sociological nations within such an order? Should Canada encourage the breaking-up of these nations and the dispersion of their peoples over the face of the globe? Or should we do what we can to preserve them by giving each of them a subordinate jurisdiction of its own: a province, "state", or département within which each could do pretty much what it pleased, provided it did not make war on its neighbours, did not repudiate its debts, and did not grossly violate basic human rights? Trudeau may always have been too busy to think very much about these difficult questions. Nonetheless he was sometimes forced by events to say something about them-when addressing the American Congress, for example, or when rallying his troops just before a referendum, or when belatedly responding to the controversial recommendations of a royal commission. Why do the things that came out of his mouth on those occasions now strike him as not worth repeating? His or his editor's decision to reprint only snippets from the year 1968 to 1984 is strange.
One of their selected snippets, which occupies a whole page, is the following fragmented sentence (advertising-copy-writer style) on "The Future of Canada": "Canadians by and large tend to think of Canada as a land of immense potential. Not just as a big land, which it unquestionably is. Or a privileged land, as many others enviously regard us. But as a land of limitless promise. A land, perhaps, on the threshold of greatness." It would be hard to beat this for banality. Yet it gets a full page.
Trudeau was one of our great prime ministers. There's no denying it, and I was one of those who voted for him enthusiastically a generation ago. But it's interesting to see with older eyes what makes a great prime minister.

H.D. Forbes, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, is the editor of an anthology, Canadian Political Thought (Oxford University Press). He has a major essay on Trudeau's thought in Rethinking the Constitution, published last year, also by Oxford University Press.


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