Trudeau's Shadow:
The Life & Legacy of Pierre Elliott Trudeau

by Andrew Cohen, J. L. Granatstein,
320 pages,
ISBN: 0679309543

The Essential Trudeau

by Pierre E. Trudeau, Ron Graham,
240 pages,
ISBN: 0771085915

Paddling with the Current:
Pierre Elliott Trudeau & Canadian Liberalism

by Claude Couture,
ISBN: 0888643136

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Trudeau Haunts Us Still
by H Forbes

Unlike the proverbial old soldier, Trudeau is not just fading away. His departure will be marked by many lengthy commentaries and reflections. During his sixteen years as our Prime Minister, he worked deep changes in our understanding of ourselves. Later, he was the nemesis of his most important successor. Even today, fifteen years after leaving office, he is still the Great Man of Canadian politics.

Several events last year reminded Canadians of his enduring authority and their continuing fascination with him. Saddest, of course, was the untimely death of his youngest son, Michel, in November, in a backcountry skiing accident in British Columbia. During the summer, the media had carried a heartwarming story about the young man's reunion with his lost dog, and a few weeks before the accident, he had appeared in a television special about his mother, Margaret, so a bit was known about him. But the outpouring of public sympathy that followed his drowning was a tribute to his father rather than simply a reaction to the accident itself. A father of our country had lost a son, and we all felt somehow bereaved. Like most memorial services, Michel's was a time for taking stock, this time on a national scale.

Thirty years had passed since Trudeau had become Prime Minister-a generation in the common reckoning, but more like two generations politically. The threatening problem he had been expected to solve thirty years ago, the Quebec problem, had grown rather than diminished. Three years earlier, 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.

In January last year, his appearance at the launch of the English edition of his revived magazine, Cité libre, drew a huge crowd, including many former associates, to Toronto's civic centre, confirming his status as a living icon. Trudeau did not speak, but all eyes were on him-and not just the old partisans, but even the uncommitted bystanders seemed to be in a mood to recall former hopes and glories.

During the summer, the first two books reviewed here were being printed, in preparation for fall publication. Their authors may not have given much thought to timing, but the publishers' marketing experts were presumably alive to the possibility that thirtieth anniversary volumes on Trudeau would solve some gift-giving problems for Canadians.

The two books were launched in October at a conference at York University on "The Trudeau Era". Trudeau did not attend, but several of his most important associates were present, as were some prominent journalists and academics. The conference received far more coverage in the media than such academic conferences usually do.

The books themselves, even if their sales are disappointing, show the continuing interest in Trudeau among some journalists and academics. Which former prime minister, apart from Mackenzie King, has ever evoked anything like this interest?

Before offering some critical comments about the books, let me try to clarify "the Trudeau problem" by recalling the opening line of the 1990 study of Trudeau's constitutional politics by Stephen Clarkson and Christina McCall-the oft-repeated observation that "he haunts us still".

Why does he still haunt us? Why use such a strange term to describe his continuing presence in our politics? Who exactly does "us" refer to? Why has the remark been repeated so often? Let me begin by outlining a possible answer to these questions.

Trudeau transformed the Canadian identity. He made Canada and Canadians multicultural. As recently as when he was a teenager, Canadians thought of themselves as citizens of a British country. They might not like such an identity; it might not fit them personally; they might oppose it in principle and try to escape it in practice; but it was a fact about the country, best symbolized by the role of the Crown in Canadian government. In the early 1960s, this identity still had powerful public defenders, such as John Diefenbaker, who fiercely opposed the adoption of our current flag-"Pearson's pennant"-because it marked a step away from Canada's British past. Trudeau took an important step in the same direction in 1969, when the Official Languages Act became the law of the land. He took a bigger step in 1971, when he proclaimed his "policy of multiculturalism within a bilingual framework" as a way of assuring "the cultural freedom of Canadians". From that day (October 8, 1971) forward, Canada flew a new ideological flag as the world's first officially multicultural country.

Practically speaking, "cultural freedom" seemed to mean only a slightly broader distribution of federal cultural largesse and some new money for teaching Canada's official languages (i.e., assimilating immigrants). Because the amounts involved were very small-a few drops in the Niagara of federal spending-many have dismissed official multiculturalism as merely (to use Ron Graham's words) "a sop to Western Canada's pioneer communities" and "a ruse to capture the immigrant vote". But statements by Prime Ministers can change countries. And the most important elements of our multiculturalism have never had much to do with the subsidies passed out by bureaucrats to folk dancing troupes.

The solid basis for Canada's new identity was its immigration policy, which was beginning to produce a very diverse population. The policy had been covertly racist up to 1967, when a colour-blind "points system" for selecting immigrants was adopted. By 1971 the structures and procedures were in place for recruiting large numbers of new Canadians from non-traditional sources, that is, from Asian, African, and Caribbean countries. In 1976 a new Immigration Act, incorporating the changes in policies and procedures worked out over the previous dozen years, became law.

Trudeau gave multiculturalism a strong legal or institutional framework with the passage of the Human Rights Act in 1977 and the adoption of his Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982. The Act outlaws negative discrimination and provides Canadians with a variety of bureaucratic tools to fight it. (The Act permits positive discrimination-i.e., denying individuals goods, services or employment opportunities because of their membership in a racial, ethnic or other "prohibited" group, when the group in question has a high ranking in the vertical mosaic as conventionally understood-since positive discrimination is the most effective way, at least in the short run, of fighting negative discrimination.) The Charter is of course primarily a barrier to any violation of equal individual rights by government. Incidentally, however, it puts the power of defining which individual rights are inviolable in the hands of appointed judges, taking it away from elected politicians. This makes government as a whole less responsive to majority sentiment, and (assuming that judges and the law professors who review their decisions are sympathetic to multiculturalism) it tends to protect minority cultural groups as well as eccentric individuals. Indeed, Section 27 of the Charter enjoins judges to interpret all its provisions in such a way as to preserve and enhance the multicultural heritage of Canadians.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Trudeau offered an appealing vision of Canada as a multicultural country. He maintained that his adamant opposition to Quebec nationalism was not just emotional, but essentially rational. The separatists, he explained, appeal to nationalism as a principle of world order: the boundaries of sovereign states should correspond to the boundaries of ethnic nations. Good fences make good neighbours, they say. Trudeau argued the opposite: the principle of nationalities is a recipe for disorder and injustice. Better in his view is the multinational state that treats all its citizens equally, without regard to ethnicity. Sharing on a footing of equality, despite cultural differences, is the basis for civic friendship. Canada can show the world how to make this ideal a reality, if only its two main nationalities, English and French, will conceive of their future in sufficiently grand terms. Canada's multicultural federalism is an experiment of major proportions, a handy tool for shaping the future of mankind. What we are doing is not just morally right, but it puts us on the cutting edge of human progress. The breakup of Canada would be more than a domestic embarrassment; it would be a crime against humanity.

So why are we now haunted by Trudeau? Why do we not just celebrate his grand vision and his great achievements? A generation ago, we could say, he led us out of our colonial wilderness and set us on the straight path, so that now we can march steadily forward, in the vanguard of humanity. Why not be thankful rather than troubled?

First, because we know that there are deep pockets of intense opposition to Trudeau's vision and achievements. It suffices to mention Quebec. If it should vote to leave Canada, as it almost did in 1995, our great experiment would come to a crashing conclusion. It would join the Soviet and Yugoslavian experiments as examples to others of what not to do.

Second, even among those who accept Trudeau's principles, support his reforms, and expect his current critics to fade away soon, there is a pervasive uneasiness about the future. What kind of society will his principles and institutions ultimately produce? Does it make sense to combine a high level of immigration from every corner of the world with official celebration of cultural diversity and an informal taboo on assimilation? (In polite society, one can applaud integration, but assimilation is something Americans do to their minorities.) What becomes of morality when its rules are understood culturally, and all cultures, even if they have quite strange rules from our traditional perspective, can insist on equal recognition and respect? How does this affect native land claims? What becomes of the God of the Constitution Act of 1982 when room must be made for Siva and Kali? These are questions I had in mind as I began reading the three recent volumes on Trudeau.

The essays in Trudeau's Shadow provide a wide variety of interesting perspectives on Trudeau. The editors have carefully selected their contributors to provide not only clear opinions about Trudeau and a good balance between his critics and defenders, but also unusual insights into his character and the sources of his authority. For example, Andrew Coyne and Linda McQuaig provide excellent summaries of their clashing interpretations of Trudeau's fiscal policies, while Linda Griffiths tells what it was like to dance with Trudeau, and James Raffan reminds readers that Trudeau's dedication to canoeing set him apart from backslapping old jocks like Bill Davis and Peter Lougheed. There are revealing contributions from Trudeau's close associates (Jim Coutts and Donald Macdonald) as well as from professional gadflies (Larry Zolf and Rick Salutin), eminent historians (Michael Bliss and Robert Bothwell), leading journalists (Andrew Cohen and Richard Gwyn), constitutional authorities (Lorraine Weinrib), and rival politicians (Bob Rae). Guy Pratte provides a brief, eloquent defence of the Meech Lake Accord, more than neutralizing (for me) the longer presentations of the Trudeau orthodoxy by Michael Beheils and Max Nemni. Jack Granatstein explains why his view of the October Crisis and Trudeau's use of the War Measures Act has changed completely since 1970, thus showing how difficult it is to reach any firm conclusions about Trudeau's more controversial actions.

Two younger writers, Mark Kingwell and Robert Mason Lee, contribute lively and thoughtful pieces, the ones I found the most interesting in the collection. They make clear, as does Karen Mulhallen, that Trudeau was the Boomer's Prime Minister.

The collection is a feast for anyone who likes reading about Trudeau, but it has some limitations. It includes few women and no in-your-face feminists. There are no visible ethnics and no aboriginals. No one tackles "Trudeau and Socialism". Almost all of the contributors are middle-aged. None are Trudeau's age, and of course no one (except perhaps Michael Bliss) speaks for the generation before his.

Most surprising is the absence of French voices. Most of the writers, I assume, are French-speaking Canadians, but they are not (with one exception) French Canadians in the traditional sense. The shadow in question is the one Trudeau casts over English Canada. The problem in the background is the one about haunting explained earlier.

Several of the essays deal indirectly with this problem. References to "Trudeau's vision" are ubiquitous, and three contributors deal at some length with the legal or constitutional elements of multiculturalism, although no one mentions the Human Rights Act, and no one seems to have a firm grip on the perplexing problem of individual and collective rights.

The first two essays, by Michael Bliss and Richard Gwyn, deal more directly with the problem of Trudeau's ghostly presence. Bliss is the rationalist: invisible spirits, he says in effect, do not exist. Trudeau is just the latest in a long and distinguished line of leaders who have stood on guard for Canadian liberties. "Here, indeed, was the mainstream of modern human rights liberalism running broad and true." Nothing Trudeau did is so very different (if you examine his record from the perspective of History) from what Mackenzie, Macdonald, Laurier, Borden, King, Pearson, and even Diefenbaker did before him. What you see is what you get-the freedom of Canada as a country and the freedom of all Canadians as individuals. Trudeau was an outsider, a bit arrogant and abrasive, to be sure, but no maverick or secret revolutionary.

Gwyn I find more perceptive and persuasive, even if he cannot don the mantle of History that Bliss wears with ease. Gwyn confronts the "haunting" question head-on and suggests an answer similar to the one I outlined above, except that he says nothing about immigration policy, avoids constitutional details, and mentions multiculturalism only in passing. Nonetheless, he clearly indicates the great appeal that "Trudeau's idea of Canada" has to a great many English-speaking Canadians. By avoiding the use of the term multiculturalism, he shows that we are really of two minds about its merits. A bit like the love that dare not speak its name, multiculturalism seems to excite passions that are hard to discuss both clearly and calmly.

What is multiculturalism? What are its principles? Perhaps some of our reservations about it would disappear if we could say more clearly what it is. I turned to Ron Graham's collection of Trudeau's writings in the hope of discovering what Trudeau thought it was, as a matter of principle.

The book looks promising from this perspective. It seems to start with broad questions and end, more or less, with multiculturalism.

Graham's basic idea (or was it Trudeau's?) was to weave together snippets from Trudeau's articles and speeches in such a way as to reveal "the very core of his political and social thought." Since Trudeau never wrote a systematic exposition of the conclusions he had reached during "the prolonged period of his youth" when he studied "the great questions of political philosophy with the express desire to arrive at propositions that could reasonably be accepted as true and, therefore, constant", perhaps someone else could do it for him now. Perhaps a kind of quasi-treatise could be assembled by selecting key passages from his earlier writings and adding some connecting and explanatory material.

Graham had Trudeau's help in making the attempt. About a fifth of The Essential Trudeau is new material Trudeau wrote to introduce each of its twenty-three sections and to provide some clarifying comments on some of the selected passages. As a primary source for insight into Trudeau's thinking, however, the book is a bust. Far better are the complete essays collected in Against the Current, the anthology of Trudeau's writings edited by his close friend, the late Gérard Pelletier, and published three years ago.

The root problem of the present collection seems to be a lack of focus. What really is the essential Trudeau? Should we focus on his views about personal liberty (or equality) and political authority? Or does free enterprise vs. socialism provide the key we need? Or is the problem of nationalism and multiculturalism the heart of the matter? The Essential Trudeau offers a bit of everything and thus amounts to nothing as an interpretation of Trudeau's thinking. When Graham and Trudeau set about finding snippets to fill boxes with labels like "The Just Society" and "The Art of Governing", they could hardly avoid choosing the edifying rather than the revealing. On some topics, Trudeau was a much tougher thinker than this collection gives him credit for being, but before this can be shown, the problems he addressed must be clarified. Nothing he ever wrote about "The Domain of Politics" or "The Gift of Liberty" clarified any basic problems.

The most interesting things in the book are really tiny details, such as slight changes in the translation of texts first published in French in the 1960s. For example, there is a revealing change in a passage from one of Trudeau's best essays, "The New Treason of the Intellectuals", his major attack on separatism from 1962. It includes a statement to the effect that LaFontaine dreamed about the multinational state (l'Etat multi-national in the original); Cartier realized it; Laurier perfected it; and Henri Bourassa freed it from something. In the new version of this passage, these eminent predecessors dream etc. about a multicultural state. This is a neat example of how history can be rewritten to suit present purposes.

Because of the new material added by Trudeau and because of the slight changes in the old material, this book will be of great interest to a handful of historians and other specialists on Trudeau. Its more common use, however, will be as a kind of prayer book for the faithful. Its compact format, sombre colours, and dignified typography suggest that the publishers had this use clearly in mind when they instructed their staff how to design the book.

For a much less pious presentation of Trudeau, a reader might well turn to Claude Couture's Paddling with the Current. It presents an interesting and important thesis, but, unfortunately, it imposes heavy demands on the reader. Its main line of argument is encrusted with academic gargoyles to reassure academic readers that the author has correctly leftist sentiments. Frantz Fanon, Michel Foucault, and Edward Said, despite their lack of much interest in French Canada, seem to be Couture's highest authorities.

His thesis, in a nutshell, is that Trudeau was "paddling with the current". French Quebec before the Quiet Revolution was not the "monolithic" or "unidimensional" society that Trudeau and others liked to depict. It was not a bastion of reactionary Catholicism and folkish ignorance, but rather a complex, modernizing, urban industrial society with a lot of Catholics, to be sure, but also with a long indigenous liberal tradition, a liberal democratic political order, and a popularly elected leader, Maurice Duplessis, who was about as conservative as Mike Harris or Ralph Klein-in other words, less conservative than Joseph McCarthy, Pat Buchanan or Jessie Helms. Trudeau and the other not-so-quiet revolutionaries were swept along by the main current of their society. In attacking Quebec as backward and undemocratic, and in depicting Duplessis as a monstrous tyrant, Trudeau was just appealing to the ignorant prejudices of English Canadians. He got away with it because English prejudices in this instance happened to coincide with the bêtises of progressive francophones in Quebec.

Readers who know little more about the history of Quebec than what Trudeau and others like him have told them, may find the part about a long indigenous liberal tradition hard to swallow. Couture tries to overcome the difficulty by discussing in detail an important but virtually unknown nineteenth-century Quebec liberal, Etienne Parent. The long and badly written chapter about Parent may have worked with the readers of the original French edition of the book, but it will just make English readers gag. A quick survey of several more prominent individuals, such as Papineau, LaFontaine, Cartier, Laurier, and Bourassa, might have been more effective. But perhaps the kind of ignorance that troubles Couture cannot be dislodged by a frontal assault. He might have tried harder to get readers to laugh at the errors he wanted them to abandon. In fact, he splutters.

Bob Rae expresses one of Couture's main points much better in his contribution to the Shadow volume. Trudeau's life, he rightly observes, seems to have been "downstream with a full wind behind him all the way". It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that the man who governed Canada for sixteen years, and always with solid majorities in Quebec, should still be portraying himself as paddling constantly "against the current". Indeed, there is a touch here of high comedy. Perhaps Trudeau himself smiles quietly to himself when he thinks about it.

Yes, yes, I hear some readers muttering impatiently, Trudeau was indeed in that mainstream of modern liberalism that runs broad and true through all of Canadian life, and perhaps even through that of Quebec, but what about Trudeau's continuing presence in our national life? If he's such a regular guy as Couture and Bliss want to make him seem, why does he not just fade away? Why is he still haunting us?

My answer, to repeat, is multiculturalism. We know that somehow he made us multicultural, and indeed that he insisted after he left office that we avoid any dalliance with any form of biculturalism, however watered down. But we don't understand clearly what this means or what it implies for our future. Is peaceful, dull, comfortable Canada destined to split and then to fight about the boundaries of Quebec? Or is it to become a crowded microcosm of the world, with all its bloody conflicts and turmoil? Are we caught in an unpleasant dream we cannot escape? Trudeau seems to have cast a spell over us with his talk of tolerance, equality, and individual rights. Isn't that spooky enough for you? 

H. D. Forbes teaches Canadian politics at the University of Toronto. He has written books about nationalism and ethnic conflict and edited an anthology of Canadian political thought. He is now working on a book about multiculturalism.


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