On Pierre Trudeau.
Trudeau, Pro and Con.
Commentator 15/1. January, 1971.
Over the past month, two new books on Pierre Elliott Trudeau have arrived on my desk. One, The Liberal Rip-Off (New Press, $1.95) by Ed Broadbent, NDP member of parliament and assistant professor at York University, is an intelligent political pamphlet, which is not intended to be unduly flattering, although it seems to me that Broadbent has to concede Trudeau some good points in his analysis. “Rip-off”, which was a new word in my vocabulary, is defined in a gloss printed on the cover of Broadbent’s book, as “an act (or series of acts) which takes unfair advantage of others: the characteristic behaviour of modern Canadian governments. The second book, Approaches to Politics (Oxford, $1.95), is by Trudeau himself. It is a collection of essays which he wrote in 1958 for the Montreal weekly, Vrai. They were assembled and published in French early last year by Les Éditions du Jour, and now they have appeared in English with a preface by Ramsay Cook.
Both books were in press before the kidnapping of James Cross, the murder of Pierre Laporte and the War Measures Act. Canada has since lost her virginity. We have spawned our first political assassins. To be sure, the Father of Confederation, D’Arcy McGee was assassinated in the early years of the new Dominion, but the assassin was an import: a Fenian from south of the border who gunned down McGee because he thought it improper that a former Irish poet and patriot should celebrate the glories of Queen Victoria and her new realm. The FLQ may import some of its inspiration, but its roots are deep in the Canadian compost heap of political ideas.
About ten years ago, I founded and edited a little magazine with a limited circulation and equally limited lifespan, although it did print writers like Douglas Fisher, Michael Barkway, Alden Nowlan and John Robert Colombo. Two magazines arrived at my office about the same time, with requests for exchanges. One was Liberté, published by Éditions de l’Hexagone in Montreal. The other was Cité Libre, founded by Trudeau, and eventually killed by him. Liberté’s influence on the Quiet Revolution, which was starting at that time, was not to be great, although when I reopened a back issue the other day; I could not help but pause over an editorial published by Jacques Godbout in 1960. “The past has only reality in memory,” he wrote, “and among a healthy people, memory keeps to the role of memory and is not a mirage. It is the present which counts, and tomorrow as well.”
As for Cité Libre, its tome was modernist, but anti-nationalist. Nationalism was the placebo that Maurice Duplessis has fed Quebec too long. Trudeau eventually preferred to see Cité Libre die, rather than has it fall into the hands of the nationalist wing of the cité-librist group, which split off and founded an ephemeral journal of its own, Parti pris. As for Trudeau and the men who had set the tone for Cité Libre, they stood apart from the provincial Liberal party, which came to power in 1969, and eventually emerged as the spokesmen for federalism in French Canada.
The central topic which Trudeau attacks in these essays, written 13 years ago in a context which has passed into history, is authority. Authority is a problem much less meaningful in Anglo-Canada than in Quebec. The average Quebeçois is, by tradition and education much more subservient to authority than the average English Canadian, and hence a premier like Maurice Duplessis, still very much alive when theses essays were written, could exploit his province, and yet win a very large measure of support simply by virtue of being the man in power, who traded mutual support with institutions that wielded authority in Quebec. Trudeau attacks the problem with learning and clarity, and his references range from Aristotle to John Locke and Thoreau. It was with some sense of irony that I turned from Trudeau’s Approaches to Politics to Broadbent’s Rip-Off, and read that Trudeau derives most of his political ideas from the London School of Economics, where Broadbent spent a couple years himself. Trudeau’s dependence on the LSE is not immediately apparent, and I suspect that it is Broadbent rather than Trudeau who is the victim of his own narrow horizons.
Yet, it was good for the soul to compare these two books. For the Trudeau presented by Rip-Off is a dangerous authoritarian, corrupted by power. I rather think that if Trudeau can reprint his essays from Vrai in 1970, he is not corrupting at a very alarming speed.
Approaches to Politics was written originally for Quebec, with an intimate knowledge of canadien character and traditions. There is one point it makes clear 1. The leader, good or bad, who can assert authority in Quebec when it is needed, can win support simply virtue of the fact that he seems to possess power. We Anglophones may not like this trait – though to some extent we share it – but we must come to terms with it. When the federal government invoked the War Measures Act to deal with the FLQ crisis that had cost Laporte his life, it did so to assert authority in a situation where authority seemed to be crumbling. Where there is a demand for leadership, a leader will emerge, and if it had not been Pierre Elliott Trudeau, it would have been someone else less welcome. I have on my desk a sheaf of clippings and press releases sent to me by Tommy Douglas, all of them supporting the NDP stand on the War Measures Act. None of them show the faintest glimmering of understanding French Canada.
At the same time, Trudeau’s views on authority read with a certain irony in 1971. They were published first in a weekly which was the organ of the Civic Action League, the purpose of which was to clean up Montreal’s corrupt city politics. The Civic Action League was headed by Jean Drapeau, who in 1971 is Montreal’s leading authority figure.