On the weekend before Election Day, Canadians are observing the hundredth birthday of the alleged Father of Our Country - Pierre Elliott Trudeau, born in Montreal on October 18th 1919. Those of a suspicious bent will feel vaguely that the climax of the son's re-election campaign and the centennial celebrations of his dad are not a mere coincidence of the calendar.
When the blackface dauphin ascended to the throne in 2015, many of us assumed the restoration would condemn us to live forever in the vast engulfing shadow of the Father of Trudeaupia. Yet the opposite has happened: The mammy singer has diminished his pappy - and the centenary observances this weekend are far more muted than if they had occurred under Stephen Harper or Jean Chrétien.The vanity and exhibitionism and general modish twerpery of the son were certainly present in the father, but it wasn't the whole story. The Liberals, in passing the crown to a clown, have shrunk their own myth.
I've written on the great man over the years. This piece appeared in Maclean's thirteen years ago, during one of many occasional spates of hagiographies. You will note that Trudeau père, like Trudeau fils, had his share of "youthful indiscretions" - although the media did a much better job of holding the lid on them:
The other day, The Forward, New York's Jewish newspaper, ran a story headlined "Book Offers New Image of Canadian Pol." Given that most New York readers don't have any old images of Canadian pols, this seemed an unlikely proposition. But the pol in question was the Canadian pol: Pierre Trudeau, who served as prime minister from 1968 to . . . well, as a middle-aged German said to me in Vienna in 2002, "You're Canadian? Trudeau is still prime minister?"
"Of course," I said, not wishing to detour the conversation down unrewarding paths.
Anyway, the so-called "new image" derives from Young Trudeau: 1919-1944 by Max and Monique Nemni, who reveal that as a young man Trudeau had fascist sympathies, was prone to the routine anti-Semitism of mid-century Quebec francophones, blamed Britain for the Second World War, and spent it riding around Montreal wearing a German helmet. All this is the "old image" for some of us, but every few years the stories are dusted off and Trudeaupian experts are quoted professing shock and puzzlement. Morton Weinfeld, the McGill sociologist, put it down to "youthful stupidity": after all, young Pierre was in his twenties; he couldn't be expected to know any better—though those other other twentysomethings without benefit of his great intellect, the young Canadians and Englishmen and Scotsmen and Americans scrambling ashore at Normandy, all managed to figure it out. But Professor Weinfeld says the new biography will "remind people how deeply entrenched in the Quebec of the 1930s those right-wing views were. Even someone who became as progressive as Trudeau was not immune to their seductive power."
"Right-wing" and "progressive" aren't terribly useful labels in this regard, and all indications are that no great seduction was required to win Trudeau over to the dreary bigotry of wartime Quebec. It would be truer to say that he evolved from the conventionally parochial statism of the 1930s to the conventionally multicultural statism of the 1970s, which isn't quite as dramatic a leap as Professor Weinfeld thinks.
Nonetheless, the Nemni book sounded worth a read, so I wandered into Indigo in Montreal and picked it up—in the French section. Then I toddled along to see if they had it in English. Not yet, apparently. Evidently Quebec Anglos aren't in the market for Trudeaupian revisionism. Instead, it was wall-to-wall hagiography. There was Pierre: Colleagues and Friends Talk About the Trudeau They Knew, and The Hidden Pierre Elliott Trudeau: The Faith Behind the Politics. That's hidden alright, as in Da Vinci Code hidden.
Oddly enough, Pierre also begins with a section called "Faith." You'd almost think a sustained campaign was under way to persuade those Canadians who carelessly figured Trudeau didn't become a practising Catholic till the funeral that we've got him all wrong. It seems his life was, as Michael W Higgins puts it, a "spiritual pilgrimage." Obviously, in respect of Margot Kidder and Liona Boyd and Barbra Streisand and so on and so forth, it was more shagadelic than the average spiritual pilgrimage, but nonetheless it was, as Higgins says, a life "defined by spirituality." In The Faith Behind The Politics, B W Powe of York University contributes an essay called "Soul's Flow: Pierre Trudeau's Hidden Current." Here's how it begins:
Stephen Clarkson referred to the Zen statement that the fish is in the water, and the water is in the fish. I won't try to interpret this enigmatic koan, except to add a McLuhanesque twist: a fish is not (usually) aware of the water in which it lives. In short, our environments are mostly invisible to us.
I will look at the mythopoetic aspects of Trudeau's time—the mythic impact he made on Canada, and on me. The word 'myth,' in this context, I take to mean narrative, symbol, allegory, the wedding of image and word, the crystallization of quintessential story, the poetry of existence, our intimations and intuitions of what may be transcendent...
Etc., etc. I struggled on through the middle of the sixth paragraph, by which point Powe's essay had no doubt won a Governor General's Award. Yes, yes, I know I sound bitter. As the old Zen saying has it, the fish is in the chip and the chip is on my shoulder. But you quickly realize that in this context "faith" means not Pierre Trudeau's faith in God, but these various writers' faith in Trudeau as a god.
More conventional deities get short shrift. Stephen Clarkson opts for the old plague-on-both-their-houses routine:
George W Bush in the White House and Osama bin Laden in his dark house (wherever that may be) represent two civilizations in which God or Allah is invoked as justification for wanting to destroy the other.
Powe doesn't pussyfoot around with lame-o equivalence and cuts to the chase, citing "Bush's plan to trigger Armageddon in the Middle East, following the prophecies of 'The Book of Daniel,' of which the President is especially fond."
As these passing swipes suggest, there seems to be a certain resentment that the Trudeaupian faith hasn't made much headway in the wider world. Although Michael Valpy confidently hails him as "our one truly mythological Prime Minister," I wonder if, fish-wise, he's already off the menu. I got to the end of David Suzuki's autobiography, for example, and it suddenly occurred to me he hadn't so much as mentioned M. Trudeau, which must be a first for any memoir by a Canadian of this generation. Given that he subscribes to all Trudeau's banalities about the wickedness of capitalism and American foreign policy, you'd think Suzuki might put in a word for the old boy.
Perhaps this is merely one deity declining to worship at the altar of another. It's a depressing feature of contemporary life that quite so many places in the All-Time Top Ten Greatest Canadians Hit Parade are held by narrow, doctrinaire, mushy-left figures— Trudeau, Suzuki, Tommy Douglas—whom we're supposed to regard as gods in human form. If these are truly Canadian all-time heroes, their shelf life is distressingly short: on his retirement, Pierre took his sons to Siberia because "that is where the future is being made." In 1984? Trudeau's reputation has shrivelled globally to all but undetectable levels, as the international A-listers at his funeral sadly confirmed (Jimmy Carter, Fidel Castro, and Najib Zerouali, Minister of Scientific Research for Morocco, a nation renowned for its scientific research). It would be nice if the book trade caught up to reality. As it is, these professions of faith sound like Matthew Arnold's "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar."
Fortunately, Conrad Black is on hand to keep things in proportion. In Pierre, he concludes his appreciation thus:
I always found him a delightful conversationalist and a gracious host, though perhaps slow to reach for the bill in a restaurant, even when we were there on his invitation.
Too true. He left us with the bill, in every sense.
~from Maclean's, June 5th 2006.
Pierre Trudeau shuffled off this mortal coil in September 2000, when I was writing for The National Post. My thoughts on his passing did not appear for some three weeks, for reasons I shall explain. A few excerpts:
In his later years, Pierre Trudeau would occasionally tell friends in Montreal that the monarchy was a lot of nonsense and that he would have got rid of it if he could. He was, to put it mildly, dissembling. He was no believer in republican government, unless it was the "people's republics" of his late chums Erich Honecker and Nicolae Ceausescu. He was an ambitious man of autocratic bent and an attenuated, nervous monarchy suited him well, as it did Mussolini. So he weakened the institution, undermined its legitimacy — and then lodged it permanently in place in what I see we now call the "Trudeau Constitution" of 1982, thereby ensuring that the only monarch in Canada would be the prime minister. Just to make the point, he began the tradition of installing third-rate non-entities in Rideau Hall...
"Like our first controversial Prime Minister, Sir John A Macdonald," said Joe Clark, "Pierre Trudeau would have built the railway." I doubt it. But he did build Mirabel International Airport, an airport which is not an airport by any agreed definition of the word — in the sense that one can take scheduled flights hither and yon — but it is the most luxuriously appointed parking lot in Quebec and conveniently situated halfway between Laval and the Laurentians. On the same principle, I would be in favour of renaming Mount Logan "Lac Trudeau."
Others will differ. Some have suggested renaming the Plains of Abraham after Trudeau. We could call it the Planes of Trudeau and pretend it's Quebec City's new international airport. But why stop there? Let's go for the big one. Trudeau's is, after all, an incredible accomplishment: No political leader of a long-established Western nation has ever succeeded so exhaustively in reinventing the state as a projection of his own identity. Political comparisons are useless. One thinks instead of Liberace, who once insisted that a young lover have his face reconstructed to look more like his own, because he wanted to gaze on himself during sex. And so it was with Trudeau: he loved the nation the more it looked like him. Standing in the rubble of the old Dominion of Canada, we his children should complete his grand project and rename the entire country Trudeaupia. It would be a fitting tribute to the colossus who bestrides our times like a, er, colossus.
And finally, if you're wondering why my farewell to the Liberace of the North was so belated, well, the Post and I had a brief falling out over Pierre Trudeau's passing - although, to be fair, they were rather sporting in running the following:
Which brings me to The National Post. I was asked the other day why I hadn't weighed in to bid adieu to our philosopher-king as he began his pirouette through eternity, as we columnists like to say. Well, as it happens, I did crank out a few instant thoughts on the subject, but late on the weekend after his death I got a call saying the paper's policy was not to run any "anti-Trudeau" pieces until after the funeral, so David Frum and I were being held and instead the Post's Monday Comment page would be devoted to two riveting pieces by a Liberal apparatchik and a chap who works at Cité Libre, the magazine Trudeau founded, both arguing the novel position that his genius has been insufficiently appreciated.
Now I've never paid much attention to questions of press ethics, though Maude Barlow & Co have been warning for many a moon that Conrad Black has been jeopardizing Canada's journalistic integrity by using his papers to advance his extreme right-wing agenda. Still, after all my years of toil in the Black boiler room, you'll understand why I'm a little startled to find the one thing he and his sinister henchmen draw the line at is saying beastly things about Pierre Trudeau.
To be honest, I don't think it was Conrad's decision. On the day after Trudeau's death, even the boss was in generous mode, at least to those of us who'd been hoping for a reprise of his magnificent review of the Trudeau memoirs, which appeared under the splendid headline "Clichéd, Superficial, Nauseating." This time round, the headline was "He Taught Us 'Our House' Is All Of Canada," which sounds like the winner in a Name-The-Most-Unlikely-Headline-For-A-Conrad-Black-Column-On-Pierre-Trudeau competition. To be fair to him, I can find nothing in his column indicating that Trudeau "taught" him anything whatsoever and, if Conrad were half the power-crazed wacko he's made out to be, whichever editor appended that sappy, driveling headline to his words would now be seeking alternative employment.
The Post's determination to outdo the inane pieties of conventional Trudeaumania was distressing to behold. Andrew Coyne went so far as to measure PET's decisive role in our history with that of Winston Churchill in 1940 — a comparison that only underlines our woeful triviality. If the defence of the West had rested with Trudeau in May 1940, I think we can all guess how the Second World War would have turned out. (In his memoirs, the young Trudeau sums up the great conflict of the century thus: "So there was a war. Tough.")
I don't mind that so many of my colleagues rushed to prostrate themselves, but I do object, as the tide of sychophantic drool threatened to swamp the nation, that those of us who dissented were excluded from the Post's pages. The National Post was founded in 1998 as an alternative to the stultifying homogeneity of much of the Canadian media. But when it came to our first great test we failed, abysmally, and undid much of the good work of the last two years.
Trudeau did not unite the country, he exacerbated its divisions. He did not "put us on the map," he took us off it — and, if you doubt it, glance over the guest list for the funeral. By comparison with Canadian ululators, the Iranian reaction to the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini was a model of self-restraint. That even The National Post felt, for five days, that it had no choice but to join in a such a dismal performance speaks poorly for Canada, and for us.
Some of us are not yet ready to accept the national myth. Some of us think the four and a half centuries before 1968 are also relevant to modern Canada. And, if Jean Chrétien wants to run an election on the Trudeau legacy, I for one think we should call his bluff. But, if on November 28th da liddle guy is presiding over his one-party state for another three years, we at The National Post will have played our shameful part.
~from The National Post of Canada, October 19th 2000. The one great benefit of the Trudeaupian restoration is that Justin cannot "run an election on the Trudeau legacy" - because Canada's living with its absurd Sonny Boy reductio every day of the week.
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