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The Trudeau Enigma

“The Independent divided Canadian Prime ministers into two broad categories: ‘the first comprises those whom the rest of the world has largely forgotten, if ever knew about them; the second comprises Pierre Trudeau,’” is the opening line of Max and Monique Nemni’s Young Trudeau: 1919-1944. There is a considerable degree of truth to this statement. Pierre Elliot Trudeau managed to capture the political consciousness of Canada’s French and English populations alike, inspiring an unprecedented cult of personality dubbed, ‘Trudeaumania.’ Trudeau is remembered for bold political gestures: his battle with Quebec separatism; “just watch me” taunt; the Charter of Rights and Freedoms; and Canada Act, among others. This tenacity, amplified by his cool charisma and devil-may-care attitude contributed to an unparalleled popularity and endurance in the Canadian political consciousness. Trudeau’s legacy remembers him as a figurehead of political unity and liberalism, hand-in-hand with the image of a French playboy with rapier-wit. However, as much as Trudeau’s public life resonates in the Canadian consciousness, his highest-profile actions say very little about his private character, or the life that constructed the man and his legacy. Close friends of Trudeau, the Nemni siblings, made this the focal subject of their biographical investigation. This perspective, when contrasted against more general biographical pieces, such as John English’s Citizen of the World contributes to a unique understanding of the late Prime Minister. These biographical pieces both attempt to deconstruct his enigmatic personality, but address the mystery of his character quite differently. The attempt of a biography like English’s to present a broad narrative of Trudeau’s rise to power shackles it to an anachronistic development of Trudeau’s life, developing his past as a product of his popular legacy, as opposed to the man as a product of his influences; in contrast, the focus of the Nemni biography on the period of Trudeau’s youth provokes questions as to how that man would develop into the character of his legacy.


The scope of these biographical pieces contributes to an intrinsically different reading of Trudeau, from their outset. The years of the Nemni biography (1919-1944) concern his mostly private youth; John English offers a broader survey of Trudeau’s life up to his victory as a candidate in the Liberal leadership race, 1968. English’s account deals with a period almost twice as long as that of the Nemni biography, offering a dramatically changed thesis based on that additional period of development. The years of the Second World War were highly influential on Trudeau’s life, leading him into groups of radicals and revolutionaries with extreme, distinctly ideological objectives. John English attributes the development of Trudeau’s political identity to a period of dramatic change in the post-war period, drawing particularly upon some of his writing released in 1956 that “sets the outline for what he would later term the ‘just society,’” one of Trudeau’s most enduring thoughts; firmly anti-nationalist, secular, and anti-authoritarian rhetoric. The result of the inclusion of this period, which the scope of the Nemni biography does not include, is a dramatically changed perception of Trudeau’s political identity to the reader. The Nemni biography, concluding in 1944, presents a very different picture of Pierre Trudeau. Offering Trudeau’s application to Harvard University as a closing piece, their biography presents a much younger, still proud, yet somewhat uncertain man. He brags about his studies, citing at length the historians and economists he has examined, claiming that greater “progress was made by personal studies,” than any of the academic institutions he attended. The political objectives of this younger Trudeau were still unclear. He suggests that he will “make statesmanship [his] profession,” wanting to “relearn how to think” with regards to politics: certain of his ability, but not of the cause he stands for. By comparison, English’s Trudeau concludes with a far greater sense of self and certitude. The final ‘scene’ of that biographical narrative depicts Trudeau’s leadership victory in 1968, asking, “What images swirled in Pierre Trudeau’s mind?” The answers given are almost unanimously drawn from the post-war, post-revolutionary period of his life: “the beautiful young woman he had met on beach in Tahiti;” “Therese Gouin Decarin,” etc. Any references to his youth are appropriated to serve English’s conclusion: “long nights when Papa brought home his political friends […] and a mother who, in silence, still radiated her endless love for him.” The Nemni biography sharply contrasts this statement, arguing that Trudeau’s youth was one of means, but plagued by a degree of emotional detachment following his father’s death. Evidently, the difference in scope between these readings establishes two very different narratives. While English’s expanded timeline is the more comprehensive biographical piece, it battles with the difficulty of constructing that narrative against the popular perceptions of Trudeau’s later life, attributing the man we know as the product of his experiences most logically progressive towards that identity. The Nemni piece is doubtful, detailing the man’s early life, but ultimately offering more questions than connections to the Trudeau of fame.


The political legacy of Pierre Trudeau celebrates his efforts to unify French and English Canada and the progressive policies of his Liberal Party. This popular image of the politician is dramatically different from the political activism of his youth. The young Trudeau was a voracious political radical and separatist, distinctly opposed to many of the ideas espoused later in his life. This presents a unique biographical challenge: how does a historian handle the revered image of the man, alongside the serious controversy of his youthful political ambitions? Both biographies develop the idea of Trudeau the Liberal as someone ideologically distinct from Trudeau the young man, up through the end of the Second World War. The young Trudeau was a devout nationalist, sympathetic to radical political ideologies, a considerable deal more reserved, as well as a passionate Catholic. These ideas need to be handled carefully alongside the legacy of the Prime Minister. Each account handles controversy quite differently.


Possibly the most contentious aspect of Trudeau’s character was his position towards fascist movements in Europe, particularly that in Nazi Germany. English combats this association, stating, “despite some later claims that Trudeau admired Hitler, he expressed loathing for him in his private journal,” a statement not entirely reflected in the Nemni narrative: “for a young man so determined to pursue the truth, Trudeau demonstrated either surprising carelessness or insensitivity toward disturbing facts [with regards to Nazi sympathizer Leon Degrelle].” These varied accounts could be the product of the special privileges bestowed on the Nemni siblings for their account, permitting commentary such as this to emerge, despite its potential danger. Whatever the case, it is critical to note that Trudeau’s extensive base of knowledge would allow any number of academics to be contributed as his primary influences. Thus, the choice of particular figures is a deliberate gesture in the construction of his narrative. English’s choices of figures like Adolf Hitler to represent Trudeau’s nationalist development, or, later, Duplessis in relation to Quebec’s identity are deliberate. These were popular, charismatic figures in their time, and, despite the temporary power of their movements, they were eventually condemned as ‘wrong’ by much of historical record. Offering fleeting figures such as these as the cause for Trudeau’s radicalism allows for that aspect of his character to be more easily dismissed by the reader, assuming that Trudeau, like many others was susceptible to the fervor of these movements. The Nemni piece casts figures like Leon Degrelle in the same rolls. Degrelle, while now understood as a stalwart supporter of the Nazis, was perceived most prolifically in Trudeau’s time as a figurehead of moral review and Catholic virtue. These differing influencers develop very different conclusions regarding Trudeau’s character: one, of a young man swept up in the fervor of popular political movements who ultimately came to his senses; the other, a more ambiguous picture that suggests the man may have harbored these ideas once, but chose to abandon (or suppress) their more extreme aspects due to their controversy and political delinquency. Considering the time period English has chosen to develop, right up to the onset of ‘Trudeaumania,’ this evidence is beneficial in emphasizing points such as Trudeau’s hope for a bilingual Canada—one of his most celebrated political objectives—as far more influential than his earlier political extremism.


Trudeau’s political legacy would not be as enduring had it not been aided by his immense charisma. At the core of ‘Trudeaumania’ was the attachment to Trudeau as a figurehead for youth and exuberance in politics; he was adored for his playboy image and devil-may-care attitude. In reality, this idea of Trudeau was a construct of a very brief, and mostly public part of his life. John English and the Nemni siblings develop Trudeau’s early life as a period where he wrestled to develop the confidence and clarity that made him famous. Critical to both of these narratives is an emphasis on Trudeau’s relationships with women, stemming from that perception of him as something of a political playboy. A natural assumption exists that Trudeau was well acquainted with women throughout his life and enjoyed a strong relationship with his mother. The Nemni siblings offer quite the contrary image of the young man. Their Trudeau is a shy, academic sort of man who, due in part to his wealth, in part to his inexperience, is socially distant from most and especially shy around women, despite his fascination. His relationship with his mother is considered ancillary to that with his father, until his father’s death. As he matured, Trudeau had a number of lengthy, well-documented relationships. The earliest are detailed by the Nemni siblings and cast as fleeting tragedies, never the focus of his interest. Instead, he is understood to have committed much of his free time to further academic pursuits and discourse with his activist peers. In contrast, English’s much longer survey of Trudeau’s life extensively details his relationships as focal points in his development, critical to Trudeau’s political life at the time of their activity. A much greater emphasis is placed on the impact of these women on Trudeau’s character: the use of references to “beautiful young women” at the conclusion of English’s book, arguably the height of Trudeau’s career, places the importance of these women as a paramount influence on Trudeau’s life, as though this playboy image of the man was not far from the truth. The Nemni biography attributes academic peers such as Jean-Baptiste Boulanger as being far more influential on the development of his character. Returning to his mother, these biographical narratives could be seen as distinctly gendered: English attributing much of Trudeau’s character, namely his comfort and faith in women, to a strong connection with his mother; the Nemni siblings attributing his radicalism to the distance and detachment of his father. Considering that Trudeau is so often synonymous with the image of a young, confident playboy, these divergent perceptions create a significant degree of speculation towards that image. The existence of evidence to the contrary insinuates that, while narratives such as that of John English are comprehensive and conclusive, they may very well be the product of a retroactive construction of Trudeau’s personality, as opposed to a genuine representation of his private character.


In conclusion, the character of Pierre Elliot Trudeau is a fascinating enigma, subject to a varied, popular legacy and numerous historical interpretations. The task of developing a concrete narrative of his life, including the major factors that influenced his personal and political legacy is a challenging historiographical exercise. Often, the memory of Trudeau is very much an anachronistic construct of his public image; a genuine understanding of his character is masked by the polarizing flamboyance of this outward expression. The historian, tasked with identifying whom Pierre Trudeau really was battles with the idea of the man and the considerable evidence that combats that constructed identity. Despite his unique popularity and the innumerable biographical investigations into his life, his character across various periods of his life is so fundamentally different that a universal understanding of the man is impossible to conceive. Attempts to connect common threads throughout his life are effective, but leave room for considerable doubt. Perhaps this is the most powerful aspect of the Trudeau enigma: the varied perceptions of the man draw little to no conclusion, save this: his greatest political achievements endure, without question, made only more memorable through the impenetrable mystery of his character.