Pierre Elliott Trudeau:
Hero of English Canada
Known for his opposition to nationalism, Pierre Trudeau left a surprising legacy of national pride, says RAY CONLOGUE
By RAY CONLOGUE
Tuesday, October 10, 2000
The day of Pierre Trudeau's funeral, a driver for the Toronto school board decorated his long yellow bus with paper flowers in the form of a Canadian flag. It was a simple gesture of affection, an inarticulate crying out in a country not given to such things.
An anthropologist would understand. In a deep and spontaneous reflex often practised by other societies, but seldom, until now, by English Canada, Pierre Trudeau is being transformed into a culture hero, the embodiment of his nation.
Political observers have said the same kind of thing, in flatter language, when they observed that Mr. Trudeau filled a gap for English Canadians who, in the 1960s, were desperately seeking a new idea of their country to replace its fading British identity.
And yet all his life Pierre Trudeau was an enemy of national feeling. His biographer, George Radwanski, described his "intense hatred of nationalism . . . Quebec nationalism in particular." Mr. Trudeau also mistrusted the "staggering ferocity" of British-Canadian nationalism which, for a long time, refused even the tiny concession of printing French words on the national currency. "Anglo-Canadian nationalism produced, inevitably, French-Canadian nationalism," He once wrote.
A child of the Enlightenment, Pierre Trudeau made it his business to define the nation in rational terms and to ridicule national feeling in both official languages. At best he tolerated patriotism as a "transitional" phase on humankind's long road to a better politics.
But, for personal reasons, he principally feared Quebec nationalism. He had grown up when clerical intellectuals like Abbé Lionel Groulx flirted with mystical nationalism of a mildly fascist variety. He fretted that Quebec had never embraced the Anglo-American tradition of individual rights. English Canada, for all its insecurities, seemed more open to the kind of pluralist, post-nationalist world he idealized.
It's worth reminding ourselves of how intense his feelings were. In 1962, he wrote an essay called New Treason of the Intellectuals. It is full of a dancing sort of cerebral rage that already seems an artifact of another age: Nationalism was "a concept that corrupts all," the idea of the nation-state had "managed to cripple the advance of civilization"; sovereignists were little Torquemadas, the grand inquisitor of the Middle Ages, and so on.
It's arguable whether Quebec was ever as monolithic and backward as he portrayed it (Claude Couture, in his anti-Trudeau book called Paddling With The Current, offers persuasive evidence that it was not). But even if we accept Mr. Trudeau's 1962 views, we would expect them to have changed by 1995, after the Quiet Revolution, the collapse of the Church's authority, and the admission of vast numbers of Algerian, Haitian and Vietnamese immigrants which made French-speaking schoolyards every bit as multicultural as those of Toronto or Vancouver.
Remarkably, however, Pierre Trudeau's views did not appear to change. In 1995 he published Against the Current, a volume of selected writings by which he wished to be remembered. It contains New Treason of the Intellectuals, printed without modification or disclaimer. The following year, while giving his last television interview (to the CBC's Hannah Gartner) he reiterated his belief that nationalism was fundamentally racist and a perpetual threat to individual freedoms.
A great deal happened in the intervening years which Pierre Trudeau didn't incorporate into his intellectual outlook -- starting with his own actions. There was the concession to English Canadian nationalism of the 1980 election, where he set aside his dualistic idea of Canada in favour of a pan-Canadian identity. With great zest, he advocated the symbols of cultural nationalism. He encouraged the funding of the Genie awards for Canadian films, at which ceremony he once vaulted down the aisle and leapt lightly onto the stage as if expecting the Best Actor award himself. He supported Canadian content rules for radio and television and every year, he ritualistically kicked off the first ball of the Grey Cup game.
But even as he condoned English-Canadian nationalism, he continued to vilify the Quebec variety. He equated it with separatism, even as it spread throughout the ranks of Quebec's federalists. By 1995, most Québécois agreed with René Lévesque when he declared that he felt himself first to be a Quebecker, and very little a "Canadian." Mr. Trudeau did not acknowledge this sea-change in Quebec's psychological makeup.
Nor did he acknowledge that Quebec society itself had changed. The pur laine community in which he had grown up was no more. Like other industrialized societies, Quebec was faced with a plunging birth rate and was obliged to encourage a massive intake of immigrants. Living in Montreal since 1982, Mr. Trudeau was surely aware of these changes. But in his public statements he rarely, if ever, adverted to them.
Because of his immense influence over English Canadians, his view of Quebec, however out of date, continued to be theirs. How else to understand the public attack on Quebec which took place during the 1995 referendum? With scarcely a dissenting voice, English-speaking commentators described Quebec nationalism as "ethnic," as limited to "pur laine" French Canadians, and as hostile to immigrants. Sixty-year-old newspapers were combed for anti-semitic passages, and 80-year-old novels for proof of the folkloric nature of Quebec society.
Pierre Trudeau can't be blamed for all this but, by and large, the English Canadian media re-created what historian Ramsay Cook described as the "shrill" tone of Mr. Trudeau's early writing. The result was that apolitical Quebeckers, much as they had turned their back on Mr. Trudeau himself, quietly turned away from expecting any meaningful rapprochement with the rest of the country. La Presse's headline, on Pierre Trudeau's death, read: The Hero of English Canada.
Ironically, it was during those three decades that liberal thinkers began to re-examine their opposition to nationalism. Isaiah Berlin re-read 18th-century nationalist philosophers and found that most did not use race or blood as a criterion of belonging. They believed that national feeling arose wherever a population, however heterogenous, shared a history, territory and language.
Even liberal fundamentalists such as Francis Fukuyama became troubled by the spiritual emptiness of liberal democracy. To make the enlargement of human liberty the only purpose of political action, as thinkers from John Stuart Mill forward have done, leads to aimless, uncivil and self-indulgent societies. Pro-nationalist thinkers such as the American scholar Benedict Anderson now suggest that, in the absence of religious and ethnic affiliation, national feeling is the only remaining arena for the exercise of altruism.
Pierre Trudeau, whose splendid mind ranged easily from Plato to Renan, never gave any sign that he was aware of these new developments. At the time of his death, however, the intense identification of English Canadians with his personal virtues is proof of the altruistic nationalism whose existence he always denied. And the relative indifference of French-speaking Quebeckers is proof that nationalism, as Isaiah Berlin suggested, coalesces around language -- something else that Pierre Trudeau denied.
His death demonstrated the truth of the propositions which his life did not admit.
Ray Conlogue, former Quebec correspondent, writes on arts and culture for The Globe and Mail.