Marcel Trudel, the dean of Canadian historians, was among the first group of academics in Quebec to challenge the paternalistic way history had been taught in the province by the Roman Catholic Church for more than a century. Known as "Mr. New France" for his expertise, Trudel set out to rewrite history from a critical perspective.
His 40 books put a new spin on the exploits of such folkloric heroes as Dollard des Ormeaux, Madeleine de Verchères and Frontenac. Among his seminal works were a five-volume Histoire de la Nouvelle-France and two books on slavery in Canada, which revealed that some Roman Catholic priests and bishops had once been slave owners.
Trudel, who was founding chair of Laval University's history department and a chairman of the history department at the University of Ottawa where he taught for 15 years, died of cancer on Jan. 11.
He wrote what might serve as his own epitaph when he described himself as "a living document of 20th-century Quebec, especially in the era before the Quiet Revolution."
Author and journalist George Tombs, who is translating one of Trudel's books about the history of slavery in colonial Canada, to be published in English this year by Véhicule Press, described Trudel as a remarkable man who was still working hard in his nineties.
"He got into trouble with the church for going against the grain, but until he came along, history as taught in Quebec was largely myth-making," Tombs said. "Historians like Lionel Groulx saw themselves as victims of The Conquest and were looking for nationalist heroes. Trudel wanted to take a much more scientific approach. He was much more critical of French Canadians themselves."
Born in St. Narcisse-de-Champlain near Trois-Rivières on May 29, 1917, he was the eighth of 11 children in a cart maker's family. His mother died when he was 5, and Trudel was sent to an orphanage to be educated by nuns.
At 13 he was sent to College Séraphique, where it was expected he would become a Franciscan priest. But as he wrote in his Governor-General's award-winning memoirs, he quickly discovered "mystical frenzy was not my thing, and in matters spiritual I tended to be less rather than more enthusiastic."
He was trained to read Greek and Latin and proved to be a brilliant but contrary student. After five years he was expelled, seven months before getting his degree, and he completed his education at the Grand Seminary in Trois-Rivières.
His first foray into history, an essay on the rebellion of 1837, won him the prestigious Lionel Groulx prize for history. He won a Quebec government scholarship to study Greek in Paris, but war intervened and instead he enrolled at Laval University.
While teaching at College Bourget, he wrote a doctoral thesis on Voltaire. When Laval added history to its teaching curriculum in 1945 - the first to be offered by a French-Canadian University - Trudel was named the new chair and was sent to Harvard for further training. There, he had an epiphany and realized that he hadn't been taught what had happened elsewhere and knew nothing of the history of Ontario or the Canadian West - and that what he had been taught was a "history of grievances, revenge and survival."
He set up his curriculum from scratch with a passion. At a time when books critical of Roman Catholic teaching were still indexed and not easily available to students, he implemented a scientific approach to scholarship, insisting on footnotes, archival provenance and documentary evidence. In 1955, he wrote a book about Charles Chiniqy, a Roman Catholic priest who became a trailblazing Protestant preacher in Quebec, much to the irritation of his Roman Catholic supervisors at Laval, who felt the story wasn't worth telling.
"In my teaching and writings I maintained that history should not be bent to serve any political or ecclesiastical point of view - be it federalist or separatist," he wrote. He got into further headline-making trouble in 1962 when he was elected president of a secular organization, Laicite Movement. He was demoted and his research papers were confiscated by the church-run university.
He moved first to Carleton University, where he set up the Institute of Canadian Studies, then to the University of Ottawa, where he taught until he retired in 1982.
"He was a courtly, old-school gentleman, but what he was doing was not old school," said Nancy Marrelli, Concordia University's archivist emerita. "He was certainly no Mr. Nice Guy when it came to his professional studies."
Trudel was made an officer of the Order of Quebec in 2004 and named to the Order of Canada in 2008. His marriage to Anne-Marie Chrétien, with whom he had three children, ended in divorce after 26 years.
He leaves his children and his second wife, Micheline D'Allaire, six grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.Friday, February 18, 2011
Robert McDougall was the first director of the Institute of Canadian Studies at Carleton University. Incorrect information appeared on Feb. 3.