Young Trudeau and his times explored at Glendon

Anyone interested in the Canadian history and politics of the past four decades will have specific associations with the names of Monique and Max Nemni – associations with Quebec’s "Quiet Revolution"’, the fight against separatism, the magazine Cité libre and Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Canada’s 15th prime minister.

Above: Max Nemni (left), Ian Roberge and Monique Nemni

Monique and Max Nemni were the guest speakers at a special presentation on Jan. 29  at York’s Glendon College. Their visit was organized by the Glendon Research Group in Public & International Affairs and was hosted by Ian Roberge, professor of political science. The Nemnis came to Glendon to speak about a project that is currently in progress: a three-volume intellectual biography of the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau. The first volume, with the title Young Trudeau: Son of Quebec, Father of Canada, 1919-1944 (McLelland & Stewart, 2006), is already in bookstores in both English and French. It is one of the finalists in this year’s Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, offered by the Writers’ Trust of Canada.

A former Glendon professor, Monique Nemni spent the first 10 years of her teaching career at Glendon. She launched Glendon’s Second Language Program and was its first director before moving on to the University of Quebec at Montreal. Max Nemni is a specialist on nationalism and liberalism, with many articles to his credit in learned journals. Among these, his 1995 article on the Meech Lake constitutional debate gained Trudeau’s attention and was the starting point of a friendship which lasted until Trudeau’s death.

The Nemnis are currently working on volume two, which will cover the period of 1944 to 1965, leading up to Trudeau’s formal commitment to a career in politics. The third volume will explore his years as minister of justice and prime minister, as well as the rest of his post-political career and life, until his death from cancer in September 2000.

During the crucial years of 1995 to 2000, when Quebec separation and the impact of the 1995 referendum loomed over the country, the Nemnis were editors-in-chief and directors of Cité libre. Founded in 1950 by Trudeau and other young intellectuals, the magazine was dedicated to fighting separatism and shaping public opinion toward the "Quiet Revolution". The Nemnis were Trudeau’s intellectual and political inheritors as they continued the magazine’s mandate as Quebec’s only Francophone voice for liberalism and Canadian unity at that very sensitive time. The magazine ceased publication in 2000.

In his will, Trudeau granted full access to his personal papers to only three individuals: John English, his historical biographer, and the Nemnis. English published volume one of his biography of Trudeau in 2006, with the title Citizen of the World: the Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 1919-1968 (Knopf Canada, 2006), another finalist for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing. Shortly before Trudeau’s death, the Nemnis proposed a different project which would be an intellectual biography offering a detailed account of Trudeau’s ideas, beliefs and how these were transformed over the years. Trudeau was delighted by this proposal and gave his full support to the project.

At their presentation at Glendon, the couple provided fascinating insights into their work on this project over the past five years. They described the collection of memorabilia and said it revealed a Trudeau that very few had known: he collected everything, from old bus tickets, menus and concert programs to school assignments. He received his early education at Collège Jean de Brébeuf, the training ground of the French-Canadian elite of the time. This school had a profound influence in promoting Catholicism and Quebec nationalism in Trudeau and his schoolmates, inciting them to work for the greater glory of God and for the protection of the French language.

The Nemnis then took their audience on a fascinating journey through Trudeau’s life and career. They demonstrated that contrary to popular myth, he was deeply interested and involved in politics from his earliest years. By the time Trudeau was 21 and entering law school in 1940, he was making hot political speeches against conscription and political corruption. He read a great deal and was influenced by moralist philosophers such as Henri Bergson, Jacques Maritan and Emanuel Munier. At that time, he cherished a naïve belief that a "new man" and a "new order"’ could be created within society.

The couple also outlined the political and intellectual climate of Quebec in the early years of World War II – a total disconnect from the events in Europe. In this climate of isolationism, young intellectuals like Trudeau agitated energetically against conscription of soldiers from Quebec for the fight overseas. Their entire attention was focused on Quebec’s issues concerning language and religion.

Trudeau’s papers reveal that as early as his 30s, he saw politics as his future and his duty. He was methodically preparing for this career through his experience as a Rhodes Scholar, but also by more practical means, such as taking acting and singing lessons, in order to develop his voice and public speaking skills.

Trudeau’s intellectual transformation began when he went to study at Harvard University and later to Europe. That is when his views were challenged, and he gradually moved away from ethnic nationalism, paving the way for his later political activities.

The Nemnis’ book is aimed at increasing the public’s understanding for Trudeau, a man who, they say maintained his Catholic faith, overcame his early indoctrination and went on to be a fiery advocate for the separation of church and state, and a lifelong defender of human rights.

The Glendon Research Group in Public & International Affairs (GRG-PIA) works under the guidance of Glendon political science Professor Ian Roberge. This group organizes lectures on topics of current relevance and runs working paper series and student paper series on a broad range of subjects. Visit the Glendon Research Group in Public & International Affairs Web site for more information on the group’s research and upcoming talks.

This article was submitted to YFile by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny.