Award-winning author discusses former prime minister Pierre Trudeau

What was Pierre Trudeau’s understanding of the world before he became prime minister? That is what award-winning author and former MP John English delved into for the annual Avie Bennett Historica Chair lecture, held at York Nov. 1.

In his talk titled "Trudeau: the Making of an Internationalist", English discussed Trudeau’s international reputation, his successes and the path he took in becoming a prominent figure in international affairs. He pointed out that Trudeau’s path was not a direct one. There were a number of inconsistencies in his behaviour and his views as a developing young man.

A professor at the University of Waterloo in the Department of History and MP for Kitchener from 1993 to 1997, English is one of the leading political historians in Canada. He believes Trudeau’s rebellious views evolved somewhat over the years.

"In the war’s first years Trudeau swam ever more vigorously in nationalist streams, opposing conscription, defending Vichy and Marshall Petain, equating Hitler’s Reich with British policy towards Quebec, and even contemplating and plottinig Quebec independence," English said. "Trudeau did not cast off his past and doubts but, as he was to do throughout his life, he incorporated new experiences into his own understanding."

Right: John English lectures at York

One of those new experiences was as former prime minister Lester Pearson’s parliamentary secretary. In that role, Trudeau was sent to international parlimentary gatherings and was a part of United Nation’s delegations.

 "No longer was he so benign towards Soviet intentions, so reflective of French musings about third ways and so critical of what English Canadians were beginning to term the golden years of Canadian diplomacy," English said.

Trudeau even developed a respect for the Queen of England.

Marcel Martel, York history professor and holder of the Avie Bennett Historica Chair in Canadian history, found English’s lecture enlightening.

"His public lecture allowed us to better understand  [Trudeau] the man, his friendships with world leaders and his priorities on the international stage," Martel said.

English is currently seconded from the University of Waterloo to the Centre on International Governance Innovation where he is founding executive director. The centre is the largest Canadian think tank devoted to the analysis and discussion of international affairs. In 2006, he also become the general editor of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

"I was very pleased that Prof. John English’s lecture on Trudeau’s world fulfilled the expectations I had when I endowed the Avie Bennett Historica Chair in Canadian History. Prof. English, an eminent historian and Trudeau scholar, kept his audience enthralled and made the evening most worthwhile," said York University Chancellor Emeritus Avie Bennett, Chair of McClelland & Stewart Ltd. and Chair of Historica Foundation of Canada.

English’s biography, Citizen of the World:The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Volume One: 1919-1968 (Knopf Canada, 2006), has been short-listed for the Governor General’s Literary Awards for non-fiction. The book has already won the University of British Columbia Canadian Biography Prize for best Canadian biography, the award for best biography and the Dafoe Prize. It was a finalist for the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction, the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing and the Donald Smiley Prize of the Canadian Political Science Association.

English is working on the second volume of his Trudeau biography.

Left: From left, Marcel Martel, Avie Bennett, John English, former NDP leader Ed Broadbent and Mamdouh Shoukri

"Studying our history not only reminds us where we come from, it helps us decide where we want to go," said York President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri. "York is on the road to becoming a more comprehensive university, as we continue to build on our heritage of academic excellence and social justice. The Avie Bennett Historica Chair lecture and the dialogue it inspires is an important part of that heritage."

The Historica Foundation was established to help Canadians discover the fascinating stories that make Canada unique. It encourages excellence in Canadian history education and provides or supports programs and resources that inspire Canadians to explore their history.

For more information about the Historica Foundation, visit

Story submitted to YFile by Jessica Lamoglie, communications coordinator, Faculty of Arts. Photography by Agostino Novello, Novello Photography.