He was no radical, this PM who avoided the big questions of his day
When Pierre Trudeau first came to power in the late 1960s, the philosopher George Grant, famous for his mid-60s book Lament For A Nation, said privately that it takes a frog to put down the frogs.
Don’t misunderstand such language, for Grant was a rarity in English Canada in his respect for Quebec’s right to self-determination. Grant was exposing the bigotry that few wanted to admit was part of Trudeau’s appeal to English Canadians.
This punctures one of the myths Trudeau liked to spread about himself. He saw himself as swimming against the tide, and thought opposition to accepted opinion was the only constant in his intellectual life.
It’s hard to square that with his being a large-L Liberal and therefore of the crowded, conformist, comfortable political centre.
As a young man in Quebec in the Duplessis years of the 1940s and 50s, dissent and protest had been his role, and he was commendably courageous.
But Duplessis and his authoritarian style of nationalism disappeared down the dark hole of history. Trudeau never fully admitted this and never rethought his ideas, and by the time he got to Ottawa he was mostly swimming with the English Canadian tide. At the head, certainly, but hardly against it.
In fact, the one and only constant in his intellectual life was his intense hatred of nationalism. Those Duplessis years became the sample of one from which he generalized to see all nationalism as bad.
The Canadian nationalism that emerged in opposition to America’s savage war in Vietnam passed Trudeau by. It was the staid Walter Gordon, a generation older than Trudeau, who both represented that nationalism and put his political head on the block by opposing the Pearson government’s pusillanimous position on the war in Vietnam.
Trendy Trudeau missed out on the biggest political issue of the 60s. He was a relentlessly one-issue man whose genuine credentials as a dissenter were exhausted by the time he went to Ottawa.
Much has been made in the last few days of Trudeau’s reputation as an intellectual. I don’t question that, but as one who has spent his life in the academic world, I wonder if it should be seen as a blessing in the very different world, the parallel universe, of politics.
It is sometimes thought that the problem with intellectuals is that they are indecisive, that they weigh all sides and are slow to act. This is wrong.
The intellectual mind is much given to abstraction and to higher truths. Give us power and we are tempted to remake the world in some bookish image. (Consider how the best and the brightest of American intellectuals wanted Vietnam bombed to put it on the proper democratic path to modernization, to destroy Communism, which would otherwise last forever.)
There is a fine line between principle and idealism, the alleged virtues of the intellectual, on the one hand, and dogma and fanaticism, the vices of the intellectual, on the other. In Trudeau’s case, the line sometimes blurred and, from today’s perspective, history suffered.
Still, lest my overall assessment of Trudeau be misunderstood, let me say I believe he was a great man — from his touching of the country’s nerve and soul, and his espousal of multiculturalism, to the populist nationalism that took root with his Charter of Rights.
Pierre Trudeau made of politics not a career but a calling, and when all’s said and done, that is not a bad thing.