- The Teeth of Time: Remembering Pierre Elliott Trudeau
If you, that have grown old, were the first dead, Neither catalpa tree nor scented lime Should hear my living feet, nor would I tread Where we wrought that shall break the teeth of Time.– W.B Yeats, 'The New Faces,' Collected Poems (1933)
One of my first memories of life as a graduate student at York University in the late 1980s was of an administrative assistant racing down the corridor saying to the chair that someone named Pierre Trudeau was on the phone for Professor Cook. Surely it was some sort of prank, she suggested. 'No,' was the reply, 'that would be the Pierre Trudeau on the other end of the line.' The assistant scurried faster to find Cook, and I felt a certain flush of excitement that I was a part, however small and inconsequential, of this place where people the likes of Ramsay Cook walked the halls, fielding telephone calls from former prime ministers. To be so close to power – in this case, standing in an open doorway past which a woman walked talking about a phone call – made me feel important. In retrospect, I can see the innocence and celebrity worship of a twenty-two-year-old MA student more clearly, but it doesn't erase the memory of the awe.
The Teeth of Time is neither a study of Trudeau by one of his friends and associates, nor a memoir of one of Canada's best-known historians, but instead a reflection on the relationship between the two men. We thus meet the future prime minister through the eyes of a young admirer, who is both innocent and awed, but through the refractions of time and in the words of a wise and accomplished historian. In choosing to tread through the catalpa trees and scented limes of his relationship with [End Page 372] Trudeau, Cook shares with us interesting tidbits about the politician, but somehow more intimate information about the historian.
The two first met in 1961; over the next forty years their paths crossed occasionally, but hardly frequently. They were intellectually well-suited for each other in that both were extraordinarily bright and literate, and both had come to strikingly similar conclusions about major '-isms' in Canada: nationalism, bilingualism, separatism, and federalism. Theirs was thus an intellectual friendship, rather than a deeply emotional one, making it all the better a vehicle for understanding the role of the historian in society. In recalling four decades of contact with Trudeau's writing – as reader, speech writer and translator – and with the man himself at conferences, parties, over points of law and politics, in battle against Meech Lake, and ultimately over his casket as it lay in state, Cook the historian is never far from view. We watch his career unfold, from the University of Toronto to York, with digressions to Harvard and Yale; we hear of his associations with the elite of Canadian intellectual and artistic society; we follow his critiques of fellow-memoirist Gordon Robertson and his repudiation of Kenneth McRoberts's alternative vision of Quebec's place in Canada. But most importantly, we watch him struggle with what it means to be an historian standing next to power: '[S]ince I continued to share and support his essential ideas,' Cook wondered, 'had I now become merely an apologist for him?' Ultimately, the historian decides in the negative, but he does not reach the answer without some engaging intellectual wrestling of his own.
This is a smart book about the way we remember the past, the allure of power and celebrity, the potential depths of intellectual companionship, and ultimately about one man's view of that most enigmatic of Canadian politicians. In breaking the teeth of time, Cook is doing what historians have always done with their subjects but have so rarely attempted with their friends. The results are most worthwhile.