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  • Trudeau Transformed: The Shaping of a Statesman, 1944–1965 by Max Nemni, Monique Nemni
  • Paul Litt
Trudeau Transformed: The Shaping of a Statesman, 1944–1965. Max Nemni and Monique Nemni. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2011. Pp. 544, $32.99 cloth, $24.99 paper

“Get ready for the ride! Fasten your seatbelts!,” declare the authors at the end of the introduction to Trudeau Transformed. The reader could be forgiven for thinking they were at Disneyworld, about to take flight with Peter Pan or Dumbo the Elephant. But no, this is a scholarly work. Max and Monique Nemni met Pierre Trudeau in the late 1980s after Max wrote an article on Meech Lake that met with Trudeau’s approval. Thus began an acquaintance that led to their editing Cité libre in the 1990s. Monique (a linguist) and Max (a political scientist) successfully pitched Trudeau on writing his intellectual biography and were granted access to his papers. They have since produced more detail on Trudeau’s intellectual life than previous biographers. Their first effort, Young Trudeau: 1919–1944. Son of Quebec, Father of Canada (2006), trained a klieg light on the less-than-liberal Quebec nationalist associations of Trudeau’s youth, with sensational effect. This second volume traces how, through higher education abroad, globetrotting, and political engagement, he developed into the liberal, federalist, anti-nationalist who ran for the federal Liberals late in 1965.

The strength of this book is its fine-grained chronicling of an intriguing assortment of ideas and thinkers that influenced Trudeau as his mature thought formed. For his university years the Nemnis draw on Trudeau’s class notes and essays, cross-referencing them to the interests and writings of the professors who taught him, to reconstruct his experience of Harvard, Institut d’études politiques de Paris, and the London School of Economics in the postwar period when he studied at these institutions. Though any single individual’s education is necessarily idiosyncratic, Trudeau’s progress makes for a rich vein of intellectual history. [End Page 459]

The outline of Trudeau’s life in this period is well known, but the Nemnis bring to it some novel shadings. At Harvard Trudeau was confronted with liberal democratic thought that caused him to rethink his sympathy for corporatism, his suspicion of democracy, and his opposition to the Second World War. By the time he left he was puzzling through some of the classic issues in Western political philosophy. The process continued in Paris, where he pursued his interest in personalism, a strain of Catholicism that allowed him to reconcile his emerging liberal ideas with his faith. The Nemnis see Trudeau’s ideas about the perils of clericalism and nationalism and the virtues of federalism, liberalism, and constitutionalism for Quebec gelling toward the end of his time in Paris in 1947. In London for the academic year 1947–8, Trudeau studied with Harold Laski, whose conviction that equality of opportunity was a prerequisite for meaningful individual freedom differentiated twentieth-century liberalism from its laissez-faire nineteenth-century predecessor. Though Trudeau retained an aversion, inculcated by his Catholic schooling, to the godless collectivism of Communism, under the influence of Laski, a Jewish Marxist, he came to accept a liberalism skewed left by a social justice concern for the common good because it resonated with the morality of his Christian faith.

This volume and its predecessor will inevitably be compared to the first volume of John English’s biography of Trudeau, which covered roughly the same period and is also based on full access to Trudeau’s papers. On the whole, the works are complementary, with the Nemnis offering in-depth knowledge on the intellectual influences, and English providing a more complex portrait of the man in full. As in Young Trudeau, the student Trudeau presented here was a reading machine who plowed through an impressive number of weighty tomes. However, the sheer volume of his reading brings into question the value of a methodology that consists of serially summarizing books read and lectures attended, along with Trudeau’s reactions as reconstructed from his notes. One is left wondering about the extent to which each intellectual experience affected the big picture. When pointillism is...


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