On Writing, with Max and Monique Nemni
Open Book talks with Max and Monique about Trudeau the federalist, Trudeau the separatist, Trudeau the myth and Trudeau perhaps as he really was.
Tell us about your book, Trudeau Transformed.
Monique and Max Nemni:
This is the second volume of a biography of Trudeau, which focuses on his political thoughts and actions. In our first volume, Young Trudeau, which covers the years 1919 to 1944, we were dismayed to discover that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Trudeau was not rowing against the current. He wholeheartedly espoused the values of his nationalist Catholic milieu, to the point of joining a political movement that plotted to take Quebec out of Canada.
This second volume, Trudeau Transformed, covers the years 1944 until his departure to Ottawa in 1965 as a Liberal MP from Mount-Royal. In this volume, we witness his complex and fascinating transformation into the liberal democrat, and staunch defender of federalism, Canadians came to know. Yet, in the process, we realized that Canadians didn’t know him as well as they thought. Far from being the arrogant, centralist, antinationalist politician who wanted to put Quebec in its place, as many interpreters see him, he advocated more powers to the provinces, was very close to the workers and, more generally, to “ordinary people” and he saw himself first and foremost as a proud “son of Quebec”. Deeply aware that Quebec was behind the times socially and politically he devoted considerable time and energy to bring about a more advanced liberal democratic regime. He thus played a key role in bringing about the Quiet Revolution; a role that is often downplayed, if not completely erased, in historical accounts of this era. In fact, we discovered many other fascinating facts about this era. For example, we found out that most trade union members, often influenced by him, were staunch supporters of a united Canada and strongly opposed to separatism until he went to Ottawa in 1965.
What are the challenges and opportunities found in writing about a figure so many Canadians feel they already know?
The challenges were big; especially since a two volume biography has recently been published. We had to ensure that our contribution was useful and needed, and that the readers would want to read it. A more concrete challenge was the massive and complex amount of material that we had to sift through in order to make sense of his multi-faceted personality. After all, this is a man who attended three of the top universities of the Western world (Harvard, Paris Science Po, and London’s LSE), who traveled around the world many times and often at crucial historical junctures, participated in many battles against Quebec’s old guard, and, then, when the old guard was replaced by a new generation of separatists, went to Ottawa to defend federalism. An impressive load indeed.
But the opportunities were definitely greater than the challenges. We feel that if Trudeau has been considered an “enigma”, time and time again, it is in part because he is a complex being who has led a rich life. It is also because he has taken some greatly unpopular stands leading many people to dismiss his impact. Finally, it is because some superficial aspects of his personality are often given a greater weight than they deserve. To give but one example: If Trudeau was in the 1950s, as has often been said, a playboy solely interested in travels and individualistic pursuits, why would he spend countless hours writing briefs for trade unions, dispensing courses to workers, defending people with little means, most of it without financial compensation? Why would he struggle mightily for democracy in Quebec? Why would he give up his freedom for 16 years to be Prime Minister? If he didn’t “understand” Quebec, why did Quebeckers give him their unfailing support, election after election?
We were friends with Trudeau for the last 10 years of his life, and we knew that the image didn’t match the man. We spent another 10 years immersed in his personal archives where we uncovered many new aspects of his rich personality. These 20 years of closeness with Trudeau are reflected in our two volumes. However, we were certainly not prepared to come face to face with the young separatist that we discovered in volume one of our biography. It was quite a challenge to make sense of this unexpected phase of his life. The challenges and opportunities of volume two were of a completely different nature. The challenge consisted in providing an accurate image of a complex life in as clear a language as possible. However, the great pleasure of taking a tour of the planet accompanied by a most knowledgeable guide was a unique opportunity that greatly compensated our efforts.
What is one of your favourite Trudeau anecdotes or traits?
There are so many! Trudeau’s life reads like a novel. We’ll just relate one that illustrates his attitude towards workers. On August 19, 1957, at 5:00 a.m., he was on the picket line of strikers at Murdochville. It was a brutal strike (which lasted seven months), marked by excessive violence. The company had hired strikebreakers. The day Trudeau was there, some strikebreakers were up on a hill throwing stones at the picketers. Many were hurt. The union workers felt that they had to get to the top of the hill with a truck, to dislodge the stone throwers. But there was nobody to drive the truck because everyone felt that the windshield wasn’t offering much protection. That’s when Trudeau said with a superbly casual air: “I’ve already driven a truck like this,” and promptly sat behind the wheel. And off the troops went….
Who are some people who have deeply influenced (fellow writers or not) your writing life?
We have been influenced by everything we’ve read, including accounts and interpretations we reject for various reasons. Beyond divergence of opinions, we very much enjoy writers who refrain from using technical jargon and clearly have something to say and know how to say it. We don’t like style for style’s sake.
Is there a book you’ve read recently that you wished you had written?
Not really. But we have read many books that we have thoroughly enjoyed and admired, both in works of fiction and non-fiction.
What are you working on now?
Right now, we are taking a break. We’ve given ourselves a few months without any specific project. We’ll decide next year….
Max and Monique Nemni are retired university professors who spent most of their working lives in Quebec. They were friends of Trudeau, who encouraged them to become the editors of Cité Libre and agreed to let them write his intellectual biography. The authors have both been much published in academic publications in both English and in French. They now live in Toronto.
For more information about Trudeau Transformed please visit the M&S website.