Trudeau Transformed: Q&A with the authors

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012 View Count = 1391

Trudeau Transformed: Q&A with the authors

Biographers 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 magazine and agreed to let them write his intellectual biography. The first volume of their Trudeau biography won this prize in 2006.

Don’t forget to cast your vote for the winner of the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize. You’ll be entered to win copies of all five finalists!

Describe the genesis of Trudeau Transformed 1944–1965. What brought you to the subject?

Trudeau Transformed 1944–1965 is the second volume of an intellectual biography of Trudeau. So our answer to this question will more broadly address the genesis of our interest in such a biography.

For us, Trudeau is one of the most interesting prime ministers Canada has ever had. There are good reasons to see him as the father of present-day Canada. We were fortunate enough to have known him as a friend (for the last 10 years of his life), and as editors-directors of Cité libre, the magazine he co-founded in the 1950s, we came to better appreciate the struggle he had waged against those who wanted to take Quebec out of Canada. We were equally appreciative of his unfailing promotion of a just society and of a liberal, democratic, multicultural Canada.

Yet, it seemed to us that no biography of Trudeau was true to the man we knew. There were lots of myths and misconceptions about his actions, his ideals and his political stands. Intrigued by the discrepancy between the man and his image, we decided to explore this subject, concentrating on the intellectual development of his ideas.

In 1995, when we told Trudeau about our project, he was quite encouraging, and promised to open his private papers to us. However, the danger of separatism was such in Quebec that we had to stay at the helm of Cité libre, so we couldn’t embark on this project before his death, in 2000. But the executors of his literary legacy, who were well aware of Trudeau’s endorsement of our project, gave us immediate access to his archives.

To us, both volumes of our series "Trudeau, Son of Quebec, Father of Canada" (Young Trudeau and Trudeau Transformed), shed an important light on the formation and the development of Trudeau’s ideas, as well as on his times and social context. Our hope is that readers, be they admirers or opponents, will better understand the ideas of the man who dazzled Canadians when he arrived on the federal scene in 1965.

How long did it take to write? What were the major challenges?

Each volume took us five years. The challenges were so numerous that we cannot list them all. Here are some:

  • First, the sheer volume and variety of documents that Trudeau kept: school assignments, reading notes, agendas, subway tickets, empty envelopes (sometimes with things scribbled on the back). Boxes, and boxes, and boxes… (Literally hundreds of them.)
  • The shock of our discovery in volume one, Young Trudeau, of a Trudeau so unlike the man Canadians had come to know. It nearly stopped us in our tracks. But our conscience wouldn’t let us abandon our commitment to tell the truth. It was also clear to us that a better understanding of this young Trudeau would lead to a better understanding of the society in which he grew up. This discovery forced us to reconsider everything we—and so many others—thought of Trudeau and his era.
  • We learned to be skeptical of almost anything that had previously been written or said about Trudeau, including by his close friends and allies, and including by Trudeau himself. His personal papers revealed many aspects of his personality, his activities, and his milieu that were antithetical to long accepted views.
  • Because we were presenting such a different view of Trudeau, we knew we had to provide very solid proof. So we relied almost exclusively on archival documents of the period we were studying. We felt we were constantly walking on eggshells…

Were there any books in particular that influenced you in your approach?

Obviously, all our readings have made us what we are, but we cannot think of a particular book that could be singled out. Moreover, to our knowledge, books in the intellectual biography genre are quite rare.

Tell us a little about how the book title was chosen.

The title of the series, "Trudeau, Son of Quebec, Father of Canada" came about because our thesis is that Trudeau is the son of Quebec, and he is the father of present-day Canada, with its Charter Canadians, its official bilingualism, and its unique concept of a multicultural citizenship.

Volume one, which we called Young Trudeau, puts the emphasis on the presentation of a young man, easily influenced by his teachers and by the prevailing ideas of his clerico-nationalist milieu.

In volume two, Trudeau Transformed, we witness his transformation as a result of his studies abroad, his travels, his readings, and his political involvement.

What are you working on now?

We are taking a year off… Then, we’ll decide if we want to embark on volume three... This has been the most difficult and the most fascinating work in our lives.

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