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Reading: Sara Borins, Trudeau Albums, Toronto, ON: Otherwise Inc. Editions, Penguin Group, 2000: a Review

Updated on May 5, 2014
Pierre Elliott Trudeau in 1980
Pierre Elliott Trudeau in 1980 | Source

The projection of image and the nature of Canadian reality

Sara Borins, Trudeau Albums , Toronto, ON: Otherwise Inc. Editions, Penguin Group, 2000


This engaging work, which, together with essays, is basically an annotated pictorial biography of the life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, published shortly before the death of the book's subject.

Yes, it is absorbing, and although I was already familiar with many of the photos presented in the book, there were many others with which I was not, some of them being vivid and insightful.

One gets a sense of continuity in the life of this, one of Canada's most historically unavoidable political characters. Pierre Elliott Trudeau's seemingly dramatic entry into Parliament in 1965 with Jean Marchand and Gérard Pelletier, to whom he was at first ostensibly the junior partner, seemingly masks a personal continuity of interest and involvement in public issues, which remained remarkably consistent over decades. To sum up his basic viewpoint: Canada is one country, and all parts of Canada can and should strive together for certain civic values.

The overall editor of the work is Sara Borins, although the work is collaborative. With its depictions and descriptions of Trudeaumania from 1968, some of the various presenters of the material suggest that Pierre Elliott Trudeau possessed a unique, enigmatic charm (whatever this means)(1).

Do I think so, too?

In a word, no. But since, such as it is, my impression from afar of Pierre Trudeau is of a typical, bilingual professional from Montreal, then, given his background as a civil servant in the Privy Council Office and later as a university professor of law, his personal formation seems to have assisted him in becoming in some ways ideally placed to grapple with the various public affairs of a bilingual and diverse country such as Canada.

In fact, the sooner that some Canadians recognize what Montreal, as a great, bilingual city, is — indeed, what the benefits of bilingualism can be —, then the more likely that much of the legacy of Pierre Elliott Trudeau will be permanently valued. (As should also be the case with other, Montreal-area makers and keepers of Confederation, such as Sir George-Etienne Cartier and Sir Wilfrid Laurier.)

Whether or not this will actually happen is another matter; but Trudeau's basic good faith and constitutionalism which underlay his sometimes superficially Quixotic and abrasive style are part of all that is good about Canada. Who am I to define Canadian patriotism? but, anyway, to me Trudeau represents a kind of conservative, patriotic constitutionalism.

In one of the essays, J L Granatstein claims that Pierre Elliott Trudeau was disingenuous when he claimed not to have been interested in the public affairs of the day during World War Two. Whether or not there is an element of truth to this, I have yet to find an Anglophone Canadian historian — with the possible exception of John English — who puts into a fairly full context many Québécois' business-as-usual attitudes towards the repellant Vichy-France government. The fact was that, less than 75 kilometres south of Montreal, the United States's policy was initially to maintain diplomatic relations with Vichy-France as the legal government, and even to prosecute Americans volunteer pilots flying for the British Royal Air Force.

In another essay, Peter Gzowski misspells some of Pierre Trudeau's oft-quoted rude words in French; on whether this is by accident or euphemistic design, I will keep my counsel.

Another idea which comes over from the book is that, as the life of Trudeau experienced, radically decentralizing tendencies in both Quebec and Alberta have the effect of feeding on one another.

The typeface of the captions to some of the photographs is very small and one wonders whether all readers whose eyes date from the Trudeau era (!) will find it adequate.

Anyway, in politics there is always likely to be at least a creative conflict between the projection of an image and the nature of a country's realities (the ghost of Diefenbaker stirs restlessly...). I certainly appreciated the book (but please spare us the charmer stuff...)

January 25, 2013


(1) One of the essayists — a former supporter — even seems to continue to claim that Pierre Trudeau somehow betrayed his charisma by his robust response to the FLQ Crisis in 1970, given the fact that after 30 years she still had never voted Liberal again.

MJFenn is an independent writer based in Ontario, Canada.


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