A February afternoon in 1995, we were driving along Highway 20 on our way to Montreal. We had left Quebec City planning to arrive at our destination an hour early. We did not want to take a chance on being late for our meeting with Pierre Trudeau. But, what with the snow-clogged roads, we arrived at the Indian restaurant on Crescent Street barely a few minutes before the appointed time. He, as usual, was punctual. We were quite nervous, and for good reason. We had come to talk about our plan to write his intellectual biography. We had known him, now, for five years. We had told him of our intention, and he had expressed an interest. He wanted to discuss it with us, and that was the reason for our encounter.
As we shared a convivial meal, we explained as best we could what we had in mind. Trudeau listened carefully and asked a few questions. It was not his private life that interested us particularly, we told him, but we wanted to focus on his ideas, his political vision, and on how they evolved from his earliest years. To what extent, when he was actually in power, was he able to apply his ideals? He listened with interest. Finally, with some concern in his voice, he asked: “And what do you expect of me?” “Not much, really,” we replied. “We might, as the occasion arises, want to ask you a few questions, have access to unpublished documents that you still keep at home, ask you to help us contact some of the people who were close to you . . .”
He kept nodding in agreement. “No problem,” he said. Then, after a silence, he added: “I presume that you will want to maintain your intellectual autonomy. I understand, and I approve. So here is what I suggest: you will show me each chapter as you go along, I will make my comments, and you do with them whatever you choose.”
We were stunned. It was all we could do not to jump up for joy. “That suits us perfectly,” we said, as calmly as possible.
The bill arrived. He wanted us to be his guests. We refused and insisted that we should be paying. “Well, then,” Trudeau said, “let’s do what I do with my pals. We will share the bill.” “That’s fine,” we said. “But that means that we pay two-thirds.” “No,” Trudeau said, speaking to Max. “We share fifty-fifty. I take half of Monique.” And so it happened. Until his death, he took half of Monique.
When we got back home, we were jubilant. We began working out our program and our timetable for the research that we were undertaking — until April.
Anne-Marie Bourdouxhe, the daughter of Trudeau’s long-time associate Gérard Pelletier, resigned as the publisher of the periodical Cité libre
. Though we sat on the editorial board, we expressed not the slightest interest in replacing her, and for a simple reason. We had absolutely no experience in actually publishing a magazine. And besides, we had set out on a project that was much closer to our hearts. Weeks went by. For a variety of reasons, the board of directors was unable to agree on any of the available candidates. Beginning in March, the directors began courting us. They increased the pressure. With a referendum on the secession of Quebec just months away, they asked us how we could live with ourselves if we allowed the only French-language magazine that stood strongly against secession to die. We were unsettled. We did not know which way to turn.
After many sleepless nights, we met Trudeau in a Chinese restaurant one April evening to lay before him our dilemma: if we agreed to take on Cité libre
, we must drop our projected biography. He was understanding, he shared our anxiety about the political situation in Quebec, and he came up with the suggestion that we agree to publish the magazine for a year, until the referendum was well behind us. And that was the decision that we conveyed, clearly spelled out, to the board of directors of Cité libre
It happened, though, that no one had anticipated the extent of the trauma that the 1995 referendum would trigger, before as well as after the event, among those who voted Yes as well as among those who voted No. With no one in line to take over, we could not bring ourselves to abandon Cité libre
. On the contrary, we became convinced that it must expand and be read from coast to coast, and in both official languages. That is what we carried out in 1998.
Meanwhile, our relationship with Trudeau had settled into a friendship. We spoke often on the phone, we used the familiar “tu
” with each other, we met regularly until his death in 2000. During the five years that we published the review that he and Pelletier had founded, he gave us his unfailing moral support amid all the inevitable controversies. He listened sympathetically when, now and then, we expressed our dismay at being unable to work on his intellectual biography. And he would come back with the same answer: “What you are doing at Cité libre
is very important. No one else can do it. As for the other project, there is no rush.” But there is a rush, we would counter. He would only laugh.
Time would tell that there was in fact a rush. Still, we do not regret our decision. But, since he left us, we have often wondered what this book would have been like if we had written it while he was alive. Would we have had access to the wealth of documents that have now been made available to us? And, if so, how would we have reacted to the discoveries that we have now come upon? Would we have had the courage to discuss them with him? And how would he have reacted? We cannot know for sure.
Excerpted from Young Trudeau: 1919-1944 by Max and Monique Nemni. Copyright © 2006 by Max and Monique Nemni. Excerpted by permission of Douglas Gibson Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.