IN SEARCH OF THE STATESMAN For Canadians, the adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 marks the birth of modern-day Canada.
—jean-françois liséeLa Presse
, June 30, 2010 WHAT, ANOTHER BOOK ON TRUDEAU?
Haven’t there been enough already – and maybe even a few too many? What can we offer that is really new? The answer can be summed up in a few words: we are directing a ray of light on one particular aspect of his character. Instead of the usual wide-beam searchlight, covering long periods of Trudeau’s life in their many dimensions, we propose a more focused study, both of the period and of the perspective. We believe this will help to get a clearer view of a man still regarded as an enigma.
Trudeau the chameleon, many people believe, will always
be an enigma. Indeed, journalists, biographers, and many Canadians have been and continue to be intrigued and puzzled by Trudeau. A witty comment about him conjures up the peculiar state of confusion writers find themselves in when they set out to describe him: “Someone is going to say some day, ‘Will the real Mr. Trudeau please stand up,’ and about fifty-eight people will rise.”1 Quoted first by his biographer George Radwanksi in 1978, this comment has often been repeated, as if to highlight the contradictory aspects of the man or to suggest some elusive quality that makes it practically impossible to figure him out.
We have been associated with Pierre Elliott Trudeau for nearly twenty years, first as friends over a decade, then for another ten years buried in his personal papers and publications: we could make similar comments, although we would interpret his many facets differently. Indeed, we could have written several different biographies of Trudeau.
We could have written a biography of Trudeau-the-athlete.
Anecdotes abound on the subject. For example, we could have described the many canoe expeditions he undertook, starting at a young age, travelling up to a thousand miles in a single journey. He was an avid skier who leapt at the chance to hit the mountain trails; in his younger years, he won several medals for his prowess on skis, and he was still skiing in powder shortly before his death in 2000. He was fascinated by all manner of water sports: swimming, diving, water skiing, scuba diving – and he excelled in every one. He knew how to fly a plane and could fly solo; he loved zooming up hill and down dale on his famous Harley-Davidson; he hiked hundreds of kilometres on foot and climbed mountains. Trudeau could do vertical headstands and horizontal handstands, as photographs in several biographies attest. Once he became prime minister, frisky as ever in his fifties, he could easily shake off admirers and journalists alike by bounding up the steps in the Parliament Buildings four at a time. We could give many other examples.
Long-time friend Peter Green provides a less well known anecdote. When Trudeau was prime minister, he sometimes vacationed with his family at the Green home in Jamaica, a constable of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police always coming along for security reasons. One day Green brought a horse to the beach so the children could have fun riding. “Pierre asked the Mountie to give a demonstration for the boys. The poor guy had probably not ridden for years and stumbled around the beach on the long-suffering horse. Pierre, without saying a word, got on the horse bareback – in his swimming shorts – and gave a short demonstration of control and superb riding technique, much to the embarrassment of the Mountie.”
We could have told many other juicy anecdotes along these lines, without exhausting all the sports at which Trudeau excelled. By the end of this biography of Trudeau-the-athlete,
readers would likely conclude that he could have mastered these athletic feats only by devoting all his waking hours to sports and fitness. Obviously he could never have found time for serious business, so the real Trudeau must have been Trudeau-the- athlete,
and his purportedly vast knowledge was only a thin veneer.
But we could just as easily have written a biography of Trudeau-the scholar- with-a-passion-for-culture.
An insatiable reader, he devoured novels, works of history and political philosophy, as well as poetry. He was endowed with a phenomenal memory, knew several opera librettos by heart, and could declaim whole poems impromptu, in French and English. He did the rounds of museums, theatres, concerts, and exhibitions.
The people he met were often startled by his encyclopaedic knowledge, as the following example illustrates. He had only just become prime minister in 1968, when he was invited along with a host of celebrities to a party in New York thrown by the artists Joyce Wieland and Michael Snow, her husband. Trudeau was evidently in his element and seemed up to date on all the latest news of the New York cultural scene, from art-house movies to avant-garde dance and jazz. When Michael Snow introduced Milford Graves to him as “the greatest jazz drummer,” Trudeau instantly responded, to the amazement of his admiring audience, “And what do you make of Max Roach?”
We could give many more examples highlighting his impressive knowledge of painting, sculpture, music, architecture, literature, and philosophy. And after reading these anecdotes about Trudeau-the-scholar- with-a-passion-for-culture,
readers would be tempted to conclude that here, finally, was the real Trudeau. As if the man had spent his entire life reading, studying, and trekking through museums, historical sites, and theatres and could never have found time for any other activities, such as sports . . .
We could have chosen instead to write about Trudeau-the-daredevil-adventurer,
who criss-crossed Asia with a backpack for nearly a year and had many thrilling adventures, including a few short stays in jail for vagrancy. He could just as easily travel in high style as put up with the shabbiest accommodations. He dined in the finest restaurants of Paris (Maxim’s, La Tour d’Argent, La Pérouse). But he also sometimes slept in run-down hotels, sharing a room with total strangers or even hungry bedbugs! Here was a man eager to witness everything first-hand, to live fully.
He was hungry for challenges. In 1948, while visiting Turkey, he decided to swim across the Bosphorus Strait, which marks the southern boundary of Europe and Asia: “It wasn’t that hard, but it was cold and had a bloody strong current.” In April 1960 at the age of forty-one, he decided to paddle a canoe with two companions from Miami to Cuba – quite a harebrained scheme. Fortunately the trio were rescued midway, when their canoe was on the point of sinking.
One last example. On July 6, 1961, Trudeau was in Pamplona (the capital of Navarre in northern Spain) for the first day of the San Fermin festival. The city becomes one huge fiesta from July 6 to 14, attracting thousands of tourists from around the world. The main event of this festival is the Running of the Bulls (encierro
): at 8 o’clock each morning from July 7 to 14, the bulls are let loose in the narrow streets and then run almost one kilometre to the bullring for the afternoon corrida
or bullfight. Along the course, daring young participants run just ahead of the bulls. Accidents are common, due to the ferocious nature of bulls and the surge of the crowds. On July 6, Trudeau partied until three in the morning. The city was overrun with tourists, no hotel room was available, and he ended up sleeping on a bench. The following morning, he participated in the Running of the Bulls. Finding the experience electrifying, he came back for a repeat performance two days later. Here was a man with a lust for adventure, someone who lived life to the hilt during his many world travels. No doubt readers of this particular book would take Trudeau-the-daredevil-adventurer
for the real Trudeau, as if he lacked the more serious qualities befitting a statesman.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Trudeau Transformed by Max and Monique Nemni. Copyright © 2011 by Max and Monique Nemni. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.