The Great War was over; the times tasted bitter. Influenza came back with the soldiers and killed more at home than had died in the trenches. Like the war, it preferred the young to the old. Death usually came quickly as the victims suffocated in a blood-tinged froth that sometimes gushed grotesquely from their faces. As winter became spring in 1919, theatres stayed empty. Men and women entered public places warily, concealing their faces behind gauze masks. The plague invaded private spaces, compelling isolation and reflection. What, then, did Grace Elliott Trudeau and her husband, Joseph-Charles-Émile, think when she learned she was pregnant in Montreal in mid-winter 1919? Pregnancy was dangerous in normal times, but the influenza surely terrified her as her body began to swell with her second child.
The twentieth century had so far been a great disappointment – especially for francophone Canadians. There was some excitement and hope when it began with Canada’s first French-speaking prime minister, Wilfrid Laurier, in power, and an increasingly prosperous economy. The great transformation of Western society that occurred as electricity, steamships, telephones, railways, and automobiles upset the balance of the Victorian age profoundly affected the world of the young Trudeaus. In Quebec, as elsewhere, people were in motion, leaving the familiar fields of rural life and traditional crafts for the cities that were exploding beyond their pre-industrial core. In Montreal, the population rose from 267,730 in 1901 to 618,506 in 1921. The rich had clustered together, initially in mansions in the “Golden Square Mile” along Sherbrooke Street and north up the southern slope of Mount Royal, while the poor spread out below them and in the east end. It was said in 1900 that the Square Mile contained three-quarters of Canada’s millionaires. Stephen Leacock, who knew them well, commented, “The rich in Montreal enjoyed a prestige in that era that not even the rich deserve.”
Unfortunately, the rich were nearly entirely English; the poor, overwhelmingly French. When the French lived mainly in the villages, the gap was less obvious. In the city, it sowed the seeds of deep discontent. And, as new immigrants, mainly Jewish, flowed in from continental Europe, new tensions emerged in the more diverse city.
Even before the war, foreign visitors sensed trouble. In 1911 the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, after a visit to Montreal, said that all reasonable men should advise the French to abandon their resistance to assimilation. They were fast becoming simply an episode in history.4 Among francophones in Quebec, the challenge of the new century brought an increasingly nationalist response, particularly when English-Canadian politicians became entangled in the British imperialism that marked the years before the Great War. By then there was a new prime minister, Robert Borden, and the voice of French Canada in the federal government became faint. And in 1914 the war divided the country as never before between the French and the others.
Once again, it seemed that a bargain had been broken. Now leader of the official Opposition, Wilfrid Laurier supported the war, along with the French Catholic Church. Even Henri Bourassa, who had founded the nationalist newspaper Le Devoir and become the vocal spokesperson for francophone rights throughout Canada, kept his silence. He and the bishops went along because Borden promised there would be no conscription, but, three years later, conscription was proclaimed, accompanied by vitriolic attacks in English Canada on the French in Quebec. In the bitter and violent Canadian election in 1917, francophones voted overwhelmingly for Laurier’s Liberals, who opposed conscription, while anglophones responded by backing a coalition composed of English-speaking Liberals and Conservatives. There were riots in Montreal and deaths in Quebec City. In 1919 Laurier died, then depression struck, while, at Versailles, the victors divided the spoils even as the world began to understand that the war to end all wars had not done so.
In their modest but comfortable row home at 5779 Durocher Avenue in the new suburb of Outremont, the Trudeaus could find some comfort. Outremont was neighbour to Mount Royal and, in population, split between residents of French and British origin, along with a substantial number of Jews. They lived far from the crowded tenements of the city below the hill, where death often came for both mother and child during pregnancy.5 Charles and Grace had married on May 11, 1915, and she had become pregnant soon after with an infant who did not survive.6 In 1918 she gave birth to a daughter, Suzette. Charles already had good reason not to enlist and, after the Military Service Act became law in 1917, to avoid conscription.
When the Trudeaus married, Grace, in common with other Quebec women of the time, acquired the same legal rights as minors and idiots. Her husband owed her protection in return for her submission. Yet Grace had her own sources of strength. Her father, a substantial businessman of United Empire Loyalist stock, had sent his daughter to Dunham Ladies’ College in the Eastern Townships, where she had acquired an education in literature, classics, and etiquette that few girls in Quebec possessed. She knew French, her mother’s tongue, as well as English, which she and Charles chose to speak most often at home. Like Charles, she was Roman Catholic and devout.Though not wealthy in the first years of their marriage, the Trudeaus had the means to hire country girls to help with household tasks.
Assisted by a midwife at home, Grace gave birth to Joseph-Philippe-Pierre-Yves-Elliott Trudeau on a warm fall day, October 18, 1919. The parents immediately chose Pierre from his multiple names, though he, later, took a long time to make up his mind which name he favoured. His mother probably reflected the original intention when she wrote in his “Baby Book” Joseph Pierre Yves Philip Elliott Trudeau. Years later, when he was quizzed about it, Trudeau himself could not recall the correct order.He weighed eight pounds four ounces and, from the beginning, suffered from colic. The crying finally stopped when he had an operation for adenoids in May 1920. Along with Pierre’s physical health, Grace recorded his spiritual growth in a diary. It began with his baptism, followed by the moment in October 1921 when two-year-old “Pierre made the sign of the cross.” In December he began to say his prayers alone and “blessed Papa, Mama, Suzette etc.”Six months later the proud mother recorded that her precociously bilingual child knew “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” “Little Jack Horner,” “Au clair de la lune,” and “Dans sa cabane.” She continued dutifully to collect mementos of Pierre’s life – school essays, marks, news clippings, and letters–until he finally left her home in the 1960s as a middle-aged man.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Citizen of the World by John English. Copyright © 2006 by John English. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Canada, 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.