Mystic Trudeau: The Fire and the Rose, by BW Powe, Thomas Allen, 256 pp, Can$26.95, ISBN: 978-0887622816
In between the score-settling and the many three-bottle two-hour lunches of yore that suffuse his memoir Palimpsest, Gore Vidal took the time to recall an afternoon spent in the company of George Santayana. Amid the collapsing scenery of the Duce’s Italy, he went to see the reclusive scholar in his cell at the convent of the Blue Nuns on the Celian hill in Rome. After getting past the ferocious doorkeeper – these were Irish nuns after all – the philosopher lectured his visitor on the big themes of their unhappy century. As becomes clear on the first page of his book, Vidal was a brat, doubly cursed with a deep mind and an equally deep well of testosterone. And yet his default expression, the knowing sneer, died on his lips that day and he found that Santayana’s writings could still catch him unawares a half century later. He quotes him with care:
Nationalism is at once interior and exterior, or political; how can Italian, Balkan, Irish or Zionist Americans combine in an entity between the two? It is the difficulty of realising either of these ideals that seems to me to make nationality a problem rather than a solution.
As an obituary notice for the soiled and battered twentieth century, this aperçu will do just nicely. All of the major politicians in the postwar world would feel the lash of this insight, none more decidedly so than Pierre Elliott Trudeau, arguably the most peculiar of statesmen among the developed nations of the West after 1945.
Canadian prime minister from 1968 to 1979 and again from 1980 to 1984, Trudeau died in 2001 and yet retains an extraordinary hold over the collective Canadian imagination. Widely considered the equal of titans like Laurier and King at home, and an alpha male in the international arena who easily outshone rivals like Pearson or Borden, this most peculiar of postwar chief executives remains always and everywhere just out of reach. Books continue to pour off the presses. The first professional biography is half-way to completion, volume one having been published to great fanfare last year. Trudeau remains central to Canada’s modern constitutional travails, the great brooding presence during the 1995 referendum in Quebec which brought the country to the brink of formal disintegration. His ghostly yet enduring appeal is a complex affair, rooted in character, coincidence and contradiction. The sternest critic of Quebec nationalism since 1965, its deadliest adversary even, was himself a proud child of Montréal, though a cultural hybrid who was smothered by his Scottish mother and pushed relentlessly by his québecois father. This fluid cultural hinterland fundamentally shaped Trudeau’s politics and makes him an elusive personality from any angle of perspective. How can scholars reconcile the fact that this architect of modern Canada’s progressive criminal code and the father of the “Just Society” platform learned his first principles at an elite Jesuit boarding school, St Jean de Brébeuf, where the boys were taught that nocturnal emissions threatened the immortal soul and that salvation could only be found in submission?
BW Powe, a well known Canadian essayist and poet, argues that the secret to the Trudeau brand lay in his complex spiritual life. The insight is a profound one, though its attempted exposition in Mystic Trudeau is little short of a disaster. Still, old hands should slog through this little book – even though good little books shouldn’t require puffing and panting – because there are some real sequins enciphered in the strangulated nonsense that makes up a hefty chunk of the text. Powe writes about his friendship with Trudeau and the political and cultural legacy of Canada’s fifteenth prime minister as well as his oddball intellectual development in a variety of styles – we are treated here to an unlovely medley of memoir, tribute, polemic and stream-of-consciousness ramble that at times collapses into outright incoherence. Occasionally Powe sounds like a tarot card reader who has fallen on hard times. What is to be made of statements like the following?
In lives of mythic depth the soul vividly blazes. We shiver with fear and wonder when the soul appears at risk. It is those moments when the vertical and horizontal together form a crux, in the shape of a T, a Y, an X. In these cardinal points we see and hear the overtones of the word ‘crisis’.
The story of the rose [which Trudeau always sported in his lapel] is steeped in the mythic. It symbolized identity, the flowering of the self. When a circle rises at the intersection of the cross, we call it the ankh. This is the Egyptian cruciform.
The speed of moving images can be skin-tingling. It will jolt us into a caffeined-like nervousness, and it will numb us down into a mesmerized acceptance of anything. We live aphoristically, information compressed and moving at greater speeds. Images have the power to snare us.
This silliness is a great pity as Powe has written with care and insight about Trudeau in the past and knew him rather well during his long retirement from politics between 1984 and his death in 2001. His essay in the last major anthology on Trudeau published in 1999, “The Elusive I”, was a minor classic of the genre. (See A Cohen, JL Granatstein, eds, Trudeau’s Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Pierre Elliott Trudeau.) The magic deserts him here alas. Like a leathery geriatric who can scarcely tell you the day of the week but can go for hours on the logistics of the D-Day landings, the occasional flashes of lucidity that come from Powe’s chair are most interesting for being most infrequent. In between the giggling about President Bush’s bible classes, “the soul’s flow” and other weighty matters, Powe recalls some important exchanges with Trudeau over the years. These reconstructions, usually his take on the conversation over long lunches in Trudeau’s favourite Chinese restaurant near his legal chambers in Montreal, are the book’s biggest attraction. Here he goes some way to capturing the fate of the fighting intellectual who transformed the Canadian constitutional landscape and displayed a winning humility in retirement. He seems to have almost convinced himself that his career had been a failure for the most part, though one he could scarcely summon the energy to mourn anymore.
Powe is at pains throughout his meditation to remind readers that Trudeau was a self-conscious intellectual, and that his career must be assessed at the level of his ideas. The question of the intellectual in politics, like that of the intellectual in general, is the subject of myriad fantasies and unspoken assumptions. The man of ideas is invariably burdened with an unusually heavy freight of expectation around election time. Their failures seem especially treacherous for some reason. What is perhaps the most intriguing thing about Trudeau is the recent discovery by Powe and others that the figure who electrified Canadians in the late 1960s was almost totally a fabrication, the product of intense reading, travel and introspection in middle life. His career demonstrates the truth of the adage about us being more than the sum of our parts.
Other scholars have determined that his adolescence in Quebec was almost a caricature of what one would expect of a standard French Catholic nationalist. He prayed for the salvation of his immortal soul, for the delivery of Quebec from the clutches of Anglo-apartheid and the Jews and he prayed for Marshal Pétain. All this would change after his studies at Harvard, the École libre des sciences politiques in Paris and the LSE in London. He rejected Quebec nationalism as insular and stifling and embraced the federalism of Harold Laski and Lord Acton.
John English, his most authoritative biographer to date, has several moving chapters on this evolution in the handsome first volume of his major biography, Citizen of the World (2006). Reading these chapters, we can almost believe that politics might be something finer than the ebb and flow of enmities and calculated alliances. The man of ideas emerges here in Trudeau’s early life as a kind of Adam figure, helping the young man to name his world as if for the first time. He jumped on a variety of passing bandwagons while touring Europe and Asia in the late forties, embracing Buddhist spirituality, Zen and the Marxism of the Parisian Left Bank, which oddly enough many French Canadians of Trudeau’s ilk found compatible with their ancestral faith. Less happily, he also dabbled in psychoanalysis in his twenties and tried to apply its inimitable strictures to his libido at this tender age. In his early fifties he married Margot Sinclair, a woman nearly thirty years his junior who looked like one of the girls who spun the wheels on the early game shows. She left him and their three boys for a fling with the Stones amid the collapse of his third premiership in 1977. Sadly for Trudeau, Freud was silent about what to do when confronted with beautiful young women who happen to share the same stretch of Tahiti beach. Immediate marriage, Trudeau’s strategy in 1969, is certainly one answer, though perhaps not an enduring one.
Judged by intellect alone, Trudeau stood out in international company for his entire premiership, but then again his unpredictability and periodic lapses into foul language made him quite a turn in any setting. For one who put his faith in Mind, so to speak, at a young age, he was forced to keep some rum company between 1968 and 1984. There was Richard Nixon, with his crazy fantasies about firebombing the Brookings Institute, who scalded himself with soup at Trudeau’s first White House banquet in 1969. There was Mrs Thatcher, who despised him as a spoilt brat millionaire who liked to write large cheques with other people’s money. (Wilfully unreflective though she was, Thatcher, as Ferdinand Mount reminds us in his enjoyable recent memoir, Cold Cream, made some exceptions for the intellectual type and her rackety crew included HLA Hart’s nephew at one point, the adviser who proudly told her he had personal command over 50 West Indian rollerskaters who could be despatched across London to gauge public opinion at a moment’s notice.) Even so, Trudeau and the Lady were not fated to get along. Before too long, each came to see the other as a philosophical adversary with whom prolonged engagement was unlikely to be very fruitful. Solid Canadian social democrat that he is, Powe joyfully recounts some of their more ferocious rows at NATO summits and G-7 dinners on South African apartheid, debt relief and nuclear weapons. And then of course there was Ronald Reagan, whose Soviet policy was grounded in his appalled recognition late in life that there was no word in Russian for détente. Trudeau left office three years after the sunny supply-siders took the White House in 1984, a busted flush of sorts, his plans for a thaw in the Cold War imbroglio dashed all around him, a throwback to an earlier, less rigid era. At the top table, only Helmut Schmidt and Henry Kissinger were sad to see him go.
Powe’s portrait of Trudeau suggests that there was a certain severity to his intellect, that his course was set by 1968 and that he was not interested in learning on the job. He would destroy Quebec nationalism according to a formula he had worked out nearly twenty years earlier during his studies, his travels and his spell in the federal privy council office as a constitutional lawyer: there would be no constitutional “special status” for the province, French would get the same legal status as English, Quebeckers would be given huge powers in the federal government and French Canadian education rights would be guaranteed nationally and not just in Quebec. This would give the province both a just measure of legal reform and the opportunity to run Canada itself. Provincial nationalism would thus wither on the vine.
Trudeau was in many ways a version of the philosopher Michael Oakeshott’s “rationalist in politics”, philosophical in temperament, analytical rather than historical in his approach to problems, deaf to the first whispers of a shared, complex past. Many would remark on the angularities of his vision during his tenure; québecois separatists, whom he taunted as rebarbative adolescents, Quebec terrorists, whom he interned mercilessly in 1970 when they kidnapped a British diplomat and murdered a Quebec minister, the Canadian Supreme Court, who wrecked his constitutional reform plans in 1980, not to mention every premier of the Canadian provinces whom he harassed and bullied for nearly two decades.
In his more lucid moments, Powe suggests that we are confronted here with a tantalising chiaroscuro in an intellectual sense. The charisma lies in the contradictions. On the one hand there is the muscular liberal who committed the state to social justice and individual rights, the philosopher who drew deeply on the works of Acton, Mill and TH Green. There was also a darker strain in his thinking, one that brooded on the possibility of collapse, collectivisation and chauvinism in the postwar world. To borrow a phrase of Martin Luther King, one might suggests that in some of his papers there is a sense of someone standing in life at midnight. In the robes of Cassandra, whether quoting Yeats’s “Second Coming” from memory, taunting the “bleeding hearts” in the media who “don’t like the look of helmets and guns” (when he invoked the War Measures Act against domestic terrorists in 1970) or berating the EU for capitulating to the prejudices of the new Balkan states by granting precipitate diplomatic recognition in 1994-5, he was quite the hard-nosed Burkean who saw himself as playing a primarily defensive game. His rhetoric here, tuned to the austere key of Elie Kédourie’s polemics on the delusions and absurdities of “national self-determination”, was sometimes apocalyptic but always compelling. His domestic enemies smelled a vendu and much like the protesters who pelted him with bottles of acid at a parade in 1969, shouted “Trudeau au poteau”, Trudeau to the gallows. As Powe’s portrait implies, he brought all the fury of a convert to his analysis. Trudeau’s enemies always said his progressive rhetoric was the merest fraud and conjury. He in turn cordially despised the Canadian socialist parties, not because of any real disagreement on, say, the merits of progressive taxation or the scourge of urban unemployment but because of their indulgence of Quebec nationalism.
Trudeau’s Catholicism looms like a dumb Saturn over his life. Though he shed some of the more martial aspects of his Jesuit youth by the time he entered national politics in 1965 as a federal Liberal – he had supported violence to protect faith and fatherland in his early twenties and some rackety clerics, like the Abbé Lionel Groulx, were his spiritual fathers before Harvard – his deep and austere variant of Catholicism remains central to his entire career. This facet of his life is only now coming seriously into scholarly view. Powe is circumspect here, but he has written creatively on this matter elsewhere and was one of the organisers of a major conference on the topic at York University in 2003. As Michael W Higgins argued in his essay on Trudeau’s spirituality in the published conference proceedings in 2004, his deep and complex spirituality was a medley of three distinct strands. (See J English et al eds, The hidden Pierre Eliott Trudeau. The faith behind the politics, 2004, pp 21-30).
He was educated by the Jesuits, and excelled in their tough regime, which taught eloquentia perfecta, the value of languages and the beauty of the well executed syllogism. He also admired aspects of the Dominican creed, which prioritised the search for truth and the need for spiritual comradeship. Whenever he was in Paris, even as prime minister, Trudeau would visit with the major Dominican thinkers there, like Marie-Dominique Chenu. He was also a regular visitor at the Benedictine priory of Montreal and admired the work of Dom Laurence Freeman, who defined his philosophy as a “harmony of prayer, work, manual work, creative work and study”.
In ways that Powe only hints at, these traditions suffused his thinking and informed his social policies in power. His liberalisation of the laws regulating abortion, homosexuality and divorce followed an idiosyncratic individualism which Trudeau saw as the logical outcome of his Catholic faith. Like a certain strand among Catholics in the Victorian era, Trudeau’s liberalism grew out of a rejection of the doctrine of the Atonement, which proclaimed that the wages of sin is death and which meant to collect on that debt. He found solace in the idea of Christ’s incarnation instead, the idea that God took frail human form for the sake of all the world, thereby slyly re-emphasising the dignity of the individual in all his tattered glory. (Gladstone was perhaps the most notable comparable example of this intellectual trajectory). Trudeau would often quip about his inner Protestantism later in life and he invented a lifelong hostility towards moral codes that strangled the individual. And yet he remained devout right to the end. One is reminded sometimes when reading Powe here of the historian Felipé Fernandez-Armesto’s Olympian claim in his book Millenium: A History of Our Last Thousand Years that Catholicism and Protestantism are very difficult to distinguish when one takes the long view. Eamon Duffy’s magisterial books on the nature of the English Reformation echo this idea, none more powerfully than The Stripping of the Altars. Protestantism has its own historical ritualism, mystery and hierarchy and Catholicism has an individualistic streak and its own peculiar tradition of sola fide. As an adherent of the so-called personalist school, Trudeau proves this abstract point rather nicely. His example cautions us to remember than when we talk of “the Catholic mind” we must do more than invoke the jaded examples of Graham Greene and de Valera.
If Trudeau’s Catholicism remains something of a puzzle, the same might be said of his critique of political nationalism, his most important intellectual legacy and the subject of his finest and deadliest polemics. He sent the troops onto the streets of Montreal in 1970 to smash the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) while deriding its nationalist manifesto as a cocktail of superstition and hysteria. Many liberals never forgave him for this or for his refusal to express any remorse for the fact that most of the five hundred-odd people arrested under the War Measures Act were subsequently realised without charge. Ramsay Cook’s winning tribute to his old friend, The Teeth of Time: Remembering Pierre Elliott Trudeau (2006)showed however that he was irritated by some of the RCMP’s more flagrant (and warrantless) searches, which he derided at the time as mere “fishing expeditions”. His sparring with an irate journalist on the steps of parliament during the so-called October Crisis convinced his gentle predecessor Lester Pearson that ice ran through Trudeau’s veins. His belligerence and intemperance paid off however. The skills honed in this kind of combat were deployed with all the roar and dazzle he could muster in 1980 to prevent Quebec seceding in the sovereignty-association referendum triggered by the election of a separatist provincial government in Quebec City in 1977. He beat the separatists on their own turf in a roughly 60-40 percent split, though many of them claimed he lied to the electorate about the scope of the constitutional changes he offered in exchange for a No vote.
Trudeau laid out his case against “national self-determination” in a series of essays collected under the title Federalism and the French-Canadians in 1968, most of them composed after the war. (Irish readers can savour his prescient critique of the old Article 2 of the 1937 Constitution in one of these essays.) Powe shows that his objection to nationalist doctrine was essentially twofold. He objected to the subordination of the individual to the imperatives of the collective, something he saw as inevitable when communities tried to join the nation with the state. He regarded the mythical “nation-state” as a nursery of mobbishness and penury, much like Maurice Duplessis’s Catholic Quebec, whose universities shut their doors on him for a long time. He also argued that nationalism contained an inherent instability, a sort of self-destruct sequence in its genes. Reflecting the sentiments of Lincoln’s First Inaugural, Trudeau warned that all claims to national self-determination lead to further claims from within the seceding ethnic unit, until there is nothing and no one left to “determine” anything at all.
There is also a quirky edge to Trudeau’s analysis here, much like his Catholicism. In his suggestion that nationalism was a product of modern theories of equality, a sort of bastard child of feudalism and monarchy, he sounds very much like Ernest Gellner avant la lettre. And yet, as mentioned above, he was greatly influenced by the work of Kédourie, who thought that nationalism was a distinctly modern problem, an invention of myriad fevered minds in the nineteenth century. Kédourie traced modern nationalism and its moral claims about the importance of the ethnic community back to the blacker legacy of Kant, regardless of the philosopher’s most famous essay on the need for a peaceful, co-operating community of nations.
Powe emphasises Trudeau’s admiration for Lord Acton’s liberal Catholicism. In his famous debate with John Stuart Mill, which Trudeau knew well, Acton defended multi-ethnic federal polities against the claims of the self-determining ethnos. Large culturally mixed polities taught patience, cosmopolitanism and fraternity, whereas nation-states tended towards more authoritarian structures. Trudeau’s experience in Quebec before its soi-disant “Quiet Revolution” in the 1960s made him an ally of Acton here. As Ramsay Cook noted in his memoir, “Acton replied [to Mill et al]that national homogeneity threatened freedom rather than nurtured it; multinational states, where groups counterbalanced each other, were far more likely to respect and promote both individual freedom and cultural pluralism.” Trudeau predicted the chaos in the modern Balkans and was deeply troubled by the catastrophe that was post-colonial Africa throughout his career.
Trudeau’s historical and philosophical critique of nationalism complicates his liberalism in certain respects. His point is surely a pregnant one however when he argued that modern liberalism, as derived from the Victorian classics, is fundamentally unable to comprehend nationalism and the lure of ethnicity. Oliver MacDonagh, the great biographer of O’Connell, captured the easy-going, complacent aspects of this Victorian cast of mind with a lapidary summary of the Whig outlook in his States of Mind: Two Centuries of Anglo-Irish Conflict. Liberalism in the abstract, he wrote “traced the furrow of progress down to the present and praised the dead ploughman who deviated least from the appointed line”. Mill thought that nationalism was in many ways the logical end-point of liberal values and principles. Acton argued the contrary and predicted that nationalism would actually destroy liberalism should it ever get its head. Powe shrewdly divines the shaky hand of Nietzsche in Trudeau’s polemics here, arguing that Trudeau’s contempt for passive liberals who wanted to satisfy his native province with an ill-defined special constitutional status reflected Nietzsche’s famous dismissal of Mill’s legatees as “flatheads”. “He said this,” Powe remarks
[i]n Twilight of the idols when he condemned George Eliot, and all the followers of John Stuart Mill’s liberalism for shallow proselytizing, so-called ‘moral fanaticism’ or ‘right thinking’. Nietzsche hammered home how the English moralists wanted a good society with freedom of conscience and speech, and with protection of the citizen’s rights to economic fairness, without transcendental reference of justification.
The philosopher objected to their cherubic optimism, their attempt to order the world along almost mathematical principles and their concomitant insensitivity to the problem of evil in the world. And so, much like Nietzsche’s insight here, Trudeau’s premiership was premised on the idea that there could be no via media between the claims of Quebec separatism and the liberal values he held to be innate in the Canadian federal endeavour. He set his face against any recognition of deux nations or québecois as maîtres chez nous (masters in our own houses) or the idea that Canada was “a community of communities” if that implied that Quebec could build a unilingual society there over the heads of its own English-speaking minorities.
One of the great ironies of his career however is the fact that his own avowedly progressive intellect would itself come to exemplify something of this poverty of imagination. His indulgence of Castro and Mao while in office was based on his belief that those societies had at least prioritised the elimination of economic inequality. He recognised communist China before Nixon did. Such eccentricities as they betrayed in their domestic arrangements he thought to be the result of either Western hectoring or idealistic excess. He could sound as cold as Kissinger in the 1970s in his contempt for sententious dissidents trapped behind the Iron Curtain. These he often treated to a kind of fishwives’ abuse since he held their bleating to be an unnecessary impediment to détente, grist to Ron’s mill on his southern flank. This analysis has not survived the opening of the archives, especially the recent spate of work on the psychopathic Chairman’s reign of terror. (Kanan Makiya’s haunting work Cruelty and Silence, the most powerful book to emerge from the vortex of the Baathist dictatorship in modern Iraq, makes much the same point about the invertebrate character of certain kinds of liberalism.) During many of those long lunches with Trudeau, Powe discussed aspects of Europe’s blackguard tradition, principally de Maistre, Hobbes and Dostoyevsky. This preoccupation with authority, with government’s absolute obligation to hold the ring against fanaticism and revolution became more marked in Trudeau’s thinking in the 1980s. By then he was an older, sadder man with much on his mind.
In retrospect, we can see that Powe’s book captures the disintegration of the Trudeau of old. They returned again and again in their conversations to the Bible and to Thomas Jefferson, topics which revealed the extremity of Trudeau’s pessimism about life in general. Powe is sensitive to the poignant quality of Trudeau’s character after his retirement from front-line politics. The last chapter of his remarkable life was in many ways an essay in introspection, loss and solitude. His marriage had collapsed. His son was killed in a freak hiking accident and Quebec thrashed around in the constitutional straitjacket to which he had consigned it. Trudeau retired to a posh art deco mansion in Montreal and was rarely seen in public, except on two occasions in the late eighties when he emerged, Zeus-like, to fire thunderbolts at constitutional proposals which were designed to placate the Quebec he thought should simply grow up.
Powe leaves us with the image of a broken elite of one, rattling around a big house, an old man full of memories who kept the blinds closed against the light and the Lamentations open against the dark. (“And He doth not afflict willingly nor aggrieve the children of men.”) He left the premiership in 1984, affecting the same studied boredom with which he had acquired it in 1968. He paid off an astonishing amount of political debts in his final patronage decisions. In his absurdly self-indulgent final speech in office he talked about Rimbaud rather than the ballooning public sector borrowing requirement and executed his trade mark pirouette from the podium. Then he was gone.
Powe’s portrait suggests that by the end the consolations of faith were like gall in his mouth. Trudeau was left to ponder the ways of a deity who carried off his son as cruelly as he had taken his father when he was still a little boy, the wounds of fate in its most violent and retaliatory guise. He had been condemned to a life of rude health, happy notoriety and financial plenty while his child had been taken in his prime. The Catholic mind has historically discouraged the cultivation of an overtly individualistic attitude towards faith and providence. That, after all, is why God made Protestants. The great watchmen of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, like Bossuet and de Maistre, linked introspection with religious fanaticism and collapse. And as such, there is no strictly Catholic equivalent to the loneliness which ate away many a Protestant soul. But Trudeau came to know something of this in his big house and learned at the end to make deus absconditus his very own. It was a bleak, even disastrous, end for the Jesuits’ most promising tyro.
While Powe could have done with a tougher editor, his moments of insight resonate, as well they might. He has been thinking about Trudeau since he saw him accept the crown at the 1968 Liberal Party convention. He leaves the reader tantalised by myriad ironies. Trudeau’s personal transformation after the war and his evolution away from the idealistic buailim sciath of the Montreal Jesuits shows that we can sometimes read ourselves out of our roots and make ourselves into something finer than our father’s son. But Powe suggests that intellectual evolution need not always be a matter of deepening and expansion. Trudeau’s reading in certain respects reinforced an innate authoritarianism. An intellectual mind is not necessarily the same thing as an open one. The quality of his Catholic faith will continue to intrigue, as will his own emergence alongside King and Laurier as the pre-eminent Canadian nationalists of the last century, the sentiments of “The Second Coming” notwithstanding. His polemics against the nation-state must be read alongside his noisy performance on the world stage, where he emerged as a sort of Seán McBride with a rose in his buttonhole, demanding that the world stand still until Canada got its half-rood of frozen rock in the Arctic Circle. On those riveting tapes of his, Richard Nixon can be heard referring to Trudeau at one point as “that asshole”. Many of his contemporaries shared the same sentiment, though Trudeau could take comfort from the fact that Nixon also called Aristotle “a homo”. Even arraigned in the stocks he kept good company.
In an acute aside Ernest Gellner once wrote that Conor Cruise O’Brien was actually a victim of nationalism rather than its most devastating Irish critic. O’Brien’s idée fixe, Gellner suggested, warped his thinking and threw his mind off balance in certain respects. There is something like this in evidence in the later Trudeau, the former prime minister who went rolling in the tabloid gutters with his own cabinet secretary in the 1990s and whose apocalyptic polemics against the constitutional handiwork of his successors became increasingly operatic. In retirement he repeated the old formula ad nauseam; Quebec must be excluded from constitutional negotiations between the federal government and the other provinces until she accepted the principles of his 1982 package which denied her any substantive constitutional recognition as a “distinct society”. He committed his successors to a permanent bravura performance and they all failed, as fail they had to. From the perspective of 1995, his admirers and his enemies might agree on one thing at least, après lui, la déluge. Sometimes, there is a dreadful poignancy in being special.
All was not lost however, even if modern Canada repudiated his vision and showed the force of Shaw’s snide claim that nationalism was “the agonising symptom of a suppressed natural function”, one that would not be denied. The Vietnamese boat people who found a happy berth in his dominion, the native French speakers who got the chance to match the Anglos stride for stride at the pinnacle of the policy process in Ottawa’s East Block, the humanitarians who stared aghast as nuclear missiles were piled up with apparent abandon, those with a social conscience who cheered his belligerent rejection of the axioms of a monetarism born of Grantham thrift, the lawyers who redefined the scope of Canadian citizenship under the hard-won constitutional charter he crafted in 1982, all these would never forget that once there had been heady days.
John-Paul McCarthy holds the Usher-Cunningham doctoral studentship in Irish history at Exeter College, Oxford, where he tutors in Irish history. He is currently finishing a biography of Maurice Moynihan, to be published by Cork University Press.