In the judgment of historians, Pierre Trudeau doesn’t tend to rank among the big guys—Macdonald, Laurier and King—in the making of Canada. It would seem, though, that Canadians would beg to differ, judging by the reaction to his death 16 years after he left office in 1984. Some 50,000 people filed by Trudeau’s coffin as he lay in state, or came to see and touch his funeral train. It’s not likely that the death of any other former PM will provoke a fraction of that interest, let alone the feeling of bereavement that struck so many. For millions of Canadians Trudeau epitomized what their country could be, and even his many enemies tended to measure their hopes and dreams against his stance. As novelist Nino Ricci, winner of the 2008 Governor General’s Literary Award for The Origin of Species and author of Pierre Elliott Trudeau for the Penguin Extraordinary Canadian series, notes, “A lot of people out there are heavily invested in Trudeau, even if they see him in widely different lights.”
Ricci himself is far from obsessed with Trudeau. Born in 1959 to Italian immigrant parents, the writer was too young to experience the sudden explosion of Trudeaumania in 1968, when the previously little-known Montreal intellectual won the Liberal party leadership and then the first majority election victory in a decade. And as a young man of leftist political beliefs, Ricci never voted Liberal. But Trudeau was always there, an iconic and respect-worthy backdrop to everything in Canada. “You could think,” Ricci says ironically in an interview, “ ‘If I was like him, I could see admitting to being Canadian.’ Penguin assumed I’d push the multicultural immigrant aspect of the Trudeau years, but the real interest to me was the coolness.”
That concentration on the coolness factor, balanced with Ricci’s own coolness to the man himself and his policies, makes for a particularly apt match of author and subject. And, not incidentally, one of the best volumes in Penguin’s series so far. It’s apparent from the start that Pierre Elliott Trudeau will not be a hagiography: on page four Ricci is already dismissing “the mostly unmemorable and unreliable summation books” Trudeau brought to print in his later years.
Ricci doesn’t mention by name Against the Current (1996), a selection from the former prime minister’s writings, but he takes dead aim at the maverick concept, one held of Trudeau by supporters and enemies alike. “He was always right in the middle of the stream.” That included his youth when Trudeau deeply identified with the reactionary Catholic nationalism dominant in Quebec during the Second World War. (In 1945, after a year in the very different milieu of Harvard, Trudeau confessed to his girlfriend that he had essentially missed the war, not in the sense of avoiding it, but of even noticing “the greatest cataclysm of all time.”) Trudeau was also mainstream, not to say bored, in economics in his Keynesian era; about in the middle of his cabinet on the War Measures Act in 1970; and downright traditionalist in his own marriage.
But Trudeau had, far more than most, the capacity to learn, and the courage and political endurance to make things happen. The Catholic quasi-reactionary never lost his religious faith, but he changed enough to bring the Charter—the essential underpinning of modern Canada—into being. “What he really signifies for me,” says Ricci, “is that his complexity reflects our complexity: he was a big man from a big country. His life says something about us all.” And cool? Oh yes.