MONTREAL — A new biography asserts that former Canadian prime minister Pierre E. Trudeau — long viewed as a defender of civil rights and as a friend of the Jewish community — was a fascist sympathizer in his youth and shared the antisemitic attitudes prevalent in the 1930s and early ’40s.
The revelations, contained in a new book, “Young Trudeau: 1919-1944: Son of Quebec, Father of Canada,” have provoked surprise and consternation in some circles — the kind that American Jews might feel if former president John F. Kennedy, honored as an advocate of religious and racial tolerance in America, were shown to have shared his father’s fascist sympathies and anti-Jewish sentiments before and during World War II.
“Young Trudeau: 1919-1944” was written by Max and Monique Nemni, two retired Quebec university professors whom Trudeau befriended and gave access to his private papers. It already has been published in French and is to be released next month in English by Random House.
Trudeau, who died in September 2000, was widely admired for welcoming Jews into the Ottawa elite. A charismatic French Canadian intellectual, Trudeau, during his 15 years as prime minister, made Bora Laskin the first Jewish chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, and Herb Gray the first Jewish Cabinet minister.
“These were both quite remarkable appointments and did require a fair bit of courage,” McGill University sociologist Morton Weinfeld said.
The community’s lionization of Trudeau, however, was about more than ethnic pride. Canadian Jews applauded his pioneering of the country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms and his vigorous defense of Canadian unity against the threat of Quebec separatism. Before and during his years as prime minister, his heavily Jewish district in Montreal signaled its approval by electing him repeatedly with the largest majority of any Member of Parliament.
While some Canadians viewed Trudeau the prime minister as a leftist, his biographers found that Trudeau the adolescent was in thrall to the church-dominated rightist intellectual currents prevailing in 1930s Quebec, of which a key staple was admiration for the fascist regimes of Spain and Portugal. Moreover, he supported the kind of narrow ethnic nationalism that he later scorned, favoring the creation of an independent Quebec that would be a “Catholic, French and corporatist” society. Trudeau was still promoting the idea in 1942, when he joined a secret movement of Jesuit-educated youth who advocated violent revolution to turn Quebec into an ethnic-based country.
Trudeau also fell under the sway of antisemitism in his younger years. In the 1930s, when nationalist Quebec opinion-makers were urging French Quebecers to buy from their own, the teenage Trudeau wrote a play that portrayed Jewish merchants negatively.
As late as 1944, when he was 25 years old, Trudeau admired the writings of France’s notoriously antisemitic polemicist Charles Maurras. The future Canadian leader blamed the war on Britain, spoke at an anti-draft rally alongside fascists and rode through the streets of Montreal on a motorbike, wearing a German army helmet from World War I.
“I was certainly not aware of [all] that,” Montreal author and filmmaker William Weintraub said, commenting on the disclosures about Trudeau’s youth. “In his later years, when he had power, he had a good relationship with the Jewish community. I think this might modify” his reputation.
While some in the Jewish community have been upset by the revelations, others are downplaying the significance of the new information.
“I think we can put it down to youthful stupidity,” Weintraub said.
“All kinds of people have been all kinds of things in their youth,” said immigration activist Rivka Augenfeld, who credits the mature Trudeau with working to create “a climate of openness, pluralism, and tolerance and respect for differences.”
“We do believe people can evolve, right?” she added.
Trudeau began to undergo an ideological transformation in the early postwar years, when he traveled widely and studied at the Sorbonne, the London School of Economics and Harvard University. His worldview changed drastically. By 1949, back in Quebec, he was challenging the union-busting tactics of right-wing provincial Premier Maurice Duplessis in the asbestos workers’ strike. By the 1950s, the Catholic hierarchy and Duplessis considered him a dangerous radical, while Trudeau hailed Montreal’s Jewish lawyers for defending human rights in the province.
Trudeau’s embrace of liberal universalistic values eventually put him at odds with parts of the Jewish communal agenda when he was prime minister. “His reputation in the Jewish community was very favorable, but he wasn’t seen as an overwhelming defender of Jewish interests at all times,” McGill’s Weinfeld said. “He didn’t feel that minority groups should militantly defend their identities and their attachments to their subcultures.”
Hostile to all nationalisms, he bridled at Zionism and quarreled with Menachem Begin when the former Israeli leader made an official visit to Canada in 1978. Trudeau also was uninterested in Canadian Jewry’s push for the deportation of Nazi war criminals, believing that it was more important for Canadians to be “just in our time” rather than seek redress for past wrongs.
Most Canadian Jews, however, forgave those slights. They viewed Trudeau as “a strong voice for Canadian unity, and a leader with great intellectual capacity who made Canadian politics less dull,” Weintraub said.
The new biography is likely to add yet another layer of complexity to the relationship between Trudeau and the Jewish community. At the very least, Weinfeld said, the biography will “remind people how deeply entrenched in the Quebec of the 1930s those right-wing views were.”
“Even someone who became as progressive as Trudeau,” the McGill professor added, “was not immune to their seductive power.”