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Archive for the ‘Nino Ricci’ Category

Biographies are never easy to write.  There’s always so much to say, so much to consider when you approach a person’s life and the writer has the potential to either bore his or her readers with far too much detail or frustrate them with too little.  The Extraordinary Canadians series however seems to be doing an admirable job balancing the facts of the subjects lives with their social impact in delightfully small volumes.  In Extraordinary Canadians: Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Nino Ricci (author of award winners such as Lives of the Saints, Testament, and The Origin of Species) does it in only 207 pages.  To do so, Ricci had to pick his areas to focus on – giving more time to Trudeau’s early life and career prior to politics than he does to his time in government (and the last twenty years of his life are barely mentioned).  For me, this certainly made the book more appealing.  As a student, we studied only Trudeau the Politician, discussing the FLQ crisis and the War Measures Act, the patriation of the Constitution in 1982, the decriminalization of homosexuality and, of course, the implementation of official bilingualism.

Trudeau was an anomaly in Canadian politics – in any kind of politics, frankly.  For those of us born after his years in office, it’s still very difficult to comprehend the extent of ‘Trudeaumania’ or to imagine our PM appearing on the front of tabloid magazines around the world (or having a wife who partied at Studio 54 and with the Rolling Stones).  But it was exciting, this change, particularly in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when youth counterculture was strong.  Here was this politician, almost 50 himself when he first came to national prominence, that young people embraced as their own and who excited the usually apathetic nation.  As the successor to the bow-tie wearing, Nobel Peace Prize-winner Lester Pearson, Trudeau was a radical, but welcome shock to the system:

For the many people who followed Canadian politics merely as a kind of background static, who might normally have sooner tuned into an American leadership debate than a Canadian one, Trudea had turned their heads, had made them think more of themselves, well before he had slain the dragon of referendum or brought home the constitutional grail (p. 155) 

Ricci is rather vague on Trudeau’s legacy.  There is no fawning adoration, sensible considering the enduring unpopularity of many of Trudeau’s most prominent achievements (the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the War Measures Act, bilingualism).  Trudeau spent much of his career trying to bring Quebec closer to the rest of Canada yet only succeeded in driving it further away while increasing its political importance.  Quebec is still a hot-button issue in Canadian politics, threatening to separate every few years.  It is also the province that politicians work hardest to woo, knowing that without its support, a majority government is impossible.  It’s hard to express the resentment this has created amongst the other provinces, especially in the resource-rich west. 

And yet we’re still proud of him, proud that he was ours though we can still hardly believe it.  He was glamourous and hip and famous and unlike anything we had seen before or have seen since.  When he died in 2000, his funeral captured the attention of the nation, bringing back proud memories for those who remembered him and introducing a whole new generation, long before they came across him in their history books, to his legacy.

Just as he had one when he was a student at Brébeuf, Trudeau had found the way in politics to marry the stance of the rebel to the slog of getting on with the job. ‘The truth is I work.’ It was such a quintessentially Canadian sentiment, as true of the habitant stock of New France and the Scots Presbyterians and Irish refugees of Upper Canada as of the First Nations running their trap lines and the latter-day immigrants of every hue.  Perhaps our attraction to him came exactly from this, that however different from us he seemed, however much the outsider, we sensed he was one of us.  He gave the impression of adventure and change even as he affirmed the general flow of things as they were.  Rebellion without risk.  A very Canadian sort of rebellion.  Or put different: he showed us how to be ourselves, but to do it with style. (P. 180-181)

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