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Citizen of the World: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau Volume 1    by John English order for
Citizen of the World
by John English
Order:  USA  Can
Knopf, 2006 (2006)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau fascinated Canadians, from the time that Trudeaumania swept the country in the 60s to his final, poignant funeral train journey in 2000. Now John English brings us a biography in two parts, and including for the first time a perspective based on complete access to Trudeau's private letters and papers. This first volume takes us from Trudeau's birth in 1919 to his becoming Canada's fifteenth Prime Minister in 1968, and includes many black and white photographs from these early years.

Knowing only of the Prime Minister what I gleaned from news reports from the 60s onwards, I was surprised by many aspects of the biography, in particular by reading the names of schoolmates, colleagues and friends who have since become well known political and corporate figures themselves, in Quebec and nationally - the book makes clear what a small, tight community the Francophone élite was in Quebec during Trudeau's coming of age and early political career, and how - despite English Canada's view of him as perfectly balanced between the two solitudes - he was primarily a French Canadian.

Trudeau was born just after the Great War and the subsequent devastating influenza epidemic to an affluent Roman Catholic family in Montreal, Quebec. His bon vivant father built a garage business into a fortune that left his son independently wealthy. They vacationed at Old Orchard Beach, Maine, and took a 1933 family trip to Europe, that left the elder son with an 'abiding wanderlust'. The father, Charles Trudeau died in 1935, at the age of forty-five, leaving Pierre at fifteen, the head of the family.

Consistently top of his class, he worked hard and showed an 'extraordinary intellectual curiosity'. The author describes the young man's first loves and the exact nature of his early involvement with Quebec nationalist groups during World War II, when an 'overwhelming francophone' anti-conscription anger swept the province. In his twenties, he rode a Harley-Davidson, studied law in Quebec, then continued on to Harvard and the London School of Economics. In London, English tells us 'Trudeau's mind became clearer, his prose sharper, and his political ambitions more strongly defined.' His interest grew in both federalism and the labor movement.

In 1948, he traveled in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, holding off brigands in Iraq by spouting poetry - the descriptions in his letters home are themselves lyrical, and - having also been to most of these places - I enjoyed this part of the biography more than any other. Back home again in 1949, and with a new interest in trade unionism, Trudeau joined Gérard Pelletier and Jean Marchand to support workers at the Asbestos Strike - the trio formed a bond then that lasted the rest of their lives. Afterwards Trudeau spent a few years in Ottawa working in the Privy Council Office, after which he, Pelletier and others founded the journal Cité libre to 'fundamentally challenge the status quo in Quebec.'

Amongst other popular perceptions addressed by the author is the view that Trudeau was a dilettante in the 50s, a period that English calls a 'transformative decade for him' in which he shaped his ideas and developed political skills. Then came a pivotal 1956 book on the Asbestos Strike to which Trudeau contributed essays, attacking Maurice Duplessis and the role of the church at the time in Quebec, and outlining what was later termed a just society - after which he continued to write a variety of influential essays for Cité libre.

But he diverged when 'many old friends marched off under a new nationalist banner', choosing instead to support federalism, to join the Liberal Party and - through what seem in retrospect a series of serendipitous events - to emerge as its flamboyant leader in 1968. I greatly admired Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who still towers head and shoulders over wishy-washy successors as a true statesman, and a world leader of integrity and formidable intelligence. I found this biography - of the man English calls 'contradictory and conflicted' absorbing and look forward to part two of Citizen of the World.

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