In a famous essay, written in the early 1950s, the great British liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin commented on an ancient Greek aphorism, preserved in a fragment from the poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin expanded on this notion dealing with the “one big idea” people, from Plato to Nietzsche and also the “foxes” from Aristotle through Shakespeare to James Joyce. He focuses, mainly, on Tolstoy who, for Berlin, was a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog.
I have, for many years, felt that Pierre Trudeau was a classic “hedgehog” in Isaiah Berlin’s model. I think that a fair reading of Prime Minister Trudeau’s biographies shows that he actually had two “big ideas,” one after the other, and was influenced by a third:
- First, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, he flirted with a range of ideas proposed by one man, the priest-historian Abbé Lionel Groulx, including hints of antisemitism and fascism, and public support for Marshal Pétain’s Vichy regime, and, above all, French Canadian nationalism. It was, I believe, largely in response to what Groulx and his followers said that Pierre Trudeau decided to actively support the anti-conscription candidate in a 1942 by-election which caused him to be expelled from the reserve army officer training corps in Université de Montréal (into which he had been conscripted) and, subsequently, to sit out the war. He said, in his Memoirs (1993), “So there was a war? Tough … if you were a French Canadian in Montreal in the early 1940s, you did not automatically believe that this was a just war … we tended to think of this war as a settling of scores among the superpowers.” He also, in this period, became attracted to Marxism as an economic and social system.
- Second, in 1947, when he went to Paris to study, I believe that he discovered that his opposition to the war had put him, quite firmly and irredeemably on the wrong side of history. The war was, in fact, a “just war“ and all those who opposed it were, quite fundamentally, morally wrong. But Paris in 1947 was an exciting place; people like Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman, the fathers of the European Union, were writing and speaking about how to prevent World War III. The whole of the French political left was engaged. The prevailing notion was that nationalism was to blame for Europe’s century of wars, some just, some not, (beginning circa 1848 with the Italian Wars of Independence) and this was an idea that Pierre Trudeau adopted as his own. But in doing so, in renouncing his former French Canadian nationalism, he did so with a convert’s zeal and he never even tried to distinguish between, say, Italian Fascist and German Nazi nationalism and Britain’s jingoistic resistance to them. To the young Trudeau anti-nationalism was both a “cause” in which he could believe, because it explained so much of what had transpired in 19th and 20th century Europe and Canada, and it was a path that could put him back on the “right” side of history … nationalism was the problem, not just or unjust wars.
He was, now, able to merge three ideas:
- French Canadians needed a “better” place in Canada, free of their spiteful, nationalist distaste for “les anglais” as citizens of a “post-national” state that would help show the way to a post-national world;
- Marxism had led to Lenin who had unified a whole host of disparate nation-states into a new, better, post-national Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. He might have abhorred Lenin’s and Stalin’s methods but the goal, as he imagined it, a post-national, egalitarian (socialist) society was worth it; and
- Nationalism ~ of every sort from 19th century British “jingoism” to 20th-century “fascism” and modern American “triumphalism” ~ was the enemy of peace and of mankind.
It was a heady mix.
Pierre Trudeau’s new “big idea” also required him to change his direction in Quebec. Although he had been a disciple of Abbé Groulx who had supported a French Canadian “reconquest” of Quebec, he had no difficulty in opposing Maurice Duplessis’ overt French, Catholic, Quebec nationalism. It was, in fact, his opposition to Duplessis that brought him to public attention and a political career.
Pierre Trudeau was also able to reconcile his perceived, by some, personal animus towards the military with his newfound anti-nationalism. The Canadian Forces, he hinted, were just a tool of nationalist (and worse, a foreign,British, nationalist) political elements. Armies didn’t, exactly, cause wars but nations without arms didn’t (because they couldn’t) consider force as a solution to their foreign policy problems; therefore a disarmed nation would be an example to the world.
The 1960s were also a heady time … the youth of the Western world was in open revolt against wars and the establishment, “peace and love” was the rallying cry, John F Kennedy had shown a new, modern, youthful style of politics ~ in sharp contrast to World War I veterans Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker in Canada.
Canada, in the early 1960s, remained obsessed with one issue: national unity. Jean Lesage had replaced Duplessis in Quebec and he brought with him a “quiet revolution” but one that aimed to make Quebecers “maîtres chez nous,” masters of their own house. But maîtres chez nous was more than just a slogan; it came with actions, too, like the nationalization of Quebec’s hydro-electric utilities and aggressive moves, by the provincial government, into the banking and financial sectors. It also brought a backlash and corporate head offices began, slowly in the 1940s, faster in the 1950s and in full flood in the 1960s and ’70s, to abandon Montreal in favour of Toronto making it, Toronto, Canada’s most important city and, concomitantly, provoking even further angst in Quebec. In 1965 Pierre Trudeau jumped from the Quebec NDP to the federal Liberals and began a quick march to power.
He was everything many Canadians wanted: our own Jack Kennedy ~ young, sexy, smart, sophisticated and “in touch.” In 1968 he succeeded a worn-out Pearson and, almost immediately began to put a new “stamp” on Canada ~ left of centre, big-spending, bilingual and, above all, anti-nationalist. And Canadians liked it. There were serious, global, economic difficulties in the late 1960s and ’70s, and Canadians especially liked Pierre Trudeau’s “retreat” from the world stage and his aggressive (irresponsible in the opinion of many) spending on social programmes and “entitlements.”
In a very short time, by 1984, Pierre Trudeau had totally reshaped most Canadians’ opinions of government and, in many respects, of themselves and their country. We were, once again, the “peaceable kingdom,” looking after ourselves and our environment, even somewhat more anti-American than in the 1960s, and looking, rather wistfully, towards Europe for the sort of society we wanted for ourselves. We were more interested in our own First Nations than in foreign affairs and military alliances; more interested in protecting what we had than securing new, free(er) trade deals, more concerned with spending than saving, more open to immigration, and we embraced official multiculturalism. And we declined, measurably, in status and stature in the world … and we didn’t care.