Saturday, September 23, 2006

Ramsay Cook, The Teeth of Time: Remembering Pierre Elliott Trudeau

The 2006 publishing year has been a bountiful one for Trudeauphiles. Earlier this year, Max & Monique Nemni made a huge splash with Young Trudeau, published both in French and in English translation. Focusing on Trudeau’s intellectual development until he became a young man, the Nemnis created a huge media stir with their revelations of Trudeau’s youthful flirtation with French-Canadian separatism and authoritarian Catholicism. Graham Fraser’s Sorry, I Don’t Speak French revitalized public interest in official bilingualism, one of Trudeau’s greatest legacies for Canada. Historians are currently waiting with bated breath for the October 10th release of Citizen of the World, the first volume of historian John English’s official biography of Trudeau – written with the benefit of full access to Trudeau’s papers.

A much smaller volume was released last month by McGill-Queen’s University Press, and is unfortunately likely to get lost in the shuffle. I am speaking of The Teeth of Time: Remembering Pierre Elliott Trudeau by historian Ramsay Cook. This short book is a personal reflection on a forty-year friendship between two intellectuals whose work has had a powerful influence on English-speaking Canada’s understanding of Quebec and French Canada. Trudeau’s impact needs little explanation. But for those outside the historical profession, Ramsay Cook has been perhaps the most influential English-speaking historian of French Canada since the 1960s. Currently the co-editor of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Cook’s numerous former graduate students are now full, associate, and assistant professors in their own right. Although I never had the benefit of being Cook’s student myself, it was his student, Arthur Silver, who taught me French-Canadian history as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto. My Canadian and Quebec politics professor, David Cameron, also used Cook’s work on Canadian and Quebec nationalism extensively in his courses. At graduate school at the University of Ottawa, it was yet another Cook student, Michael Behiels, who supervised my MA and PhD work. York University professor Marcel Martel, still another Cook student, served as external examiner for my thesis defense. Even as a post-doc, working on cultural and media history, I still found former Cook students Mary Vipond, Ronald Rudin and Molly Ungar working with me at Concordia. Ramsay Cook’s historiographical influence looms large in the Canadian historical profession, to say the least.

It was thus with keen interest that I read Cook’s account of his intellectual friendship with Pierre Elliott Trudeau, a friendship which dates back to the early 1960s, when Cook, a founding member of the NDP, encountered Pierre Trudeau at the wedding of Blair and Jacqueline Neatby (themselves key figures in the Canadian historical and political establishment, and the parents of yet another Quebec historian). Cook weaves a fascinating tale of his conversations, letters, meetings and cottage visits with Trudeau. His work provides a unique, personal perspective on certain aspects of how and why Trudeau chose to enter politics, shaped his constitutional policies, and intervened to stop what he saw as the wrong-headed policies of the Mulroney government. Particularly compelling is the discussion of how Trudeau’s invocation of the War Measures Act during the October Crisis shook Cook’s confidence in his friend, a decision about which he remains ambivalent.

This is not solely a work about Trudeau. Indeed, Cook’s discussion of his role as a public intellectual is perhaps equally interesting. Throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Cook was active not only in the halls of academia at the University of Toronto and York University, but also as a public commentator for the CBC, a contributor to many magazines and newspapers, and a speechwriter for Trudeau during the 1968 election campaign. For academics who seek to balance their research with the public application of their knowledge, Cook’s model is a compelling one. I don’t know, had I been in Cook’s shoes, that I could have resisted the invitation to work in the PMO after the 1968 election – choosing between Trudeau and a year working at Harvard would have been an agonizing decision! The narrative thread of Cook’s balancing act between his dual roles as academic historian and public intellectual will prove interesting to many an aspiring professor in the humanities and social sciences (and many scientists too, no doubt!)

Given current political debates, Cook’s personal narrative will also resonate with many left-leaning federalists - particularly in the sections dealing with his decision to leave the NDP to support Trudeau in the late-1960s. There are numerous parallels to be drawn between the special status approach to Quebec being promoted by the NDP of the 1960s and that being promoted today under Jack Layton’s leadership. It is unfortunate that socially progressive, federalist voters find themselves on the horns of a dilemma at election time, torn between their approach to social programs and their approach to constitutional issues. Indeed, as recent debates between Liberal leadership candidates have demonstrated, that party is still deeply divided on how to respond to Quebec nationalism. The result of the November leadership convention could very well lead to more left-leaning Liberals returning to the fold. Alternatively, faced with little differentiation between Liberals and the NDP on constitutional issues, they may instead opt to vote for the party that appears more committed to social programs and a progressive agenda. Cook’s account of how he made his own choice to support the Liberals in 1968 may well be more indicative of broader trends and choices that are faced regularly in Canadian society, beyond the ivory tower.

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