01 March 2007

Trudeau's Catholic influences

Last autumn I was invited by the Canadian Journal of Political Science to review a book by Max and Monique Nemni, Young Trudeau: Son of Quebec, Father of Canada, 1919-1944. This is the first of a projected three-volume biography of the late prime minister by the authors, who were given unprecedented access to Trudeau's personal papers. I didn't at first know why I was selected to review this book, since I am hardly an expert on Trudeau. But as I began reading, it became clear: the biographers touch on Catholic social and political principles, as they developed from the time of Pope Leo XIII into the 20th century. This is a topic with which I am indeed familiar.

The surprise in this book is that, far from the antinationalist contrarian he portrayed himself to be in the context of interwar Québec, Trudeau was very much a product of the political climate of the times. Like many of his compatriots and coreligionists, he distrusted democracy and embraced the corporatism of Franco's Spain, Salazar's Portugal and Mussolini's Italy. And, yes, he was a separatist. The review should be out shortly, but one of the things for which I take the authors to task is in drawing a more or less straight line from Catholic social teachings to the antidemocratic corporatism of the 1930s.

However, it looks as though the Nemnis are having second thoughts about this assessment as they research the second volume, which one assumes will cover the years 1944-1968. Indeed Jacques Maritain's personalism apparently had a major impact on Trudeau as he matured. This can be seen in a new article by Max Nemni: La Charte canadienne des droits et libertés : reflet d'un humanisme chrétien, an abbreviated English translation of which appeared in The National Post a few weeks ago: The Charter's Christian roots. Nemni appears to have changed his tune from Young Trudeau, where Maritain is little mentioned and Trudeau's Jesuit education at Collège Jean de Brébeuf is credited only with moving him towards fascism. Now Nemni argues that it was Maritain's emphasis, unusual amongst Catholic intellectuals of his era, on the rights of man that eventually moved Trudeau to adopt a Charter of Rights and Freedoms when he patriated the constitution 25 years ago. Indeed, as Nemni sees it, the one value he retained from his theology courses at Brébeuf is the primacy of the human person.

Is Nemni persuasive? Is the Charter less influenced by liberal individualism than by a christian humanism? I myself doubt it, except in so far as individualism represents a secularization of a certain strand of Christianity. (The translator of the English abstract of the article incorrectly renders personnaliste as "individualist.") A perusal of the key guarantees of the Charter reveals a preponderance of expressions such as "everyone," "every citizen," "every person," "every individual" and "any member of the public." Conspicuously absent are any references to the integral place of communities in any society, except for the mention of the French and English communities of New Brunswick in section 16.1.(1). By contrast, the German Basic Law contains this provision: "Marriage and the family shall enjoy the special protection of the state" (article 6[1]), something which would certainly conform to Maritain's notion of subsidiarity. By contrast, Trudeau himself was a centralizing federalist championing an expanded state to advance individual autonomy in the face of a variety of institutions and traditions inhospitable to this vision. (See, for example, Daniel Cere's comparison of Michael Ignatieff and Trudeau in this respect.) Maritain would not have approved.

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