Trudeau’s views on the secular state have been constant. In September 1971 the United Church Observer printed interviews with the four political leaders; only one, Réal Caouette of the Créditistes, was prepared to think of Canada in its public life as a Christian country. Ten years later, Prime Minister Trudeau presented his new Constitution to the Canadian people. When critics queried the absence of any reference to God, Trudeau strenuously objected. He found it strange, he said, that so long after the Middle Ages some politicians felt obliged to mention God in a Constitution, which was, after all, a secular and not a spiritual document. As Charles Lynch explained in his syndicated column, “He was anxious to make the point that the mention of God in the document was honorific rather than substantial, contributing nothing to God’s jurisdiction in the scheme of Canadian federalism.” Public pressure decided differently, and an acknowledgement that “Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law” was inserted into the preamble of the Constitution.
“Bourgeois” features of the Church
Pierre Trudeau, born in 1919, devoted the years after college to a study of French Canada. From his youth he had a natural inquisitiveness joined to a penchant for unorthodox behaviour. In 1946-47 at the Sorbonne, he made the acquaintance of Emmanuel Mounier whose ideas he had first come across in 1938 through Mounier’s monthly, Esprit. Mounier’s attraction was his call for a Christian “personalist” philosophy, which could at one and the same time influence secular politics while remaining truly spiritual. Unfortunately, while Mounier was very appealing in his powerful denunciations of what he saw as decadent “bourgeoisie” features of the Church, his idealism and rejection of moderate realism left no viable political system, but only irritation with the mediocrity of many church-goers. Next, at the London School of Economics in the academic year 1947-48, Trudeau met Harold Laski, the intellectual don of British Labour socialism, whom Trudeau described as a “most stimulating and powerful influence” (Weekend Magazine, 1966, no. 13). Laski convinced him that democratic socialism could answer the needs of society. Nevertheless, to have a look at the other kind of socialism first, Trudeau made an eleven-month trip around the world, including countries behind the Iron Curtain. In 1952 he revisited Moscow and reported favourably on events and places in seven articles for Les Devoir, without referring to the dark side of Stalin’s totalitarianism. It was an attitude he maintained throughout his career. In December 1981, for example, he attempted to justify the imposition of martial law on Poland. Then, as earlier, his comments excited angry comments.
In Quebec Trudeau opposed the often-arbitrary regime of Maurice Duplessis who ruled the province for most of the twenty years before his death in 1959. On occasion Duplessis appears to have claimed the divine origin of the temporal authority as a reason for rejecting the accountability of his government to the people. Trudeau justifiably objected to an intermingling of culture and religion which was so close as to exclude necessary distinctions. Trudeau also disliked the pervasive influence of the Quebec clergy. In the Quebec of the 1950s he came to be regarded by some as an anti-clerical undermining the authority of the Church. When English Canada took notice of this Quebecois in the late 60s, this was the image perceived. For example, in the introduction to his collected constitutional essays, Federalism and the French Canadian (1968), Trudeau is described as a “Jesuit-educated Catholic, but an outspoken anti-cleric.” The assertion that Trudeau is “an anti-cleric” explains nothing until one knows what Trudeau himself, as well as his Quebec critics, meant by it.
“Blinkered by clericalism …”
Trudeau’s criticism of the social and political order under Duplessis as well as of the intellectual heritage which was its inspiration, began in earnest with the founding of the little magazine Cité libre in 1950, a year after the bitter strike in the asbestos industry at Thetford Mines. This strike was later regarded as a time when opposition to the existing order first began to crystallize. Pierre Trudeau contributed to this periodical from 1951 onwards, as one of the more intelligent and systematic critics of Quebec’s political heritage. In 1956 a number of the periodical’s contributors collaborated in writing a book, La grève de l’Amiante, later published in English as The Asbestos Strike (1974). The editor was Pierre Trudeau, whose own essay was an eighty-page attack on the social and political concepts, which had dominated the province for over half a century. By means of numerous examples and quotations, Trudeau exposed Quebec’s narrow self-serving and self-defeating ideology of nationalism. This, he argued, had kept the province backward socially, economically, and politically; and it derived a good deal of its authority, he said, from a Church-taught “mission” of the French Canadian race and from a peculiar Quebec version of Catholic social doctrine, a version “blinkered by clericalism, agriculturalism, and a paternalistic attitude toward labour.” At the time, some reviewers questioned whether Trudeau’s sense of historical fairness had not been overcome by the desire to deliver a polemical broadside. In the same book Gérard Dion and Gérard Pelletier showed in separate chapters that during the 1949 strike the Church hierarchy had acquitted itself honourably.
To be continued…