Hidden in Plain Sight

By Esther Delisle



This last spring, it was front page news in the Globe and Mail: a new biography of former primer minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau by Max and Monique Nemni revealed that he had supported fascism in his youth.


That was actually no revelation, at least to me and to people who had taken the trouble to read my third book : Essais sur l’imprégnation fasciste au Québec (Éditions Varia 2002). In the essay : Fragments d’une jeunesse retrouvée I dealt with the youthful past that Trudeau like so many others had successfully hidden from the benevolent and unprying eyes of historians and journalists, Canadians as well as Quebecers.


So I could utter one more time a triumphant : I told you so! Quebec journalists in general downplayed the importance of the fact that Pierre Elliott Trudeau had been a member of La Société des Frères Chasseurs (better known as the LX) revived in the thirties in order to establish and independent and fascist Laurentie on the banks of the Saint-Lawrence river, that he admired the writings of Charles Maurras at the instigation of his teachers. However they expressed some surprise at the findings of the Nemnis. Their Anglophone colleagues were more shocked than surprised.  


Asking the right question


The real question to me was : How so many intellectually honest (and less honest) people could have bought the bromides, lies and nonsense that Trudeau (and Gérard Pelletier, René Lévesque, and their elder André Laurendeau) had written about his youth in his Memoirs? For example, Trudeau wrote  that he had too many good books to read to waste his time on World War 2. Please.


Was I the only one who had realized nearly a decade ago that Trudeau had lied? Or, more plausibly, was I the only one to raise publicly troubling questions and to write bluntly about the cover up (see my second book : Myths, Memory and Lies. Quebec’s Intelligentsia and the Fascist Temptation 1939-1960 Robert Davies Multimedia Publishing, 1998, the chapter : Sounds of Silence) because I had nothing to lose?


Our pas de deux

I met Pierre Elliott Trudeau for the first time on (fittingly enough)  Valentine Day in 1992. I was the guest speaker at an evening organized in Montreal by Cité libre. At the time I was a Ph.D. student caught in an academic and  media storm over my doctoral dissertation on antisemitism and fascism in the circles of Lionel Groulx and Le Devoir in the thirties. I gave a summary of what I had found namely that Le Devoir was rabidly antisemitic and that Groulx was a fierce proponent of fascism under his 14 different pen names. After my speech, as was usual at the gathering of Cité libre, people were invited to ask questions or to comment. One man said the sentence I was going to hear unnumerable times in the future: «But André Laurendeau did regret his youthful antisemitism, didn't he I answered naively : « Well, so it seems. He wrote an article in the sixties where he expressed regrets at what Les Jeunes-Canada, a youth movement close to l'abbé Groulx, had said when they protested a public demonstration in support of the persecuted Jews of Germany in 1933. But I venture to say that evening that we need to do much more research about what Laurendeau wrote, did and thought in the thirties and forties. I would be very surprised if a clear and clean break with his exppressed antisemitism occurred at that time As I finished my sentence, I saw Pierre Elliott Trudeau shaking vigorously his head from right to left to signify his opposition to my suggestion. But, before leaving, he came to shake my hand and said: «Vous êtes solide, très solide (You are strong, very strong.) He knew back then that I was way more «solide» than I knew myself. I had gently pointed a finger to his own past.  


Soon after that evening I read another doctoral dissertation (published in 1996 as a book by L'Harmattan): Les intellectuels québécois : formation et engagements 1919-1939. the author was a French scholar, Catherine Pomeyrols that I had met through my academic advisor, professor Jacques Zylberberg. Her conclusions reinforced mine : students in classical colleges between the two world wars were subjected to an exclusive intellectual diet of French extremist right-wing nationalist of the likes of Maurice Barrès and Charles Maurras. Their ideas were more or less adapted to the Quebec context : Democracy was the worst possible political regime and more so for the French Canadian nation, the Jews were the most despicable race, nefarious to the world and to the French-Canadians, and so on and so fort, the usual refrain. The only newspaper they were allowed to read was Le Devoir which ensured them  a feast of rabid antisemitism.


During the same period of time, that is, the early 1990's, a biography of the late French President, François Mitterrand, was published. The book, entitled Une jeunesse française (by Pierre Péan) focused on its Petainist youth which had been hidden by the Mitterand and his cronies. Only the extreme-right press, like Le Crapouillot, hinted at it for obvious political reasons. I vividly remember a discussion about  I had at the time with Michel Beaud, a French economist who thaught at the Université de Paris 7-Juissieu about the youth of the French President. He told me that he had read about it in Le Crapouillot, but he had denied any validity to their claims because : « I was a socialist, I wanted my party to win the elections, therefore I didn't want to know.»


In 1995, during my post-doctoral stint at McGill University, I began the research for an article about the memory we have in Quebec of WW2 (it eventually became Sounds of Silence). I chose to analyze the Memoirs and autobiographies of various French-Canadians who later rose to prominence : Pierre-Elliott Trudeau, René Lévesque, Gérard Pelletier, their elder André Laurendeau, Gérard Filion ect...I quickly realized silence, denial and lies (in that order) had structured their memory of WW2. For example, they all acknowledged that it had been a momentous event (the second bombshell of his teen-age years, according to Pierre Elliott Trudeau, after the death of his father), but said little more. Fast forward to the end of the war: Trudeau and René Lévesque both expressed in almost similar words, their regret at not having participated in what they perceived as the great adventure of the men of their generation. Trudeau added that it was as a student at Harvard University that he finally had understood the real meaning of WW2. Period. No comment, no explanation, nothing. What did he understand? What was the real meaning of that event? Not a word from Trudeau, Pelletier and Filion about Marshall Petain even though they had been dreaming of going to France since they were kids. Their silence was deafening.


My own research plus the books of Catherine Pomeyrols and Pierre Péan gave me the idea to invite Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Gérard Pelletier and Jean-Louis Roux to discuss the political views they held as teen-agers with some students who participated in the seminar I was giving at McGill University as a post-doctoral fellow with the historian John Hellman. «A French Canadian Youth. Conservative or Fascist They all accepted to join us at a table at the Faculty Club. Catherine Pomeyrols attended too…


I remember asking Trudeau if he had read the works of Charles Maurras. He denied it and explained that his books were way too long to read. It was a lie, as the biography by the Nemnis shows clearly. Jean-Louis Roux talked about his membership in the secret society of the LX which was supposed to overthrow the Quebec government. He provided us with funny anecdotes. Unbeknowst to me at the time, Trudeau had been a member of the very same same organization.


An interesting exchange between Trudeau and Pomeyrols took place. Catherine argued that François Hertel, mentor and close friend of Trudeau was, to say the very least, «de droite» at the time. Trudeau countered by saying he was an «anarchiste Catherine didn't give in and repeated: «de droite» followed by an «anarchiste» uttered by Trudeau. Another round followed because neither Catherine nor Trudeau was willing to yield. They remained on their position.


When I asked Trudeau what he thought about the fascist outbursts of his friend and mentor François Hertel that occurred in the ’60 and that he had denounced in Cité Libre, he explained his friend delirious statements by the fact that he wanted to please to the new generation. Somehow I did not find it reassuring. I noticed how prompt Trudeau was to cover for his youthful mentors, like André Laurendeau and François Hertel. I didn't know then that he was covering up for himself too.


Catherine Pomeyrols kept the best for the end of the lunch : she told Trudeau she had a copy of a petition he has signed when he was 13 years old in support of Les Jeune-Canada, a youth group extremely close by Lionel Groulx. He was surprised and said : «Pas vrai!». He seemed amused by it. A few days later, I brought a copy of the document to his office at the law firm Heenan Blaikie. I had joined a short note : «As evidence that when Pomeyrols and I look for something, we find it.»


A few months later, in early 1996, Trudeau invited to lunch to talk about «des choses sérieuses et moins sérieuses I declined. By then I was immersed in the writing of Sounds and Silence and I knew that by meeting him privately I would jeopardized my objectivity. I would become tempted to explain away, to dismiss the lies and omissions that bothered me in his Memoirs.


A seasoned retired detective and a bright lawyer told me that Trudeau had accepted to discuss his youth with students and that he had invited me to lunch afterwards because he wanted to know what I and Pomeyrols knew. He was fishing for information. Maybe. It is plausible.


I was unaware of how politically charged this issue was until Jean-Louis Roux lost his job as lieutenant-governor when it was revealed in the the widely-read L’Actualité November 15 of 1996) that he had wore a swastika on his right arm while studying medicine at Université de Montréal. Luc Chartrand explained that he had been led to that information by Gérard Pelletier who had suggested he asked Jean-Louis Roux what he was doing in 1942. I sometimes wonder if Gérard Pelletier had not made that unkind suggestion at the instigation of Pierre Trudeau in order to divert the attention from Trudeau himself. By way of prevention, Roux was put under the spotlight.


Cité libre organized an evening to support Jean-Louis Roux during his ordeal. I noticed that Jean-Louis Roux mentioned a couple of times : «I did not know the truth (about the fate of the Jews) at the time. We didn’t know I went to the microphone to say : « Had you known, what would have been different? What would you have done? If you did not even signed a useless petition to protest what was going on in Europe, you would not have enrolled to fight. You would not have put your life on the line for the Jews of Europe or to fight Marshall Petain.  Had you known, you would have done nothing


After having written in my second book that silence, denial and lies were at the core of this generation's memory of WW2, silence, denial and lied so many people effortlessly gulped, I decided to find out what they were hiding. Jean-François Garneau, a friend of mine, found an intriguing book at the library of the Université de Montréal. It was : François-J. Lessard: Message au «Frère Trudeau», Pointe-Fortune, Éditions de ma grand-mère, 1979. The author claimed that his former friend, now prime minister of Canada, when a student at collège Jean-de-Brébeuf, had been a member of a subversive secret society called Les Frères Chasseurs, also known as the LX. It was devoted to established an independent Laurentie, free of political parties. I contacted him. He was eager to talk.

The letters proving the claims of François-J. Lessard were in the basement of his home in Pointe-Fortune. There was a single bulb hanging from the ceiling. It was so dark I had to examine the papers in front of an open door. A fire had occurred a few years back, and many of these letters were burned at the edge and mouldy as a result of the water the firemen had poured in the house. Helped by an engineer friend (engineers, because they are very methodical and very organized are the best friends of the historians in a hurry and with a lot of documents to process.) I went through many boxes full of rusty implements, torn clothes, boots, carpets, all mouldy and covered with minuscule white worms crawling to find, among those, the letters of Pierre-Elliott Trudeau, Jean-Louis Roux, and their mentors detailing their activities for the LX .  In his late twenties, while in Europe, Trudeau sends his friends a postcard extolling the greatness of the Laurentie to come. He has become an adult who remains attached to the political convictions of his early years. He had not made a clean break with his past. He never did.


All that was needed to find those letters was to read the published Memoirs of well-known Quebecers and the book by François-J. Lessard. They were and still are available at various university libraries. The truth was hidden in plain sight.