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Biography & Autobiography Presidents & Heads Of State

Citizen of the World

The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau Volume One: 1919-1968

by (author) John English

Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
Aug 2007
Presidents & Heads of State, Political, Post-Confederation (1867-)
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Aug 2007
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One of the most important, exciting biographies of our time: the definitive, major two-volume biography of Pierre Elliott Trudeau – written with unprecedented, complete access to Trudeau’s enormous cache of private letters and papers.

Bestselling biographer John English gets behind the public record and existing glancing portraits of Trudeau to reveal the real man and the multiple influences that shaped his life, providing the full context lacking in all previous biographies to-date.

As prime minister between 1968 and 1984, Trudeau, the brilliant, controversial figure, intrigued Canadians and attracted international attention as no other Canadian leader has ever done. Volume One takes us from his birth in 1919 to his election as leader in 1968.

Born into a wealthy family in Montreal, Trudeau excelled at the best schools, graduating as a lawyer with conservative, nationalist and traditional Catholic views. But always conscious of his French-English heritage, desperate to know the outside world, and an adventurer to boot, he embarked on a pilgrimage of discovery – first to Harvard and the Sorbonne, then to the London School of Economics and, finally, on a trip through Europe, the Middle East, India and China. He was a changed man when he returned – socialist in his politics, sympathetic to labour, a friend to activists and writers in radical causes. Suddenly and surprisingly, he went to Ottawa for two mostly unhappy years as a public servant in the Privy Council Office. He frequently shocked his colleagues when, on the brink of a Quebec election, for example, he departed for New York or Europe on an extended tour. Yet in the 1950s and 60s, he wrote the most important articles outlining his political philosophy.

And there were the remarkable relationships with friends, women and especially his mother (whom he lived with until he was middle-aged). He wrote to them always, exchanging ideas with the men, intimacies with the women, especially in these early years, and lively descriptions of his life. He even recorded his in-depth psychoanalysis in Paris. This personal side of Trudeau has never been revealed before – and it sheds light on the politician and statesman he became.

Volume One ends with his entry into politics, his appointment as Minister of Justice, his meeting Margaret and his election as leader of the Liberal Party and Prime Minister of Canada. There, his genius and charisma, his ambition and intellectual prowess, his ruthlessness and emotional character and his deliberate shaping of himself for leadership played out on the national stage and, when Lester B. Pearson announced his retirement as prime minister in 1968, there was but one obvious man for the job: Pierre Trudeau.

In 1938 Trudeau began a diary, which he continued for over two years. It is detailed, frank, and extraordinarily revealing. It is the only diary in Trudeau’s papers, apart from less personal travel diaries and an agenda for 1937 that contains some commentary. His diary expresses Trudeau’s own need to chronicle the moments of late adolescence as he tried to find his identity. It begins on New Year’s Day 1938 with the intriguing advice: “If you want to know my thoughts, read between the lines!”
–from Citizen of the World

About the author

John English Department of History, University of Waterloo, is the author of The Decline of Politics: The Conservatives and the Party System, Robert Borden: His Life and World, and co-author of Canada Since 1945: Power, Politics, and Provincialism.

John English's profile page


  • Short-listed, Governor General's Literary Award - Nonfiction
  • Short-listed, Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction
  • Short-listed, Shaughnessy Cohen Award for Political Writing
  • Winner, Dafoe Book Prize

Excerpt: Citizen of the World: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau Volume One: 1919-1968 (by (author) John English)

Chapter One

Two Worlds

The Great War was over; the times tasted bitter. Influenza came back with the soldiers and killed more at home than had died in the trenches. Like the war, it preferred the young to the old. Death usually came quickly as the victims suffocated in a blood-tinged froth that sometimes gushed grotesquely from their faces. As winter became spring in 1919, theatres stayed empty. Men and women entered public places warily, concealing their faces behind gauze masks. The plague invaded private spaces, compelling isolation and reflection. What, then, did Grace Elliott Trudeau and her husband, Joseph-Charles-Émile, think when she learned she was pregnant in Montreal in mid-winter 1919? Pregnancy was dangerous in normal times, but the influenza surely terrified her as her body began to swell with her second child.

The twentieth century had so far been a great disappointment – especially for francophone Canadians. There was some excitement and hope when it began with Canada’s first French-speaking prime minister, Wilfrid Laurier, in power, and an increasingly prosperous economy. The great transformation of Western society that occurred as electricity, steamships, telephones, railways, and automobiles upset the balance of the Victorian age profoundly affected the world of the young Trudeaus. In Quebec, as elsewhere, people were in motion, leaving the familiar fields of rural life and traditional crafts for the cities that were exploding beyond their pre-industrial core. In Montreal, the population rose from 267,730 in 1901 to 618,506 in 1921. The rich had clustered together, initially in mansions in the “Golden Square Mile” along Sherbrooke Street and north up the southern slope of Mount Royal, while the poor spread out below them and in the east end. It was said in 1900 that the Square Mile contained three-quarters of Canada’s millionaires. Stephen Leacock, who knew them well, commented, “The rich in Montreal enjoyed a prestige in that era that not even the rich deserve.”

Unfortunately, the rich were nearly entirely English; the poor, overwhelmingly French. When the French lived mainly in the villages, the gap was less obvious. In the city, it sowed the seeds of deep discontent. And, as new immigrants, mainly Jewish, flowed in from continental Europe, new tensions emerged in the more diverse city.

Even before the war, foreign visitors sensed trouble. In 1911 the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, after a visit to Montreal, said that all reasonable men should advise the French to abandon their resistance to assimilation. They were fast becoming simply an episode in history.4 Among francophones in Quebec, the challenge of the new century brought an increasingly nationalist response, particularly when English-Canadian politicians became entangled in the British imperialism that marked the years before the Great War. By then there was a new prime minister, Robert Borden, and the voice of French Canada in the federal government became faint. And in 1914 the war divided the country as never before between the French and the others.

Once again, it seemed that a bargain had been broken. Now leader of the official Opposition, Wilfrid Laurier supported the war, along with the French Catholic Church. Even Henri Bourassa, who had founded the nationalist newspaper Le Devoir and become the vocal spokesperson for francophone rights throughout Canada, kept his silence. He and the bishops went along because Borden promised there would be no conscription, but, three years later, conscription was proclaimed, accompanied by vitriolic attacks in English Canada on the French in Quebec. In the bitter and violent Canadian election in 1917, francophones voted overwhelmingly for Laurier’s Liberals, who opposed conscription, while anglophones responded by backing a coalition composed of English-speaking Liberals and Conservatives. There were riots in Montreal and deaths in Quebec City. In 1919 Laurier died, then depression struck, while, at Versailles, the victors divided the spoils even as the world began to understand that the war to end all wars had not done so.

In their modest but comfortable row home at 5779 Durocher Avenue in the new suburb of Outremont, the Trudeaus could find some comfort. Outremont was neighbour to Mount Royal and, in population, split between residents of French and British origin, along with a substantial number of Jews. They lived far from the crowded tenements of the city below the hill, where death often came for both mother and child during pregnancy.5 Charles and Grace had married on May 11, 1915, and she had become pregnant soon after with an infant who did not survive.6 In 1918 she gave birth to a daughter, Suzette. Charles already had good reason not to enlist and, after the Military Service Act became law in 1917, to avoid conscription.

When the Trudeaus married, Grace, in common with other Quebec women of the time, acquired the same legal rights as minors and idiots. Her husband owed her protection in return for her submission. Yet Grace had her own sources of strength. Her father, a substantial businessman of United Empire Loyalist stock, had sent his daughter to Dunham Ladies’ College in the Eastern Townships, where she had acquired an education in literature, classics, and etiquette that few girls in Quebec possessed. She knew French, her mother’s tongue, as well as English, which she and Charles chose to speak most often at home. Like Charles, she was Roman Catholic and devout.Though not wealthy in the first years of their marriage, the Trudeaus had the means to hire country girls to help with household tasks.

Assisted by a midwife at home, Grace gave birth to Joseph-Philippe-Pierre-Yves-Elliott Trudeau on a warm fall day, October 18, 1919. The parents immediately chose Pierre from his multiple names, though he, later, took a long time to make up his mind which name he favoured. His mother probably reflected the original intention when she wrote in his “Baby Book” Joseph Pierre Yves Philip Elliott Trudeau. Years later, when he was quizzed about it, Trudeau himself could not recall the correct order.He weighed eight pounds four ounces and, from the beginning, suffered from colic. The crying finally stopped when he had an operation for adenoids in May 1920. Along with Pierre’s physical health, Grace recorded his spiritual growth in a diary. It began with his baptism, followed by the moment in October 1921 when two-year-old “Pierre made the sign of the cross.” In December he began to say his prayers alone and “blessed Papa, Mama, Suzette etc.”Six months later the proud mother recorded that her precociously bilingual child knew “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” “Little Jack Horner,” “Au clair de la lune,” and “Dans sa cabane.” She continued dutifully to collect mementos of Pierre’s life – school essays, marks, news clippings, and letters–until he finally left her home in the 1960s as a middle-aged man.

Editorial Reviews

“A sensitive, thoughtful and beautifully written biography of one of Canada’s most intriguing figures by a leading Canadian historian. This first instalment shows that if anyone can unpick the puzzle of Pierre Trudeau and help us to understand both his many-faceted personality and his impact on his times, it is surely John English.”
–Dr. Margaret MacMillan, author of Paris 1919

Citizen of the World is more than just another volume on an already overcrowded shelf. It offers
the most intimate look at the most dominant of Canadian political figures in modern times.”
The Gazette (Montreal)

“The most illuminating Trudeau portrait yet written. . . . John English was given full access to the gold mine–all of Mr. Trudeau’s diaries, letters and papers. It is from that kind of entrée that truths emerge. The Trudeau story is more wondrous than imagined.”
The Globe and Mail

“English’s work is very readable, balanced in judgment and of course deeply informed. . . . Trudeau’s energy, passion, ambition, wit and intellectuality leap off the page, leaving this reader once again with a sense of the extraordinary nature of his life and character.”
Winnipeg Free Press

“[A] magisterial biography drawing on many previously unpublished letters and diaries.”
National Post

Praise for The Worldly Years: The Life of Lester Pearson:

“A magnificent biography.”
The Globe and Mail

“John English captures all Pearson’s accomplishments in wonderful, readable detail. . . . Pure pleasure and pure insight.”
Calgary Herald

Ottawa Citizen

“A multi-dimensional portrait that rings true from beginning to end. A pleasure to read.”
The Gazette (Montreal)

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