Documenting the Common Folk

Memoirs of a Less Travelled Road: A Historian’s Life
Published on October 1, 2002

Memoirs Of A Less Travelled Road: A Historian’s Life
Marcel Trudel

Véhicule Press

Marcel Trudel is an eminent Canadian historian who recently added the prestigious Prix du Québec to his many awards. He is also, as he explains in this English translation of his compelling 1987 memoirs, “a living document of twentieth-century Quebec, especially in the years before the Quiet Revolution.”

Born in 1917 in rural Saint-Narcisse-de-Champlain, Trudel was raised “like someone…in the eighteenth century.” The Roman Catholic Church still dominated French Canada. “A mother hadn’t fulfilled her duty until she’d had ‘her dozen,'” and career choices were severely limited. Trudel’s mother died when he was five and his father headed for Montreal, leaving Trudel and his eight siblings with various relatives. Trudel was adopted begrudginly by an aunt and uncle in their fifties, and because of limited space, he slept on a corn-leaf mattress in the bathtub. The aunt was a disciplinarian who kissed him only at New Year’s; the uncle, though of limited education, instilled in Trudel a love of books and of the outdoors.

At age eight, without explanation, Trudel was packed off to a “wretched” orphanage in Trois-Rivières. He was later transferred to an excellent boarding school and flourished intellectually. “I continued to be content with my own company, living from day to day for my studies. I asked nothing of anyone, neither material things…nor affection. I was filled with beautiful dreams, and they made me happy.

One of his dreams was a “career in the Franciscan cowl…teaching Latin, Greek, and literature.” But in 1935, seven months before his graduation, he was expelled from the Franciscan College Séraphique in Trois-Rivières. Although a brilliant student, he’d shown a rebellious streak. The expulsion shattered Trudel’s plans for the priesthood, but he finished his schooling in another seminary and went on to earn a doctorate in literature at Laval University. Changing disciplines, he embraced Canadian history and continued to show a rebellious streak by publicly criticizing Quebec textbooks that harped on French-Canadian “grievances, revenge and survival” while they extolled nationalist and religious causes and heroes. He advocated that historians follow scientifiv principles in their work, use “documentary proof,” and eschew “ideology.”

Beginning in the late 1940s, Trudel pioneered the “new history” at Laval. In the mid-1960s, however, he found himself ostracized for being involved in a movement calling for civil marriage and non-denominational schools. He switched to Carleton University and then the University of Ottawa, retiring in 1982.

As a professor, Trudel was concerned with “the down-to-earth,” examining how the common man ate, dressed, and lived. He helped establish scholarly institutes and journals, conducting painstaking research, and wrote or co-edited over 30 books, several of them controversial. For instance, L’esclavage au Canada français revealed that French Canadians, including ecclesiastics, owned slaves during the French Régime.

In Memoirs of a Less Travelled Road, Trudel provides a vivid account of his youth in a society preoccupied with “eternal salvation.” But he is circumspect about his private life as an adult, making no more than fleeting references to his family, divorce, remarriage, and decision to leave the Church in 1963. He prefers to concentrate on his career and contributions to Canadian historiography. At times he offers excessive detail – he notes, for example, the earnings from each of his books. Overall, however, he has given us a deeper understanding of a now-vanished Quebec and the role that historical research and teaching have played in the province’s transformation since the 1960s. mRb

Louise Abbott is the author of Eeyou Istchee: Land of the Cree and director of the documentaries Nunaaluk: A Forgotten Story and The Ahiarmiut: Out-of-the-Way Dwellers.



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