The Teeth of Time: Remembering Pierre Elliot Trudeau

The Teeth of Time: Remembering Pierre Elliot Trudeau
Published on October 1, 2006

The Teeth Of Time: Remembering Pierre Elliot Trudeau
Ramsay Cook

McGill-Queen's University Press

On the surface, The Teeth of Time is a simple memoir. Its title is taken from Yeats’s “The New Faces,” and it tells the story of the 40-year old “intellectual friendship” between the historian Ramsay Cook and the late Pierre Elliot Trudeau. Through the partial lens of friendship, however, Cook manages to cast an unexpectedly poignant light on historical events.

The work opens with a quote from the Greek general-historian Thucydides on the value of public life. It is followed by a section by Cook on the different types of friendship, the concept of which Aristotle deemed central to an understanding of the relation between individual and state. Cook goes on to remark that his friendship with Trudeau was not primarily personal, but based on “shared convictions.” Introduced in this way, Cook’s friendship with Trudeau – the leader of a state – takes on a larger significance.

The classical thread continues. During the tense period following the drafting of the Meech Lake Accord, Trudeau writes to Cook, “So carry on the fight, like the little band at Thermopylae. But will we have our Salamis?” Indeed the explicit drama of the book invokes the two friends as philosopher-warriors, intent on slaying the hydra of Quebec nationalism, strengthening the realm of federalism, and paying homage to the deity of civil liberties.

Cook’s loyalty to his fellow warrior is evident. Like Antony lauding Caesar’s lack of ambition, he admiringly recalls his friend’s imperviousness to flattery and coaxing, his “modesty and honesty,” stating that he was “above all ‘his own man.'” Cook’s deference is never more touchingly expressed than in the vaguely feudal manner in which, at one point, he refers to Trudeau as “my prime minister.”

Yet the book’s implicit drama consists of Cook’s struggle to reconcile this deference with his repugnance for the invocation of the War Measures Act in October 1970, shortly after the FLQ kidnapped (and later murdered) the Quebec Minister of Labour. Cook recalls that “the sight of armed soldiers on the streets of downtown Montreal…left me depressed.” He attempts to downplay Trudeau’s responsibility by relaying that the mayor of Montreal, the Quebec premier, and the Cabinet had all persuaded a reluctant Trudeau to invoke the Act. Still, what emerges is Cook’s enduring uneasiness with the fact that his “civil libertarian friend had resorted to the use of a piece of legislation that I believed should long since have been erased from the Statutes of Canada.”

The sense of uneasiness is never quite dispelled. Toward the end of the book, Cook engages in an extraordinary bout of self-questioning. After noting that Trudeau “embodied” certain ideas which he had always espoused, Cook then asks, “Had I now merely become an apologist for him?” The scholar who was once Trudeau’s speechwriter seems haunted by the idea that he was too much Trudeau’s man. He does not so much address this perturbation as draw the curtain on it. After acknowledging that he “saw things very much the way Trudeau did,” Cook baldly states that he “never once felt that our intellectual or personal friendship required me to sacrifice my objectivity as a historian.”

The resolution is unsatisfactory. The Teeth of Time, so full of affection and remembrance, is finally too respectful a book. This reviewer does not buy it. The reader is haunted, seemingly, on Cook’s behalf, and asks himself: Were we too much Trudeau’s men? mRb

Aparna Sanyal is editor of the mRb.



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