Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Shaughnessy Cohen Prize Series, with Max and Monique Nemni

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Max and Monique Nemni

This year marks the twelfth iteration of the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, presented by the Writers’ Trust of Canada. The prize rewards the year's finest book tackling a political subject of interest to Canadian readers.

This year, Open Book speaks to each of the five finalists as the April 25 announcement approaches. Be sure to visit our site and catch all of the interviews!

Husband and wife team Max and Monique Nemni won the 2006 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for the first instalment of their Trudeau biography, Young Trudeau: Son of Quebec, Father of Canada, 1919-1944. Their hotly anticipated continuation, Trudeau Transformed: The Shaping of a Statesman 1944-1965 (McClelland & Stewart), is shortlisted for this year's award. The Nemnis, who are both retired university professors, were close to Trudeau and received his approval to write his intellectual biography.

Max and Monique talk with Open Book about Canada's beloved maverick prime minister, including surprising revelations about his young life.

Open Book:

Tell us about the book for which you were shortlisted.

Max & Monique Nemni:

This is the second volume of an intellectual biography of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. In Volume 1, we were dismayed to discover that contrary to what we, like everyone else thought, the young Trudeau of the 1930’s and early 1940’s was not rowing against the current. He was very much the product of his milieu and, more specifically, of his Jesuit upbringing. Like the great majority of the people around him, he believed that liberal-democracy was a deeply flawed regime, whereas an autocratic regime led by a strong and benevolent leader, working hand in hand with the Church, was an ideal form of government worth fighting for. Indeed, for a short time he was a member of a revolutionary clandestine group aiming at the creation of an independent, French, Catholic, corporatist (a euphemism for pro-fascist), and autocratic Quebec, called Laurentie.

In Volume 2, we witness, step-by-step, the surprising emergence of the man who has forever marked the Canadian consciousness. Every chapter challenges misconceptions about Trudeau’s thoughts and actions from the time he left Montreal in 1944 to study at Harvard, to his first election as a Mount Royal Liberal MP, in 1965. For example, it is generally believed that he was perfectly happy to have finally found at Harvard people who shared his liberal philosophy. In fact, Harvard was a shock that forced him to reexamine his core values and beliefs.

Similarly, Paris was not all fun, plays and concerts. There he studied, and attended numerous lectures by renowned personalities, such as Jean-Paul Sartre. It is also in Paris that he gave his very first public lecture on the situation of Quebec within Canada. In London, as is well known, Trudeau studied under Harold Laski, whom he greatly admired. But what is never mentioned is that during his year in England he witnessed the workings of the very first Welfare State, an experience that would mark his search for the Just Society. And, when he embarked on his worldwide travels in 1948-49, he was not simply seeking new adventures. Rather, he was attempting to grasp the many forms of political governance around the world.

Some still believe that Trudeau sprung on the federal scene coming out of nowhere. In fact, as soon as he came back home, in 1949, he played a very active and important role in the struggle against clericalism and nepotism; which to him were the two evils that arrested Quebec’s progress. Believing that the federal system was the best possible form of government for French as well as English Canadians, he ceaselessly promoted it. And when separatism arose in the early sixties, it became to him the new obstacle, which he sought to overcome. This, in fact, explains his passage to federal politics in 1965.

OB:

In your opinion, what qualities or characteristics signify that a book can be considered political writing?

M&MA:

This is a difficult question. To some, politics is everywhere. We do not go that far but we believe that politics should be given a fairly broad meaning. It isn’t just the preserve of political parties or even of parliamentarians, but rather the interaction between human beings and the organization of their society. Any book that clarifies these interactions should be considered a political writing. For this reason, we are happy that Empire of the Beetle, by Andrew Nikiforuk, and Imaginary Line: Life on an Unfinished Border, by Jacques Poitras, are also short-listed for the Shaughnessy Cohen prize.

OB:

The prize is presented at an evening event in Ottawa called Politics and the Pen. What are you most looking forward to about P&P? Have you attended before?

M&MA:

We are fortunate to have received the award for the first volume of our biography of Trudeau. We had a memorable time in Ottawa. All finalists were pampered for two days. So we know we will have a wonderful time, whether we win or not.

OB:

If you were to recommend one past finalist or winner of the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize to readers, which title would you choose?

M&MA:

How could we choose a title other than our own: Young Trudeau?

OB:

What can you tell us about your next project?

M&MA:

We are taking some time off. If we embark on a new project, it would be a Volume 3 of the biography of Trudeau. We would look at his years in power using the kind of perspective we have adopted in the first two volumes.


Max and Monique Nemni are retired university professors who spent most of their working lives in Quebec. They were friends of Trudeau, who encouraged them to become the editors of Cité Libre and agreed to let them write his intellectual biography. The authors have both been much published in academic publications in both English and in French. They now live in Toronto.

For more information about Trudeau Transformed: The Shaping of a Statesman 1944-1965 please visit the McClelland & Stewart website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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