Trudeau biography sheds no light

The Outsider

Michel Vastel


266 pages

Despite the circus antics in the senate, the long shadow of the GST, this summer’s gripping battles for native sovereignty and justice, and the images of Canadian war vessels in the Persian Gulf, the present mob of politicians running the show in this country still somehow manage to be some of the most boring figures in our short history. With the prospect of three more years before any hope of change on the federal scene, it is no wonder that we have been flooded lately with retrospectives of our more compelling past (witness the recent Maclean’s magazine cover story on the October Crisis of 1970.

Within this torrent of political nostalgia have come several new books examining the life and ideas of one Pierre Elliott Trudeau. The Outsider, an unofficial biography of our 15th Prime Minister by Quebecois journalist Michel Vastel, is a decidedly one-sided look at the man who captivated and amused so many of his fellow citizens, and insulted and angered perhaps an equal number. Vastel approaches Trudeau’s life and political career from the limited perspective of a single unyielding premise that he was, for the most part, an unwilling member of the francophone minority, and that his intellectual stubbornness in the face of Quebec nationalism decided the course of his entire life in politics.

It is a seductive argument, and one which is competently presented, but too often the author indulges himself in pseudo-Freudian analyses of Trudeau’s personal and professional relationships, and works too hard at making past evidence fit into the mould of his preconceived conclusions. At one point he writes, “Trudeau found in [senior aides Michael] Pitfield and [Marc] Lalonde the rich son that he could have been, and the father he would like to have had.

Despite such unnecessary intrusions, Vastel is to be praised for his attention to Trudeau’s early political theorizing, especially as found in his writings for school papers and Cite Libre. And he does manage to bring a welcome freshness to some of the more over-reported incidents in Trudeau’s career: the profanity in parliament, the one-fingered salute, and the confrontation with national protesters as the 1968 St. Jean Baptiste Day parade in Montreal. These anecdotes are all colourfully documented and thankfully not overplayed, as they often were during their time.

Unfortunately, though, when Vastel reaches the two “greatest” moments in Trudeau’s long reign (the FLQ crisis and the constitutional debate), he adopt an annoying Mickey Spillane-style tone (seen elsewhere in his habit of describing women by the colour of their hair and the length of their legs) and tired metaphors of espionage and warfare in an attempt to raise his subject matter into some realm of proud Canadian mythology.

Admittedly, the October Crisis was a tense and violent series of events, and the signing of the constitution capped some pretty fierce closed-door dealings and misalliances, but in the end, it was just politics, after all. Trudeau the person is far more interesting than Trudeau the federal policy. It is himself, and not the events he directed, that deserve to rise out of the tainted arena.

When Lyin’ Brian has long since faded from the national consciousness like the remnants of a bad dream, the compelling image of our philosopher king will continue to fascinate and haunt us. A straight, unmythological account of Trudeau’s personality and ideas would be an interesting story indeed. Such an account is not to be found here.

Book challenges Western science

Staying Alive

By Vandana Shiva

Oxford Books

232 pages

Should the care of human beings be based on scientific knowledge? For many of us in the West, the answer must be “Yes.” For how else can everyone be fed, obtain shelter, and live with dignity? In Staying Alive, however, Indian nuclear physicist, philosopher and feminist Vandana Shiva argues that the answer is “No,” that scientific “progress” can in fact be an enemy of our species.

Shiva’s argument is that science has already led to multiple and continuing disasters — the destruction of forests, the displacement of people, the death of soil, the degradations of women. In contrast, local knowledge in village India provides a sustainable relationship with nature and with justice. Staying Alive is a detailed account of this alternative knowledge. It shows us we need not accept science as the unquestionable way to organize our lives.

The book is also a corrective to the environmental debate in Europe and North America. It shows that there has long been a network of resistance to the destruction of the environment in India. The network combines villagers displaced by forest destruction, dam construction and agricultural modernization with intellectuals of different persuasions: Marxists, Feminists, Hindu theologians. Together they have developed Gandhian forms of non-violent struggle to resist the destruction of the environment.

Staying Alive argues that science is intrinsically bound up with violence against both nature and people. To do this, the book draws upon works by such feminist scholars as Caroline Merchant (author of The Death of Nature) and Evelyn Fox Keller (author of Reflections on Gender and Science).

The book uses the revolution in agricultural technology to illustrate its point. For example, farmers in India have for years used a multitude of local grains suited to local conditions. Science has, however, recently entered new genetically altered “supergrains” into the picture. With the introduction of these strains, a whole network of local product (humus, straw, grains, water) and people is rendered redundant. It is replaced by a transnational network of research agencies, aid agencies, and chemical companies. The result: local people and their knowledge are displaced, and the web of relations between people and nature is rent.

The scientific response to these problems is, unsurprisingly, more science, and a resultant Biotechnology revolution to repeat previous mistakes.

Shiva’s argument, then, is that the violence science does to the integrity of Nature — breaking nature up into experiments on each “bit” in the laboratory to obtain scientific laws — in practice negates the knowledge villagers have of nature as a web of relations including humanity. This negation has been critical to a larger cycle of violence based on ideas of modernization, and supported, according to the book, by State and Capital. The result: disaster.

The book is full of tales of resistance. The Chipko women of the Henwal Ghati region, for example, came during broad daylight with lanterns to show forestry experts “the light”: that forests produce soil and water and not just timber and revenue. Their defiance thus represents a challenge to the monopoly on symbols of enlightenment by Western science.

Women are consistently at the centre of the book’s drama. Their roles as food providers, fuel carriers, and farmers mean that they play the key role of integrating people’s relationships with nature with the maintenance of village society. This is the core of Shiva’s work, that science has been the instrument for the disempowerment, displacement, and degradation of women in village India. This analysis also explains why women have been at the centre of resistance to scientific violence.

The book’s argument does have weaknesses. One problem is that it treats science as if it fit Shiva’s arguments. But there are other strands of science — ecology, for example — which do not.

The book’s strength is that it shows the existence in India of a vibrant network of opposition to the destruction of the environment and the destruction of people, and that this network interweaves traditional knowledge with a sophisticated knowledge of feminism. Staying Alive frees us of that poverty of imagination which dictates that we must make a choice between tradition and modernity.