What if . . .

Brian Mulroney’s son Ben is host of the pop culture hit Canadian Idol and Pierre Trudeau’s son Justin plays a Canadian war hero in the docudrama The Great War, now being filmed by director Brian McKenna.

The two sons of former prime ministers are apparently headed on different career paths, though in the same medium of television. 

While it is difficult on most levels to debate the merits of reality TV shows such as Canadian Idol, there is little that can be said against making a docudrama about Talbot Mercer Papineau. This four-hour series will be aired next April to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. The only criticism that has surfaced about this TV docudrama is that the son of the now deceased Trudeau is playing the lead.

Jeffrey Simpson, a columnist with the Globe and Mail, said Trudeau’s father was “no Talbot Papineau,” despite the musings of Sandra Gwyn, who wrote in Trapestry of War — a much-praised social history of the First World War — that Papineau “was clearly cut out for stardom ... the product of two cultures, in some ways the Pierre 

Elliott Trudeau who never was.”

If one gets past the youthful foolishness of Pierre Trudeau, the similarities between the two men are actually quite extraordinary. Both were born in Quebec, the product of an English-speaking mother and a French-speaking father and both were flawlessly bilingual. Both travelled the country seeking to impart a greater understanding of Quebec and both battled against the narrow nationalism of their home province.

While Papineau had his sights set upon a political career after the war, his death at age 37, during the bloodbath known as the Battle of Passchendaele, meant this dream would never be fulfilled, much to the detriment of Canada. His is truly one of those “what if ...” speculations that sometimes pop up when discussing the vagaries of history.

Papineau is a great figure in Canadian history whom virtually no one now remembers. Gwyn called him the “beau ideal of his generation: handsome, clever and athletic, a gifted orator and writer, impeccably bilingual, and possessed of a charismatic personality.” 

Papineau at first saw the war as a great adventure, but soon reasoned there could also be great causes associated with its successful conclusion. He saw the war as a potential  great healer of the wounds caused by the tensions that existed between French and English Canada. To this purpose, Papineau tried to bridge the gap between the two cultures by purposely joining the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry — he was its only French-speaking officer.

“As I write, French and English Canadians are fighting and dying side by side. Is their sacrifice to go for nothing or will it not cement a foundation for a true Canadian nation ... independent in thought, independent in action, independent even in political organization — but in spirit united for high international and humane purposes to the two Motherlands of England and France?” Papineau asked of his cousin Henri Bourassa.in an open letter in the Montreal Gazette on July 28, 1916. Bourassa was a Quebec journalist and nationalist who said that Canada should not become embroiled in a foreign war which he believed only furthered the cause of imperialism, 

Bourassa said his cousin as not qualified to be called French-Canadian since he had American roots (his mother was from a prominent Philadelphia family) and was schooled in Britain (law degree from Brasenose College, Oxford). 

“To preach Holy War for the ‘liberties of peoples’ overseas, and to oppress the national minorities within Canada is,” replied Bourassa a week after Papineau’s letter, “in our opinion, nothing but odious hypocrisy.” 

“As a (French) minority in a great English-speaking continent,” Papineau told his cousin, “... we must rather seek to find points of contact and of common interest than points of friction and separation. We must make certain concessions and certain sacrifices of our distinct individuality if we mean to live on amicable terms with our fellow citizens or if we expect them to make similar concessions to us.”

In 1915, he said that he wanted “to see Canadian pride based on substantial achievements, and not on the supercilious and fallacious sense of self-satisfaction we have borrowed from England.”

Major Papineau died in one of those First World War battles that shouldn’t have been. British commander General Douglas Haig ordered the Third Battle of Ypres to start on July 31, 1917. Despite the carnage wrought — 310,000 Allied casualties and 260,000 German casualties — and the realization it was a severely flawed plan that would not lead to a breakthrough, he didn’t let up on the attack until November 6. 

As the losses mounted, Haig was under increasing pressure to make good on his boasts to shatter the German lines. A way out was offered by General Julian Byng, who had commanded the Canadians when they captured Vimy Ridge. “If anyone can do it, it’s the Canadians,” he told Haig.

Haig called Canadian General Arthur Currie and told him to take Passchendaele Ridge. Currie at first refused, saying the mud-filled and impassable terrain would would result in 16,000 casualties and the attack would not fulfill any useful purpose. Haig persisted, threatening Currie, who had to relent under explicit orders.

The Canadian attack was successful, pulling Haig’s career out of the fire. But, there had been 16,000 Canadian casualties as Currie had predicted. On October 31, among the dead was Papineau. Before he had gone over the top, Papineau told Major Hugh Niven, “You know, Hughie, this is suicide.” Papineau became another statistic of the war. 

The final words belong to Gwyn, who wrote: “No other figure provides a more arresting metaphor for Canada during the war years: the reality of promise 

unfulfilled; the burgeoning of Canadian 

nationalism, but also the widening gap between the two cultures.”

What if ...