Canada's debt to the Nemnis (National Post, April 19, 2006)

Nobody wants to go to war, but there's nothing to compare to the feeling of having fought and survived a victorious one. Mine -- the 1995 Referendum and its toxic aftermath -- was a political nightmare, but thanks to Max and Monique Nemni, I was privileged to serve in an exciting "resistance movement."

It seems like a lifetime ago, but old battle memories were triggered by the recent launch of the Nemnis' first volume of Le Jeune Trudeau: Fils du Quebec, Pere du Canada, 1919-44 (the English version, translated by William Johnson, will be out in June).

Max and Monique Nemni are P.E.T.-o-philes. Egyptian-born, fluently bilingual, the dynamic husband-and-wife duo are both prolific academics in their respective fields of political science and linguistics, and, like Trudeau, left-leaning liberals, ardent federalists and formidable polemicists.

From now on their names, previously unknown to most English Canadians, will be associated with this (doubtless) tour de force of rigorous scholarship. But for me the names Max and Monique Nemni conjure up "la petite noirceur" of the nineties. Against a rising tide of separatist fervour, they led the charge of federalist warriors at Cite libre until, its mandate accomplished with the passing of the Clarity Act, they voluntarily retired the magazine -- that "little engine that could" -- in 2000.

The Nemnis were encouraged by Trudeau to take up the editorship of the feisty, shoestring-budget magazine in 1994. Trudeau had been Cite libre's founding editor in the fifties. Conceived as a counterforce to "la grande noirceur" of Duplessis, Cite libre helped return the Liberals to power in the 1960s, thus ushering in the Quiet Revolution.

Fast forward 35 years for deja vu all over again. Cite libre was revived from a long hibernation to serve as a counter-offensive to the myths and false promises of separatist juggernauts Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard. Most Quebec federalists were beside themselves with fear and outrage at the prospect of another referendum, all the more so for the vacuum of leadership on the scene in Montreal. The logical bandwagon to jump on should have been Chretien's mighty Liberal machine in Quebec but, sure of eventual victory, Chretien had chosen a strategy of lofty withdrawal from the fray.

Max and Monique were the right intellectual leaders in the right place at the right time. For the Nemnis, a day without a spirited defence of individual rights and a denunciation of ethnic nationalism is a day without sunshine. Their combined rhetoric -- his serious and ratiocinative, hers ironic and commonsensical -- provided an oasis of reason and high intelligence amidst the delusionary mirage of the separatists' demagogic claptrap.

Cite libre's bi-monthly dose of intellectual and moral clarity, and the monthly "salons" organized by Trudeau loyalist Jacques Hebert and animated by the Nemnis at La Maison Egg Roll were group therapy for federalists in those dark days. And although paid circulation of the magazine at its peak was never more than about 2,000, feedback made clear that it punched way above its subscription weight in federalist and separatist corridors of power.

The workaholic Nemnis ran the whole show -- first in French only, then in identical-content English and French editions. In the purest possible spirit of enlightenment integrity, they opened their pages to critical crossfire from separatist ideologues, and published social and cultural commentary alongside the magazine's political core, half of which they wrote themselves. Cite libre was a true labour of love, an homage to Trudeau, and a warm-up for their intellectual biography of him.

There are no atheists in fox holes, so during the war I accepted Trudeau as an icon of national salvation. With retrospection, though, I later concluded that Trudeau was the proverbial god that failed: He was wrong about multiculturalism, interventionist economics, the omission of language and property rights in the Charter, the elevation of the Supreme Court over Parliament -- and the credibility of Communist dictatorships.

Still, even though former battle comrades may take different lessons from the war once the dust settles, you can never think of them with anything but affection and respect. I daresay there isn't much today we would agree on politically, but I will always be grateful to Max and Monique -- indeed, all Canadians should be.

© National Post 2006