A star rookie’s shot

After much speculation and mockery, Trudeau was in Ottawa. What came next?

Justin Trudeau holds his son Xavier as they walk through  the main foyer following the Liberal caucus meeting on Parliament Hill on Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2008 prior to the speech from the throne.  Sean Kilpatrick/CP

Justin Trudeau holds his son, Xavier, as they walk through the main foyer following the Liberal caucus meeting on Parliament Hill on Nov. 19, 2008, prior to the speech from the throne. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

The camera comes on and his eyes light up. Standing amid the stacks on the second floor of the parliamentary library, he stares directly into the lens and talks effusively about getting young people to “care” about the political process. He’s been asked to tape a clip for Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister, a game show that asks overly eager young people to revel in their premature delusions of political grandeur. He gets it on the first take—“You’re a pro,” murmurs the producer—but he does his spiel a few more times to be sure, then, after pausing for a moment to translate in his head, does it again en français. The cameraman takes a moment to tell him how he followed his father on a trip to Crete and remembers Justin as a boy. As he’s leaving, a Hill staffer tells him how nice it is to see another Trudeau in Ottawa. Out the library door, there’s a tour group of middle-schoolers who are visibly impressed at coming across him. He stops to shake a few hands, then he’s off, leaving another group to merely gawk from afar. He has to get back to his office. There’s paperwork to finish.

“There’s a real sense of … fitting in. Obviously there’s a depth of responsibility, of almost majesty to the place, there’s this weight of, ‘Here you’re doing something that’s huge.’ But I’ve been working so hard for this for the past couple of years,” he says. “I remember seeing interviews with various people who’ve had successes at various points, where they say, ‘Wow, I feel like tomorrow I’m going to wake up and someone’s going to say, “It’s all been a sham, you’re out of here.” ’ And I have to admit I’ve felt like that a few times in my life. Talking about this right now, I realize I have absolutely no fear of that here. And I know myself enough to know I would be feeling that if I was just here on my name, if I was just here on family business. It’s because I know how hard I worked and how much I built with the people in my riding that I’m here for. That, yes, there’s a sense of importance in the solemness of what I’m doing. But this is my place right now. This is my place.”

After all the speculation and supposition and theorizing and celebration and criticism and mockery, Justin Trudeau has arrived in Ottawa. And he, for one, seems quite happy about that. But the central question of his public existence remains the same as it was before he got here: what’s next?

For the record, Justin Trudeau is not an idiot. At least insofar as he knows you might think he is—given how far his stature seems to outstretch the “seriousness” of his background—and few true idiots are so self-aware. “All my life I’ve had people coming at me with certain expectations and certain images of me. And either you build up a wall or you say, you know what, I’m me and take it or leave it,” he explains. “One of two things is going to happen. People will either decide, ‘Wow, Justin’s changed, he’s gotten so much more depth and so much more serious.’ Or they’ll say, ‘Well, maybe we were wrong. Maybe he had it all along.’ Bottom line, I don’t care which one they say because my story is my story.”

The story so far is as follows. The oldest son of Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Margaret Sinclair, he was born on Christmas Day, 1971, and declared the second coming of the father shortly after he finished eulogizing him to a national TV audience in 2000. Seven years of anxious scrutiny ensued. He taught high school students, got married (to TV correspondent Sophie Grégoire), had a son (Xavier James), gave speeches on young people and civic responsibility and the environment, starred in a CBC miniseries about the Second World War, supported Gerard Kennedy for the Liberal leadership and won the party’s nomination in the Montreal riding of Papineau. This fall he beat the Bloc Québécois incumbent to become one of 77 Liberal MPs.

He now has an office at the end of a dark hallway in the Confederation Building. A week after his arrival, the walls were still bare, the bookshelf half-filled with selections from Neal Stephenson, David Foster Wallace, Al Franken, Douglas Coupland, Sun Tzu, Thomas Friedman, Bill Maher, Norman Mailer, Michael Ondaatje, Al Gore and The Onion. An atlas was open on the coffee table. A collection of vintage encyclopedias had just arrived.

On his desk was piled the aforementioned paperwork, letters and memos to be reviewed, edited and signed, most of it ignored—to the frustration of his assistant—as Trudeau talked and talked. “For years I was asked by the media and by anyone, ‘Justin, are you going to go into politics?’ And I always said, ‘I could, I might, but I’m not sure.’ And I really wasn’t. It was far less inevitable than everyone thought it was. Because there are a lot of ways of making a difference. But I realize that this is the right one for me, right now.”

He says it wasn’t until after the last Liberal convention, in Montreal two years ago, that he decided to do what everyone else considered preordained. He was feeling a bit overexposed when it was over, so he decided to withdraw somewhat after Stéphane Dion’s victory. But Dion told him not to disappear too completely—he was going to be needed. “And until he said that I hadn’t taken seriously the idea that I might run. Not at all,” Trudeau says. “There needed to be that trigger.”

It’s still too early to say how closely his politics will follow his father’s legacy. He supported Dion and his message of better economics through tree hugging. But he realizes that an idea only matters if there is an organization capable of selling it, with a large pile of money to do so. He thinks he can be part of that, can help rebuild the colossus his father once led. He will co-chair the Liberal convention in May that will officially coronate Dion’s successor, Michael Ignatieff.

Otherwise, he wants only to be perceived as exactly what he is—a rookie MP who must earn whatever it is he seeks. He sits along the back row of the opposition benches with the rest of the Liberal freshmen and is officially the “associate critic for human resources and skills development (youth).” In one bit of early luck, he won the annual lottery to determine which MP will introduce the first private member’s bill. His office has said it will have something to do with young people. “I think before he came here there were a lot of preconceptions,” says fellow Liberal Mark Holland. “But I think he’s doing a lot to erase that. He’s come in with very much an attitude of wanting to get things done, wanting to be a part of the team, showing himself to be someone of a lot of depth, who has an enormous amount to offer.”

Depth is no small matter in this case, at least in the sense that many assume Justin Trudeau, he of the nice hair and pretty eyes and fancy way of talking, lacks it. “One might have an impression that maybe he wasn’t a crackerjack,” concedes Bruce Young, a party organizer in British Columbia and a friend. “But that would be wrong.”

Young recalls a political junket to Israel earlier this year and a meeting with a deputy minister in the government. “I was taken aback, frankly,” he says, “at the way in which Justin was able to engage in a detailed dialogue about nuclear proliferation in terms of Iran, what Walid Moallem had just said regarding the Hezbollah assassination which had happened, Syrian politics and the whole interaction between the Shia, the Christian, the Druze, the Sunni in the country. So any notion that this guy’s not got chops is BS. And anyone that would underestimate his intelligence would be doing so at their own peril.”

That might read like a threat. Or an attempt at foreshadowing.

Whatever his thoughts on nuclear proliferation, Justin Trudeau is still Justin Trudeau. His official swearing-in was an event, including a speech, a crowd of supporters and cameos from his mother, wife and infant son. His maiden remarks in the House were less noticed, the Liberals sending him up to question the state of the national treasury. “Will this government,” he asked, “make a commitment to restore Canada to a healthy and socially responsible economy, with practices and principles similar to those it inherited 2½ years ago?” Comparatively, it was an innocuous introduction. “Hardly an ‘inaugural speech,’ ” sniffed one columnist. “More like an ‘inaugural comment.’ Was this all planned beforehand, to avoid attracting public attention, getting the first speech thing over without getting noticed?”

The irony of that question is that it’s proof nothing Trudeau does can go unnoticed. When he first stepped into the Commons last month, he paused to take in his surroundings. “The best advice anyone gave you on your wedding day was pause regularly and just absorb it because it goes so fast,” Trudeau says. “That’s what I was doing.” The next day, another columnist accused him of “covetously” eyeing Dion’s chair in the process.

Whenever he walks the hallway that leads to the House, he passes the iconic portrait of his father, posed regally in a cape. He says he doesn’t always look at it, but when he made the ceremonial walk to and from the Senate on the afternoon of the Throne Speech, he made a point of reaching out and tapping it. A couple of weeks later, in the midst of the unprecedented democratic crisis experienced last month, he had to listen as Peter Van Loan, the minister of public safety, taunted him over the coalition with the separatist Bloc, invoking his late father’s name: “There’s Justin Trudeau, son of Pierre, going along for the ride.”

Even if the likes of Peter Van Loan are struck mute, there would still be the cameraman who went to Crete and the women who whisper his name as he walks by and the guy who’s just happy to see another Trudeau roaming these halls. In his office he’d noted that among the correspondence there was a picture someone had sent along, Trudeau as a young boy with his father. The sender did not wish to have the photo autographed, just wanted Trudeau to have it.

Of course, it is not simply that Trudeau is his father’s son, it’s that Justin is supposed to be some version of Pierre, another leader, another inspiration to strangers. In a way, that’s a compliment. There is no clamouring as yet for PM Ben Mulroney. There is no automatic expectation that the offspring of national leaders follow their fathers. Indeed, for all the children born to presidents and PMs, only twice in North American history has the privileged child followed the exalted parent—John Quincy Adams following John Adams and George W. Bush following George H. W. Bush. The most recent example didn’t work out so well.

So the fact there seems to be a desire to see Trudeau succeed and maybe even lead—one poll in the wake of the last election made him the top pick to lead the Liberals—surely speaks not only to something in his father, but to something in Justin. “There’s no question I am aware that there’s an image that goes with me. And I’m satisfied that that image, every day that goes by, it becomes a little more me and a little less my father,” he says. “The proportion can be debated, but I know that I’m taking the givens that my father’s legacy gave me and I’m building onto it my own identity. And it depends on the degree of cynicism of the journalist, on the political spectrum of the person I’m talking to, to decide where that balance is. But I know I’m steadily building my own legitimacy. That comes not through great coverage in the papers, it comes through the work I’m going to need to do.”

The work. He is relentless on this, as are his advisers. There is work to do for the people of Papineau, work to do as a new MP, work to do as a member of the Liberal party. There are hands to shake, speeches to give—in November he drew a crowd of 1,000 to a fundraising dinner in Charlottetown. He’s comfortable, he’s happy, but he can’t be satisfied. “Say what you like. I’m going to do what I do. I’m going to figure out if I’m good at this,” he says. And what then? What next? When it comes to the requisite part of every interview with Justin Trudeau, when the reporter must ask whether he wants to be prime minister someday—maybe even Canada’s next great PM—the response is long and complicated and noncommittal, but it’s not “no.”

“See, I mean that question in itself is so much more about what’s the end, what is the point. And politics isn’t…” Another 700 words follow before he arrives at the end of what is only vaguely an answer. He talks about being an MP, the Liberal party, government, cabinet, fighting poverty, staying grounded, family, education, the value of travelling, the importance of self-esteem in children, dreams, ego, journalism and Papineau. “I’m going to get through this step by step. And I’m going to keep trying to make a bigger and better difference in the world by whatever natural steps happen in front of me . . . ” He says that if he turns out not to be very good at politics, he’ll go back to teaching, or public speaking. “I’ll find a different way to be an activist to continue making a difference in the world. I will use the tools in the time they become available. But I’m not spending my time focusing on ‘oh, what if eventually.’ Because right now I have a lot of work to do right here. And it’s not … it’s the question I get asked all the time. Before I went into politics it was, ‘So Justin, when are you going into politics?’ And I had varying degrees of answers. Yes, it’s something that I thought about. But it wasn’t the only path. Is becoming a prime minister a possibility?” he asks rhetorically at one point. “Sure, I guess. But it’s a path among many. There’s not a member of Parliament in this place now who doesn’t think, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be great to be prime minister one day.’ But you can’t spend your time focusing on that because if you look too far ahead or dream about something else, not only are you in danger of stumbling over the immediate steps you’re involved with, but there’s something of putting an ego forward, of saying, ‘Well, yes, I’m obviously the answer to all the problems.’ I hope that everyone here can provide answers, but what role they have and what position they have is really something to be seen down the line.”

And so Justin Trudeau is just like every other politician to have ever graced this place. We could review again all the ways in which he is not like any other, but his assistant is getting impatient. It’s getting late and with all this talking, Trudeau’s far behind in his paperwork.


A star rookie’s shot

  1. Good article.

    A few comments, somebody needs to give that young lad a reading list, except for Ondaatje, that’s a pretty dismal library. I’ve seen Justin a couple of times on TV. Once when he gave his over-the-top eulogy at his dad’s funeral which made me cringe. The second was when I saw him interviewed on TV. He reminded me a lot of his mother, much less of his father. I doubt that the maternal resemblance will serve him well in politics.

    Still he seems so earnest and well-meaning, it’s hard not to wish him well and hope that he makes a contribution to politics in this country.

  2. What happened to “Just trudea is not an idiot”, which was the original title? And the first comment posted was “yes he is”. Poof, they’ve vanished!

    • Oh, sorry, I got the article confused with the blog post from Aaron Wherry.

  3. I wish him well.

  4. well, well, this is a first for me. I see my earlier comments have been removed. Perhaps i was a little harsh. It’s yr blog but really this is very sillly, it wouldn’t have even raised an eyebrow anywhere else. I hav’n’t a clue what i’m supposed to have learned from this. Beats me!

    • Oh dear what an idiot. The tittle is different. Sorry Aaron. Yr the best even better than PW, and he’s the bestest of all.

  5. justin seems to have inherited some worthwhile qualities anyway. I was struck by his reference to his immediate concern being to stay grounded and work hard. He also seems to have inherited his dad’s ability to live in the present moment, a more difficult trick than it may seem. He must have or had good parents, lucky lad. lol justin.

  6. Hmmm, I’m curious as to how much interview time was spent speaking about family and personality and how much time was spent on policy. I want to like J. Trudeau but this piece is a little too celebutant for my taste. If I were him I’d demand more policy-wonk-angle coverage next time around in order to be taken more seriously.

    • Sure, why not.
      After all, the media focuses on issues all the time, never personalities, trivial sound bites and horse-race-chatter.
      Take the last election for an example of such a debate. The media demanded so much of Harper (and he of them) to explain and defend his policies and explain why most economists liked the carbon tax and disliked Harper’s policies.

      It is time young Trudeau was subject to this high standard of scrutiny!

  7. Actually I think the Letters page said it all.

    I haven’t seen so much fawning coverage since Allan Rock alit to Ottawa. I think he became PM, or something like that.

  8. I wish him well. I see him getting pressured from both sides – the media wants a star and will be disappointed with too much policy wonk-ism, whereas segments of the public are eager to jump on him as soon as he articulates a viewpoint that departs from his father’s policy hymn book. He’s his own man – he’s allowed to be different, and to establish his own political brand. That said, I can see why people are turned off by some of the more fawning media attention – that kind of thing is as much a liability to him now as it is a boon. Demurring from that particular kind of attention (or at least seeming to enjoy it less) will help him appeal to people who aren’t necessarily old school “Trudeauites” but who will be more disposed to see him as his own creation in the long run; his long game is also helped by his appeal to an emerging generation that has little or no political memory prior to the 1990s. Catering to old school Trudeauites is of medium-term use to him – but in the long run he’ll need to catalyze a new generation of “neo-Trudeauite” in order to generate a political legacy of his own.

  9. Personally I am quite excited about the new and rising star and am looking forward to how he carries himself and what he gets done. It’s the fresh young whippersnappers with name recognition that make the HOC interesting. I even though a Conservative have to really admire him not following in his fathers footsteps and letting the LPC parachute him into an easy seat … instead he went out and earned his seat … and seats are what our system is about. Our poltical system is actually quite simple = Bums in Seats and every once in awhile you get to throw some out and get some new ones in. He gained a few political cookie points in my book for earning his seat hopefully his bum will be sitting in one after the next election after which if he earns it who knows maybe a critic spot hmmmm. Taking the seat from the BQ was perfect political irony.

  10. the Paris Hilton of Canadian politics … every country needs one!

    • Oh come now, she doesn’t speak French, does she?

  11. What does JT have to say about this bit of history?

    From the world wide web;

    “Pierre’s father owned a chain of gas stations in Quebec which he sold to Petro Fina prior to WWII. As payment, Pierre’s dad got a lot of shares in Petro Fina. This sale made Pierre Trudeau heir to a sizeable fortune. Pierre’s dad died leaving his fortune to his wife.

    In the 1970’s the Arabs jacked up the price of oil and the Canadian government under Pierre Trudeau decided it needed a national “toy” oil company, i.e. Petro Canada. The boys in Ottawa decided they needed a chain of gas stations in their “toy” oil company. Petro Fina owned a chain of gas stations in eastern Canada. The stock was trading at about 10 bucks. The government began negotiations with Petro Fina and its stock rose and rose and rose. Finally, the government closed the Petro Fina deal, got the chain of gas stations, paid Petro Fina big dollars and our government got more debt.

    Mrs. Trudeau got rich on the shares she held and Pierre was very happy to see his Momma get rich because he was the heir of her estate. A number of years later, Momma died and Pierre got rich too.

    The documents concerning the sale were sealed for fifty years as state secret.

    Pierre Trudeau, our CBC created national hero, was a crook.”

    Shouldn’t that Petrofina deal be unsealed so that the Auditor General can have a look and so Canadians can see how many other Liberals profited on the backs of taxpayers?

  12. Pingback: In conversation with Justin Trudeau, circa 2008 - Macleans.ca

  13. Pingback: We've covered Justin Trudeau all his life. Here's his story.

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