Justin Trudeau’s B.C. playground

Teaching kids to snowboard in Whistler, Trudeau found a place to emerge from his father’s shadow

by Ken MacQueen

Breaking out of bounds

Ian Lindsay/Vancouver Sun

He said his name was Justin—just another itinerant snowboard instructor at the Whistler-Blackcomb resort, there in the winter of 1997 for the crappy pay, occasional tips and the all-important mountain pass. He was assigned to Sean Smillie’s Ride Tribe boarding classes. Lord knows Smillie could use the help. “We’d juggle 100 little kids a day on the mountain, running round, chasing after them,” Smillie recalls 15 years later over a coffee in Vancouver’s Gastown.

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“If you can imagine, learning how to snowboard is about one of the funniest things in the world for a kid, so I had to have a really particular kind of staff,” says Smillie. This Justin guy, a student at the University of British Columbia, was studying to be a teacher. He was great with kids, was a gifted, if chaotic, boarder and clearly knew the terrain. Strange thing was this Justin boarded in a fireman’s jacket, at least until he got his official instructor’s uniform, which was . . . unusual. But, whatever, it’s Whistler, right?

Smillie and his instructors were all of similar age and disposition. Loved the kids, loved the social life, loved above all the downtime carving tracks on virgin snow on the most extreme runs on the two mountains. Smillie’s job was to cruise the classes, and help out where needed. “Justin always got the wild, crazy kids who were running all over the mountain. He was perfect for that, so I ended up working with him a lot, riding with him and the kids. We became buddies out of that.” Still, says Smillie, “I had no idea who he was, not for months and months. No clue.” When you’re young and you work at a resort like Whistler, you tend to live for the moment and the weather forecast; the past is parked outside the bubble. Finally someone mentioned that his buddy was the eldest son of ex-prime minister Trudeau. That Trudeau? “I kind of did the sudden stop—wait a minute!” Smillie says. “I just kind of asked him one day: ‘Is your father Pierre?’ And that was it.” Life went on as before.

Trudeau wasn’t hiding his surname, Smillie says, he just wasn’t advertising it. It’s understandable, says another friend of his, that if you were born on a Christmas Day as the eldest son of one of Canada’s most famous families, you’d want to make your mark and avoid the notoriety as long as possible. Perhaps that’s why Pierre’s three sons came of age largely beyond public view: Alexandre (Sacha), the middle son, travelling in Africa; Michel, the youngest, working at Red Mountain ski resort in Rossland, deep in south-central B.C.; Justin, as elusive as yesterday’s tracks in the snow, shuttling between university and later teaching duties at a private school in Vancouver, with weekends and holidays in Whistler. It would take the deaths of two of those closest to Justin—brother Michel and father Pierre—to thrust him into public view.

British Columbia was more than a playground and refuge for the Trudeau boys, it was something of a third home, after Ottawa and Montreal. Their mother Margaret came from a family famous in its own right. Her father, James (Jimmy) Sinclair, was a Liberal organizer, elected in 1940 as MP for North Vancouver. He served 18 years, seven of those as fisheries minister and B.C. fixer under Louis St. Laurent. The Sinclair Centre, an imposing stone block of high-end retail and federal offices in downtown Vancouver, is named for Jimmy. So too is Justin Pierre James Trudeau.

Pierre and Margaret were married in B.C.; they honeymooned in Whistler. Much of Margaret’s family remains in the province. Justin’s first real job, teaching French, literature and a bit of drama, was at Vancouver’s exclusive West Point Grey Academy. Michel’s body rests in the depths of Kokanee Lake. Justin’s bond with the province is profound.

In those carefree board-bum days, Justin’s Trudeau-Sinclair pedigree went mostly unnoticed or unremarked upon, says Smillie. In the public imagination, he was still a little kid swinging from Dad and Mom’s arms. Many of the boarding students were kids from Britain, Saudi Arabia or elsewhere. Canadian kids were unlikely to make the link between a former prime minister and their hyperkinetic mid-20s instructor. “Justin was literally as big a kid as the rest of them,” Smillie says.

Smillie describes a hand-to-mouth existence far removed from Trudeau’s previous life at 24 Sussex Dr., Ottawa. On Friday nights, Justin would arrive in Whistler from university and later his teaching job, to crash on Smillie’s couch to be ready for teaching or riding, if they weren’t needed at the boarding school. His car was a battered monster of a Mercedes, if Smillie’s memory serves. “We called it the staff car. We always thought it should have belonged in a movie with flags coming off it. It was really big and old and wide, and just terrible. It had holes in it. We’d throw our boards in the back. That thing was pretty much a death trap in the winter.”

Meals were a steady diet of fast food if they were flush (Trudeau still makes a regular pilgrimage to B.C.’s White Spot hamburger chain), or Kraft Dinner if they weren’t. Politics was rarely ever on the menu. The subjects were the day’s boarding, history—a subject both men have a passion for—and the endless stream of action and horror movies they watched when there wasn’t enough tip money to go out. Smillie would bounce ideas for screenplays and video game scenarios off Trudeau. Smillie would go on to play a key role in producing and designing the SSX extreme-snowboarding video games for Electronic Arts before striking out as a freelance game designer and screenwriter.

“None of us have ever been big-time drinkers, partiers. It wasn’t the reason for being there. The group of guys we hung out with, we had all come to Whistler for the exact same reason, which was actually the ride,” Smillie says. “It wasn’t so much the partying and the female population. That was a nice benefit.”

Trudeau was controlled chaos on the slopes, flying down the mountains, cutting paths through the trees. “He’s not the guy you want to ride behind because you’re going to get a big, long limb in the face if you got too close.” Inevitably, the last ride of the day was a race from the top of Blackcomb to the bottom, cutting through about 10 different runs. In all the hundreds of days they logged on the mountains, there were no injuries. “We were very, very lucky,” says Smillie, “and a little bit stupid.”

The easy times ended as suddenly as the avalanche that swept Michel Trudeau into Kokanee Lake on Nov. 13, 1998, while he was backcountry skiing in B.C.’s Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park. He was 23. The family was devastated. Margaret, already emotionally fragile, seemed in a daze. Pierre looked frail and diminished. Many Canadians were shocked to see a reversal of roles at the funeral. This time the parents were held up by Justin and Sacha—two strong young men who had grown into adulthood far from the public eye. Sacha had aided in the futile search for Michel. Justin took the role of family spokesman. “[Justin] was able to pull his family together and be a rock when his dad was devastated,” says Bruce Young, a friend of Justin’s, a former Liberal staffer in Ottawa and a backroom organizer in B.C. “He was devastated, too, but he was the one who held it together when his old man and his mother weren’t able to,” Young says. “It was kind of a moment where he became the man in the family.”

Justin threw himself into a public role for the first time in his adult life, raising funds and awareness with the Canadian Avalanche Association. He gave speeches and staged fundraising events across the province, and with the help of his mother and brother, raised money to build a hiker’s cabin in the park dedicated to Michel and 16 others who had died in avalanches in the area.

He and Smillie filmed avalanche-awareness spots for use on MuchMusic. “I won’t speak for [Justin],” says Smillie, “but what I saw was that his brother loved the mountains, so I think it was important to him to talk about the safety aspect.”

It wasn’t long after Michel’s death before Justin was back ripping down mountains again. He found solace there among his friends. “It was a big turning point for us in a way, because all of a sudden, we had to look at our own riding,” says Smillie. “We started wearing helmets. And we were a little less inclined to go charging out of bounds. I think it was also a big moment of checking your own mortality at that age.”

Real life was intruding. Jobs pulled several buddies away from Whistler. Justin, at 29, had thrown his enthusiasm into teaching. Smillie, in the summer of 2000, roomed at Justin’s Vancouver apartment awaiting the start of a video-gaming job that fall. That September it was clear that Pierre, stricken with Parkinson’s disease and prostate cancer, was failing. Justin, Sacha and Margaret maintained a bedside vigil until his death on Sept. 28.

Of the funeral that followed, nothing is as memorable as Justin’s eulogy—a beautiful celebration of a man, a father and a prime minister, delivered with pain and poise, and the polish of an orator. It brought many Canadians to tears. And like most everything a Trudeau touches, it brought more than its share of criticism. It inspired an academic paper: “Je t’aime, Papa”: Theatricality and the Fifth Canon of Rhetoric in Justin Trudeau’s Eulogy for his Father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Right-wing journalist Peter Worthington slagged his “performance” as a neo-political speech. “I’m not suggesting his grief wasn’t real, but Justin, a drama teacher, is his father’s son and the father was a consummate actor, ham, show-off, poseur, exhibitionist . . .”

At the funeral, Justin’s mother saw no artifice, only a shattered son, “looking almost as if he had fallen on his father’s coffin,” she wrote in her memoir Changing My Mind. She tried to rise to comfort him, but it was Cuba’s Fidel Castro, a family friend, who held her back: “He’s a man, Margaret. He’s a man.” In a sense, Castro had it right. After that funeral, neither fan nor foe saw Justin in the same light again; certainly not as the little boy at his parents’ side.

The day of the funeral in Montreal, there was a poignant memorial service for Trudeau conducted by staff and students around the flagpole at West Point Grey Academy. It was clear the students were grieving for their popular teacher as much as this statesman they knew only from history books. He was a French teacher to some, an English lit teacher to others; an ultimate Frisbee coach after-hours.

Later headmaster Clive Austin told of a day during the summer term of 1999 when Justin proudly showed his father around the school. “He was walking down the hallway with his dad and there was a student behind him, who said, ‘Mr. Trudeau, can I please speak with you for a moment?’ ” Austin recounted. “And Justin turned about and said, ‘Dad, this young lady would like to talk to you.’

“And she said, ‘No, Mr. Trudeau, I want to talk to you.’ And he suddenly realized,” Austin said, “he was not under the shadow of his father’s name.”

The Justin that Bruce Young knows is that man: the confident husband, father and politician. They became friends in 2007 during a fact-finding trip to Israel. Young had done extensive research, but it was clear from Trudeau’s questions and his grasp of players and events, that he’d read more and prepared better. “I realized then he was smart, and I realized what has been proven out in other circumstances, that he was a fairly serious preparer.” It was how he won the nomination and back-to-back elections in his largely sovereignist Montreal riding, how he trained for a certain boxing match, how he came out against the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline across B.C.; and how Young expects he will lay the groundwork for his run for the Liberal leadership.

“People get into this infantile discussion: ‘Is he more like his father? Is he more like his mother?’ From the perspective of an organizer, he’s more like his grandfather [Sinclair],” says Young. “His grandfather was a tough-nosed, old-school Scottish-Canadian political operative from the North Shore. He organized block-by-block, street-by-street—ask people for their support, shake their hands, sit down at the kitchen table. That was his grandfather.” A grandfather who was a high school teacher, too, long before he became a politician.

Sometimes, back in the day, Smillie would wonder whether his friend would follow his father’s path into politics. It’s something they never really discussed, as “it seemed like a million miles away.” Even now when they speak, it’s about other things: Smillie’s latest project, or Trudeau’s wife and kids, or a catch-up on the old Whistler gang.

He’s pleased at the buzz his old pal is generating. “If everyone is going to be talking about politics, and the people in politics, inevitably they’re going to start talking about the issues in politics, so I think it’s great.” Justin Trudeau will throw himself into this the way he throws himself down a mountain, Smillie predicts. Anyone who plays follow-the-leader is in for one hell of a ride.

Justin Trudeau’s B.C. playground

  1. “Anyone who plays follow-the-leader is in for one hell of a ride.”

    Kids playing follow the leader?

    “He was great with kids, was a gifted, if chaotic, boarder and clearly knew the terrain.”

    Organized chaos?

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