Justin Trudeau lets the question hang in the air for long seconds before he exhales heavily and begins to answer. It can’t have taken him by surprise, but it’s not the sort of thing one wants to appear to be too cavalier, or God forbid, eager about. Why does he want to be prime minister?
The words are slow and deliberate at first, then gradually pick up steam. He touches on the deaths of his youngest brother and his father, more than a decade ago, and how the public outpourings of sympathy reinforced his already unique relationship with Canadians. He speaks of his own children, Xavier, 5, and Ella, 3, and his conflicting desires to spend more time with them, yet enhance their future. There’s a nod to the last few months of deliberation and doubt. He’s forthright enough to admit that the timing isn’t ideal—in a perfect world he’d have more Parliamentary experience, maybe even a stint in cabinet under his belt. But the opportunity to become leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, and thereby start auditioning for an even bigger job, is presenting itself now. And for better or for worse, he feels like it’s his destiny.
“Can I actually make a difference? Can I get people to believe in politics once again? Can I get people to accept more complex answers to complex questions? I know I can. I know that’s what I do very well. Why am I doing this? Because I can, not because I want to. Because I must.” His voice drops to a whisper on the final word. The bells at the church across the road from the café where we’re sitting in his Montreal riding are tolling the noon hour. It’s all gotten a bit dramatic. He catches himself and laughs. “I wish there was a simple, easy answer, but there’s a lot of factors. I guess it comes down to that I love this country, and I think I can do better than what we are currently getting from our politicians.”
It’s still two days before the official kickoff of his leadership campaign, but his ambitions are no longer a secret. Some carefully scripted leaks to the CBC and La Presse have set off an orgy of speculative coverage and cranky opinion pieces. Will the 40-year-old with the fantastic hair, piercing eyes and same crooked smile as Pierre replicate the Trudeaumania that carried his dad to 24 Sussex Dr. back in 1968, three years before he was born? Should anyone even bother to run against such a media darling? Why doesn’t he have a clear position on IMF bailouts or the F-35 fighter jet?
As he spoons up the thick remainders of his second hot chocolate of the session, constituents from his riding of Papineau—a poor, immigrant-heavy and overwhelmingly francophone slice of Montreal’s north end—stop by the table to wish him well. “You sent me a card for my birthday. You were the only one,” says one man. “You’ve got my support.” (Trudeau explains he sends such greetings to everyone in the riding, all of them handwritten.) When he first stood for election here as a rookie candidate in 2008 against a popular Bloc Québécois incumbent, few gave him a chance. The family name was better suited to monied turf like nearby Outremont, or the anglo bastion of Mont Royal—his father’s former stomping grounds—went the theory. But Trudeau campaigned like hell and pulled off a 1,200-vote upset. Then in 2011 he did it again, pushing his margin of victory to more than 4,300 ballots in a general election that saw Liberal support in Quebec—and the rest of the country—fall to a historic low. To date, the two Papineau campaigns have been his biggest political successes. And he’s fiercely proud of the victories—a refutation, he says of the widely held perception that he has somehow always had it easy. “I’m willing to work extremely hard. The idea that my father raised sons that expected anything to be handed to them, to not roll up their sleeves and work harder than anyone around them, is to not know my dad.” An elderly grey-haired woman interrupts, rapping insistently on the café window until she captures his attention, and extracts a smile and a wave.
The resumé is undeniably thin for someone seeking this country’s highest office. He holds a B.A. in English from McGill, and a bachelor of education from the University of British Columbia. For a time, he taught at two different Vancouver-area private schools—primarily as a math and English instructor, he is quick to point out, not drama as the press likes to make it out. (He took over a theatre class when a fellow teacher quit halfway through the year.) That was followed by stints studying engineering at the Université de Montréal, then environmental geography at McGill, although neither degree was completed. After the death of his brother Michel in a 1998 avalanche, he became a high-profile campaigner for winter-sport safety. He later chaired Katimavik, a national youth volunteer organization that was founded by one of his father’s best friends, and was euthanized this past spring by the Conservative government. And he once hosted the Giller Prize gala. For the last four years, he’s been an opposition MP, serving as the Liberals’ critic for youth, post-secondary education and amateur sport.
But to focus on what he’s not is to lose sight of what Justin Trudeau undeniably is: the most popular politician in all of Canada. A passionate orator and effective advocate for all sorts of causes. The kind of boldface name who can draw packed crowds to Liberal fundraisers anywhere in the country, whether it’s a barbeque in Windsor, Ont., university pub nights in Vancouver, or even a Stampede breakfast in hostile Calgary. A ubiquitous media presence at events as diverse as the premier of Deepa Mehta’s film Midnight’s Children at the Toronto International Film Festival, and a We Day rally for high schoolers at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. The kind of subject that sells magazines and newspapers.
Ever since he entered federal politics, polls have suggested that his personal popularity far outstrips that of his party or its leaders. One of the latest, for the Toronto Star this past June, found the Liberals would instantly vault from a distant third behind the NDP and the Tories, at 19 per cent, to first place, with 42 per cent, should he take over the reins.
With all the attention and adulation, it wouldn’t be hard to develop a messiah complex. But already “the son of,” he has been careful to guard against such delusions. When Michael Ignatieff stepped down as leader after the debacle of the last election, and Bob Rae was chosen as his interim replacement, Trudeau informed caucus colleagues that he had no desire for the top job. Privately he was considering giving up his seat and returning to teaching. “The last thing the party needed was another quick fix in leadership and that’s what a lot of people were turning to me for,” says Trudeau. “ ‘You know what? We made the wrong choice in the last ones, but this one will be fine, this one will save us.’ I was terrified that if I even hinted I wanted to do it that would remove the pressure on the party to actually change and do the kind of work it needs to do to regain the confidence of Canadians.”
It wasn’t a lack of desire—the idea of an eventual leadership bid had been part of the calculation when he entered politics. But he had figured that both he and Canadians would have more time to find comfort with the concept. As pressure built from within the party, he started re-evaluating his position last Christmas, seeking the opinions of friends and family. In June, he instructed Gerry Butts, a confidant since their McGill days and a former principal secretary to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, and Katie Telford, another ex-McGuinty adviser, to start assembling a campaign team, just in case. He spent the summer ruminating—although to outsiders the cross-country blitz of party events seemed almost indistinguishable from campaigning. A decision was finally reached in mid-August.
Trudeau could have announced back then, or when Parliament returned on Sept. 17, but he says it took longer to organize his team and tour events (he’s hitting Vancouver, Calgary and Mississauga, Ont., over the first three days) than anticipated. So the chosen date became Oct. 2, four days after the 12th anniversary of his father’s death, and what would have been Michel’s 37th birthday. The timing is pure coincidence, he says, although it pleases him. Trudeau still likes to celebrate the happy anniversaries, if not the sad ones. In fact, back in 2004, he proposed to his girlfriend, Sophie Grégoire, on Pierre’s birthday, Oct. 18, over champagne and oysters at a Montreal hotel, after a joint morning visit to his father’s gravesite.
There is no use denying the obvious. Trudeau is now the front-runner to take the mantle of the federal Liberal leadership mostly because of his family name. But the coming seven months—and if he wins, the three years before the next election—will be about convincing people he deserves it on his own merits. That at his core, there’s something more on offer than a recycled 1970s vision of the country and its people. But his first task is to cut through all the hype and nostalgia, and show people something new: “It’s about introducing the deeper side of me. A fuller perspective of who I am, than what people have been used to,” he says, his voice once again dipping into its huskier, serious register. “This is not a whim or a lark or a chance for me to enter another popularity contest. This is about us collectively pulling together to build a better Canada.”
As he approaches his 41st birthday, Justin Trudeau is taking himself seriously. What he’s gambling is that Canadians are finally ready to do the same.
Pierre Trudeau was 49 when he won the Liberal leadership convention in April 1968 and succeeded Lester Pearson, becoming Canada’s 15th prime minister. He was 52 when he finally got married to the former Margaret Sinclair, a woman 30 years his junior, and another birthday had passed when their first child, Justin, was born on Christmas Day, 1971. When the pair separated in 1977, Justin was 6, his brothers Alexandre and Michel, just 4 and 2. It was an unusual upbringing, to say the least, by an aging single dad who blocked out a couple of hours from his schedule each evening to come home, oversee homework, then tuck them in with Homer’s Odyssey as a bedtime story. And when the job demanded that he travel, Pierre often just packed the kids along. By the time he hit double digits, Justin had seen almost every corner of the country, and travelled much of the world, playing around the feet of power and witnessing history. “The first dead body I ever saw was Leonid Brezhnev,” he let slip to an interviewer from the Globe and Mail a few years back.
When Trudeau resigned in the spring of 1984, after almost 16 tumultuous years in power, and moved the family from Ottawa to Montreal it was a massive adjustment. That fall, Justin turned up at College Jean-de-Brébeuf, the same elite private school his father had attended more than 45 years before. He was 13, the son of a public figure who was as much reviled as loved, and on the wrong side of every political argument in a francophone high school. And to cap it off, he insisted on riding a unicycle to school. “You can imagine how that went over,” Marc Miller, a friend since Brébeuf days, now a Montreal lawyer and member of his campaign team, says wryly. “But we were a group of oddballs.”
His natural constituency in school was the outsiders—immigrants, the lone Jewish kid, and like him, the sons of “mixed” anglo-franco marriages. They formed a tight-knit club, and more than two decades later, remain part of each other’s lives, chatting or exchanging emails almost every week, and gathering a few times a year to celebrate birthdays and other milestones. “We keep him grounded,” explains Mathieu Walker, another old friend, now a cardiologist at a Montreal hospital. “For us he was never ‘Justin Trudeau.’ He was just a regular guy like us.”
Except that all his life, he has had to contend with not just his real father—a strict disciplinarian who demanded that only French be spoken at home once they moved to Montreal, and who kept Justin on such a tight financial leash that he had to borrow from his friends to finance his high school dates. But the mythic one as well—ladies man, gunslinger, scourge of separatists and Western premiers. A figure that others use to measure him, explain him, and most often, write him off. “All those people who lecture him on what his father was or wasn’t—I don’t know how he put up with it,” says Miller. “Wouldn’t you just want to deck them?”
So the people who want to cast his choice to enter the family business as the easy, or natural one, don’t get it. It’s in many ways the toughest life he could have chosen for himself. Although given how he was raised, maybe the only career where he could ever feel at home. “I always knew that this was his destiny, but I don’t think he believed that for a really long time,” says Walker. “He was a wonderful teacher, but it never felt like the right place. And he had a short attention span for those other things. But with politics, you really get the sense that he’s in it for the long haul.”
With little choice but to run as the candidate of change and renewal, Trudeau has gathered a team that is mostly notable for the absence of the usual backroom suspects. His brother Sacha is his chief Quebec lieutenant. Ben Chin, a former television journalist, is helping out in Ontario. Navdeep Bains, who lost his seat in Mississauga Brampton South in the last election, is a key organizer. The most direct link to the Trudeau family past might be Tom Pitfield, the son of Michael, who served as clerk of the Privy Council in the late 1970s.
Although at least one heavy hitter from the party’s past seems to think the son’s time has come. Speaking to reporters, Jean Chrétien praised him as a “good candidate,” and took on critics who question Trudeau’s relative lack of experience. “He’s been elected twice so far,” said the former prime minister. “It’s one more time than his father when he became the leader.”
“[Stephen] Harper had been elected once only when he became the leader. He had no experience. He was younger than Trudeau,” Chrétien continued, throwing in the examples of Joe Clark and the current U.K. prime minister, David Cameron, as precocious world leaders.
It was a nice vote of confidence, but Trudeau’s circle don’t want to see it become a trend. The third-place party desperately needs the type of attention that comes with a protracted and vigorous battle for the leadership. And Trudeau himself needs to be tested by friendly fire before walking into combat with Harper and the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair. “I think Justin’s at his best, like most human beings, when he’s got competition,” says Gerry Butts, who will be slotting his campaign duties around his day job as head of the World Wildlife Federation in Canada. “We want a full fight.”
With good reason. The defining moment of Trudeau’s young political career so far, didn’t come in the House of Commons, but rather a boxing ring, when he squared off in a charity bout against Patrick Brazeau, a 37-year-old Conservative senator, last March. Few gave the tall and lithe Trudeau a chance of winning. Brazeau is a burly former member of the Canadian Forces, he holds a black belt in karate, his arms are huge and decorated with lots of tats. And the ballroom was packed with Ottawa media and politicos eager to witness the silver-spoon kid’s comeuppance at the hands of a guy who grew up on a First Nations reserve near Maniwaki, Que. Sun TV, Canada’s Limbaugh-lite news channel, broadcast the event live with host Ezra Levant, a former Canadian Alliance staffer, all but guaranteeing the destruction of a man he has dubbed Canada’s Paris Hilton. The thing is that Trudeau didn’t lose. In fact, he out-boxed Brazeau by a considerable margin, scoring a technical knockout in the third round. “Patrick never stood a chance against me,” says Trudeau. “He wasn’t in very good shape. I had trained against bruisers like him for the previous three months and I learned, thank God, that I could take whatever they dished out and still punch back.”
What Trudeau hasn’t previously disclosed is the phone call his trainer received the morning before the fight, warning them that the fix was in. It seems that there was a Patrick Brazeau, born in the same year as the senator and from the same region, who had 13 amateur bouts to his credit. If it was the same person, boxing rules prohibited him from being in a ring with a novice like Trudeau, who had taken boxing lessons in his youth, but never fought before. A worried Trudeau called the evening’s organizer to ask if based on what he had witnessed in training, he thought it would be a fair fight, but never shared the information. Assured that it would, he decided to take his chances.
When the bell sounded for the first round, Brazeau charged out of his corner and started punching with abandon. “I was being pummelled and hit harder than I’d ever been hit before in all my training, and I actually started to feel my legs start to go,” recounts Trudeau. “It was going completely haywire, and I was like, ‘Goddamn it! I’ve made a terrible mistake. I’m going to let down my friends and family.’ Then suddenly he stopped hitting me. And I started blocking his punches, and then he was breathing heavy.”
Trudeau has never asked Brazeau about his boxing record. And based on the events of that night, he doesn’t think it was the same guy. “I cannot believe that someone who had 13 fights would have blown his entire load in the first 45 seconds,” says Trudeau. (In an interview with Maclean’s, the senator reaffirmed that he had never been in the ring before that night. He says he learned that there was another Patrick Brazeau when he applied to the Ontario Boxing Association for a fight passport.) But it’s clear the scare made the would-be Liberal leader’s victory all the sweeter.
And regardless of the circumstances, the bout seemed to signal a real turning point in Trudeau’s relationship with the media. Almost overnight, a suspicious press gallery turned into a bunch of swooning Norman Mailers. With indisputable evidence of Trudeau’s grit, it was suddenly acceptable to take his ambitions seriously. Once flaky—“his mother’s son” has been the shorthand insult—he was now daring. For years he’d been driving the old man’s gull-wing Mercedes convertible, and wearing his fringed buckskin jacket. But now finally, they declared, the son had come up with a stunt worthy of his father.
Trudeau knows the love-in was temporary. And that if he wants similar shows of respect from the media and his opponents he must make toughness as big a part of his arsenal as charm and empathy. Consequently, as the campaign kicks off, he’s full of blunt talk for both friends and foes. “The Liberal party needs to have people start thinking that voting for us is not dividing the country and ensuring that Mr. Harper continues to govern,” he says at the café, tapping the table with his long fingers for emphasis. “This mushy spot that we’ve stuck in people’s minds for so long—as being of the centre, not left, not right, but willing to shift policies based on what seems popular—needs to be turned into a great strength. That we are the party that is willing to look at all solutions, and not be bound to a particular group of voters, or region, or ideology.”
He’s also taking aim at the Prime Minister, warming to the theme that Harper’s brand of politics is tearing at the fabric of the nation. “What comes through is that fundamentally, he doesn’t trust Canadians. He doesn’t feel that being open, accessible, transparent and sharing the point of what he’s doing would be helpful to his success as Prime Minister,” says Trudeau. “And while you can get elected through the politics of division, and reaching out to this group, or that group, you can’t govern worth a damn. His majority is proof of that.”
But those looking for policy specifics will be disappointed—at least in the short term. Trudeau says he won’t fall into “the trap” of trying to prove his worthiness by locking down all the answers in advance. Under his leadership, or someone else’s, the Liberals will have a platform for 2015. Right now, he says, it’s all about the big picture.
Taking the Liberals from the edge of irrelevance back to government is a big ask, something that is perhaps beyond his, or anyone else’s, gifts and capabilities. But Trudeau says he’s looking forward to the challenge. For too long people have loved or hated him mostly for reasons that are beyond his control, whether it’s nostalgia, wishful thinking or ancient prejudices. Now he’s ready to be judged for who he is, and who he wants to become. “I’ve really thought about this, about how it’s going to be harder for me to dismiss all the haters from now on,” he says. “Up until now, it’s been about how they hated my father, and therefore hated the son, for superficial, silly reasons. Now I’m going to start bringing forward ideas and positions and representing a level of threat to certain people. It’s going to lead to people disliking me. But at least it will be for real, substantial reasons, not because of my hair.”
The speech he spent weeks crafting to announce his leadership bid featured only a couple of references to his father—most notably a Bible verse from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that Pierre read aloud at Michel’s 1998 funeral. “When I was a child, I spoke as a child. But now that I am a man, I put away childish things.” It was a very deliberate choice. “My father’s values and vision of this country obviously form everything I have as values and ideals. But this is not the ghost of my father running for the leadership of the Liberal party. This is me,” says Trudeau. Long accustomed to embracing his legacy, he now needs to push it away. He’s not just somebody’s son anymore. Win or lose, he’s determined to prove that he’s his own man.