Rocket man: Can Marc Garneau pull off a Liberal leadership upset?

How Canada’s first astronaut stacks up against Justin Trudeau


Adrian Wyld/CP

Being Canada’s first astronaut doesn’t seem like a fact pulled from the biography of a dull man. Yet Marc Garneau—arguably the Liberal leadership candidate with the clearest shot at catching up to prohibitive front-runner Justin Trudeau—acknowledges that his past NASA exploits haven’t prevented a rather earthbound image of him from taking hold. He’s often viewed less as an exciting spaceman than as a dry critic of the government’s technology and industry policy. “I think to some extent people view me in a stereotypical way,” he says of the science and engineering credentials he brought into politics. “I would like them to know me more as a complete person.”

To that end, Garneau urged Liberals, at the close of the party’s first leadership debate last Sunday in Vancouver, to consider everything he’s ever done. “Leadership is the product of your life experience,” he said. “It’s what you’ve accomplished.” Garneau has been a naval officer, an astronaut of course, president of the Canadian Space Agency and now a Montreal MP. If he didn’t mention Trudeau’s path to the front of the leadership pack—famous son of a prime minister, schoolteacher and then also a Montreal MP—the implicit comparison was hard to miss.

But as Garneau claims an experience edge, Trudeau argues that the next Liberal leader’s real job is grabbing the attention of voters, his own obvious forte. “We have to get out and connect with Canadians,” he said in Vancouver. And for a third-place party, the need to stir enthusiasm is undeniable. That leaves Garneau with the task of not just reminding Liberals of his impressive past, but also getting them to rethink how he performs now. Even he admits that his style as a novice in the House of Commons, after first winning his Westmount-Ville-Marie riding in the 2008 election, was often “wooden.” But he contends that he’s picked up his political game since the 2011 election, and will prove it before the party’s April 14 leadership vote.

In an era when political strategists routinely advise candidates to present a compelling personal narrative, Garneau has plenty of material to work with. He was born in 1949 and raised in a bilingual military family. His father, André Garneau, served in the Second World War, stayed on as a career officer, and retired a brigadier general. Marc’s younger brother, Toronto advertising executive Philippe Garneau, remembers their father instilling a sense of family honour. “He used to say to us, ‘Oh, you’re going to this party? Remember—you’re a Garneau.’ ” Philippe says Marc carried that “no private moments” ethos of representing family into his acute awareness that he stood for Canada, first as a naval officer and then under the spotlight as the country’s first astronaut.

A military career, Marc Garneau says, always felt like the natural direction for him. But from an early age he decided he wouldn’t be an infantry officer like his father. While crossing the Atlantic twice on passenger ships as a boy, Garneau says he “fell in love with the sea.” That romantic reaction wasn’t out of character. He was drawn early to art and literature, concentrating on belles lettres, rather than science and math, in Quebec’s old classical school system. Still, when he was deciding on a degree to pursue, he opted to study engineering. “Curiosity is a big factor in my life,” he says. “I wanted to understand things.”

At only 16 he entered military college in Saint-Jean, Que., where the discipline was more than tough. “It was,” he recalls, “the old way of breaking you down before building you up again.” He started many days running laps as punishment for minor infractions. He graduated as an engineer from Canada’s Royal Military College in 1970, then attended the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London on a scholarship, earning a doctorate in electrical engineering in 1973. He went on to serve in the Canadian navy until 1983 as an expert on the combat systems on ships.

He was working at defence headquarters in Ottawa in 1983 when he saw what he describes as “an innocuous little ad” in his morning paper. The Canadian government was recruiting astronauts to fly in the U.S. space shuttle. Growing up Canadian, Garneau says the possibility had never occurred to him—astronauts were American. When the chance suddenly appeared, he didn’t hesitate. “I thought I’d never get chosen but if I didn’t put my name in I’d never know.” He made the cut, not only because he was fit and suitably trained, but also by demonstrating that he could handle the inevitable media attention. He flew three missions, in 1984, 1996 and 2000.

Along the way, he mourned the deaths of friends and comrades in the disasters of the 1983 Challenger takeoff and the 2003 Columbia re-entry. He was also the first non-American chosen for the unique roll of CAPCOM, short for “capsule communicator,” the unflappable voice of Houston mission control heard by astronauts in space. “If the frickin’ spaceship’s falling apart,” Garneau says, “they want to know you are calm, reassuring: ‘You are going to get out of this.’ ”

But could the right voice for mission control make itself heard in the din of politics? From as early as 1988, Liberals had been feeling out Garneau, an obvious catch as Canada’s homegrown space hero, about any possible aspirations for elected office. He was interested, but went first to the Canadian Space Agency, serving as its president from 2001 to 2005. These days, he mentions managing the agency’s staff of 700 and yearly budget of $300 million far more often than he talks of leaving the Earth’s atmosphere. The job provided, he says, an insider education on how Ottawa works.

In 2006, he ran and lost in a Montreal seat, as the sponsorship scandal decimated the Liberals across Quebec. He blames his own inexperience as a candidate, too. “I learned a lot, but I came out of it saying, ‘I’m in this for good,’ ” he says. “I don’t like to lose.” He won in his current riding in 2008, and held the seat in 2011—but only barely. In fact, he conceded defeat on election night, only to be roused by a call from his campaign manager at home at 2:30 a.m., telling him he’d won on the strength of late polling station returns. “I went out and danced in the street,” he says. “Literally. I was so happy.”

Exuberance of that sort isn’t much associated with Garneau. His political persona has evolved, though, from blandly stolid to, at times, almost fiercely intense. Supporters say his seriousness has the potential to attract votes as much as, say, another candidate’s charisma. “Some people want an exciting leader,” says Ontario MP Ted Hsu, one of three Liberal caucus members supporting Garneau so far. “But I think a lot of Canadians want a steady hand they can trust to make decisions.” Hsu adds, “I don’t think Stephen Harper is particularly exciting either.”

Since announcing his leadership bid last November, Garneau has proposed a fair amount of policy. On the economy, his platform includes eliminating capital gains tax for start-up firms and cutting taxes for companies that offer workplace training. He calls for dramatic reform of federal elections with a preferential ballot, on which voters would rank candidates instead of picking just one.

But Garneau’s platform won’t attract meaningful attention if he’s dismissed as unable to rouse himself to a political fight. “I’m a calm person,” he says. “It has drawn some people to conclude, ‘He doesn’t have the killer instinct.’ I do.” It’s a qualification that doesn’t appear yet on Garneau’s long resumé, but might be added if, somehow, he pulls off a leadership upset.


Rocket man: Can Marc Garneau pull off a Liberal leadership upset?

  1. I met both Garneau and Trudeau on the same day. Nobody doubts his intelligence; however he is to me, and I’m Liberal, this year’s Ignatieff. I admire Ignatieff, and one cannot doubt his intelligence and experiences either. But they both lack what Trudeau has in spades: winnability. Trudeau owns whatever room he’s in, and he’s both charming and confident. Also, you quote Garneau as saying, “I would like them to know me more as a complete person.” Yet nowhere do we get a glimpse of him as a person, we just keep reading about his amazing career. It takes more than a great and ambitious career to make a person. Is Garneau married, does he have kids, is he gay? By keeping anything personal out of the narrative, he keeps himself one-dimensional. Frankly, I’m pleased as punch that someone of his eminence is interested in being leader of LPC, but having met him in person, read his work, and admired him for many years, I can tell you he’s not closing any gap on Trudeau anytime soon.

    • According to his website, married twice, with two children from each marriage.

    • Well you’re right about the “gap”

      Marc Garneau didn’t get shot off into outer space until 1984.

      Trudeau on the other hand has been constantly under the tutelage of one space cadet or another since the day he was born in 1971.

  2. JTL. Garneau is Just Too Old to be the next Liberal Leader.

    • That would be JTO. But thanks.

  3. I don’t see Garneau as being a real threat to JT, if for no other reason then he does appear to be too nice to have the killer instinct that at some point is unfortunately necessary in modern day politics, and probably any other age too.
    I see MHF as being much more or a threat. She too has experience and a good deal more charisma than Mr G feels able to show. She gives the appearance of being a fighter and let’s face it appearance seems to almost all you need these days.Even Cauchon, once he gets rolling should be more of a threat than Mr Garneau.
    I’m almost certain there are people far more qualified to lead the CPC than Harper, who’s resume is almost as thin as JTs at a similar point in their careers. But he most definitely has the killer instinct, ruthless drive to succeed, whatever you want to call it.
    Garneau seems a throughly decent man and is immeasurably more qualified by experience to run almost any dept of govt than JT…except for the leadership thing. What the LPC needs is buzz and attention at the moment. And absolutely no one else can come even close to packing 600 odd people into a venue in Kamloops in below zero temps just when the canucks are getting back to work.[ actually i don’t know if it was a game night…but close…and it is only – 3 sooo…]

    • What this country needs is less “killer” instinct and more honest open leadership.

      • I totally agree. But you can’t take the fight out of the dog completely. Having more women in politics should help.

  4. If Garneau wants to beat Justin he needs to have some new and exciting policies…..policies that make Justin look old and stuffy. Policies that people will immediately like and vote for.

    His only other hope is that Justin does himself in.

    • As Justin has shown, policies are not really necessary to run for the Liberal leadership. If you have no policies, no one has any reason to dislike you.

      • That’s true of the Cons and Dips as well

  5. I feel as though the party will have learned nothing if they choose Justin Trudeau as leader. 2011 was a clear sign that Canadians were fed up with the indecisive wishy-washy platitudes that the Liberals have campaigned on in the past few elections. So far, Trudeau has simply been a young, attractive, and charismatic Michael Ignatieff.

    While choosing Marc Garneau might mean that the getting back to the top might take a bit longer, I believe it will be healthier for the party to have a platform based on fresh policies rather than a rehashing of old ideas.

  6. The big difference in charisma between Garneau and Trudeau is that Garneau is someone you will grow to like and respect more and more the better you get to know him; whereas Trudeau will grate and disappoint as the hype dissipates.

    Trudeau will be a Godsend to the Conservatives: a perfect caricature of Liberals: a rich, elitist, arrogant hipster; prone to self-righteous displays of political correctness; a classic latté sipper. Will completely change his`”brand”. LPC has screwed up its last three picks for leader. If they pick Trudeau that will be 4 strikes out. He will be a disaster and destroy the party’s credibility. His kool-aiddrinkers wnat you think think he’s a Canadian Obama. No, he’s a Canadian JFK Jr. Pretty, glamorous, unqualified.

    Garneau? He’s a Canadian hero. A self-made man. Not a boy born on third base. How do you attack Garneau without looking like a jerk? He’s credible on the economy. A man of science. If Canadians are fed up with Harper in 2015, Garneau will be a perfect alternative: steady, reliable, solid, much more likeable than the grumpy, manipulative Mulcair and – bonus – he didn’t sign the Sherbrooke Declaration.
    Oh and secret weapon: Garneau isn’t the kind of guy to use it as a prop but he has a lovely wife and family whom everyone will like.

  7. Trudeau is a desperate character from the Comedie Francais.

    So given that, and his birthright bughouse flexibility, if it starts to look tight he has a couple of choices:

    a) He can ask Pierre Trudeau’s marxist political friends from the Russian Embassy to put him on a Soyuz Super Special and shoot him off into space as a publicity stunt. The Russians would certainly love to have another pliant “Man in Ottawa.”

    b) He can appeal to Margaret Trudeau’s party friends and get a few old Rolling Stones to join in him in a quick canoe trip over to Cuba for Fidel’s last birthday party. You can’t do better than follow in a “great” man’s footsteps.

  8. You guys must be really scared of Justin winning. Because there is way to many conservatives saying don’t vote for him. Blah, blah, blah. Which tells me if he’s that bad, you would want him to win it all to lose the next election.

  9. Challenger blew up in 1986 not 1983.

  10. Both he and Hall-Findley are more qualified than Bieber,oops Trudeau

  11. What are the most important qualities in a leader?
    Seems to me it’s all big picture stuff, and frankly I get the impression that Garneau is similar to Dion, in the sense that he’s a “serious details” kind of guy, ie, a great guy to have in cabinet, but not necessarily the best guy to lead the pack.
    When I look at all the great leaders in Western democracies over the past few decades, they all seem to have a few key characteristics that Garneau simply lacks, such as charisma and ferocity for example.
    A great leader is one with insight into human nature, who can surmise the qualities in others that best suit the positions he needs covered, surrounds himself with the best possible candidates and THEN is willing to accept that advice when it is offered.
    A great leader needs not only to instill confidence in his troops, but also fear in his opponents. A leader easily mocked, or ignored, or who can be framed such as Dion and Ignatieff were, will lose support quickly.
    Personally, when I look at the broader picture it seems obvious that Trudeau will not only win the leadership, but that the party under him will do exceptionally well. He will be backed by a far more vibrant cabinet core than Harper has ever managed, and he seems to have the political instincts and gumption neccessary to deflect and defend against the predictable attacks of the conservatives.
    Above all, the reason Trudeau will win is because of his obviously fierce personality. Harper’s going to have his hands full and Mulcair will seem dowdy by comparison.

    • If we were in Attila the Hun times, “fear in his opponents” may come in handy. One does not harbor fear from the present leader either. What does bring one as a contender is maturity, vision, an ability to stay calm in all circumstances as well as varied experiences. One thing is for sure. Whoever is leader of the Liberals, he/she will need to fight off the Cons no holds barred and take no prisoners mentality. Trudeau is rife with possible attacks while the Cons will find it difficult with Garneau.

  12. Can Marc Garneau pull off a Liberal leadership upset?

    No, of course he can’t.

    But it’s nice to see an interesting write up like this.

    Passes the time. LOL

  13. The Liberal Party of Canada, has a serious problem, when nine liberal candidates, can’t decide amongst themselves, who’s the best, and brightest of the group? Why, take the problem to 34/million Canadians, of whom 75% are suffering from some form of mental illness?

    Mr. Justin Trudeau, was challenge to submit his credentials, and qualifications, so they could be closely examined by employment specialist. He should be treated no differently, than anyone else seeking employment, or advancement.

    Mr. Justin Trudeau, woke up one morning, and he decided it was his birthright to become Prime Minister of Canada. No problem, but is he qualified for the position? Charm, good looks, political connections, money, and backroom people pulling strings, all adds up to political corruption. I would have Madame Charbonneau’s Investigators, shake wonder Boy down. Canadian’s need a clear picture of who this loose cannon is, and where he wants to take the Nation?

    For example! Would you allow an inexperienced person drive a 52 foot tractor trailor, or audit your accounts, and business transactions, or give you dental work, heart surgery, or anything else without the proper skills, and training?

    Why would you allow Mr. Justin Trudeau, who has no education or experience in business management, take on the huge responsibility, of Prime Minister of Canada? He is now 40 years of age, and has absolutely no background for the position.
    I would advise Mr. Justin Trudeau, to seek a professional mental health expert, and work through some of his serious challenges. Have Mr. Justin Trudeau take his resumé, and that of Mr. Marc Garneau’s, and study the meaning of leadership.
    Kid Trudeau, is 26 cards short of a full deck!

    • Quit hogging all the commas, dammit!

    • While I would like Garneau as a possible leader, I don’t believe slagging Trudeau adds anything to the equation. Harper had no experience in business either nor for that matter any leadership of any kind. And as we can tell, his MA in economics has not stood him very well either.

  14. go with garneau i would not vote for the liberals if trudeau is at the leaders role but i would for marc

  15. Please! Mr. Justin Trudeau, needs all the help he can get, is there a M.D. in the house that specializes in brain trauma?

  16. NO.

  17. Chalk one more for Garneau!

  18. Why doesn’t Marc call out Justin in the next debate. Ask him how dropping out of two degrees and teaching for 3 years qualifies him to lead a country? 41 years old, 7 years of work experience? really?

  19. Hey I prefer a calm general at the head of an army than a jumpy gunner !

  20. Garneau will rise to the occasion. You don’t get to fly a rocket without psychological and mental stamina.