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Being Sacha Trudeau

For years, Justin Trudeau’s younger brother, Sacha, led an intensely private life. Not anymore.


 
Sacha Trudeau near his Montreal home. (Photograph by Will Lew)

Sacha Trudeau near his Montreal home. (Photograph by Will Lew)

When Alexandre Trudeau was in high school, a TV crew showed up one day to ask students their opinions on a political issue; he thinks it was the Meech Lake accord, but he can’t quite remember. Trudeau hadn’t been much in the public eye since he was a child—he was 10 years old when his father, Pierre, retired from politics—so he figured he could offer his views as an anonymous student. He didn’t quite manage to escape notice. “The whole story was about ‘Trudeau’s son,’ ” he recalls. “I just felt violated.”

Trudeau—known to the Canadian public as Sacha, though that suggests a familiarity few have earned—was born into 24 Sussex Drive and escorted to grade school by RCMP officers. He learned from watching his father—an intensely private man who spent years in the spotlight—that public life requires a sort of papier-mâché armour. “You need a token self out there­—that self is the one that people hate or love. That’s the self that people feel they own,” he says. “But you don’t put your real self out there—that would be far too painful and difficult.” Trudeau instead chose fierce privacy. As an adult, he virtually disappeared from public view, except for isolated, controlled appearances in documentaries he filmed in far-flung danger zones.

Trudeau, 42, is about to release his first book, Barbarian Lost: Travels in the New China. The book calls up inevitable comparisons to his father, who travelled extensively and wrote about the same country, and his brother Justin, who just completed his first official visit to China as Prime Minister. Trudeau has spent much of his life deliberately—almost aggressively—separating himself from his surname and the political and celebrity expectations that went with it. But it is now, in writing this book and revealing much more of himself, that the youngest surviving son of a dynastic Canadian political family is most independently himself.

Related: The making of Justin Trudeau

At a quiet mom-and-pop Japanese restaurant in downtown Montreal, Trudeau is greeted by the owner as “Sacha.” She complains good-naturedly to him about the construction rattling the building, then invites him to pick a table. The restaurant is just down the hill from the Art Deco residence, formerly his father’s, where Trudeau lives with his family. He’s been coming to this place for decades; they know not to bother bringing ice cream for dessert, because he never eats it.

In conversation, he exhibits a spidery energy and palpable intellect that’s restless and esoteric in nature. He is not a large man; there is both a toughness and a boyish whir to him. It’s easy to picture him surviving handily in a war zone, and also inspiring family matriarchs to insist on providing dinner and a warm bed. His documentary work in places like Liberia, Baghdad and Darfur has relied on both. He doesn’t consider himself a journalist, though he has produced journalistic dispatches, including for Maclean’s. “I am a professional traveller,” he says. “My unique skills are travel.”

Pierre Trudeau seen here with his 9 year old son Sacha (L) paddling a canoe on the grounds of the summer palace in Bang - Pa-In, Thailand. (Reuters)

Pierre Trudeau seen here with his 9 year old son Sacha (L) paddling a canoe on the grounds of the summer palace in Bang – Pa-In, Thailand. (Reuters)

As in his films, Trudeau is present as a character in his book, but he’s not a naive stand-in for a reader new to China; he is instead an informed and opinionated interpreter. Publishers had asked him to write introductions for new editions of his father’s 1961 book, Two Innocents in Red China, and he had so much to say that it sprawled into his own manuscript. China fascinates him as one of the most stable and ancient cultures on the planet, now rocketing through in a single generation the social and economic shifts that took 200 years in the West. “My whole professional career has had a focus on geopolitics, and in this age, you cannot understand the world without understanding the massive role that China has grown to play,” he says.

China represented a transition for Trudeau. The book is based largely on a six-week trip in 2006, though it incorporates material gathered on a dozen trips since. After years in global conflict hot spots, there were a few moments in China when Trudeau had to remind himself that there was no danger, and this wasn’t a place where silence meant bombs were about to fall. He made the initial trip when he and his wife, Zoë Bedos, a clothing store manager, were expecting their first child. Now that they have three young children, Trudeau’s travel patterns and appetite for overt risk have changed, but he continues to relish how the most difficult locations throw everything into relief. “I love that—meeting people and instantly trying to see their motives and their beliefs,” he says. “In the Middle East, that’s the name of the game: you don’t know who you’re dealing with.”

When he was 18, he took off to Africa before starting university. It was a deliberate break with the privilege he’d grown up with, he says, and for a teenager enamoured of apocalyptic tales like Heart of Darkness, it seemed necessary that he himself come close to destruction. “I didn’t want to be young; I wanted to be ancient,” he says. “I felt like the gravest things had to happen to me.” He caught malaria and thought it was an important experience that would age him.

When he returned, he enrolled at McGill University to study philosophy. He used his summers to augment his studies: two years in a row, he went to Germany so he could learn to read German philosophy. The following summer, he enrolled in a Canadian military program that trained students to become commissioned officers. He explains that he was preparing to write his thesis on Heidegger’s critique of Hegel’s dialectical method, then he backtracks and translates that into conversational terms: he was thinking a lot about ways of learning, and the military seemed to him a very old example. It was also a way to test himself by doing something that made no sense. “It was almost a lark,” he says. “Anyone who knew me back then, that’s my great character flaw: I have no capacity for authority.” He surprised himself by loving it, and he took pride in proving to be more than his training officers expected. “They were extra interested in breaking me, because they assumed I’m privileged, soft, I’ve had a cushy and easy life,” he says. He figures if Canada had been a wartime country, he would have become a career soldier. Instead, his year in the Reserves was “like a men’s club,” so he sought discharge.

Trudeau eventually realized that ideas in their purest form were what really interested him, and he concluded that the way to make a career of that was through film. Over the course of his career, he guesses there were three times when he seriously feared for his life. He thinks about the movie The Perfect Storm—he doesn’t consider it a great movie, but there’s a moment when a character contemplates his own impending death and says, “This is going to be hard on my little boy.” That resonates deeply. “It brings tears to my eyes as I say it,” Trudeau says. “But that’s very much what I had in my head: ‘This is going to be hard on my mom.’ These were years when my brother had died and my father had died, and it was, ‘Oh no, I’m going to deliver another death to the family.’ ”

After his younger brother, Michel, was killed in an avalanche in 1998, Trudeau moved in with his father and cared for him at the end of his life. As a child, he can remember startling to the awareness that as vigorous as his father was, he was as old as his friends’ grandparents. Lodged in his young mind was the frightening thought that when his father was 80—the age at which people died, he thought—he would be just 27 years old. As it happened, that’s exactly when he lost his father, in 2000. “It’s a beautiful thing to care for a parent who’s dying,” he says. “It’s the last final piece of great wisdom—to understand we start as innocents and we end there as well. He had taken such good care of me, and I was taking care of him.”

When they sent his father’s body to lie in state on Parliament Hill, Trudeau withdrew to a rural spot to regroup before the state funeral in Montreal. He felt like he had just sent a child off into the world. “I had a moment of, ‘What am I doing? Who am I entrusting him [to]?’ It was a kind of irrational moment of fearing that he was not in good hands, that he would be alone there,” he says. “Then I heard the reports the next day that people lined up, and I was reassured that he was loved.” He was happy for his father, but the public mourning was so different and separate from his private grief that it seemed to have nothing to do with him.

Trudeau is now getting another chance to contemplate the strange relationship between public and private, as he watches his brother in the Prime Minister’s Office. The questions about when he himself would go into politics were once a constant. “People would always ask me,” he says. “Well, maybe less now—now our family has produced what they wanted.” Beyond that dynastic script fulfillment, it’s almost amusing to Trudeau how ill-suited he would be for politics—the Rotary Club types, the gregariousness, the need to compromise and negotiate. Growing up in the spotlight left reverse imprints on him and his brother. “To a certain extent, I was ashamed of being a prince, and he’s embraced it, used it,” Trudeau says. “The person I chose to be is the one who’s hitchhiking in the rain in January in Israel, trying to get work on a farm. It’s so much realer to me.” The commonality, he says, is that both he and his brother have a purpose in mind. “I’m not sure I agree with this turn in politics, but it certainly is the mainstay one—the movie-star politician is a formidable force in this kind of world. Maybe a dangerous one, in the long run,” he says. Asked if he freely opines to his brother about this, he laughs: “I tease him about it, maybe.”

Justin Trudeau has said that he is most like his mother, Margaret—emotive, spontaneous, drawn to other people. The obvious deduction is that intense, cerebral, interior Alexandre is like his father, but when asked for his own assessment, he initially bats the question away. Later, he says his mother sees him as exactly like his father. “I was very close to my father and remain very close,” he says. “I live in his home, I’m the guardian of his private spirit.” There are significant differences, too. Trudeau is handy around the house, while hands-on skills eluded his father, but he sees his father’s intellect as grounded in politics and law, while pragmatics don’t interest the younger Trudeau. He has one of those brains that’s always going, and he’s learned that occupying himself physically is the best “off” switch. He swims and gardens and loves to cook—Japanese food in the winter, when he has more time for elaborate preparation, and Thai, Argentine or Chinese in the summer, when more of life is spent outside.

In part through his book, he’s arrived at a certain peace with how the Trudeau part of who he is fits with the pieces that are entirely his own. “At different times in my life, it annoyed me that my identity was so connected to that of my father,” he says. But now, he’s “embraced my own Confucianism” and landed on a different idea: being linked with his father is not just normal, but honourable. Delving into Chinese culture was part of arriving at that, but it was also a product of Trudeau accumulating experience and simply becoming the person he wanted to be. “As time goes on, there’s a kind of joy to have him alongside me,” he says of his father. “There’s room in my world now—long after him, and he’s gone now—for him.”

Now that Trudeau is a parent, his perspective is a zoomed-out one: he believes we exist as bridges between the people who came before us and those we are helping to launch into the world after us. “I think the Chinese view of that is the safest and surest one: we’re all immortal insofar as parts of us remain, and parts of those who preceded us remain in those who come after us,” he says. “We’re sort of carrying it all, passing it along. I think that’s beautiful, and true.”


 

Being Sacha Trudeau

  1. Excellent article that is pleasure to read.

  2. Enjoyed hearing about his life. A life well lived to date.

  3. Another Trudeau effing commie.

    • Unbelievable. The Trudeau’s should bugger off to China if they like it so much. Funny they don’t mention how people disappear. The family is making me want to puke. Now I know how the average American fels with the traitor O-Bumma in office.

  4. An Islamic propaganda film producer – and not much more.

    Low info Canadians have no idea

    And a fluff piece like this one is simply more media propaganda on the love in with the trudeau clan

  5. How about an update on the daughter of Pierre Trudeau and her mother, Ms. Coyne. What about the inside scoop on the relationship between Ms. Trudeau and her famous brother, the PM.

    • Too funny.

      You will never get the truth about the evils of the trudeau clan from the media.

      You will have to do your own due diligence on the web.

      Less than 1 in 100 low information Canucks even know about this daughter of the old bast*ard.

      The media protects the trudeau clan and in turn their propaganda has created huge numbers of low information Canucks that are completely unwilling to believe the trudeau clan cannot be trusted.

      This rag is one of them.

      And yet those low information Canucks refuse to do their own due diligence.

      And therefore the majority of Canucks are always “low information” and easy to brain wash.

      Perhaps some day they will grow a brain – however by then it might be far too late for this country.

      • On the contrary, the brain is resistant to washes when it is able to discern information within the information, if you will.

        It is low level reading if one’s purpose is to judge whether the man is good or if he is evil. It will miss out on a great read.

  6. Thank you for trying so desperately to grow us a Kennedy clan. Try harder.

  7. Ahh..yes.

    This is the Trudeau who once penned an essay/article detailing his man-crush on Fidel Castro. “Sacha” gave old Fidel quite a tongue-bath. Between the trudeau boys, it has become apparent they are attracted to men who remind them of their father. Arrogant, self-entitled, and quite ready to get “fussy” and use force if they don’t get their way.

    Both a couple of over-rated, bloviating narcissists. Nice to see “Sacha” use his brother’s trip to China, and his fathers name to sell a book.

    Not surprised at all.

  8. Oh heck…I may as well show you.

    this is the Essay penned by Sacha the lickspittle.

    Alexandre wrote:

    I grew up knowing that Fidel Castro had a special place among my family’s friends. We had a picture of him at home a great big man with a beard who wore military fatigues and held my baby brother Michel in his arms. When he met my little brother in 1976, he even gave him a nickname that would stick with him his whole life “Micha- Miche.”

    A few years later, when Michel was around 8 years old, I remember him complaining to my mother that my older brother and I both had more friends than he did. My mother told him that, unlike us, he had the greatest friend of all he had Fidel.

    For many years, Cuba remained Michel’s exclusive realm; whenever someone would accompany my father there, it would naturally be Michel. It wasn’t until after both my father’s and brother’s deaths that I got a chance to visit Fidel and his country, Cuba.

    Fidel may have been at first a political contact of my father’s but their relationship was much more than that. It was extra- political.

    Indeed, like my father, in private, Fidel is not a politician. He is more in the vein of a great adventurer or a great scientific mind. Fidel doesn’t really do politics. He is a revolutionary.

    He lives to learn and to put his knowledge in the service of the revolution. For Fidel, revolution is really a work of reason. In his view, revolution, when rigorously adopted, cannot fail to lead humanity towards ever greater justice, towards an ever more perfect social order.

    Fidel is also the most curious man that I have ever met. He wants to know all there is to be known. He is famous for not sleeping, instead spending the night studying and learning.

    He also knows what he doesn’t know, and when he meets you he immediately seeks to identify what he might learn from you. Once he has ascertained an area of expertise that might be of interest, he begins with his questions. One after the other. He synthesizes information quickly and gets back to you with ever deeper and more complex questions, getting more and more excited as he illuminates, through his Socratic interrogation, new parcels of knowledge and understanding he might add to his own mental library.

    His intellect is one of the most broad and complete that can be found. He is an expert on genetics, on automobile combustion engines, on stock markets. On everything.

    Combined with a Herculean physique and extraordinary personal courage, this monumental intellect makes Fidel the giant that he is.

    He is something of a superman. My father once told us how he had expressed to Fidel his desire to do some diving in Cuba. Fidel took him to the most enchanting spot on the island and set him up with equipment and a tank. He stood back as my father geared up and began to dive alone.

    When my father had reached a depth of around 60 feet, he realized that Fidel was down there with him, that he had descended without a tank and that there he was with a knife in hand prying sea urchins off the ocean floor, grinning.

    Back on the surface, they feasted on the raw sea urchins, seasoned with lime juice.

    Fidel turns 80 years old today. A couple of weeks ago, he shocked the world by turning power over to his brother Raul after holding it without interruption since the 1959 revolution. In newspapers across the world, pundits solemnly declared that even giants are mortal and that no revolution is eternal. Historians even began to prepare the space that will be granted Fidel in history books.

    Fidel may seem an anachronism a visionary statesman in a world where his kind have long since been replaced by mere managers, a 20th-century icon still present in the 21st century.

    There is also wild speculation about what fate awaits Cuba after Castro. It is important to note, however, that while the whole world works itself up about the matter, Cubans themselves play it cool. Some of my shrewder Cuban friends even say that this temporary withdrawal from power is another one of Castro’s clever strategies; that it is something of a test and that he will soon be back at the helm. They say that, on one hand, Castro is allowing the Cuban people, and more specifically the Cuban state apparatus, to become accustomed to the leadership of his brother Raul. On the other hand, Castro is carefully watching for hints as to how the world – and, more importantly, the United States – will react to his final departure.

    Cubans remain very proud of Castro, even those who don’t share his vision. They know that, among the world’s many peoples, they have the most audacious and brilliant of leaders. They respect his intellectual machismo and rigour.

    But Castro’s leadership can be something of a burden, too. They do occasionally complain, often as an adolescent might complain about a too strict and demanding father. The Jefe (chief) sees all and knows all, they might say. In particular, young Cubans have told me that an outsider cannot ever really imagine what it is like to live in such a hermetic society, where everyone has an assigned spot and is watched and judged carefully. You can never really learn on your own, they might say. The Jefe always knows what is best for you. It can be suffocating, they say.

    I met a young man in the small provincial town of Remedios who worked there as a cigar roller. We shared a great love for the works of Dostoyevsky. When I expressed to him my excitement at meeting a fellow aficionado of Russian literature, he flatly told me “Yes, Fidel has taught me to read and to think, but look what work he sets me out to do with this education I roll cigars!”

    Cuba under Castro is a remarkably literate and healthy country, but it is undeniably poor. Historians will note, however, that never in modern times has a small, peaceful country been more subjected to unfair and malicious treatment by a superpower than Cuba has by the United States.

    From the very start, the United States never gave Castro’s Cuba a choice. Either Castro had to submit himself and his people to America’s will or he had to hold his ground against them.

    Which is what he did, in the process drawing the Cuban people into this taxing dialectic that continues to this day. Cubans pay the price and may occasionally complain of their fate, but they rarely blame Castro. The United States never fails to make the Cuban people well aware of its spite for this small neighbouring country that dares to be independent.

    With the possible exception of Nelson Mandela, already well into retirement, Fidel is the last of the global patriarchs. Reason, revolution and virtue are becoming more and more distant and abstract concepts. We will perhaps never see another patriarch.

    We thus have to conceive of the departure of the last patriarch in psychoanalytical terms. The death of the father doesn’t signal our liberation from him – quite the contrary. The death of a father so grand and present as Castro will, rather, immortalize him in the minds of his children.

    It is true that Cubans may eventually cast away the communist orthodoxy of the revolution. They will become tempted by American capital and values as soon as the embargo against them is lifted, something that will surely follow in the not so distant future. They will have new opportunities for individual fulfilment and downfall. Without a doubt, Cuba without Castro will not remain unchanged.

    But Cubans will continue to be subjected to Castro’s influence. Whether they like it or not, they will continue to be called out by his voice, by his questions, by his inescapable rationality, which, whether they heed its call or not, demands they defend the integrity of Cuba and urges them to seek justice and excellence in all things.

    For a generation to come, they will be haunted by the vision of a society that never existed and probably never will exist, but which their once-leader, the most brilliant and obsessed of all, never stopped believing could exist and should exist.

    Cubans will always feel privileged that they, and they alone, had Fidel.

    • Good to have you back James. And wow, that article is pretty telling, especially if this Fidel fawning is shared by his brother.

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