OTTAWA – He grew up just to one side of the national viewfinder, teasing us with the echo of his father’s greatness while insisting to anyone who would listen that he could never meet his father’s sky-high standard.
Justin Trudeau acknowledged he has lived his life under the burden of high expectations. He also concedes that he might not be the shoo-in for the leadership were his name different.
It is what it is, he said during an interview with The Canadian Press.
“When I showed up my first day of school at College Jean-de-Brebeuf people had huge expectations,” he said of the elite Montreal school that his father attended. “Whether it was me showing up at McGill, starting a career as a teacher, or walking into the board room at Katimavik, every single step in my life I’ve had to deal with expectations.”
“It’s easier to disappoint someone with high hopes. I’m very open about the fact that I’m working very, very hard to fulfil their hopes for me, but I make no promises about standing on a pedestal and being able to live up to all the unreasonable expectations people may put on me.”
Justin Pierre James Trudeau taking the helm Sunday of the Liberal Party leadership would be, for some, the first step in fulfilling a political destiny that seemed written in the stars when he became the first son of one of Canada’s longest serving prime ministers on Christmas Day 1971.
But while the name is the same, almost nothing about the situation the 41-year-old former teacher inherits bears any resemblance to what his father confronted 46 years ago.
The Liberals were Canada’s natural governing party and the elder Trudeau, while a relative novice in Ottawa, had come through the mettle-testing political battles of Quebec independence debates. Pierre Trudeau was regarded as an intellectual giant and had in short order affixed his name to ground-breaking legislation as justice minister in the Lester Pearson government.
The younger Trudeau’s accomplishments to date are more modest. Twice elected MP in the Quebec riding of Papineau, he has become among the party’s most sought after speakers and dependable fund-raisers. He also beat a younger and seemingly stronger Senator Patrick Brazeau in a celebrated boxing match. And of course, there’s the head-turning celebrity that comes from good looks and a grand name.
His official bio makes for thin reading. Bachelor of Arts from McGill and Bachelor of Education from the University of British Columbia. Social studies and French teacher at West Point Grey Academy and Sir Winston Churchill Secondary in Vancouver.
He chaired the Katimavik youth program from 2002-2006, inaugurated along with his brother Alexandre the Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Toronto in 2004, and he hosted the Giller Prize for literature in 2006.
After beginning studies for a Masters of Arts degree in environmental geography he abandoned student life to enter politics in 2008.
Asked about his personal tastes, he gives a mix of the popular, the practical and the surprising.
His favourite films are Star Wars and the Shawshank Redemption. He is currently reading Chrystia Freeland’s Plutocrats about the impossibly rich and powerful one per cent, Lucien Bouchard’s Lettres à un jeune politicien, and the Lee Child thriller Die Trying. For exercise, it’s yoga and boxing, which he says is perfect training for politics.
Trudeau cuts an impressive figure in campaign photos. He exudes youth and vigour. Tall and handsome, his jackets hang off his shoulders as if from a rack. English and French flow assuredly off the tongue without a hint of hesitation or accent. Married to the equally photogenic Sophie Gregoire, the couple have two adorable young children.
And despite any burden that came with his last name, there’s still magic in that handle. Canadians may not know much about him, but they recognize the name and what they think they know about him they like.
The name recognition is important, says Darrell Bricker of Ipsos Global Public Affairs, but there’s more to Trudeau than the family mystique.
“He’s like a human Rorschach test, everybody sees what they want to see,” says the pollster. “He is a visual manifestation of change and if you are a progressive voter, you want to see change.”
That makes him a threat to the old guard, Stephen Harper and the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair, who no matter their credentials hardly look like agents for change, Bricker adds.
On the eve of his coronation by a party that arguably had more accomplished names to choose from, the Nanos Research firm released a public opinion poll that showed the Liberals four points clear of the governing Conservatives. And on leadership questions, Trudeau held his own against Harper in all categories except for the obvious — experience — besting him on the question of who was the most inspirational.
Those are the numbers that put stars in Liberal eyes and get them thinking that victory in 2015 is not such a pipe dream after all.
But if that dream is built on the notion that the son is the political reincarnation of his father, Justin Trudeau is not alone in trying to wake people up to reality.
Stalwart Liberal Marc Lalonde, who came to Ottawa with the elder Trudeau and served in his cabinet through most his administration, also believes Canadians will come to realize the son is so different from his father.
“In terms of communications, he is very different,” he says. “His father had a fantastic ability and charisma with a crowd, but on a one-to-one basis he was very reserved and even distant. While Justin is just the reverse — he connects with people, he loves listening and talking to people individually, but he’s not able to grip a crowd like his father did.”
Lalonde rejects the criticism that Trudeau is too green for the job and that he is riding on his father’s coattails.
He points out that the Liberal Party did not exactly make it easy for Trudeau when he signalled his interest in politics. They could have chosen a safe seat for him, instead he was forced to run in Papineau which had been held by the separatist Bloc Quebecois.
“I told him it was the best thing for him because … he would not owe anything to anybody if he won,” Lalonde said over the telephone from Montreal. “He had three strong Liberal contenders for the riding, he worked very hard, he did the grass roots work and it worked.”
Trudeau talks about the project before him in similar terms. As he did in Papineau, he has to rebuild from the ground up and defeat an ensconced party.
It’s something his father never had to do, the MP says.
“The one thing he never had to do is worry too much about the state of Liberal Party of Canada, it was a big red machine he took for granted,” he said during the interview. His father was never much interested in the machinery of the party.
“I draw a lot more from grandfather Jimmy Sinclair, who was a good party man and who understood the need for an organization to connect and inspire and involve Canadians in reaching out and developing the kind of capacity to earn government and govern. That’s my challenge right now.”
Lalonde said those who fret about Trudeau’s policy-light campaign should be patient. His advice was not to define himself so early. There are 30 months to go before the next election, plenty of time to develop a party platform.
But he says Trudeau is at the very centre of the Canadian political spectrum, a natural consensus builder who is the furthest thing from an ideologue.
“He’s a very committed individual and certainly he’s learned the ropes of politics,” he says. “I think he’s reached a stage in his life where he has everything to succeed in politics and be a good prime minister, but Canadians will have to decide that.”