In conversation: Justin Trudeau

The Montreal MP in a wide-ranging interview from 2012

<p>Liberal MP Justin Trudeau votes on Motion 312 in the House of Commons on Wednesday Sept. 26, 2012. Conservative backbench MP Stephen Woodworth&#8217;s controversial motion to appoint a committee to study the definition of a human being goes down to defeat in the House of Commons. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand</p>

Liberal MP Justin Trudeau votes on Motion 312 in the House of Commons on Wednesday Sept. 26, 2012. Conservative backbench MP Stephen Woodworth’s controversial motion to appoint a committee to study the definition of a human being goes down to defeat in the House of Commons. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

What would push him to the separatist side, and why he’s his mother’s—not his father’s—son
Photograph by David Kawai

Bearing what is arguably the most famous surname in Canadian politics, Montreal MP Justin Trudeau is no stranger to public scrutiny. But lately, he has drawn even more notice than usual, most recently for musing in a radio interview about separatism in a way his father never would have. Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s eldest son, now 40, has emerged as one of the most closely watched figures in a third-place Liberal party struggling to regain its stature on the federal scene.

Q: When you told a radio interviewer recently that you’d be tempted to switch to the separatist side in Quebec if Canada was dragged far enough down the road that the Harper government is travelling, what sort of reaction did you expect?

A: The emphasis of that statement was that someone who obviously loves Canada with everything he has, has been right here and fights for Canada all the time—for him to say something like that, something must be very wrong with Canada. The big frustration for me is that people are growing so cynical about politics that you see them basically shrug and say, “Oh, yeah. Who cares that Harper is shutting down debate? Who cares that he’s building prisons, and everything? All the politicians are the same so why should we be outraged about one rather than the other?” And my point is Canadians need to wake up. This is not the Canada they’d recognize if they looked closely.

Q: You alluded to threats to gay marriage and abortion rights. But those don’t seem to be in serious jeopardy. Why mention them at all?

A: Because for me they’re a shorthand for the kind of social conservatism that Mr. Harper is all too good at. They’re two subjects that Quebecers feel very passionately about, and both things, incidentally, that Mr. Harper has in the past expressed very clear concerns about. There’s nothing any opposition member is going to be able to say that’s suddenly going to redefine Mr. Harper and make him suddenly scary. But, you know, there are all sorts of things happening here on the Hill that would outrage Canadians if they were paying a little more attention.

Q: For example?

A: Bill C-10 [the government’s omnibus crime legislation]. Everyone’s fairly aware—“Oh yes, we’re going to crack down on crime by being tougher on criminals.” But the aspects that are so worrying are the costs associated with building more prisons and bogging down an already slowed-down judicial system, when you’ve got hit-and-run drivers in B.C. who are possibly going to be let off because they’ve been without a trial for 18 months.

Q: In a recent tweet, you said it was wrong that some documents about Public Safety Minister Vic Toews’s divorce proceedings were being circulated online, but then you linked your substantial Twitter following to that very material. The court documents, which are several years old, were posted online anonymously, ostensibly as a protest against Bill C-30, legislation that Toews tabled that critics say would give police powers that undermine Internet privacy. Given your family background, how do you feel about details of politicians’ private lives being aired?

A: That’s something I’m actually fairly conflicted about. From personal experience, I’m glad it was American newspapers who had to crack the story of my parents’ marital troubles, even though the entire press gallery in Ottawa knew it. I mean, we’re lucky here in Canada that we don’t have that kind of scrutiny. The whole point was, no, I don’t think it’s right to delve into people’s private lives, but at the same time, I’m so appalled at Bill C-30. I’m very aware that in saying [the posting of the divorce documents] was reprehensible, but adding a link, the 110,000 people who follow me were going to go see what is it Justin’s talking about. I’m being less than subtle there, but I let people make their own decision.

Q: When you do something like that, it sure gets noticed. You’ve been the subject of great interest since you were a child, and especially since being elected an MP in 2008. Was it difficult coming to Ottawa with the added pressure of being Pierre Trudeau’s eldest son?

A: Listen, it was difficult showing up in Grade 1 as Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s son, it was difficult to become a high school teacher as Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s son. That’s something that I’ve lived with all my life. What people don’t necessarily remember is that my father was an incredibly present dad as a prime minister. The marriage didn’t work out, but he was always very much there for us. He retired from politics when I was 13 and my brothers were younger, and from that moment on, we lived together full-time in Montreal, until I moved out west when I was 25. So he did a great job of giving us tools to be able to handle being his son.

Q: Yet you’re seen by some as more your mother’s son.

A: I’m definitely proud that I am more like my mom in many ways; of course, the Conservatives will spin that however they like because we know what disrespect they have for my mom. All my life, people have walked up to me and told me how much my father had an impact on them, and it’s tremendous. The past few years, because of the work my mom’s done around mental health, people have been walking up and telling me how much my mom has impacted on them, and I’m incredibly proud of her.

Q: You’ve said your father was more an intellectual than you are.

A: My father was incredibly focused, incredibly linear. All his life, he basically wrote and thought and read and prepared on a very intellectual level. He was a complete package, to a large degree, before he stepped up as minister of justice. I’m not at all the same way. I am very strong in my core values, my ideology, my beliefs, my sense of what is right and wrong and what is good and just in the world and in Canada. But I’m open to discussion. I’m a high school teacher. I’m someone who stumbles my way through, leads with my chin in some cases, leads with my heart in all cases. It leaves me way open for all sorts of criticisms left, right and centre. You know what? I was raised with pretty thick skin. And I think people are hungry for politicians who aren’t afraid to say what they think and mean it.

Q: That comes through in the way you talk. You’re sometimes more intense and dramatic than is the norm these days.

A: I feel like it’s my natural style.

Q: I’d like to ask you about the Liberal party’s future. Ever since the right united as the new Conservative party, there’s been a case that the Liberals and NDP should merge too. Why not?

A: The right didn’t unite so much as reunite. I mean, Reform was very much a western movement breaking away from Brian Mulroney. But they broke away, then they came back together. The NDP and the Liberals come from very, very, very different traditions.

Q: Still, there’s an electoral logic in trying to combine the centre-left votes.

A: Before anyone can even seriously talk about thinking about that, let’s allow us to get two permanent leaders. I think the NDP has huge fault lines within it, whichever leader they choose. Obviously, the Liberal party has huge challenges. But if one of the two opposition parties manages to get its stuff together, I don’t know that a merger or even any sort of co-operation is going to be necessary. I think Canadians are going to be unwilling to allow Mr. Harper to continue.

Q: No? The Prime Minister seems to believe he’s safe as long as enough Canadians view him as the best bet to manage the economy.

A: It’s a victory of Conservative spin and their extremely effective communications messaging. The fundamental difference between Liberals and Conservatives on fiscal policy is Liberals understand that an economy like Canada’s cannot flourish unless everyone gets to participate, unless there are good education programs and good child care programs, good training programs, good integration centres for immigrants. What is this government doing? It’s relying on a combination of selling off our natural resources—which is fine as far as it goes but it’s not making us much richer, and it’s coming at the cost of our manufacturing base—and a form of trickle-down economics that has been thoroughly discredited everywhere, where you give corporate tax cuts and somehow that will lead [corporations] to create jobs. Well, no, it hasn’t.

Q: Why aren’t you considering a run for the Liberal leadership to carry that message into the next election?

A: I made the decision last summer that I don’t think that I can be as good a dad as I need to be and be away from the kids more often.

Q: How old are they now?

A: My daughter just turned three and my son is 4½.

Q: And you just turned 40. Your perspective must be changing.

A: I’ve always been a youth advocate. I mean, that’s been my brand, reaching out to young people. All my life, when I’ve dealt with youth I’d be thinking back to my own experience. Now I look at my kids and think forward.

Q: Politics and parenting can be a tough mix. How do you divide your time?

A: I’m in Ottawa from Monday to Thursday, sometimes Fridays. I get home on Thursday nights and I see my kids and what I’ve missed of them throughout the week, because at this age they’re transforming and learning new tricks and everything.

Q: So if the time isn’t right for you to apply for the job, what qualities will you look for in the next Liberal leader?

A: I think the next leader needs to understand that business as usual doesn’t work, that we’re in a time where we have to rethink a lot of the basic ground rules and assumptions of our civilizations.

Q: That sounds pretty lofty. Maybe Canadians want something more basic, somebody who’ll try to make sure their kids live in a Canada that can compete in a world where China and India loom large.

A: Remember 20 years ago or so when there were all those terrifying reports of how hard Japanese students were studying and how hard Japanese workers worked, and how efficient they were, how tremendous they were? How did that work out for them? There are a lot of people out there, environmental thinkers like Herman Daly and others, who talk about the fact that maybe endless growth within a finite system is not either possible or even desirable. Maybe we have to talk about shifting our focus so that instead of just growing, we’re actually developing and improving.

Q: The Liberal party ran on an environmentalist vision, Stéphane Dion’s “Green Shift,” in 2008. That didn’t click with voters. Don’t you think the experience scared your party off that sort of politics?

A: I hope not. I think to a certain extent Canadians are more ready than ever before for somebody who is going to be bold. People value vision in CEOs, in artistic directors. Should we not value a certain amount of vision in our politicians? If you ask me, young people are going to wake up.

Q: Why do you think that? They tend not to vote much.

A: I think of the rise of social media, not as a root cause but as a symptom. They’re tremendously frustrated because they don’t see politics as changing anything. They see it as perpetuating a system that frankly doesn’t work and no matter who you vote for things don’t really change. That’s where I think a bold message will wake them up. We saw that a little bit in the Occupy movement. Over the next three years, I think young people are going to wake up and be empowered.

Q: On March 31, you’re slated to box Conservative Sen. Patrick Brazeau in a three-round, Olympic-style bout for a cancer charity. What’s your strategy?

A: Neither of us have ever actually been in a boxing match before. I’ve trained in boxing all my life, my dad taught me how to box early, and through my twenties I trained at various sorts of rough gyms in Montreal, mostly as just a way of keeping in shape. I even boxed out in Vancouver for a while. But I never stepped it up to full-on sparring, or even a real bout. Pat’s been talking quite openly about the fact that he plans on taking me down early. I expect him to come in very hard, very fast. I plan on allowing him to, because I can take a lot, and use my jab to try and keep him at a distance, and out-think him.