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.