In conversation with Justin Trudeau, circa 2008

From a Maclean's interview in 2008, Justin Trudeau reflects on his decision to run for office, his arrival in Ottawa and the perception of him

Steve Russell/Toronto Star/Getty Images

Steve Russell/Toronto Star/Getty Images

Seven years ago, I spent a day with the new Liberal MP for Papineau, elected a month earlier when he narrowly defeated the incumbent candidate of the Bloc Québécois. The resulting profile was published in January 2009.

He has since been re-elected twice and, on Wednesday, most notably, he will be sworn in as the 23rd prime minister of Canada.

Since the words of any future prime minister are inherently, or, at least, potentially significant, I went looking last week for the tape of our conversations that day—I believe it would have been Nov. 20, 2008—and found it in a bag of old microcassettes. Trudeau was, at the time, expansive and seemingly happy to chat and the conversation meandered around his run for office, his arrival in Ottawa, the public’s perception of him, his first conversation with Stephen Harper and various points in between. (His assistant eventually walked in to suggest that there were other things the new MP had to get to.) Given the office he will soon hold, I suspect he might not be this talkative again for awhile.

The following are excerpts from what was a two-part conversation that day.

On arriving in Ottawa: There’s a real sense of fitting in. Obviously, there’s a depth of responsibility, of almost majesty, to the place. There is this weight of: Here, you’re doing something that’s huge. But I’ve been working so hard for this for the past couple of years . . . I remember seeing interviews with various people with successes at various points in their life, where they say: “I feel like tomorrow, I’m going to wake up and someone’s going to say, ‘Okay, it’s all been a sham, you’re out of here.’ ” And I have to admit, I’ve felt like that a few times, in my life in various things I was doing, that it was too amazing what I was doing, and so I was: Okay, someone’s going to say it’s all a big joke; we’ve seen through you and you’re out.

Just talking about this right now with you, I realize that I have absolutely no fear of that. There’s not a drop of someone going to turn around and say, “Okay, no, it’s all been a big mistake and you’re not supposed to be here.” And I know myself enough to know that I would be feeling that if I was just here on my name, if I was just here on the family business. It’s because I know how hard I worked and how much I built with the people in my riding that I am here for that. Yes, there’s a sense of the importance and the almost [solemnity] of what it is that I’m doing, but this is my place right now, and it’s my place because it’s my place.

On setting foot in the House for the first day of the new Parliament: I got in and, to a certain extent, I guess it’s, you know, everyone sort of knew each other and I’m just glad to observe. I mean, I’m not someone who’s going to go and take up a lot of space right off the bat anyway. But there was also a sense of—are you married? The best advice anyone gave you on your wedding day was pause regularly and just observe, because it goes so fast. And that’s exactly what I was doing. I said: You know what? This is not going to become commonplace for me, but I want to breathe it in and I want to be able to go back and remember this one moment that was my first day in the House, because there are going to be so many days in the House. They’re all going to blend, but I have to pause and make sure that that first day, and the way that I feel right now, the sense of this—of everything coming together and starting some big important chapter in my life—is one that I wanted to hang onto.

There wasn’t a real sense of awe, and this is hard for me to explain because, of course, it’s an imposing, awesome chamber, but, on the other hand, this is a place I knew. This was my dad’s work. This was my dad’s office. This was where I used to come as a kid and hang out. And yes, doesn’t it feel great to be in the place where my father is? But it didn’t take me being elected to feel that I was suddenly worthy of being my father’s son. That happened my second year as a teacher, when he came out to visit, and a student—I tell this story sometimes in my speeches—ran down the hall behind us as we were leaving, saying, “Excuse me, Mr. Trudeau,” in the exact nervous kind of voice that we knew exactly what it was—someone wanted to shake his hand, wanted to get an autograph, wanted to maybe get a picture or whatever—and my father turned around and I sort of half turned around and it was young Stephanie, who looked up and said, “Mr. Trudeau, I’m going to have to miss your French class this afternoon.” And there was a moment where, okay, you know what? This is my thing, this is what I do, I am my own self. And that was a really powerful moment.

So there’s a sense of being in the right place right now. For years, I was asked by the media and by anyone, you know: Justin, are you going to go into politics? And I always, I could, I might, but I’m not sure. And I really wasn’t. It was far less inevitable than everyone thought it was, because there are a lot of ways making a difference. But I realized that this is the right one for me right now.

As he wrote in his autobiography, Common Ground, encouragement from Stéphane Dion in 2006 helped to convince Trudeau to seek a seat in the House, so we got to talking about Dion: It was also a reflection that, indeed, Mr. Dion is a different kind of politician. He is someone who picked the right thing, the principle that we tax pollution more and reduce personal taxes. For me, [it’s] the right thing and it’s something we’re going to do within the decade. Harper will do it if he’s still in power in a few years. It’s a no-brainer. It’s the right thing to do, but it also is going to be a difficult thing to do, politically. And that Mr. Dion was ready to say, “Look, we’re going to go forward on this and do this the right way,” for me, was, yeah, this is a real possibility to do.

On what happened to Dion as leader of the Liberal party: It’s lack of resources, lack of ability to counteract the nega— I mean, you can counteract a highly negative personal-attack-based ad campaign without being highly negative and attacking personally yourself. But it takes similar amounts of funds. And it takes a coherent strategy that everyone’s working together. And it takes a strong, resilient organization that can reach out at every grassroots level. And those three things we didn’t have, and that’s what we know now. I mean, the principle was right, to take a man . . . integrity, intelligence, responsible vision for the country, yeah, all that, but we don’t just see him as—it’s that we just don’t see him as that that killed us. That’s our job as communicators, to be getting that out.

On running for office: I’d said many times in many, many interviews: I’m not going into politics unless I feel I have something specific to offer, and I don’t think that I’ll have that something specific to offer until much later, once I’ve run an NGO, once I’ve been a successful this, that or other thing, so I can demonstrate that it’s not just the name bringing me into politics. For me, that was the only path, because there was no way I was going into politics in any situation where people could say, “Oh no, it was just the name that gave you the political success.” And for me, what that required was being successful outside of politics and then moving into it. But, through the time of the renewal commission, where I was travelling across the country, talking about why youth weren’t getting involved, through what I saw at the [2006] convention, through some of the conversations I had with people going on, by early January, I had realized that there was a different path, and that I could definitely prove, by doing it the hard way, that it wasn’t just the name that got me in here. And it wasn’t just about doing it the hard way; it was doing it also the right way. And the fact that the hard way and the right way went together in a way that flew in the face a little bit of people’s expectations of me, and their image of me and their impressions of me, which people around me know and I’m fairly comfortable in saying, are not based on the reality.

I mean, people sort of forget. They think, you know, they’re talking about how great a leader my father was and how strong he was in certain senses and, you know, right or wrong in certain policy things, there’s a lot of respect for the strength of the man and the strength of his intellect and everything. People forget he left politics when I was 12, 13 years old; I had just turned 13. And he spent the rest of his life raising us. From 13 to 25, I lived in the same house as him. Every night at dinner, every morning at breakfast, every weekend, conversations, he raised us. And his capacities as a leader were great, his capacities as a father were better. So the idea that he could somehow raise his sons so that we would somehow expect the world to be handed to us is completely misunderstanding the kind of father that he is. I mean, I know that the name Trudeau can be a great advantage. It can be a disadvantage in my riding and in some other places, but it also can be a great advantage. But if I want it to be an actual advantage, I have to work two or three times as hard as anyone else. But that’s the way I was raised anyway, so it’s no big shocker. Now, the fact that people don’t necessarily see that in me, I’m not overly worried about, because I have my job to do, and I’m going to do it and, eventually, people will either change their minds about me, or decide that I’ve changed, or whatever. I’m not overly worried, because the focus I have to do right now—I mean, my focus for the past two years almost, or year and a half, was convincing the people of Papineau that I was worthy of their trust to represent them and to stay close to them and make their voice heard well in Ottawa, and that was key for me. Now my challenge is to begin to have the members of my caucus [believe] that I’m here to do a job and I’m here to work hard, harder or as hard as any one of them, and I’m not here to steal their thunder or to be media boy or whatever it is; I’m here to do my work and to do it well. And that’s my challenge right now, and that I do by showing up before eight o’clock in the morning . . . There’s a lot of things to figure out and a lot of things to do, but the focus on doing them the way I know to do things, through hard work and the tools I’ve been given and the great team I have. . .

There’s no question I am aware that there’s an image that goes with me, and I’m satisfied that that image, every day that goes by, it becomes a little more me, a little less my father. The proportion can be debated however you like, but I know that I’m taking the givens that my father’s legacy gave me and I’m building on my own identity. It depends on the degree of cynicism of the journalist. It depends on the political spectrum of the person I’m talking to, decides where that balance is, but I know that I’m steadily building my own legitimacy. And that comes not through great coverage in the papers; it comes through the work that I’m going to need to do.

On introducing himself to Stephen Harper, which he did in the House on that first day of the new Parliament in 2008: I didn’t want it to be a thing, and I didn’t really want people to note it. I wanted to greet him. I wanted to make a point of calling him Prime Minister, not Mr. Prime Minister, because that’s an Americanism that I can’t stand. So I just said, “Prime Minister, it’s a pleasure to see you, pleasure to shake your hand, pleasure to be here.” I said, “Congratulations on your election,” and he said, “It looks like we’re living in interesting times,” and I said, “Yes, indeed,” and then I walked away. I found it humorous that a man who had put [us in] the worst relationship we’ve ever had between China and Canada would choose to quote from a Chinese proverb.

(Though often said to be, this is probably not a Chinese proverb.)

On the perception of him: To a large extent, so far, it’s been fairly easy for me, because the attacks against me are based on the image that’s out there for me, which is, yeah, at certain points, true, but a lot of times, it’s besides the mark. As people get to know me, then there will be a bit of a shift . . .

I’m someone who, you might have noticed, prides himself on, as much as possible, being a fairly open book. Maybe at one point, I’ll have to develop a bit of a defensive measure, but, all my life, I’ve had people coming at me with certain expectations, certain images of me around them, and either you build up a wall and keep yourself really sheltered, or you say: You know what? I’m me, and take it or leave it, and you genuinely don’t fret too much about whether they take it or leave it . . .

There’s an image out there around me that you’d have to be a fool to not know . . . Whether it’s the little aside comments by detractors or by journalists or whatever, there is sort of a list of attributes that people decided they can characterize me. I mean, any article that I see refers to me as an unemployed drama teacher. I mean, I know exactly where that’s going to go. That, to me, was an interesting lesson, because I started one of my contracts teaching. My first teaching job, to get in the door of the school, I did two months of subbing as the drama teacher. It was a slot they had to fill and, because I could do drama, they brought me in there. But I was also there to teach French and math. And as soon as the two months subbing drama was over, in which I actually taught poetry, because I don’t know much about drama, but poetry and that side of things is something I know a lot about, so that was the twist I took on it, and then I spent most of my time out West, teaching French and math.

But that’s fine, because, eventually, either one of two things is going to happen . . . People will either decide that, “Wow, Justin’s changed; he’s gotten so much more depth and so much more serious,” or they’ll actually say, “Well, maybe we were wrong, maybe he had it all along.” I don’t care which one they say, because my story is my story, and the important thing is that people begin to recognize the work I do, and the attitude with which, and the skills and capacities with which I approach whatever job I have.

On being challenged: I had a communications guy test me, at one point; this is when I was working with Katimavik as a spokesperson. And he said, “Okay Justin, we’re going to give you a hostile interview and we’ll test this.” And he starts coming at me and challenging me on this, that and the other thing and, at the end of the interview, he said, “Justin, I’ve never seen anything like it. You grew calmer and more comfortable the more I came at you.” It’s because I genuinely like the interplay of a challenge and a dialogue. Most of my life, I’ve been dealing with supporting good causes and nice things and, finally, someone’s challenging me on things that I want to take a stand on and challenge. That’s extraordinarily satisfying for me, because that’s the way I was raised around the dinner table. Our father challenged us on everything, and every night was a debate. And I’m glad to have a little meat on my plate right now.

On his friends: If you were to ask me what my greatest quality is, the best thing about me is that I have somehow managed to gather around me the best group of the best close friends that any guy could ever ask for, mostly old high school friends . . .

My core group of friends, a team, like Alex, that I know, I’m a pretty good judge of people; I know who I can trust and who I can’t and, when I trust them, I can trust them absolutely. My wife is phenomenal for keeping me grounded, for keeping me not overly worried and not overly fretting about what happens, and what goes on that is superficial and reminds me of the key elements of service that drove me into this in the first place. I have a really, really good group around me that I can keep myself grounded, well-framed, well surrounded by. That does provide a buffer from everything that’s wonderful and everything that’s difficult.

On the defining political battle of the time: If I’m going to be involved in something, let me be involved in the battle of our time—which is, to my mind, balancing environment and economy in a way that involves every single citizen in an engaged, active way, particularly young people. That’s how I define the great focus that we need to look at over the coming years.