When Justin Trudeau holds a rally in Mississauga, Ont. this evening—his Liberal leadership campaign’s first stop in the Toronto suburbs so coveted by strategists of all parties—he’ll be introduced by Zaib Shaikh, the actor best known as a star of CBC’s Little Mosque on the Prairie. Shaikh also has a role in the new movie Midnight’s Children, Canadian director Deepa Mehta’s adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s celebrated novel.
But he will bring more than a touch showbiz to Trudeau’s event. In keeping with Little Mosque’s themes, and his own background as the son of immigrants, Shaikh is active in groups that encourage diversity. As well, after his marriage last year to CBC English services executive vice-president Kirstine Stewart, he is half of a notable Toronto power couple.
Shaikh spoke to Maclean’s about Trudeau, the new Canadian vote, and political charisma.
Q. How did you meet Justin Trudeau?
A. I was representing the Canadian Media Fund in Ottawa at an industry event. We both bumped into each other and just when I was about to say, I’m a fan of yours, he said, “I’m a fan of yours.” And I said, well, that’s funny— I’m a fan of yours and my family are fans of your family. We became friends. I’ve always said, Whenever you need me, I’ll be there to support you because we need someone like you.
Q. What is it about him that you think Canada needs?
A. It’s his passion for the country. It’s his passion for the political process. It’s his work ethic. He cares deeply in a world that can be apathetic and cynical. He’s a breath of fresh air.
Q. You mentioned your family being fans of the Trudeaus. Did your parents support Justin’s father, Pierre Trudeau?
A. My parents are from Pakistan. They came to Canada in 1970. They had family in the UK, the U.S. and Canada. As my father always tells it, he’d been around the world with Pakistan’s navy, and the principles that Canada had to offer under Trudeau’s leadership at that time really spoke to both my parents. They chose this country. It wasn’t a country they fled to; it was a country they chose.
Q. For a long time Liberals viewed new Canadians as among their most reliable supporters, but the Conservatives have made inroads among immigrants and their children. How do you see that contest?
A. I’m on the board of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship and the Canadian Centre for Diversity. The folks that I come into contact with— new Canadians, recent Canadians—their principles are exactly what Justin’s talking about. Hard work for this country. Passion for this country. Keeping this country on the map on an international level.
Q. Your TV work on Little Mosque must be a springboard for a lot of conversations about diversity.
A. It’s a show that represents Canada to the world, and Canada’s known for putting a show like this on. I was touched that Justin not only knew the show, but knew what it was about. There is a tendency in some folks not to understand the show’s importance and relevance. Internationally it’s seen as ground-breaking. In Canada our humility sometimes gets the better of us. But when I first met Justin, he was super enthusiastic about what the show meant on the world stage for Canada, and how it was a leader in how to look at cultures.
Q. Some critics would say Justin Trudeau has almost a surfeit of glamour and charisma about him. You work in an industry where those are valuable commodities. Any thoughts on that?
A. If anyone thinks the word charisma has any negative connotations, that, to me, would be disappointing. Mahatma Gandhi had amazing charisma. Mandela, Bishop Tutu, Mohammed Ali have it. Barack Obama has amazing charisma. John F. Kennedy had it. Pierre Trudeau had charisma. Charisma is something we need in a leader. I think the world is waiting for Canada to start getting some of that charisma we used to have. I’m looking forward to us getting it back. Justin’s the right guy to kick-start it—charisma brought in with a good work ethic, a sound sensibility, a sense of realism. Humility is also part of charisma.
Q. Are you considering a political career yourself?
A. No. I leave it to the people who know how to do it best. A guy like Justin Trudeau is intrinsically aware of what it is to be a leader. It’s better left to people who know how to do it, and Justin’s the guy for the job.