The Commons: Justin Trudeau, Monday night, Renfrew - Macleans.ca

The Commons: Justin Trudeau, Monday night, Renfrew

‘What I’ve seen over the past six months … is people who want to believe that politics can matter once again’

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It is important to keep this much in mind: This might be as good as it ever gets for Justin Trudeau.

He is, in the estimation of one poll released last week, in position to become the 23rd prime minister of this country. In the three weeks he has been leader of the Liberals, the party has raised more than a million dollars, the sort of pace that would finally challenge the significant financial advantage the Conservatives have enjoyed in recent years. Another poll suggests the attack ads that the Conservatives have used their riches to deploy are failing to deeply undermine Mr. Trudeau’s standing with the public.

All of which is all well and good, but not much, if anything, more than might have been said of Stephane Dion or Michael Ignatieff or Thomas Mulcair or even Nycole Turmel (thirteen months ago, with the interim NDP leader in place, the New Democrats were tied atop the theoretical standings). It did not end well for Mr. Dion, nor Mr. Ignatieff. It has not gone obviously well for Mr. Mulcair. (And the New Democrats had the temerity to dump Ms. Turmel a mere two days after she pulled them even with the Conservatives.) And so it must be understood that this might be the high point for Mr. Trudeau.

Where Mr. Trudeau is now along the arc of his story we can’t know now.

Where he is this evening, in the literal sense, is the Ottawa Valley, where the bugs are big enough to make a sound when they hit your windshield. Past Calabogie and Arnprior, but before Cobden, to Renfrew (pop. 8,218), an hour northwest of Parliament Hill. Past the water tower and the fast food franchises and through downtown to the Royal Canadian Legion, Branch 148, with a french fry stand in the parking lot.

Inside the legion hall, blue plastic chairs are lined up before the stage. On the stage, father and son fiddlers warm up the crowd. Atop the stage is a picture of the Queen. Red and white Liberal signs are taped on the wood-panelled walls. Trays of triangle sandwiches (turkey, salmon, ham, egg and beef) sit on tables in the corner beside trays of vegetables and trays of cookies, cartons of juice (lemon ice tea, raspberry lemonade and lemonade) and urns of coffee and tea and the sort of small styrofoam cups that you might have thought were illegal to use by now. There is, of course, a lot of white hair here, but also parents with children and several men and women who are old enough to vote, but not old enough to have mortgages and young men with clipboards. Everyone is made to wear a name tag and the young men with clipboards will get the names and email addresses of 250 people this evening.

A Liberal last won this riding in 1997—there’s a small picture in the far left corner of the room here of Hec Cloutier posing with a veteran of D-Day—and with that Liberal running as an independent against the Conservative incumbent in the last election, the Liberals received just 6,545 votes here.

He arrives a little after 6:30pm and proceeds with the shaking of hands. He is wearing a white button-up shirt, open at the collar, slightly weathered jeans, a brown belt and brown sneakers. When he is invited to the stage he receives a standing ovation.

“What a pleasure it is for me to be back in the valley,” he says. “Here in Renfrew the welcome is always as warm as the sunshine and today it’s really warm indeed.”

Now a joke.

“What a great time of year it is. It’s spring and, like clockwork, the birds are singing, the buds are coming out on the trees, attack ads are appearing on TV,” he quips. “It’s the rite of spring here in Canada.”

The crowd laughs.

And now both a flattering assessment of the country and a segue to the problem Mr. Trudeau claims to aim to address.

“It’s been a wonderful past six months, through this leadership campaign,” he says, perhaps still getting used to the fact that that campaign is over, “I’ve managed to travel to all sorts of different corners across the country and everywhere, whether they’re Conservative areas or less-Conservative areas or Liberal areas or anywhere across the country, everywhere I meet Canadians who aren’t defined by the brand of politics that they follow or the colour or the approach, but are defined by a sense of optimism about our future. We are a people who are confident, forward-looking, engaged and ready, always, to roll up our sleeves and build a better country.”

Hurray for us.

“And that’s what we’ve lost a little bit of in the past days and past years in politics,” Mr. Trudeau says. “And that’s what I know Canadians are hungry to get back.”

The crowd applauds.

He talks here about the “politics of negativity, of division, of fear.” He says it will get you elected, but it leaves you unable to govern.

And then there is an explanation of the country that might best be reported at length.

“And let’s face it, Canada is an extraordinary, unlikely, country. We are defined by the fact that our ancestors, or ourselves, came to this country, from distant lands, trying to build a better future for ourselves and for our children and our descendants, and when we got to this land, whether it was 400 years ago or 40 days ago, we deal with the same thing. A country that’s too big, too empty and, notwithstanding beautiful days like this, too dang cold too many months of the year.”

Someone in the crowd suggests long johns, but Mr. Trudeau doesn’t pause to engage the joke.

“So what we do and what we’ve done throughout history is learn to lean on each other. You learn to succeed in Canada, it takes a lot of hard work, but no matter how hard you work, no matter how smart and capable you are, you need to know that you can rely on your neighbours in times of trouble,” he says. “And that’s universal. Here in this country, we’ve learnt how to lean on each other. How to build success as communities and as a country out of what was an inhospitable land. And those two facets of working hard and strong communities is what has shaped us into the modern country we are. We’re that one place in the world that has figured out how to be strong not in spite of our differences but because of them. Regardless of your background, regardless of where you settled geographically, or your religion or your language, Canadians are defined not by singular histories or culture, but by a shared set of values. Values of openness, respect, hard work, compassion, a willingness to be there for each other, a willingness to roll up your sleeves and drive to succeed, a desire for equality, for justice. These are the things that define us. And we had to learn how to define ourselves by these shared values because, on the surface, we are so different. And that’s what has made Canada just such an extraordinary success through the 20th century.”

There is something here. There is a hint of what could be a serious discussion about government and democracy and what we want and what we should hope for and how we should go about doing it.

He talks about inequality and resource and environmental concerns and fear and insecurity. He wonders aloud, rhetorically, why the politics of division is so effective. He mocks the government’s assurances (“We’re doing better than Spain,” he fake boasts). He says something has changed. And then he’s explaining the country again.

“The story of this country—that story of hard work and pulling together—built the premise, the basic promise of this country. That wherever you are from, whatever language you spoke, you could come to this country, work hard and you’d be able to create greater opportunities and a better life for your children here than you ever could have anywhere at home. And every successive generation has built on that, so that every coming year, every next generation, could expect better than the last. And that’s something deeply comforting in the very idea of progress that this country is built on. That you build for the future. That your hard work will provide for your shoulders for your kids and grandkids to stand on,” he says. “But now… for the first time perhaps… in the story of this country… people are worried that the next generation will not have the same or better quality of life than this. That our kids might not have greater opportunities than we did. And that’s incredibly destabilizing.”

The country is doing well, but as individuals we are feeling the strain, he says. He has a statistic on median family income. He takes note of where he is and there’s a tangent about our history of military sacrifice and then it’s back to what division has wrought: a sort of hiding and settling.

“That’s. Not. Good. Enough,” he says.

To listen for the first time is to wonder where he’s going with all this and whether he’s really ready to engage in a philosophical debate about achieving the collective good. His speaking style is not too overwrought. His left hand is halfway into his pocket and he gestures with his right. He is smooth and loud and generally without affectation.

“What I see right across the country is, more now than ever before,” he explains, “Canadians don’t believe that politics is a useful tool to achieving those big, collective dreams for ourselves.”

There is still, he adds, a “a very strong sense of citizenship in Canada.” And then he elaborates and expands and then there’s a bit about our willingness to take a position on big issues like climate change and peace in the Middle East. And then he’s back to our ability to believe in politics.

“But politics? Politics has ceased to be a meaningful way for ordinary citizens to help shape their community and their world, particularly the politics that happens down the road from you in the House of Commons. And that’s what we have to turn around.”

Fair enough. But how? With speeches like this? With someone like Mr. Trudeau? With a new app? With open nominations at the riding level and more freedom for MPs, sure, maybe. But what else?

There are the bones of something here. Or, rather, there are the guts of something. At some point it needs the structure and ability of muscle and bone.

“What I’ve seen over the past six months and what I’ve continued to see as I get out across the country is people who want to believe that politics can matter once again,” he says. “Can be a place where we talk about big words like vision and a long-term plan and robust, meaningful solutions that’ll have an impact on the next generation. But we’ve grown cynical. And we’re not sure that’s possible anymore. And collectively, as Canadians, we’ve begun to despair.”

There is an argument here. Or at least an argument to be made. There is something deeply important here. Or there could be. About how Stephen Harper has governed and how Mr. Trudeau wishes to govern and how we want to govern ourselves. About what politics is and should be. About how we imagine ourselves as a collection of 35 million people.

It is an argument that Stephen Harper has been quietly engaging for seven years. It is an argument that Thomas Mulcair quietly confronted last month (“We don’t have to accept less. We can strive for more.”) And it is an argument Mr. Trudeau now seems to be building towards here in Renfrew in the company of a couple hundred people and several varieties of sandwich.

“And that’s why over the past six months of this leadership and into my three weeks as the leader of the Liberal party of Canada now…”

The crowd applauds.

“I have seen people responding, incredibly positively, to the idea, not that we’re going to bring in all the answers, but that the Liberal party of Canada is once again going to ask Canadians to help us build those solutions.”

He mocks the Liberal tendencies toward self-satisfaction and arrogance and he talks about rebuilding the party and this idea of doing that in collaboration with Canadians.

“That sense of trust we have to rebuild doesn’t come from convincing Canadians to once again trust politicians,” he says, “but from convincing Canadians that there are politicians who trust them.”

The crowd applauds, but it’s not clear what this means. And it can’t be known what this will amount to as it pertains to what Mr. Trudeau and the Liberals will offer the country in 2015.

What he has to offer now is the idea of him and a sense of what he might do. He has the broad strokes of what might be an interesting stump speech and a raw ability to deliver it. He has some favourable polling results and the party has a million dollars and the young men with clipboards have another 250 names and email addresses. There are so many more days between now and when it might all amount to something. And so much depends on Mr. Trudeau and his advisors and, of course, fate. Potential is a wonderful thing. But it is theoretical.

At about 7 o’clock, his advisor gives him the sign to wrap it up and Mr. Trudeau finishes on a rousing note. A woman comes on stage to thank him and present him with a bottle of maple syrup. And then Mr. Trudeau walks off the stage and down to the floor of the legion hall, where a line forms around the room of those who want to shake his hand or get his autograph or have their picture taken with him or some combination thereof. He pulls people in close for photos and flashes a toothy grin. Young women and old women giggle in his presence. It takes him more than a hour to get through the line.