By now you might have caught wind of some highlights from Common Ground, Justin Trudeau’s new autobiography. He knows his audience, so there’s lots in there about his famous parents, and a childhood spent playing hide-and-seek with his brothers on the third floor of the Parliament Buildings’ Centre Block and catching a glimpse of Princess Di dropping by to swim laps in the pool at 24 Sussex Drive.
Along with the fun stuff, the book’s best parts come when Trudeau writes about coping with the often heavy burden of being Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s eldest. What it doesn’t contain—and nobody really expected—is much in the way of issue-by-issue details about how Trudeau, if he became prime minister after the election scheduled for next fall, might run the country. Still, I found passages that at least put a clearer frame around the questions of how the Liberal leader might handle three key files:
1. Hard-nosed on federal-provincial relations. Trudeau was studying at McGill University during the Charlottetown Accord referendum battle of 1992. I hadn’t realized what a turning point it was for him. He says fighting the accord “sealed my engagement with Canadian politics.” But he doesn’t merely echo his father’s most famous objections, particularly to the accord’s proposal to declare that “Quebec constitutes within Canada a distinct society.”
Justin Trudeau instead stresses that Ottawa would have given up its rarely used, rather obscure powers to disallow provincial laws that clash with national purposes or declare control over provincial projects deemed nationally crucial. “There was nothing wrong with proposing these concessions,” Trudeau writes, “but I kept returning to the same question wherever these and similar concessions by the federal government were addressed: What was Ottawa getting back in return?”
This strikes me as the voice of a hard-nosed, horse-trading instinct when it comes to federal-provincial relations, a tendency well worth noting as a sign of how Trudeau might, as PM, deal with the premiers.
2. Climate change not solidly prioritized. Environmental issues sometimes seem important to Trudeau, but Common Ground left me wondering where climate change ranks on his priority list. Trudeau describes his decision at the 2006 Liberal leadership convention in Montreal to swing to Stéphane Dion—after his first choice, Gerard Kennedy, was toast—by writing that Dion “had built his campaign around environmental policy, which aligned with so much of what I had heard from young people as chair of the [Liberal party’s] youth task force.”
Fast forward to 2012, when Trudeau was mulling a bid for the Liberal leadership, and he says he saw Prime Minister Stephen Harper failing on three fronts: middle-class incomes, problems with Canadian democracy and climate change. By the book’s summarizing final pages, however, climate change isn’t making Trudeau’s cut. He writes: “I would come back to these big, basic issues over and over again: growth that works for the middle class, and fair economic opportunity for everyone; respect for and promotion of freedom and diversity; and a more democratic government that represents all of Canada.”
I wonder if Dion’s epic 2008 election loss, while running on his daring “Green Shift” platform, hasn’t left Trudeau and other Liberals skittish about putting climate change anywhere near the centre of their platform.
3. Beyond middle-class policy, Papineau’s poor. If climate change isn’t an obvious pillar of Trudeau’s policy framework, the state of the middle class certainly is. He brought supposedly stagnant middle-class incomes to the fore in a speech last winter to Liberals at a Montreal policy conference. (I am among those who found his claims that the Canadian middle class hasn’t had a raise in three decades simplistic at best.)
In the book, he adds some nuance, noting that “abundant natural resources” cushioned Canada from U.S.-style middle-class decline, while the success of women entering the Canadian workforce boosted family earnings. These are huge factors, and just part of a lively debate on the true state of the middle class (watched closely here at Maclean’s) among economists. It’s great that Trudeau is allowing real-world complexity to shade his picture, although he sticks to his rather blunt core claim: “The median income of Canadians has barely increased since 1980. That means your average ordinary family hasn’t had a real raise in 30 years.”
More intriguing is the way Trudeau writes with what registers, to me, at least, as genuine feeling for the poor in his Papineau riding, compared to the better-off parts of Montreal. “Canada’s poor and rich seldom interact,” he says. “In some areas of Papineau, you can walk for blocks without meeting someone who graduated from university or earns a six-figure income; in Outremont and Westmount, it’s a challenge to find a homeowner who doesn’t have at least one college degree.”
It sounds almost as if Trudeau’s street-level experience as an MP might yet make him a compelling advocate, not so much for Canadians earning around the median income, but for the working poor who would be delighted for a chance—or a chance for their kids—to climb to that level. A policy aimed at the sought-after middle-class vote is expected. A strategy for helping Canadians barely getting by would be a welcome surprise.