The sunniest Liberal, Mélanie Joly

A rookie MP and top Quebec cabinet minister, Mélanie Joly has become the optimistic, smiling face of Trudeau-era Ottawa

Mélanie Joly Minister of Canadian Heritage June 2, 2016. (Photograph by Jason Ransom)

Mélanie Joly Minister of Canadian Heritage on June 2, 2016. (Photograph by Jason Ransom)

The YouTube creative space at Toronto’s George Brown College is a minimalist testament to all that is young, smart and digital-savvy. Officially opened in late April, it is all high ceilings and white space, an Ikea showroom robbed of most of its furniture. Stackable wooden cubes, coloured YouTube red, will serve as chairs and props for the thousands of videos that will be shot here in the coming years.

Mélanie Joly exits a cab with her press attaché and two aides and strolls into the YouTube space on a pair of black pumps with red polka dots. “Hi, I’m Mélanie, the minister for Canadian Heritage,” she says to the students milling about the entrance.

“Hi, I’m Naomi,” says Naomi, who gamely grips this friendly stranger’s hand between tokes off a vape stick.

For the next hour and a half, Joly flits about the studios, asking questions and shaking hands with positive, near-radiant energy. Part of her purview as minister of Canadian Heritage is the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), the bureaucratic bulwark that dictates how much Canadian content must flow to this country’s televisions and radios.

At YouTube’s Toronto space, she talks to two Canadian YouTubers, Anthony Deluca and Becky Wright. Together, Deluca and Wright have had their videos viewed roughly 90 million times. They know enough about the CRTC to know it is utterly irrelevant to them.

Joly has promised a new regulatory structure that will allow the YouTubes and the Netflixes of the world to continue to exist, but will protect more traditional television outlets that suffer at the hands of the Internet. She will protect net neutrality and continue to fund and promote Canadian content­. In short, she has promised the world. “I like to think outside the box. I’m a creative person and I’m a risk taker,” she says.

Given who she works for, Joly might be forgiven for her frequent bursts of optimism. Heavily courted by Justin Trudeau in 2014 to run for the Liberals in last year’s election, Joly, 37, is perhaps the next best encapsulation of the Trudeau government after Trudeau himself.

Related: Whither the Quebec Liberals?

She is a lawyer, public-relations person, amateur public intellectual and author. In 2013, she and a few friends started a municipal party, and Joly ran to become the mayor of Montreal. She started dead last and came in second. She has left a trail of jealous colleagues in her wake. “I’m blond with blue eyes, my name happens to be Joly. I didn’t choose it,” she says.

Today, she oversees a department with a yearly $1.3-billion budget and a mandate to protect and promote the sometimes-proud, often-insecure national identity of a large, disparate nation. In the alchemy of hope and hair that is Trudeau-era politics, Joly has weathered many of the same aspersions as Trudeau himself. She is an equally rare trifecta: handsome, approachable, with an almost ruthless optimism about her.

“It’s not for this moment, but she’s never hidden that she’s interested in being the leader of the Liberal party,” said Stéphanie Raymond-Bougie, a confidant and former colleague of Joly.

Mélanie Joly Minister of Canadian Heritage June 2, 2016. (Photograph by Jason Ransom)

Mélanie Joly Minister of Canadian Heritage June 2, 2016. (Photograph by Jason Ransom)

To understand the wholeheartedly cheery nature of the person and politician named Mélanie Joly, one need look no further than the 10-minute speech she gave at the Liberal party convention in May. Held in Winnipeg seven months after the Liberals won the federal election, the convention would have been an entirely smarmy and self-congratulating affair were it not an equal measure of “hope and hard work” earnestness permeating the place. In this sense, Joly did not disappoint.

Focusing mostly on the upcoming 150th anniversary celebrations, a $210-million affair overseen by Canadian Heritage, she explained that citizens can expect “a human connection, one based on knowledge and acceptance of others here at home to show the best of Canada.” Joly then moved on to youth (“Our government believes in the next generation and their way of doing things”), followed up with diversity (“Canadians understand that diversity is our strength”), before talking up the country’s “social contract” (“inclusion, compassion, equality and justice”). She plugged Canada’s Aboriginal population (“We . . . want to support reconciliation”), gave a quick nod to the environment (“In 2017, we want to reaffirm our desire to preserve our natural environments”), before ending with an ode to the importance of meaningful connections and a wash of applause from the crowd.

This happy and positive politician was at least 10 years in the making. Joly likes to say that her political career began in 2007, when she published a letter in La Presse decrying the debate over the place given to ethnic and religious minorities, which was then at a full boil in her native Quebec. The most virulent anti-immigration rhetoric tended to come from older, white francophones from beyond Montreal’s borders. They saw the influx of immigrants as a threat to Quebec’s French, secular society.

Joly, who grew up in the Ahuntsic neighbourhood on Montreal’s north shore, was having none of it. “Since my childhood, I’ve lived in an inclusive Quebec,” she wrote. Immigration “is not just a necessity, but an enrichment.” Read today, the letter is a fairly decent summary of the Justin Trudeau-era Liberal party mantra: tolerance is a balm, acceptance is the cure, and frustrated Baby Boomers need to pipe down already.

Related: The Quebec Liberals try to clear the slate—but it’s hardly clean

If the letter was her first foray into politics, her introduction to the Liberal party came earlier. In 2005, she was one of the lawyers with the Montreal law firm Stikeman Elliott representing Luc Lemay, a former president with Groupe Polygone. The event-management firm was at the centre of the so-called “sponsorship scandal,” in which Quebec companies with close ties to the Liberal party received contracts to promote Canada’s brand in the separatist-prone province. Groupe Polygone received some $40 million, including $330,000 for a planned hunting and fishing show in Quebec City that never happened.

Joly’s name is mentioned only in passing in the transcripts of the ensuing commission investigating the scandal. Yet there was a certain foreboding for the young lawyer. The sponsorship scandal saw millions of dollars pumped into Canadian Heritage, the very ministry Joly now leads.

Groupe Polygone was also the home of Denis Coderre, who served as the firm’s vice-president of public affairs. Coderre was elected under the Liberal banner in 1997. In 2013, eight years after Joly represented Lemay, she ran against Coderre for Montreal’s mayoralty. In one radio ad, she attacked Coderre “for having no credibility when it came to eliminating corruption” in Montreal.

But back to that 2007 letter in La Presse. Accompanying it was a photo of Joly shot in an alleyway in Old Montreal. Joly crouches in front of the camera with six of her like-minded friends in a half moon around her. Two things stick out in the image: Joly is the only one smiling, and she is very much the centre of attention. This last bit, a common theme in Joly’s career, was a source of professional jealousy for her colleagues.

In 2007, she and two fellow Stikeman lawyers, Raymond-Bougie and Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, launched Génération d’idées (“Ideas Generation”), which was at once a think tank, advocacy group and magazine for Quebec’s allegedly restless 30-something set. Its raison d’être was a riff on the ideas Joly laid out in the La Presse letter. “The idea was that Baby Boomers took up too much space. They dominated politics, we heard their opinions on TV and everywhere else. Génération d’idées was for us, by us,” says Raymond-Bougie.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau greets local candidate Melanie Joly during a rally Friday, August 28, 2015 in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/CP)

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau greets local candidate Melanie Joly during a rally Friday, August 28, 2015 in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/CP)

Génération d’idées, or GEDI, made a splash by selling $12 brooms and depositing them in front of Quebec’s National Assembly—a cheeky call for the government to call an inquiry into corruption in the province’s construction industry.

The GEDI co-founders bought themselves lightsabres (Joly’s was green) and hosted soirées for Quebec’s cultural elite. The group published a painfully earnest magazine, a sort of AdBusters without a hint of the subversive, with each issue devoted to a single topic: the environment, demographic decline and, yes, war and peace.

The group created a fair bit of buzz in Quebec media, particularly when Joly appeared on Tout Le Monde En Parle, a popular weekly current affairs program. Joly scored a spot on the show for GEDI through a friend, a researcher on the show. The trouble was, there was only room for one person, which didn’t suit Plamondon. “I actually liked not being in front of the cameras, but Paul wanted to be there,” says Raymond-Bougie. After her appearance, Raymond-Bougie says, Plamondon often fought openly with Joly. “Every time Mel wanted to say something, it was a little war. The bigger GEDI got, the more unruly it became.” Joly left the group in 2009. “I have nothing to say about Mélanie Joly,” Plamondon wrote in an email to Maclean’s. He has since declared his candidacy for the Parti Québécois leadership race, to be held this fall.

After leaving Stikeman in 2007, Joly dabbled in media as an intern at Radio-Canada before taking a partner position at the Montreal offices of public-relations firm Cohn and Wolfe. One morning in April 2013, she showed up at Marie-Claude Johnson’s office with a full notebook and a beaming smile. A close friend of Joly since 2011, Johnson is the daughter of former premier Pierre-Marc Johnson and a long-time political operative in Quebec. “I’m running for mayor of Montreal,” Joly said to Johnson. “Can you show me how it works?”

From left, Montreal mayoralty candidates Richard Bergeron, Denis Coderre, Melanie Joly and Marcel Cote greet each other prior to the first debate in Montreal, Friday, August 16, 2013. (Graham Hughes/CP)

From left, Montreal mayoralty candidates Richard Bergeron, Denis Coderre, Melanie Joly and Marcel Cote greet each other prior to the first debate in Montreal, Friday, August 16, 2013. (Graham Hughes/CP)

By then, Joly was well acquainted with Trudeau; she’d joined his leadership campaign team in 2012. Yet she didn’t want to go into federal politics. “Montreal has such an amazing potential,” Joly says today. “I was a young woman, I wanted to have kids and I thought, well, federal politics is interesting, but I would like to go into municipal politics, to defend my city. I was frustrated because I saw the potential of Montreal.”

Joly actually spent months considering a run for the job before she showed up at Johnson’s door. She did regular meet-and-greet sessions with writers, business people, artists and historians at her home, which she shared with Didier Jutras-Aswad, a psychiatrist and founding member of GEDI. “We drank in ideas,” says Raymond-Bougie.

Her campaign launch was inauspicious. She publicly declared her intention to run to a largely empty room at Pointe-à-Callière, a museum in Old Montreal. The main reason: Montreal’s interim mayor, Michael Applebaum, had been arrested on 14 criminal charges relating to corruption that morning.

Moreover, she’d waded into an already crowded field. The presumptive front-runner, Denis Coderre, had oodles of campaign cash to properly promote his grandstanding populism; Marcel Côté had the blessing of Montreal’s business community. Richard Bergeron, an old-school lefty, was taking his third kick at the can. Joly was 25 years under the average age of her three opponents.

“From the beginning, she’s young, cute and on top of that she’s blond,” says Frédéric Lepage, who served as the communications director for Vrai changement pour Montréal, Joly’s nascent political party. “About 50 per cent of the media thought she was in the same league as Coderre. The other 50 per cent thought she was a marginal candidate not to be taken seriously. There was a sense that she was too ambitious.”

Early in the campaign, Joly’s team was flooded with requests about an affair with Quebec businessman Pierre Karl Péladeau. The rumour had been simmering for months in 2013, and by midsummer had been repeated so often that it practically became accepted knowledge.

Except it wasn’t true. “I never had a conversation with the guy [Péladeau] in my life. It was an urban myth,” Joly told Maclean’s in April 2015. She never addressed the rumour publicly; doing so would have given it credibility. It was left to her campaign manager, François Leblanc, who held high-level positions with the Bloc Québécois and the Parti Québécois before working with Joly, to fend off the rumour. “I was getting constant emails and texts asking me if it was true,” Leblanc says. “I’ve worked for a lot of politicians, and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Meanwhile, the campaign was in shambles. After publicly defending a candidate known for her past life as an escort, Joly was forced to drop Bibiane Bovet following allegations of fraud. “I was frustrated. My ego was hurt. I was trolled a lot and portrayed as a kind of woman I didn’t believe I was: not necessarily intelligent, not necessarily credible,” Joly says today.

From their offices in Montreal’s shmatte district, Joly and her team regrouped—and doubled down on Joly. A portrait of her, hands on hips, wearing black against a black background, dominated her campaign posters. “People like to think you can’t have it all. You’re ugly but you’re smart, you’re good-looking but you’re stupid,” says Raymond-Bougie. “She knows she’s pretty, and she’s not going to dye her hair brown and wear ugly clothes to make herself seem less stupid.”

The Bovet incident had an unintended consequence: the cameras were suddenly back on Joly, albeit for the wrong reasons. Joly, says Johnson, “made it her political goal to make sure they stayed there.” There were two ways to do so: get into the debates, and focus on Coderre. Joly did both, first scoring a spot on the televised debates then attacking Coderre on the radio.

“We wanted to get Coderre angry, and we did. At the beginning, he treated her as a poor little girl,” Leblanc says. (After one debate, Joly says, Coderre thanked her. “Is there a dimmer switch on her?” he joked.) “At the end, though, he was furious at us. That’s when I knew we were doing something right.”

In the end, Équipe Denis Coderre spent $1.17 million in securing the mayorship of the country’s second-largest city. Joly finished second; her team spent just over $250,000. Buoyed by the results, Joly swore she would be Coderre’s most persistent political foe in the years to come. “I am here to stay, and I intend on running again in 2017,” she said shortly after the election.

Politics is the art of turning hope into currency. Yet politicians themselves, especially freshly vanquished ones, often wrestle with more pedestrian issues like necessity and opportunity. Though she came within a few percentage points of the Montreal mayor’s office, Joly failed to win her own seat, and was therefore shut out of city council. Meanwhile, her run for mayor had increased her visibility with the federal Liberals, who were gearing up for an election.

Beyond her stint with Trudeau’s leadership campaign—and her time as a lawyer for the president of a Liberal-friendly company during the sponsorship scandal—Joly’s Liberal party bona fides run deep. Her father, Clément Joly, was president of the Liberal party’s finance committee in the late ’90s. (Though his name came up in testimony during the inquiry into the sponsorship scandal, Clément Joly never testified, nor was he accused of any wrongdoing.) Her stepmother, Carole-Marie Allard, is a former Liberal MP.

Joly was also a speaker at the Banff Forum. Co-founded by former World Economic Forum managing director Robert Greenhill, the Banff Forum is modelled on the WEF’s clubby annual meeting in Davos. Nestled in the heart of conservative Canada, it has nonetheless been an incubator of sorts for the current Liberal government. Ten current Liberal MPs have spoken or participated in the forum, including five cabinet ministers.

So it all seems too inevitable in retrospect, though Joly had some doubts. “When I lost, there was a guilt of not staying on in Montreal, and fear of not being able to be a mother while being a federal politician,” she says.

The political part, at least, was relatively straightforward. In the months following the municipal election, Joly wrote Changer les règles du jeu (Changing the Rules of the Game), a quickie book largely consisting of progressive, feel-good bromides seemingly harvested from her GEDI days. “It is important for the younger generation to know where we came from to know where we’re going,” reads a typical passage.

In March 2014, former Liberal MP Eleni Bakopanos made her first attempt to recruit Joly to run in her old riding of Ahuntsic, which she lost to Bloc MP Maria Mourani in 2006. It took Bakopanos nearly a year and two more attempts to convince Joly. To assuage Joly’s worries about raising a family, Bakopanos used herself, a mother of two daughters, as example.

Joly had to fend off accusations of favouritism practically from the moment she declared her candidacy. Four days after she entered the race, Trudeau tweeted out a picture of himself and Joly deep in conversation, as Trudeau’s infant son bounces on his knee. “My two favourite things—spending time with my kids & talking with good people about our great country,” he wrote. Suffice to say, none of the other seven candidates vying for the candidacy in Ahuntsic–Cartierville received such attention from the Liberal leader.

According to Bakopanos, though, Joly was actually at a disadvantage. The Quebec wing of the Liberal party’s candidate vetting committee was co-chaired by former MP Pablo Rodriguez. Bakopanos says Rodriguez was reticent about Joly’s candidacy. “She was competition. I think there was a sense of her overpowering him, and it happened. She is the most powerful minister in Quebec. Is [Rodriguez] minister today? No, he’s not.” (“Mélanie and I have always got along,” Rodriguez said, calling Bakopanos’s allegation “completely false.”)

As with her mayoral run, Joly’s campaign to become a Liberal candidate was comparatively last-minute. She was well behind in membership-card sales, if only because she came into the race so late. She was sometimes brought to tears by the lack of support in the community, according to a source close to the Joly camp at the time.

Between April and August, according to the source, Joly sold 1,000 membership cards—enough to win her the nomination in August. Joly trounced Mourani in the general election last October.

According to its mission statement, Canadian Heritage exists to promote “an environment in which all Canadians take full advantage of dynamic cultural experiences, celebrating our history and heritage, and participating in building creative communities.” This involves everything from distributing Canadian flag lapel pins for National Flag of Canada Day (72,003 this year) to managing the country’s Official Languages Act to overseeing the country’s $50-billion arts, culture and heritage industries.

Joly has made 27 funding announcements since last November. “You give cheques, you take pictures, it’s a great portfolio for her,” says a former member of her team.

But it’s not all grip-and-grins. One of Joly’s stated priorities is to update Canadian content laws, many of which date back to 1992, before the advent of widespread Internet use. She will revisit the mandates of both the CBC—Heritage is giving an additional $675 million to the public broadcaster over the next five years­—and the CRTC. “The system in place is not adapted to the digital era, and that’s what we want to do, but there are still advantages in terms of supporting content which is still there right now,” Joly says.

The big question is whether enforcing Canadian content laws is as feasible as it was two decades ago. According to media measurement firm comScore, Canadians watch an average of 19 hours of online video a week—content that isn’t yet subject to Canadian content laws. In theory, at least, the CRTC has the jurisdiction to regulate streaming services like Netflix. Whether it would want to is another matter. “Given Netflix’s investment in data analytics and tracking viewer habits, it knows more than anyone what its viewers want. We could try to mandate that a certain percentage of content be Canadian, but Netflix would know if anyone would actually watch it,” says Michael Geist, a professor at the University of Ottawa and the Canada research chair in Internet and e-commerce law.

Updating Canada’s media landscape is a monumental task laden with inevitable conflicts. Put simply, it will be impossible to at once appease the streaming services, cable television companies, Internet providers, Canadian producers and the viewing public at large. At some point in her tenure, Joly will have to deal with disappointing at least one of the vested interests.

But such conflicts are months, even years, in the future—still very much beyond the sunshine emanating from this new government. Besides, there’s a country’s birthday to celebrate, details of which will be unveiled in August.

“I’m ecstatic about what is happening at Heritage,” Joly says. “I have amazing public servants, I know we will do a good job. I’m not scared of decision-making. There are going to be hurdles along the way, there are going to be political challenges. But this will go well.”

Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.