Justin Trudeau: Ready or not

He’s surged to within striking distance of 24 Sussex. Now it’s going to get ugly.

Darren Calabrese/CP

Darren Calabrese/CP

Last Friday morning, on the day after the campaign’s first French-language television debate, Justin Trudeau walked into GG Fabrication, a factory in Brampton, outside Toronto, and watched with an attentive grin while a piece of heavy machinery stamped a Liberal “L” out of some sheet metal. News photographers took photos. A crowd of area Liberals, arrayed photogenically on risers a short distance from the metal press, clapped cheerfully. Staffers from Trudeau’s national campaign, including his chief of staff, Cyrus Reporter, and his national campaign co-chairman, Dan Gagnier, looked on.

Trudeau was wearing what has been the approved Liberal campaign uniform since David Peterson, the former leader of Ontario’s provincial Liberals, ditched his horn-rimmed eyeglasses and clunky suits for what seemed, in 1985, peppier attire: dark trousers, white shirt with rolled-up sleeves, bright red tie. Informal, ready to work. Thirty years later, it’s hard to imagine a Liberal leader straying far from the prescribed attire. Jean Chrétien wore this outfit, and Dalton McGuinty, and Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff. And if there is even a whiff of magic left in the uniform that the latter two stumblebums managed not to stomp out of it on their way to successive historic-worst Liberal election scores in 2008 and 2011, then maybe it will help Trudeau.

He was in Brampton, Ont., to draw attention to the city’s four Liberal candidates, all first-generation Canadians from India: Rameshwar Sangha, Sonia Sidhu, Raj Grewal and Kamal Khera. The Liberal party used to rely on the votes of new Canadians, but, like much else the Liberals used to rely on, the immigrant vote has become something they cannot take for granted. Jason Kenney has spent most of a decade in the fastest-growing parts of Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, wooing new Canadians to the Conservatives. Trudeau was here to get some of that vote back.

Related: For the record, Trudeau’s notes for his speech to a Brampton arena

He began with a truncated version of his standard campaign stump speech: After 10 years in power, Stephen Harper is “out of touch with Canadians” and “won’t help Canada’s middle class in any meaningful way.” And if Harper “won’t help,” then the NDP’s Tom Mulcair “can’t help, because he’s signed on to Stephen Harper’s budget.” This was a reference to Mulcair’s insistence that he will run balanced budgets if elected. The vow has severely constrained the NDP leader’s ambition, because Harper has taken care to leave very little taxpayer money in the kitty in case of defeat.

Trudeau, on the other hand, is promising a series of “modest” $10-billion deficits. It gives him room to make more extravagant promises, as he is careful to remind crowds at every stop. “Canadians need help now,” he said, “not two or three elections from now. We’ll start by making the most significant investment in infrastructure in Canadian history.”

Trudeau takes great pleasure in depicting his opponents as interchangeable. “Harper and Mulcair want to keep sending cheques to millionaires,” he said. “We have different priorities. We will use that money to lift 315,000 kids out of poverty.”

There is a measure of revenge in Trudeau’s habit of painting the Conservatives and NDP as birds of a feather. For a decade, under Harper and Jack Layton, the two parties executed a squeeze play on the Liberals, gaining support at every election from 2004 to 2011, while the Liberals lost, in instalments, about 80 per cent of the ridings they held when Chrétien was the party’s leader.

When this long campaign began, it seemed that all of Trudeau’s youth and energy, and all the magic of his family name, was good for very little. The end of July found him in an extended polling slump, stuck in third place yet again, as low as 23.4 per cent in one Ekos poll—lower than Dion’s share of the 2008 popular vote, lower than Ignatieff was at the start of the 2011 election, before Harper and Layton kicked the Harvard prof a little lower still.

But one of the biggest surprises of this autumn is that Trudeau has managed a modest comeback. The poll aggregator found the Liberals and Conservatives tied in public support in the campaign’s eighth week, with the NDP mired in third. The three parties are still so close in support that none can pop champagne corks yet. But Trudeau’s resurgence has been fuelled, at least in part, by his energetic performance in the proliferation of televised debates his Conservative and NDP foes conspired to foist on him, in a bid to trip up this youngest and least experienced of the national party leaders. The electoral gods do not always look kindly on smug assumptions. Mulcair, in particular, silver-tongued and once supremely confident, will be glad when the debates are finally behind him.

    There is more to Trudeau’s success than style. That basic decision to spend more than the precariously balanced budget books permit has allowed him to make big promises that capture public attention. Ignatieff was hamstrung in 2011 by a balanced-budget pledge that left him offering forgettable policy trinkets. His outrage against Harper knew no bounds, but his proposed remedies were negligible. At least in comparison with Ignatieff, Trudeau is offering a bigger, gaudier Liberalism.

    Friday’s show at the sheet-metal factory was a case in point. Trudeau said GG Fabrication was the fruit of the labours of generations of the same family who came, a few at a time, from India through the middle and late 1990s. Those who arrived sponsored their relatives. “Stephen Harper is putting this success at risk,” Trudeau said. Family reunification is much harder under Harper than it was under Chrétien. “The wait time now to bring parents and grandparents to Canada is almost four years, on average. If your family lives in China, Pakistan, the Philippines or India, you can expect to wait five or six years, or more.”

    A Trudeau government will change that, he promised. He’d double the number of applications from immigrants who want to sponsor their parents and grandparents, to 10,000 a year. He’d double the budget for processing these family-class applications.

    “Making it easier for families to be together here in Canada makes more than just economic sense,” he said. “When Canadians have added supports, like family involvement in child care, it helps drive productivity and economic growth. And it brings in skilled workers we need so badly.” It was one of the less coherent paragraphs I’ve heard in a while: Driving productivity and attracting skilled workers are not “more than economic sense”; they’re the very definition of economic sense. But churning out campaign rhetoric is a rough-and-ready business at the best of times, and Trudeau has gained attention, not with finesse, but with a sort of neon-bright optimism.

    As he wrapped up his prepared remarks, Trudeau vowed to “repeal the unfair elements of Bill C-24 that creates second-class citizens.” C-24 is a new Harper law that permits the government to revoke the Canadian citizenship of dual citizens who are convicted of terrorism, treason or other serious offences. “No elected official should ever have the exclusive power to revoke Canadian citizenship,” Trudeau said. “Under a Liberal government, there will be no two-tiered citizenship; a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.”

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    The time came for questions from reporters. I asked about C-24. It doesn’t put your citizenship at risk for jaywalking, after all. It’s for people who contemplate or perform armed assault against Canada. What’s wrong with that?

    Trudeau turned 30 degrees from where the reporters’ microphone was located, toward the television camera that would record his response. “I think, any time you have a state that has the power to remove Canadians’ citizenship—that makes a distinction between Canadians who have chosen Canada and those who have been here with their families for generations—is problematic,” he said. The rule of law means that penalties should apply equally. “But the idea of imposing a radically different penalty, depending on whether or not your family was born in Canada or not, goes completely against a rule of law and a respect for justice that I know Canadians expect,” he said.

    “Quite frankly, Conservatives themselves, who are supposed to not want a particularly interventionist state, should be particularly concerned that an elected official could somehow decide to revoke your Canadian citizenship. There are consequences for anyone convicted of a heinous crime against Canada, terrorism or acts of war against Canada. Severe consequences. And there should be. But we should not be creating two classes of citizenship. That goes against everything that Canada has ever succeeded in creating, as a country that is strong, not in spite of our differences, but because of our differences.”

    As you might expect, the response drew hearty applause from the crowd of predominantly immigrant Liberals at GG Fabrication. But Trudeau would soon be reminded that, in any clash of ideas between a challenger and an incumbent, unique options are available to the incumbent alone. Hours after Trudeau spoke, Zakaria Amara became the first Canadian to have his citizenship revoked under the auspices of Bill C-24.

    Governments normally refrain from momentous action during campaigns, because their authority to do so is in the process of being weighed and judged by voters. It is impossible to believe that the moment of Amara’s revocation was accidental. Amara, born in Jordan, was one of the ringleaders of the so-called Toronto 18 plot. He was arrested in 2006 for planning to detonate truck bombs laden with fertilizer in downtown Toronto. If he and his fellow plotters had succeeded, hundreds of people could have died. Now he has been stripped of his citizenship under provisions of a law Trudeau and Mulcair oppose.

    Jason Kenney, the defence minister who is speaking to reporters more than the rest of the Conservative campaign combined these days, told the National Post that only a very small number of dual citizens stand to lose their Canadian citizenship under C-24, but that Amara obviously qualified. “Somebody who meticulously planned to slaughter hundreds of his fellow citizens for ideological reasons? Yes, I think that’s the worst of the worst.”

    For Trudeau, it was, at the very least, a test, if not a trap. He had spoken in the abstract, on the campaign trail, of the value of equal citizenship for all Canadians. The Conservatives had offered up a concrete example: a would-be mass murderer. Trudeau responded as he has done in the face of earlier tests: He refused to back down. At the next televised debate, on Monday from Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, C-24 came up again. The resulting exchange between Harper and Trudeau produced one of the most bitter displays of stark ideological difference in recent Canadian political history.

    Harper was the first to mention the citizenship law. Trudeau returned to it later, as if eager. “Despite 10 years to do something about it, he just revoked someone’s citizenship,” he said. “Quite frankly, it worries me when the first response is not, ‘This person needs to be in jail,’ but it’s, ‘This person should be given a two-tiered citizenship’—that we recognize that someone can be judged differently by our system of laws and rights, because their parents were born in a different country. That is not Canadian.”

    “Are you seriously saying, Mr. Trudeau, we [should] never be able to revoke citizenship from somebody?” Harper asked. “Because we revoked the citizenship already of war criminals. And why would we not revoke the citizenship of people convicted of terrorist offences against this country?”

    “Mr. Harper, a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian,” Trudeau replied. By now, the Liberal and the Conservative were speaking more or less simultaneously. “You devalue the citizenship of every Canadian in this place, and in this country, when you break down and make it conditional for anyone.”

    Harper was having none of it. “The individual in question, Mr. Trudeau, was convicted of planning the most heinous attacks ever against this country. A few blocks from here, he would have detonated bombs that would have been on a scale of 9/11.”

    “The politics of fear, once again,” Trudeau said. “We are not a country dominated by fear. We are a country of law and rights.”

    Only a fool would try to guess who, among the spectators who broke into applause during the latter part of this exchange, was clapping for which leader. It was all a bit of a mess. But let nobody claim, when voting day comes, that there are no stark differences among parties. The difference over Zakaria Amara’s fate is only one that separates Harper and Trudeau.

    But the two men also have something in common.

    In 2004, I wrote in this magazine that members of the newly united Conservative Party of Canada should choose Stephen Harper as their leader because, among his other qualities, he was unapologetic, and the new party would need more than a little cheek as it faced its challenges. Harper has made it as far as he has since then because he has met his share of opponents who are easily abashed, who step back from a confrontation, whereas Harper does not step back. I imagine Ignatieff was his favourite. Three or four times, the former Liberal leader made as if to bring an end to the Parliament in which he was Opposition leader, the better to bring the wrath of the voters down upon Harper’s head. Each time, Harper growled at him and Ignatieff postponed the reckoning. By the end of it, he was unconsciously reciting Conservative attack ads against him and saying things like, “Do I look like I’ve been steamrolled?” in public, when that was precisely how he looked.

    This summer and fall, Harper has been beset by unapologetic people. Rachel Notley, the new premier of the province he represents in Parliament, is one of them; Kathleen Wynne, the premier of the province where he has spent most of this campaign, is another. He calls their management disastrous and they fire back. But the most disturbing, surely, is Trudeau, because Harper has been whacking away at him for two years, with millions of dollars of advertising money, yet Trudeau is still there. Worse: He keeps doing the very things Harper finds outrageous about him.

    A year ago, Trudeau withheld his support from Canada’s military participation in the coalition against the so-called Islamic State. That, plus a dumb joke about Harper “whipping out his CF-18s,” earned Trudeau reviews as a lightweight. Six months later, he reiterated his position, even as members of his own caucus whispered around town that they wished he’d change his mind. This was in March, and it led me to write this about Trudeau: “He is beginning to be predictable, at least: Whether the issue is legalized marijuana, niqab-covered faces, boycotting Sun News or forbidding pro-life stances in his caucus, he doubles down on his positions once they get him in trouble . . . Liberal caucus members can stop asking whether he’ll shift positions once things get hot; he plainly likes the heat and isn’t for shifting.”

    Of course, cheek is no guarantee of success in politics. On the tiny number of citizenship applicants who want to wear a niqab while taking the oath, Trudeau is offside the great majority of public opinion, in Quebec and outside, as measured by more than one pollster. And on the revocation of citizenship. And on the military’s mission in Iraq and Syria. If he loses this election—and there remains a very good chance he will—a season of second-guessing will begin among Liberals, and most of them have way more experience at that particular hobby than he has at leading a party.

    But already he has weathered better than his opponents expected, and come through obstacles designed to bring him down, and he is not only standing, he seems for all the world to be enjoying himself.

    One more bit of torment for Harper to ponder: Whether it’s one of them, or Mulcair who is prime minister, however briefly, after this election is done, it seems likely that Trudeau will be the first Liberal leader since Paul Martin to stay on as leader after his first election. The year he spent in the polling doldrums succeeded only in acclimating Liberals to the possibility he might not win. Which means he will probably be granted more than one chance to try. Assuming, of course, he needs more than one. Harper’s last campaign has been dedicated to keeping Trudeau down; at that, at least, Harper has already failed.

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