’When I run’: Justin Trudeau considers politics

The moment Trudeau’s political career became a question of when, not if
Justin Trudeau, son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, works on his notes before a news conference in Montreal Wednesday Aug. 28, 2002. Trudeau is chairing a workshop on youth and information technology at the World Computer Congerss in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

“If” suddenly becomes “when” somewhere between the second and third drink. For the past couple of hours, Justin Trudeau has been sitting in the bar of a swanky hotel in Old Montreal, talking about the future — his future. Christmas Day will mark his 31st birthday. He’s two years removed from his father’s death, and the stirring eulogy that started the public thinking and Liberal apparatchiks whispering in his ear. Since moving back home to Quebec from Vancouver last spring, he’s been popping up in the media with increasing frequency— promoting avalanche awareness, lending his name to Katimavik, partying at the Junos, driving his father’s famed Mercedes convertible down Ste-Catherine Street. There’s growing pressure, public and private, to start the second coming rolling.

Trudeau knows it. He’s flattered by it. On this day, he’s enjoying the intellectual exercise of deconstructing our collective fascination with him and piecing it back together again. “If enough people put you out there, you become something,” he says, swirling a C.C. and ginger in his hand. “But I’m far from a finished product. I haven’t done anything. I haven’t accomplished anything. I’m a moderately engaging, reasonably intelligent 30-year-old, who’s had an interesting life— like someone who was raised by wolves, or the person that cultivated an extremely large pumpkin.” Or the kid who grew up on Sussex Drive and possesses the same high cheekbones, strong chin and nasal voice as Canada’s 15th prime minister.

There’s a lot of talk about “sharing the process,” and decisions that may or may not be made once he finishes the engineering degree he’s pursuing at the Universite de Montreal. He muses about the conditions that would have to exist to make politics worth his while, and worries out loud that the public might be looking for a return to good old days that never existed. Then, perhaps unconsciously, perhaps on purpose, the conditional clause disappears. “When it happens it will be in my own time,” he says. “My father was 20 years older than me when he got into politics. I won’t be rushed.” The ambitions are lying bare on the bar table between us. It looks like Ottawa is going to become the family business.

THERE’S ONLY BEEN one rock star in Canadian politics. A balding, toothy middle-aged intellectual who dressed a couple of decades younger than he was, but managed to carry it all off con brio. “Rich, sophisticated, athletic, tough and cold enough to carry a tantalizing hint of wickedness and danger,” George Radwanski, now the federal privacy commissioner, gushed in his 1978 biography, Trudeau.

That description doesn’t fit the oldest son very well. There’s something slightly raffish about Justin Trudeau — he wears scuffed biker boots with his tailored suits — but it stops a long way from the steely menace, both physical and mental, that radiated from his father’s core. Tall, lean and graceful, Justin is more likely to give a stranger a hug and a kind word than a cutting remark or a punch in the nose. He wants you to like him. His dad never seemed to care.

What has been passed down the line, however, is the rarest of all commodities in Canada— the raw, incandescent power of celebrity. For whatever reason, people are drawn to Justin Trudeau.

It’s a phenomenon that’s in high evidence during a weekend in Ottawa in early November. In town to take part in the 25th anniversary celebrations of Katimavik, the ’70s-holdover youth volunteer program started by Senator Jacques Hebert, one of his father’s closest friends, Trudeau is noticed and approached everywhere he goes. In the lobby of the Chateau Laurier it’s a teenage girl looking for an autograph. At a community meal in Gatineau City Hall, middle-aged women and men keep him busy for almost an hour, posing for pictures. On the sidewalk, in shopping malls and restaurants, people just want to shake his hand. “It makes me a bit uncomfortable, but who am I to argue?” he asks. “My dad always taught me to be polite, get their name, write a little message if that’s what they’re looking for. People want the personal connection.”

The effect isn’t limited to members of the general public. The weekend nets favourable articles in the Ottawa Citizen and Sun. He is featured on most local TV newscasts and does a lengthy interview with Shelagh Rogers on national CBC Radio. At his request, Jean Chretien makes time in his schedule to attend Katimavik’s anniversary gala at the Museum of Civilization. He and Trudeau work the room together, enduring fusillades of camera flashes.

Gerry Butts, a fellow Katimavik board member and friend of Justin since their days together at McGill, says the native charisma and other advantages of a political upbringing are even more obvious behind closed doors. Trudeau is lobbying hard to get the federal government to jack up the youth program’s $11.6-million budget. “You got into these meetings with him and muscle memory kicks in,” he says. “It’s like he’s been doing it since he was in the womb.”

Butts, a senior policy adviser to Ontario Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty, says he regularly receives calls from people in the party hoping to harness his friend’s skills for their causes, fundraisers and political events. He deflects most of the requests— like other members of Trudeau’s inner circle he is concerned about people “misusing that potential.” Butts is coy, however, about what exactly he and others are helping Justin save himself for: “He’s in the process of achieving that level of certainty about what he believes in.” It’s too early to commit to politics. Trudeau isn’t even a member of the party his father led for 16 years. “But if Justin Trudeau wants to run for office, I don’t think he’ll have any shortage of people who want to help him out,” Butts says with a smile.

Michael Marzolini, the federal Liberal party pollster, says he hasn’t yet run Trudeau’s name by potential voters, but he’s certain the response would be positive. Most Canadians admired his father’s vision, integrity and passion, regardless of whether they agreed with his policies, he says. And even if the public doesn’t know Justin very well at this point, they suspect he is cut from the same cloth. “I think he’d be a very attractive candidate,” says Marzolini. “He has all the right qualities, not just the name. Justin will do well on his own.”

ANYONE WHO HAS ever had to spend time on the election trail— in any country— knows that great orators are at a premium these days. The standard political speech is a tepid brew of cliches, vague promises and partisan bragging delivered in a passionless monotone. That’s why the eulogy got people excited. It plucked at our heartstrings and played to our patriotism. At once sorrowful, dramatic and proud: the son captured the public’s mood.

In the hours after the funeral, the CBC’s switchboards lit up with requests to replay the tribute — more than 1,000 callers by the end of the day. The newspapers overflowed with smoochy hyperbole. “Justin Trudeau hit the national consciousness like a thunderbolt,” wrote the Canadian Press. “A young man buried his dad, a star was born,” proclaimed the Globe and Mail. “He oozes charm and poise from every pore,” said the Red Deer Advocate.

There were a couple of dissenting opinions. A columnist for the National Post called it “a treacly overacted embarrassment.” Trudeau “gesticulated like a third-rate modern dancer” in a performance that “was far too calculated to be trustworthy.” Hate mail and death threats clogged the writer’s in-box for months.

Trudeau shrugs when I ask him about the over-the-top praise and the overly harsh criticism. “I wasn’t at all surprised by the reaction,” he says. “I put everything I was given as a son into that eulogy. I was showing myself as his accomplishment.” He and his brother Sacha had nursed their father through the final months of his fight with cancer; they were prepared for his death. But they hadn’t expected the nation’s grief to match their private sorrow. The tens of thousands who turned out to pay their respects on Parliament Hill, the crowds that lined the tracks as the train returned their father to Montreal for the final time, the spontaneous memorials that sprung up across the country: “We were blown away,” says Trudeau. The eulogy, written the afternoon before the funeral, was a cri de coeur; a valentine for Canada, he says. “Yes, it was theatrical. It was as bad as [the Bruce Willis movie] Armageddon, punching all those buttons. But that’s what it needed to do. It wasn’t designed to please journalists.”

But hitting a home run in your first major league at-bat isn’t always a good thing. Watching Trudeau today, two years later, it’s clear he sometimes struggles with the expectations— his and ours. In speeches, he’s always swinging for the fences, whether he’s cutting a cake or introducing the Prime Minister. At the Museum of Civilization gala, only the timely intervention of a proofreading friend stops him from describing Katimavik, a now marginal program with just 726 volunteer placements to fill this year, as “a beacon of hope, a ray of light that will shine across this great country.”

And it’s not that Trudeau has been thrust into the fray— he is refreshingly frank about his transformation from a little-known Vancouver teacher to a national figure. “If I really preferred the anonymity, you wouldn’t be talking to me right now,” he says. Sacha, a documentary filmmaker, has always jealously guarded his privacy. That’s not Justin’s style. “I’m out there,” he says. “I don’t mind the spotlight. I don’t mind a good party. I’m like my mom in that way.”

But that willingness to keep his career options open by playing footsie with the media has led him to some places he probably would have been better off avoiding. There was the front-page newspaper story by Jake Richler, the son of Mordecai, comparing the new Mercedes-Benz SL500 roadster to Pierre Trudeau’s cherished 1960 version, with the accompanying photo of Justin, decked out in shades, arms and legs crossed, leaning against the hood. An image that speaks to someone living off a legacy rather than protecting one. Then there was the time he was quoted in a different media outlet sounding like the poster boy for apathy: “I don’t read the newspapers, I don’t watch the news. I figure, if something important happens, someone will tell me.” Trudeau points out that his dad said practically the same thing on a number of different occasions. True, but at the time, he was making the headlines as prime minister.

Public figures also invariably seem to become targets for gossip and speculation. In Justin’s case, it has been rumours that he’s gay. Anyone who has ever had a chance to observe him chatting up women in the bars along St-Laurent Boulevard probably already knows the answer, but the whispers seem to have irked Trudeau enough that he makes a point of bringing up his sexuality five minutes into our interview. “As a straight, white male. . .” he says, pausing and adopting a look of mock horror. “Oops, I guess I just blew it,” he jokes.

In the end, the minor missteps and the nasty tattle have done little to remove the lustre left by his eulogy, or diminish Trudeau’s considerable appeal. And it’s hard to deny that he possesses natural gifts that recommend him for some sort of career in the public eye. At McGill, he was on the debating team and it shows. He can hold forth fluidly on almost any subject, and loves to probe the other person’s arguments for weaknesses, searching for the kill, even in casual conversation. Like his father, he received a classical education at Montreal’s College Jean-de-Brebeuf. He has a degree from McGill in English literature, a B.A. in education from the University of British Columbia, and is now studying engineering so he can “explore the scientific side” of his mind. He has a passionate opinion about practically everything— the media, free trade, the Alouettes, the environment. “I get so annoyed at the complacency of Canadians, the idea that we’re so virtuous,” he declares at one point in the bar. “Look at the facts— we’re the largest per capita producers of garbage in the world!” As the conversation progresses, I have to keep moving my glass further and further away from him, for fear that his windmilling arms will punctuate his next point by dumping a beer in my lap.

Joe MacInnis, the Toronto doctor, author and underwater explorer, was a close friend of Pierre Trudeau and has become a mentor to his sons. What he sees in Justin is energy, exuberance and almost limitless potential. “I watched him grow up in a family where he was exposed to high-thinking individuals, the most challenging circumstances, and taught about responsibility,” MacInnis says. “Now he’s developing himself on all the fronts that are required.” And why is it that so many people seem to want Trudeau to follow in his father’s footsteps? MacInnis pauses for a moment before answering. “He inspires a kind of hope, a kind of promise, because he knows what can be done.”

DYNASTIES ARE not unheard of in Canadian politics. W.A.C. Bennett and his son Bill were both premier of British Columbia. Daniel Johnson’s sons Pierre-Marc and Daniel followed in his footsteps as premier ministre of Quebec. Preston Manning’s dad Ernest led Alberta for 25 years. Paul Martin Jr. seems set to make the leap to the big job that Paul Sr. never could quite manage. But the challenge facing Justin Trudeau looks to be much tougher than those overcome by the famous sons that have come before him.

Trudeau may have inherited the charisma, or even the instincts and the skills, but what Canadians seem to miss most about his father is the vision. Part philosopher king, part nationalist warrior, part political thug, Pierre Trudeau challenged a nation to define itself, and not always in a pleasant manner. He was a strong, often adversarial leader in an era of big issues and great debates— separatism, American encroachment, the Cold War. A tough act to follow.

Justin is almost 31— two years older than his dad was when he first made his mark organizing strikers in Asbestos, planting the seeds for Quebec’s Quiet Revolution— and still looking for a cause to call his own. His vision isn’t quite in focus yet. “I stand for committing yourself to better the world and using what you have to better the world,” he says. “I believe in taking what I have and making the world a better place. Everyone should do that.” Trudeau talks in broad terms about a need to get young people involved in the political process, to encourage volunteerism, to educate the masses about their responsibilities in a democratic society. “Change cannot come from the top down, you have to change mindsets from the very basic population level.”

His father, a lawyer by trade, first made his political mark as the minister of justice, liberalizing the divorce laws and overhauling the Criminal Code. His greatest legacy as prime minister is the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But Trudeau says he believes the law’s days as an instrument of social change are long past. “Law has come a long way from justice,” he says. “It’s more about finding loopholes and finagling.” Education is now the answer: “Change the fundamental rules of the game by bringing up minds that think differently.”

The values that Trudeau wants to inculcate are “pretty much the same” as his father’s, “Canadian values” he says. And what are those exactly? “It’s having medicare, having education, being peacekeepers, not having nukes in Canada.” He is as dismissive of sovereignists as his father was before him. “Quebec will never separate and the reason why is that Quebecers are too politically astute.” They see the advantages and reap the benefits of their ambivalence toward the rest of the country. “Quebecers are better voters and better political strategists than any other group in the world,” he says. “1995 came as close as it ever will.”

A desperate challenge to define his core belief in 25 words or less— by this point our discussion has already filled a notebook and two cassettes— produces the following response: “The nation is no longer a legitimate basis for the state and the rights of the individual are never secondary to the rights of the collective.” For those who are counting, that’s 26 words, though it takes several thousand more to explain exactly what he means (it turns out to be a repudiation of ethnic nationalism in all its forms).

The echoes of his father are unmistakable. Though Stephen Clarkson, a University of Toronto political economist who co-authored an exhaustive two-volume biography of Pierre Trudeau, is less than complimentary when I ask him to look over some of the quotes. “It sounds quite derivative, the kind of generalizations you can get away with as long as you’re not pressed too much,” he says. “It just sounds very glib.” The comparison, though invited by Justin’s increasing public profile, may not even be a useful one, says Clarkson. “Thinkers on the whole don’t do well in federal politics. His father was very exceptional.” In today’s world, “having charisma and appeal is probably more precious than good policy training,” he says. And the public may not be so harsh in its assessment. When Clarkson ran the same quotes by students in his fourth-year seminar course, several told him they thought the younger Trudeau “has vision.”

IN THE LOBBY of the National Library in Ottawa, the little old ladies are craning their necks and stealing glances, trying to make a positive ID. “It’s him. I’m sure it’s him,” one whispers to her friend. Justin Trudeau pays them no heed — he’s absorbed in an exhibit of photos of his father. He walks slowly down the aisle, pausing before the ones that catch his eye. “My God! Il a l’air de mon frere. They have the same smile.” There are pictures of the then prime minister with Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson and the other Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadians at 24 Sussex Drive. Iconic images of him speaking from the stage, one hand hooked in his belt, the other arm outstretched like a Roman orator. Even a photo of Frank Sinatra gazing at Trudeau with what can only be described as a look of love.

Several of the pictures bring tears to Justin’s eyes. “I’m watching him be proud of Misha or Sach doing something,” he says of a close-up of his father flashing a tight smile. He excuses himself and walks outside to be alone for a while.

It’s been two years, but when Trudeau talks about his dad he still slips into the present tense. Clearly, his father’s passing, and the untimely death of his youngest brother Misha a year earlier in an avalanche during a backcountry ski trip in British Columbia, still affect him deeply. “I’m not saying I have to please him to be happy,” he tells me when we meet up in Montreal. “But it’s my responsibility to live up to the gifts I have been given, to live up to the measure of my own potential.”

It’s tempting to cast him as another young prince haunted by a ghost, but it wouldn’t be accurate. Trudeau is well in control of his destiny. And like his father before him, he’s enjoying the game. At a photo op during the community meal in Ottawa, I watch him direct the cameras into place, assemble a supporting cast, and then uncork some studied, spatula-flipping goofiness while the shutters click. Ten minutes after we first meet, he executes a pirouette as we walk along the sidewalk. “I have a calculating side,” he says later. “I pretty much don’t do anything without being aware of the consequences.”

In recent months, Trudeau has repeated the same lines in almost every interview he’s given— that he’s not ready for politics, that he still has a lot to learn. (The posture has been a critical success even in unlikely quarters: a National Post editorial recently lauded him as “wise beyond his years.”) That reticence isn’t entirely affected. Public life took a huge toll on his family. He is close to, and protective of, his mother, Margaret, who still lives in Ottawa. “My mom is such an incredible person— smarter than my dad. The tragedy is that she got swept away by the life and other things,” he says. “I’m still figuring myself out, figuring if I can deal with the kind of circus my dad had to deal with.” But the death of his brother, and then his father, in close succession, has altered the timeline. “My father’s life taught me to expect the best of myself. It taught me to push people to make a difference. My brother’s death taught me the same lessons, but to do it every day.” Justin Trudeau is reluctant to admit it publicly, but his mind is made up.

At the photo exhibit, I give him a few minutes to collect himself before wandering outside. He’s standing in the late afternoon sun, looking down Wellington Street toward Parliament Hill. “You know, I’m doing it all for him,” he says. And for the moment, at least, you want to believe him.