Beyond baby kissing: How Justin Trudeau will woo women voters

Carol Toller of Chatelaine talks to the Liberal leader about baby tricks, family ties and political platforms

Photo by Maude Chauvin for Chatelaine.

Photo by Maude Chauvin for Chatelaine.

Screen Shot 2014-10-16 at 12.51.45 PM

Carol Toller recently spent time with the Trudeaus as she worked on a story for Chatelaine about the Liberal leader’s prospects with women voters. What follows is an excerpt from that piece. 

Justin Trudeau is doing his baby trick again, and his communications director is having a minor convulsion. She sucks in her breath just a little as he wraps his fingers around his son Hadrien’s feet and hoists the giggling five-month-old in the air in the palm of his hand. The baby is still months away from being able to stand on his own, and according to the rules of most child-development charts, he should be about to topple soft-skull-first onto the paving stones outside the family’s home in Ottawa’s tony Rockcliffe neighbourhood.

But as Hadrien rises, his chubby legs lock; he looms high above, standing stoutly, unbelievably, upright in his father’s hand. The baby flashes a drooling smile. “Oh, tu es fier — très, très fier,” says Trudeau, grinning at his son. He’s done the same thing with other people’s infants at campaign events. It’s an attention-getter that sends parents lunging for their babies while scrambling for their cellphone cameras, but Trudeau insists they shouldn’t worry. He always holds babies close to his chest first, he says, checking that they’re able to lock their knees. If they can, he knows they won’t buckle.

“Okay, let’s head inside,” Trudeau’s aide, Mylène Dupéré, says firmly, leading him toward the house. She’s clearly glad the stunt is over, but she knows the boss has pulled off a show-stopping moment. It’s Baby Kissing 2.0, and it projects a bunch of images that could help Trudeau in the next election: a loving, hands-on parent; a warm, approachable counterpoint to Stephen Harper; and his father’s son — a charismatic leader who understands the value of a well-timed pirouette or a slide down a royal banister.

That’s a lot of potential messaging packed into a five-second party trick. Then again, it’s also possible that the move is simply a spontaneous gesture. It’s hard to tell with Justin Trudeau. While he displays a canny understanding of how things will play in front of an audience (think of his now-famous eulogy to his father, which ended with an emotional “Je t’aime, Papa”), he also feels so at ease under a zoom lens that he’s unafraid to try out fresh material (recently, critics pounded him mercilessly for suggesting that the Canadian government should provide humanitarian support to the anti-Islamic State coalition, “rather than trying to whip out our CF-18s and show them how big they are”). The result is a candidate whom some view as smarmily media-savvy and others think of as an untrained puppy.

Many voters aren’t sweating the details: They already like what they see in Trudeau — his storied lineage, his youthful energy, his awesome hair. With a new memoir, Common Ground, out on Oct. 21 and a party platform in the works, he hopes to add depth to what has so far been a superficial public image — and baby trick aside, he’s hell-bent on engaging women in the coming election.

He’s recruited a roster of impressive female candidates and taken a strong, clear stand on women’s reproductive rights. This past spring, he came out as definitively pro-choice in the abortion debate — a position he reiterated last month with a breathtakingly candid tweet: “The days when old men get to decide what a woman does with her body are long gone. Times have changed for the better. #LPC defends rights.” He’s had push-back from a few long-time party members, but some politics watchers say it was a smart move that could bring a lot of female voters onside — and help finally establish a clear Justin Trudeau identity, as a woman-friendly candidate.

Photo by Maude Chauvin for Chatelaine.

Photo by Maude Chauvin for Chatelaine.

Inside the Trudeau house, it’s glorious chaos as the family prepares for a photo shoot. Xavier, Trudeau’s seven-year-old son, is slashing the air with a samurai sword. “A real one,” he pronounces (at a glance, that appears to be true). Ella-Grace, 5, is hauling Hadrien around the room under one arm. Their mother, Sophie Grégoire, is having her makeup done. “Why are your eyes so black, Mama?” Xavier asks. It’s mascara, she explains. He makes a face, and she grimaces back, twisting her hands into claws: “Pas de maquillage, pas de barrettes, pas de vêtements — c’est mieux.” Naked is best, she says. Even with a fresh layer of makeup on, she comes across as unvarnished and unscripted. An earnest, yoga-practising, whole-foods-eating earth mom, Grégoire is the sort of person who talks about growing vegetables in the backyard, then corrects herself and says that she doesn’t really grow them: Mother Nature does. She’s got a sticker on her Odyssey minivan that reads, “Love is the Answer.”

But there’s an easy, self-deprecating wittiness to her too. Their stately, ivy-covered two-storey home, hasn’t been staged for visitors or scoured of signs of life. The fridge is covered in photos: Grégoire in the bathtub with a baby; Xavier with Trudeau’s mother, Margaret; Grégoire and Trudeau in his father’s Mercedes-Benz convertible. And then there’s Grégoire’s magnet collection. One reads, “You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you realize they’re all frogs.” Another: “And by charming, I mean hung like a horse.”

Trudeau has disappeared for 20 minutes, but now he returns to the frenzy of the room, holding a wailing Hadrien. He’s been trying to put him down, but the baby won’t sleep. “Fâché, fâché, fâché,” he says ruefully. Someone whisks the baby away.

Tucking her bare feet (mauve-painted toenails) under herself on a couch, Grégoire is calm, happy, unflappable in the midst of the swirling room, though she skips a beat when she hears that Trudeau’s been tossing the baby. She’s fine with the standing-kid stunt, she says, but she hadn’t heard about what he did for an encore: Lowering Hadrien to waist height, he’d flipped the infant on his side and spun him in the air, fast. The baby, gobsmacked, rolled like a crazily time-lapsed rotisserie chicken, executing a flawless 360 in mid-air.

“He did the roll?” she asks, eyebrows rising. “That’s new.” Her voice takes on a tone of faux menace. “Oooooh, Justin …” She pronounces his name the French way, accenting the second syllable of his name and letting it drag on with an exasperated sigh. She smiles as she does it. A former TV host, Grégoire also understands the power of the telegenic gesture. And she knows that this is their life now. Over the next year, every move of theirs will be minutely analyzed.

Ella-Grace’s now on top of Xavier, giving him a noogie. The photographer calls the family to the couch, and they sit down dutifully, Grégoire and Xavier at one end, Trudeau and Ella-Grace at the other. Everyone argues over who gets to hold the baby (Trudeau wins). For a moment or two, they maintain their positions. Then Grégoire and Trudeau start vamping for the camera. He crosses his eyes, she gently nips Xavier’s arm. Xavier bites back. They pile on top of each other in a grinning, happy, highly photogenic mess.

Outside on the patio, Trudeau — sockless, cuffs undone, yet still impeccable in khakis and a blue windowpane shirt — talks about why he’s written a memoir.

“It’s important that people understand who I am and where I come from,” he says, “and not just have it shaped by purely political discourse.”

Growing up, he says, the question he could never get away from was “Are you going to go into politics?” Now that he has, the question he can’t escape is: “How similar are you to your father?”

In interviews, and in his book, he’s quick to differentiate between himself and the elder Trudeau. He loves the outdoors like his father did, but his strengths are different. Pierre may have been a philosopher king, with a roguish personality that played well in front of an audience, but he wasn’t as “emotionally intuitive” as Justin considers himself to be. “My father found cocktail parties challenging.” Ask whom he most resembles in his family and he goes straight to his mother’s side, citing his grandfather Jimmy Sinclair, a long-time Liberal MP in Vancouver.

“Jimmy was very much a ‘man’s man,’ with all the charisma and outsized personality of a true old-school retail politician,” Trudeau writes in his memoir. “It was Jimmy’s door-to-door campaign style, not my dad’s, that I took as my model.”

Click here to read the full-length version of this piece at Chatelaine.

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