Justin Trudeau: reflections on a grown man

Does anybody recognize the “Canada of Stephen Harper” Trudeau ranted against so excitingly?

If you enjoy seeing somebody injure themselves trying to occupy two positions at once, have a look at Josée Legault. The Montreal Gazette columnist and former PQ strategist was largely responsible for viralizing Justin Trudeau’s weekend remarks on separatism; transcribing his remarks on her blog, she accurately noted how unthinkable Trudeau’s position would have been to his late father, and how surprising they were coming from any Liberal. Yet when the story blew up in English Canada a couple days later, Legault took umbrage. Those hysterical Anglos had distorted the story.

Mardi matin, l’histoire s’était rendue jusque dans les médias canadiens-anglais. [Tuesday morning, the story made it into the English-Canadian media.] Mais de manière plutôt déformée, voire caricaturée. [But in a rather deformed, even caricatured manner.]

D’où les hauts cris poussés à Ottawa et à travers le Canada à l’effet que le fils de Pierre Trudeau, tout à coup, serait tenté de devenir, un jour, qui sait, un méchant «séparatiste»… [Hence the outcry in Ottawa and across Canada to the effect that the son of Pierre Trudeau, all of a sudden, could be tempted to become, one day, who knows, a naughty “separatist”…]

Legault goes on to gripe about the “honesty” of this characterization. In fact, it is perfectly honest and in perfect concord with what Trudeau said, and Legault was correct to recognize it as news in the first place, even if she does not now like the result (perhaps because she has lost ownership of the scoop).

Justin Trudeau did say he was willing to contemplate separation under real-world circumstances. “One day, who knows?” is more or less exactly what he told the interviewer. This is a legitimate surprise. And while I believe that a forty-year-old man is entitled to his own opinions—not that any Quebecois baby boomer can stand to think of Justin as a person entering the era of back pain and prostate problems—the contrast with his father’s extreme anti-sovereigntist position really is worth remarking upon, if only because Justin’s surname is the source of much of his influence.

The news that Trudeau is like most other Quebecers in regarding separation as a negotiating position, to be adopted or discarded according to circumstances, really is arriving suddenly. Moreover, Trudeau’s conditional advocacy of separation really is in strong contrast to the Liberal party’s stance. Problematically so, one would think.

In contemplating Justin Trudeau’s inherent predicament, my attitude flips back and forth from contempt to sympathy, almost from second to second. He is at best an intellectual middleweight, and often speaks nonsense when he steers into deep political waters. But he seems to be somewhat aware of this, so much so that he seems a little frightened of being promoted beyond his capacities as a consequence of his DNA. He has repeatedly disavowed any intention of seeking the leadership of his party. He seems to sincerely prefer family life and tending to his pet issues. He has an ideology, but he doesn’t have a grand structured vision for the country. (Obviously!) He may be just about the only member of Canada’s parliament who doesn’t secretly harbour a perverted, narcissistic dream of being Prime Minister. Just yesterday he noted that “[My father] was an intellectual; me, I’m a bit less intellectual.” Why is it that Canada cannot take the poor man at his word?

And yet, as sane and worthy of imitation as he seems in these respects, does anybody recognize the “Canada of Stephen Harper” Trudeau ranted against so excitingly today in front of a scrum in Centre Block? Harper’s party has not only accepted the legal fact of same-sex marriage, but has promised to shore it up against the disrepair in which the prior Liberal regime left it. The pro-life agitators in the Conservative caucus are a few barely-detectable grains of pepper amidst a kilogram of salt; on the whole, they are little more numerous and noisy than the pro-lifers in the pre-2011 Liberal caucus (who were, in one of history’s petty ironies, disproportionately victims of Conservative gains in non-metro Ontario).

As a fairly radical social liberal, I am strongly in favour of vigilance against backbench-led attacks on reproductive rights and gay marriage. (As someone once said, the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation.) But let’s be realistic. Justin Trudeau, when he is finished speaking for the “millions” of Canadians who supposedly don’t recognize Stephen Harper’s Canada, may like to know that there are millions more outside Quebec who think like me and who (unlike me) voted Conservative anyway. These people are potential Liberal voters—indeed, the most important, hypothetically attainable ones. Trudeau’s sci-fi invective against the imagined Conservatives of Counter-Earth does not seem like the smartest way of winning the real ones over.

Which is another reason Bob Rae might not be terribly pleased with Trudeau’s theatrics. (“C’est pire qu’un crime, c’est une faute.”) Rae’s statement that Trudeau “will always be” a “strong believer in a united Canada” stands in direct, genuine contradiction to the remarks Trudeau made in his radio interview, and Trudeau hasn’t retracted those remarks, either: all he has really done is to bitch about the attention being paid to them. Oddly, even though it is almost universally agreed that Rae will soon drop the “interim” tag from his leadership like a trapped newt shedding its tail, nobody seems to think that this potential conflict is the essence of the story. It’s Justin vs. Pierre, as opposed to Trudeau vs. Rae, or, indeed, Trudeau vs. the deepest, most implacable traditions and beliefs of his chosen political party.

Those in the business of turning politics into drama instinctively prefer to concentrate on the atavistic spectacle of father vs. son, even when the father is long gone. This won’t change in Justin Trudeau’s lifetime, or in the lifetime of our civilization, so if he sounded somewhat berserk yesterday, the man (and he is a man, for God’s sake) does have his reasons.

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