(Photo: Waldy Martens Photography)
Justin Trudeau wants me to hit him in the face. We’re standing in the ring at the Top Glove Boxing Academy in downtown Sudbury. It’s a gym straight out of a movie: dank, cramped and pungent, with two ceiling fans on the fritz.
I’ve been following Justin—call him Justin, everybody does—around northern Ontario as he campaigns to become leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, which, 24 months ago, endured the most crushing defeat in its 150-year history. On Justin’s agenda today: six functions and five speeches. His handlers accorded him one hour of personal time before his final event. He could have done anything with his break. He chose to box.
Podcast: Get the story behind the story with writer Philip Preville.
Justin’s given me two minutes to take my best shot. I’m wearing borrowed gloves, the wrong shoes, no headgear and no mouthguard. I start by darting back and forth, jabbing soft thumps into his raised gloves. “Come on!” he spits through his mouthguard. To my surprise, I connect a few times, landing one right in the kisser.
With that, Justin starts punching back. He’s just glancing me, letting me know where I’m vulnerable—and I’m becoming more vulnerable by the second. “I’d have finished you off with body blows,” he later tells me. More precisely, he’d have done me in the same way he did now-suspended Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau during a charity bout one year ago. He beat Brazeau—a former navy reservist with a black belt in karate—using the old rope-a-dope: take your licks early, wait for your rival to be spent, deliver the coup de grâce. The strategy also guides Justin’s campaign and may explain the way he’s been girding himself for a much bigger fight. He’s holding his ground, waiting for the haymaker he knows is coming.
“When you first arrive on the scene, you get lots of flattering attention,” says former Ontario premier David Peterson, a Justin supporter and veteran political warrior who, in 1987, led the Liberals to their first majority government in over 40 years. “Then the opposition comes after you and the media come after you. It’s relentless. You get beaten to within an inch of your life.”
(Photo: May Truong)
Justin is the first of three sons born to Pierre Elliott Trudeau and his flower- child wife, Margaret, 29 years his junior. Their volatile marriage—she had affairs with Ted Kennedy and Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood—ended in a messy separation when Justin was six. Justin’s father, a prime minister with a penchant for lapel roses and pirouetting during diplomatic encounters, was eventually booted from office, only to return in triumph less than a year later. Justin’s mother went public with her bipolar disorder. His youngest brother died in an avalanche. His moving eulogy at his father’s state funeral sparked speculation he’d follow in his footsteps. He married a TV personality and former model. Canada boasts bigger celebrities—Justin Bieber, Céline Dion—but few who have lived as tabloid-worthy a life.
And for the northern Ontario riding of Nickel Belt, he’s the closest thing they’ve seen to a rock star. Over the next 36 hours, Justin, serving a second term as MP for the Montreal riding of Papineau, will give two speeches in North Bay, two in Sturgeon Falls, one in Verner and three in Sudbury, in addition to touring a mining start-up incubator. He’s been doing this in small towns across the country since October. He’ll keep it up until April 6, the day the Liberal party will hold an online vote to choose its new leader.