Who Does Justin Trudeau Think He Is?

Back in 2013, Justin Trudeau was the son of a political giant and the new hope for the beleaguered Liberal party. But did he have what it would take to become prime minister? A Reader’s Digest Canada classic, originally published in 2013.

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Justin Trudeau - Reader's Digest Canada
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“Call him Justin, everybody does.”

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.

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.”

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. (Check out our interview with Margaret Trudeau here.) 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.

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Justin Trudeau Liberal party
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“The more people meet Justin, the more they’ll support him.”

The Grits have been on an inexorable downhill slide for nearly a decade. After winning three consecutive majority governments, in 2004 they dropped to minority status; in 2006 they lost to the Tories and became the official Opposition; and in 2011 they assumed a third-party role with a mere 34 seats. In an unprecedented recruitment process, the Liberals have opened the voting to any Canadian who doesn’t already belong to another party. While nine candidates have entered the race, including Marc Garneau, Justin’s main challenger, the young politician’s notoriety accords him a substantial advantage. Garneau, celebrated as the first Canadian in space, can’t match Justin’s fame—or his legions of online followers. Garneau’s Facebook page has roughly 3,500 followers; Justin’s has 65,000. And that’s just the official page. There are dozens more, including Nova Scotians for Justin Trudeau, Immigrants for Justin Trudeau, and Canada Loves Justin Trudeau. Justin’s team haven’t been directing any of this activity, but they embrace it as a harbinger of the grassroots social networking that might carry their candidate into the prime minister’s office.

Right now, it’s about ground game. Each of the country’s 308 constituencies has an equal say in the final tally, which gives the candidates incentive to travel—something Justin can easily afford. The campaign’s expense cap is $950,000, and by the start of the new year Justin had raised over $670,000—nearly $200,000 more than his eight rivals combined. By the end of January, he’d already toured more than 100 ridings, and his organizers plan to visit 100 more before voting day. Key Liberals have voiced their support, including MPs Dominic LeBlanc and Ralph Goodale. But if Justin’s campaign leaders have a list of backers-and, of course, they do—they aren’t saying. Publicly, the focus is on wooing former Liberal voters and winning new ones, not on endorsements.

“Our strategy is simple,” says Gerald Butts, a former aide for Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty and Justin’s close friend and principal adviser. “The more people meet Justin, the more they’ll support him.” Team Trudeau have bet everything on their man’s charisma. If you’re a skeptic, they’re utterly certain seeing him in person will make you a believer. This ploy of promoting style over substance is reflected in Justin’s statements, which forgo pointed policy debates in favour of big-picture thinking and broad talk of shared principles. It’s what front-runners do: stay out of trouble. But it’s also the chief advantage celebrity politicians enjoy-they rarely have to make a hard sell. Truth is, it’s not Justin’s platform that fills the rooms.

In northern Ontario he speaks to crowds of up to 300 people. The walls are adorned with posters of his face, standard campaign bumph. Usually, when events like these are over, organizers carefully remove the posters and recycle them for later use. But not for Justin: after he speaks, people tear down the signs and bring them to be autographed. (Staff now carry black Sharpies to engagements.) Those who don’t reach the walls in time queue up to have a picture taken. I watch one woman ask him to sign a birthday card for her mother. What truly marks Justin’s popularity, however, isn’t the awe he inspires, but everyone’s ease around him: they address him as they would an older brother or eldest son.

“All my life people have come to me with some level of expectation because they feel they know me,” Justin says. This campaign is his listening tour. “I let others dictate what they want to talk about. It’s as much about learning how Canadians are thinking, what their worries are.” Justin makes few overt appeals for votes and doesn’t nudge people toward his own ideas. “The conversation is my job,” he says. More likely, the conversation is a front for his real job: to become a blank slate onto which Canadians can project their hopes and dreams. Who is Justin? Whatever you need him to be. The anti-Harper, the change candidate, the pol who’ll bring a new vibe to Ottawa.

For now, it’s working. Polls consistently show Justin is the candidate who most improves Liberal prospects in every region of the country. Anyone who lived in Quebec in the 1990s, a time when Justin’s father was widely reviled, will find these polls hard to believe. But a recent survey showed that a Justin-led Liberal party would increase its share of the vote in his home province by 11 per cent, placing it in a dead heat with the NDP and a shade ahead of the Bloc Québécois.

Watching all this attention get paid to someone who’s basically a cipher drives his opponents around the bend. “There’s a distaste for him that’s more intense than for others,” says Jason Lietaer, a Conservative strategist who ran the party’s war room for the 2011 campaign that netted them a majority government. Justin is perceived by his foes as untested, coasting  on his name and pretty face—essentially, a political dilettante with a glass jaw.

They have a point: none of the fawning he receives has anything to do with his political achievements, because he doesn’t really have any. He’s been elected twice, a feat matched by dozens upon dozens of nonentities in Canadian politics, from Belinda Stronach back through time. Yet we have no precedent for the long game Justin’s now playing: to turn gawkers into followers, to convert his accumulated celebrity capital—bequeathed by the circumstances of his birth—into political capital. If he pulls it off, it will be the largest such currency exchange since Arnold Schwarzenegger became California governor. Can he do it? “People are fascinated by him,” says Ian Capstick, who served as press secretary for former NDP leader Jack Layton. “That doesn’t mean they’ll vote for him.”

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Justin Trudeau
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“For a time, the joke among his friends…was that he was the group slacker.”

At 41, Justin is showing some of his age; his eyelids display early signs of droop. But the eyes are still piercing enough and the hair still thick enough that he appears younger than his years. He looks even younger on television, and younger still in the mind’s eye of most Canadians, who continue to see the 28-year-old who spoke at his father’s funeral.

His age places him squarely in the heart of Generation X, making him the first post-boomer to contend for a federal party’s leadership. Being the standard-bearer for a generational shift isn’t something Justin talks about, but its influence on his campaign is plain to see. His key theme is help for the middle class, by which he means parents in their 30s and 40s struggling with increased debt loads, stagnating incomes and higher costs for everything from housing to hockey camp. And while his circumstances aren’t typical of his generation, there’s a lot about Justin that his peers will recognize. He’s a married father of two with a busy schedule. He’s a Stephen King fan. He practises yoga. When he runs, his iPod playlist is a mix of classic rock and pop. (His favourite new band is Fun because their songs have “glam-rock influences—there’s some Queen in there.”)

Another detail of Justin’s life typical of his generation, and appears to have shaped his decision to enter politics, was his early-20s existential crisis. “If you’d asked me during my first year of CEGEP, I’d have told you I was going straight into law at McGill,” he recalls. Then he snapped under the pressure he’d placed on himself and almost dropped out. Instead, he took a reduced course load and finished with marks so poor he barely squeaked into McGill, where he majored in English. Upon graduation, he headed to British Columbia to study teaching and be a part-time ski bum, working as a snowboarding instructor at Whistler. For a time, the joke among his friends—who went on to be lawyers, doctors and tech entrepreneurs—was that he was the group slacker.

Thankfully for Justin, his Gen X wilderness years came after his father’s retirement from politics in 1984, allowing him to figure things out away from the spotlight’s glare. His brother Michel’s death in 1998 thrust his family back into view. His father’s death two years later put him front and centre. Indeed, the seismic effect of that event seems to have shifted Justin’s sense of himself, persuading him that Canada’s biggest political prize might be within reach. “When we were at McGill, no one knew who he was,” close friend Gerald Butts recalls. “When we walked down Ste-Catherine Street the day after the funeral, everything had changed.”

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Justin Trudeau
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“He’s a ham. He’s got the worst instincts of a high-school drama teacher.”

Pierre Trudeau’s funeral remains one of the most-watched television events in Canadian history. Justin ended his eulogy with a simple sentiment: “Je t’aime, papa.” You could argue he hasn’t said anything memorable since. Some found him touching and sincere. Others found him soppy and maudlin. Either way, the first impression was set. As Capstick puts it, “He’s a ham. He’s got the worst instincts of a high-school drama teacher.”

But Justin’s leadership campaign is targeted to the touching-and-sincere crowd. They make up the majority of those who come to see him, and wherever he speaks, there’s an electricity in the room unusual for political gatherings. That energy is also odd considering the banality of what comes out of his mouth. Because he gives so many speeches, Justin has learned to organize them into what he calls “blocks of meaning.” Each block is made up of several sentences linked to a theme. A 10-minute speech might need three blocks; a 30-minute speech, 10 blocks. He digs into his shoebox of speech Legos and snaps a few together on the fly, click, click, click, right there at the podium.

I found myself compiling an inventory of his meaning blocks. The politics of division. Cynicism in the electorate. Strength in diversity. Investing in youth. I lost count at around 12; there are probably a dozen more. His delivery is smooth and inspirational, but as blocks of words go, it’s all fairly meaningless.

Mind you, Justin could read from his party’s Electoral District Association Handbook, and many would still be rapt. “I haven’t heard anyone speak like that in a while,” said one Liberal greybeard in North Bay, to approving nods around the room. I wondered if they’d heard the same address I had. Perhaps they’re all still hearing, “Je t’aime, papa.

A more telling feature of Justin’s rapport with his fans reveals itself when he opens the floor to questions: everyone turns into Oprah. What was Pierre like as a father? What’s your most vivid childhood memory of him? You’ve been in the spotlight all your life, but who is the Real You? They demand he open up. This is the price of exchanging celebrity for power.

“I am the son of a politician. I am also the grandson of a politician,” he tells 30 people over breakfast at Gervais Restaurant in Sturgeon Falls. Then he waxes engagingly about Margaret’s father, James Sinclair, who served both as the MP for Vancouver North and as a flight lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Air Force from 1940 to 1944. He says his greatest memories of his father are of people approaching him and thanking him for the work he did. He brings up his years as a high-school teacher, his environmental activism, his youth advocacy. He talks about the battle to win the Bloc Québécois riding of Papineau. “This is me, warts and all,” he says. He hasn’t really mentioned any warts, but by this point it hardly matters. The crowd’s curiosity has been whetted, an emotional connection sealed.

It’s easy to be cynical about this exchange, but many who come to meet Justin have lived a part of their lives through him. Some have kids his age; some have parents who split; some lost a brother or a father; some have family members with mental illness. I remarked to Butts how draining such encounters must often be for Justin. He replied with a stark assessment. “How many other people have a whole country to lean on when their little brother dies?” he asked. “Justin is keenly aware of the position he’s in. A lot of people want him to do well. He is determined to do right by them.”

And for him to do well, he needs something in return. “My focus,” Justin tells me, “is on building a network across the country that the Liberal party can rely on for years to come.” It’s hard to overstate how different this is from anything his father ever did. “The party was a useful vehicle for my dad, but it was The Big Red Machine,” says Justin. “It wasn’t something he had to build or maintain.” It came with organizers and rainmakers and muckrakers whose tentacles reached into every corner of every riding.

Today the Liberals are a shadow of that former self, broken and broke, and Justin is the useful vehicle. Under any other leader, it could take the party a decade to rebuild, but it’s possible to imagine Justin pulling the rip cord on a functional Liberal engine by the time of the next election in 2015.

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Justin Trudeau at 10 Downing Street
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“Even within his own party, there’s a perception of him as a lightweight.”

Barring any major gaffes, Justin’s on track to secure the leadership. And only when he’s leader will the real battle start, against formidable competitors. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a straight talker adept at exceeding expectations. As Conservative leader, he’s increased his party’s share of the popular vote, and its seats, in each of four successive elections. The NDP’s Thomas Mulcair, a former Liberal and Quebec cabinet minister, succeeded Jack Layton as leader last year. Mulcair has moved quickly to position the NDP in the political centre—which is to say, territory vacated by the Liberals—and he will fight hard to keep it.

Will Justin’s popularity hold up once voters learn more about him? Capstick believes the universe of diehard supporters is smaller than anyone thinks. “Justin can motivate the 55,000 card-carrying Liberals,” he says. “The two million who used to vote Liberal are a different story. Those are the votes he has to win back.”

And what will happen when the counterpunches finally set Justin back on his heels? The Conservatives have gone to great lengths to discredit the reputations of the two previous Liberal leaders, with devastating results. They cast Stéphane Dion as a ditherer and proclaimed him “not worth the risk.” Michael Ignatieff was branded “horribly arrogant” and accused of being “in it for himself.” Lietaer hints at what similar ads might look like for Justin. “Even within his own party, there’s a perception of him as a lightweight.” He points out that Justin has been assigned to only token files in the Liberals’ shadow cabinets: multiculturalism, youth, amateur sport. “Politics is a meritocracy,” he says. “The most talented people do rise up the ranks.” The implication, of course, is that Justin will leapfrog to the leadership thanks only to his name.

It was easy to tarnish the reputations of Dion and Ignatieff. Because neither had a strong relationship with voters, or even with Liberals, people were more easily disposed to believe what Conservatives said about them. Justin may prove a harder target. His power as a cipher rests on two fronts. He has a unique, long-standing bond with a large number of older Canadians who, emotionally invested in him and his promise, would be aghast at seeing him attacked. As well, Justin’s peers may not take kindly to it either. The zeitgeist complaint is boomers who hang on to their jobs too long, denying Gen-Xers promotions all the while calling them chronic underachievers. So the sight of 54-year-old Harper and 58-year-old Mulcair dismissing Trudeau as a whippersnapper could backfire.

That doesn’t mean they won’t try. Butts predicts Justin will be hit by “the most negative campaign in Canadian history.” He expects they may even succeed. “The only way you counter that is with time, so that people get to know a candidate for themselves.” He recalls his experience with McGuinty, who was openly mocked and soundly whipped in his first provincial campaign, only to come back and win a majority government four years later. “Dalton’s opponents could never understand why everyone else in the province didn’t hate him as much as they did. They overplayed their hand.”

His northern Ontario tour over, Justin gives the keynote address at Reviving the Islamic Spirit, an annual Toronto conference of young Canadian Muslims. Inside the cavernous main hall at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, it’s as if every rental chair in the city has been commandeered for the occasion-more than 20,000 in all, neatly placed in rows stretching to the horizon.

Justin takes the stage to warm applause. He speaks about the value of diversity, and promises to stand up to the politics of division. When he’s done, he decides to walk the centre aisle and shake some hands. He doesn’t make it 10 metres from the stage before he gets mobbed. Caught in the crush of bodies, I force my way out into the clearing of a neighbouring aisle and survey the scene: young women, dressed in head scarves and jeans and high-heeled leather boots, pushing to get close to him. The rest stand on their chairs, snapping shots with their smartphones. He’s the only one who manages to keep his composure.

Their religion is irrelevant. They’re young, urban and engaged. To them, Pierre Elliott Trudeau is nothing more than a Montreal airport. This isn’t a rekindling of old bonds. Justin is forging new ones. He hasn’t brought a targeted message to a narrow cultural community, but a broad appeal for common engagement. It’s a simple rallying cry, and they’ve gone bonkers for it-or at least for him. In politics, you underestimate an empty vessel at your own peril.

Justin is escorted through the nearest exit, where I rejoin his entourage. We duck past a checkpoint, leaving security guards to deal with the chasers trailing in our wake.

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