Canadian election: Justin Trudeau out from father’s long shadow

Profile: Canada’s new prime minister brings optimism and youthful energy to the office

As a young man, Justin Trudeau continually sought respite from his father's long shadow. He debated in university as Jason Tremblay, boxed as Justin St Clair and eventually settled on Canada's west coast – as far in Canada as he could get from being Pierre Trudeau's eldest and still be close to great skiing.

Now 43, he has come full circle, reviving a moribund Liberal Party to a solid majority amid a new wave of the Trudeaumania that swept his father to power in 1968. In ousting Stephen Harper on Monday, he becomes the country's first inter-generational prime minister and gets to move back into his childhood home.

Trudeau campaigned on a brand of optimism, transparency and youthful energy – while promising government activism to stimulate a weak economy and address middle class anxiety over income inequality and retirement security. In contrast to the departing Harper, he will run deficits willingly, reduce Canada's combat role against Islamic State and get behind the Iran nuclear deal. He'll also rule out the purchase of F-35 fighters in favour of more spending on the navy and join US president Barrack Obama in Paris in pushing for aggressive action on climate change.

He is, in many ways, the happy faced anti-Harper. Trudeau’s political role model is not so much his beloved “papa”, whose public persona over 15 years as prime minister mixed charisma and aloofness, but his maternal grandfather, Jimmy Sinclair, a consummate glad-handing, baby-kissing Scottish immigrant to Canada and Rhodes scholar. It was no accident that Trudeau held his final campaign event Sunday night in the Vancouver constituency his grandfather represented from 1940 to 1958.


“I’m not sure if love of campaigning has any kid of genetic component, but if it does, I can trace my passion for it straight back to grandpa,” he told an enthusiastic crowd on what was the birthday of both his father and his eldest son, Xavier James (8), named for Sinclair. “He loved knocking on doors, getting out, meeting with people, taking the time to really listen to what they had to say. It’s his style that I’ve adopted as my own.”

Retail politics

In ending nearly 10 years under Harper, Trudeau demonstrated a surprising ease with retail politics in his first national campaign. His policies contain the social-justice and individual-rights hallmarks of his father’s brand as well as a repudiation of the elder Trudeau’s centralising tendencies on everything from energy policy to the power of the prime minister’s office. His father famously asked “who will speak for Canada?” in denigrating the increased role of the provinces, while the younger Trudeau plans to take a delegation of premiers to the Paris climate summit.

"Justin grew up in a totally different society, so much more secular, so very different from the society Trudeau grew up in," said historian John English, a Pierre Trudeau biographer and former Liberal MP. Yet English also sees striking similarities between them on issues such as inequality. "They don't look alike and they don't sound alike either," he said. "But having said that, he is very much in the tradition – his view of the place of state in society."

Trudeau, born in Ottawa on Christmas Day 1971, was the product of a fairy-tale romance and secret wedding between his father and Margaret Sinclair, a flower child three decades his junior. Two other boys would follow, one of them also on Christmas Day. They grew up in the public eye, a Canadian version of the Kennedy children.

Trudeau's autobiography is titled Common Ground, yet few would have anything in common with his upbringing. Carried sometimes literally under Pierre's arm, Justin met world leaders such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and attended events like Leonid Brezhnev's funeral. Once, while playing on the lawn of 24 Sussex, the home of Canadian prime ministers, Princess Diana walked past on her way to the family pool, giving Trudeau "just a hint of an eye roll".

Rolling Stones

Margaret emerged as a celebrity herself, singing for

Fidel Castro

, dancing at Studio 54 and partying with the Rolling Stones, later dating Jack Nicholson and having a relationship with Teddy Kennedy – in her 2015 book, she recalled being so sexually attracted to Kennedy when she first met him that “we couldn’t even stand” near each other and that “Pierre was not amused”.

They separated in 1977, later divorcing, leaving Pierre prime minister by day and doting, single dad at night. In more recent years, Margaret has stepped forward as a mental health advocate, publicly discussing her struggle with bipolar disorder. Justin remains his 67-year-old mother’s staunch defender. Trudeau bears the cross of tumultuous teenage years lived in a glass bowl. “I always have a vague sense that people are just being polite,” he wrote in his book.

His career path was a restless one, in which he studied several subjects, travelled the globe as a young man and variously taught mathematics, French, drama, creative writing and snowboarding in British Columbia. He's a long-time boxer, Montreal Canadiens fan and, though only an occasional drinker, to this day prefers Labatt 50, a venerable blue-collar label, as his beer of choice. He has a tattoo of a globe on his left shoulder, with a Haida aboriginal raven around it.

The one thing he avoided was politics. Then suddenly in 2000, he was thrust back on the national stage after delivering a stirring eulogy at his father’s state funeral. In the days after, two things happened: Trudeau was asked to run, and declined, while Harper, who had been drawn to politics by his distaste for the elder Trudeau, wrote a deeply critical newspaper essay. The battle lines were beginning to form.

Make his move

Trudeau didn’t make his move into politics until 2007, then married, when he won a nomination in a poor Montreal district held by the separatist Bloc Quebecois. Nobody threw out the welcome mat for the prodigal son; the nomination was contested within his own party. He won the seat in 2008 even as his party went down to defeat and then was re-elected in 2011 as the Liberals went down to their worst defeat in history. The party was hobbled, in the words of one observer, by a “lazy approach to grassroots voters, its neglect of youth and ethnic voters and its general sense of hubris and entitlement”.

That was Trudeau himself, who then sought the leadership and won it handily in 2013, with a mission to ward off the inner squabbling and take on the Harper Conservatives. He quickly overtook Harper in popularity, baffling the Conservatives who considered him a lightweight. But by the time the 2015 election began 11 weeks ago, a series of gaffes and a barrage of attack ads saying he was “just not ready” had relegated the Liberals to third place and raised doubts he lacked aptitude for the family business.

Then his inner Jimmy Sinclair kicked in. On the days of three key debates, he put his youthful contrast on display by twice inviting reporters to watch him spar and once capture him canoeing down the Bow River in Calgary. He was pugnacious in the debates, too, surprising voters whose expectations had been lowered by the Conservative ads and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair’s one-time boast he would “wipe the floor” with the inexperienced upstart.

In one of the debates, Mulcair took a left cross to the head after attacking the elder Trudeau’s record on civil liberties – on the anniversary of his death, no less. “I am incredibly proud to be Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s son, and I am incredibly lucky to have been raised with this values,” Trudeau responded calmly yet firmly, a clip that was among the most widely shared of the campaign.

Major events loom as he prepares to take power – a Group of 20 leaders’ summit in November, an Asia-Pacific summit in which he will be pushed for his still uncommitted position on the Trans Pacific Partnership trade pact and the Paris climate summit shortly after.

Accompanying him into office is a tight-knit group, some of them dating back to his university years. His key advisers are a McGill classmate, Gerald Butts, the son of a Cape Breton coal miner who worked for an Ontario premier and led the World Wildlife Federation of Canada, and Liberal reformer Katie Telford. Like most of Trudeau's entourage and the prime minister-elect himself, they're in their 30s and 40s.

Strong people

In his book, Trudeau observes that he’s not afraid to surround himself with strong people. “There’s an old saying that fives hire threes, but nines hire tens,” he wrote. “I am convinced that with the right people on your team, you can accomplish anything.”

English, the historian, sees major generational change in the air, likening it to the Kennedy and Obama presidencies and the elder Trudeau’s first victory. He sees his strengths differing from those of his father, but suited for the times. “He’s not an intellectual, okay, but he is well-read and he does have a first-rate temperament. He has the temperament for politics. He’s positive, he’s gregarious and he’s got that sense that in a hard time, we’ll come out of it,” English said.

Bill Blair, Toronto’s former police chief and a newly minted Liberal MP, said he was courted by all three major parties before deciding to stand with Trudeau. “I sat down with Trudeau, and all he talked about was a vision for the country,” Blair said. “Everyone else seemed to be talking about winning and he talked about serving, and I found that very, very compelling.”

Blair became a police officer in 1976, while Pierre Trudeau was prime minister and Justin was a child. “I see the values of the father reflected in the son, but of course each man was a product of his time,” Blair said, adding the younger Trudeau reflects the values of transparency more in tune with 21st century politics.

On the campaign trail, Trudeau drew crowds in the hundreds and, occasionally, thousands – consistently more than his rivals. Just as in 1968, young girls shrieked while taking photos and a crush of people follow him at each event so he can move at barely more than a crawl. Trudeau has become an excellent, ambidextrous taker of selfies by popular demand. In his acceptance speech on Monday night, Trudeau drew on experience in delivering a message to his young children, all of them sleeping at the time.

“My dear kids, we are entering into a new adventure together,” he said. “And I can tell you now, there will be some tough times for you as children of a prime minister, but daddy will be there for you.”