Article by Laurence Miall /Photographs by Sarah McNeill
Originally published May 2009 in the warehouse
We’re waiting for Justin Trudeau outside a brown, two-storey building on rue Faillon in the northern Montreal neighbourhood of Villeray. It’s drizzling and cold. And it’s a Sunday morning. I suspect that most people would rather be in bed.
“Did I keep you waiting long?” Trudeau says apologetically, emerging with an assistant from a silver sedan. The interview was scheduled for ten; it’s scarcely four minutes past.
Pierre Elliott Trudeau was Canada’s first and only superstar politician, but his son’s success relies on more than mere renown. It relies on working while others might be relaxing. Justin Trudeau was credited with rolling up his sleeves to earn his victory in the riding of Papineau during last October’s general election. In a tough fight, his margin of victory was about 1,200 votes, less than 3% more than his main rival, the popular Vivian Barbot of the Bloc Québécois.
With an easy smile, Trudeau makes us welcome in his office, which overlooks the street. Wherever the lighting will work best for us, that is where he’ll sit, he offers. We settle down on either side of a coffee table. He is flanked by two flags, one is Canada’s and the other is Québec’s.
“Nobody will ever be able to say that I was handed an easy win,” Trudeau says about his choice to run in Papineau.
But the riding was also more than a place to test his mettle. Trudeau clearly also very much admires the social landscape of the place.
“There’s a great neighbourhood feel; rents aren’t too expensive; there’s lots of families; there’s a great dynamic,” he says.
I ask him where in the riding is his support strongest, and conversely, where is it weakest? In his reply, I get a quick lesson in local demographics and it’s easy to picture Trudeau, the school teacher, a job he held in Vancouver in his early thirties. During his father’s career, this riding was Italian in the east, French in the middle, and Greek at its western flank of Parc Ex. Since then, recent waves of migration have created a more mixed mosaic, with Haitians and Hispanics settling in the east of the riding, and South Asians dominating Parc Ex in the west.
Trudeau admits that his name helps him politically, especially with the older generation of Greeks and Italians. With young voters he gets by on the strength of the reputation he has forged for himself. The toughest crowd? Obviously, the sovereigntists. He paraphrases the things he’s become used to hearing on the street: “I see you with coming with your Canadian flag… Stay away from me.”
But you can’t picture Trudeau fighting with his adversaries. Nor can you picture him debating at length with reporters, as his father did during the October Crisis, when he famously uttered the words, “Just watch me.”
The son seems a far more careful person. I ask him about something he said to a Maclean’s Magazine writer in 2002, well before he’d embarked on a political life. His quote in the published article was, “I pretty much don’t do anything without being aware of the consequences.”
How does that contrast with his self-proclaimed openness and candour?
There is some verbal fumbling around without any clear answer. He interrupts the interview briefly and diverts our attention to outside, where an ambulance and a police car have arrived. He’s worried that when we entered the office, we might have accidentally triggered the alarm. But it turns out that the emergency – whatever it is – is occurring inside the apartment building opposite us.
“The Man helped out on that one,” Trudeau jokes, a tacit acknowledgement, perhaps, that comparing his calculating side with his professed candour presents the closest thing he’s encountered to a question for which there is no quick answer.
“There’s always been a responsibility for me, being aware that I didn’t want to embarrass the family,” he says. “There are no crazy pictures or stories about me being a wild partier out there, because I did sense, even as kid, that I was representing my family, and there’s a name, and I don’t want to embarrass my father… There’s always been a sense of consequences.”
At thirty-seven years old, and looking younger, Justin Trudeau is not surprisingly one of the Liberals’ most prominent new stars. Despite coming from an established party and a famous family, Trudeau is the kind of person you can picture having a few drinks and laughs with. There is none of the stuffiness that is often associated with politicians. But is there substance? Can he provide the vision of, say, a Barack Obama, who did so much to galvanize the youth of America?
And what exactly is “youth” anyway?
“Youth, for me, is more of an attitude than it is a particular age,” says Justin Trudeau. “Youth have a capacity to think long term, to dream big, to imagine a world that is completely different within our lifetime.”
Nevertheless, Trudeau chose to run for one of Canada’s oldest and most powerful parties – the party not only of his father, but of two of the last three prime ministers. How does he reconcile the idea of utterly changing the world with being part of the establishment?
“When you’re a party of the centre, and you have power, you can actually lay on transformative change that a party like the NDP, for all its lofty ideals… won’t ever be able to actually implement,” he replies.
Growing up, Justin Trudeau would have seen the Liberal Party embrace change with gusto. Whatever critics may say of him, few would complain that his father was afraid to rock the boat. Pierre Trudeau brought home the constitution, gave Canada the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and made Canada officially bilingual.
But that’s the past, and few youth would vote Liberal out of respect for previous accomplishments. I ask Trudeau, does he feel that youth tackle politics differently than older generations? His first answer is “absolutely” and he discusses older voters’ preoccupations with practical realities, like savings and pensions, which contrast sharply with younger voters’ willingness to think of radical change. There are also differences in political communication preferences, with youth more eager to embrace new technologies such as iPhones, blogs, or Facebook.
Trudeau himself, however, is less eager to embrace the Internet – perhaps out of past experience.
“I’ve been very cautious about creating an online presence,” he says.
For the uninitiated, Justin Trudeau’s previous website was probably one of the most lampooned of the last election. A YouTube parody featured a Justin Trudeau look-alike, speaking a bizarre version of “Frenglish.” Example: “Laissez me remercier de waste your time.” Or, “I sincerement believe that my façon de parler is the language of the futur.”
The lampooned site no longer exists, and I get the sense that Trudeau was not in a rush to replace it. His new site appeared a full six months after the election. Trudeau further states that given the choice between spending an hour calling constituents versus an hour responding to messages on Facebook, the constituents will win out every time.
But the Liberals have lost two elections in a row, so what exactly are they going to do differently this year? Trudeau takes a moment to applaud the leadership of Michael Ignatieff. And he takes comfort in the idea that Canadians are a centrist people, and so the Liberals will fare best if they bring themselves as closely as possible to the concern of the people they hope to serve.
Alright, how about specific issues? In the week immediately prior to the interview, CBC had announced that 800 employees were going to be cut. Trudeau says it’s time for a “compelling discussion around what the CBC is for.” Without clarity on this point, he feels that the CBC is struggling to compete with enormously better financed productions from the United States.
He leaves one issue beyond doubt: his belief in the vitality and importance of Canadian culture. When the interview winds down with a few easy questions about music and food, Trudeau becomes the most animated he’s been over the last 50 minutes. He recently saw the film, The Watchmen, and was enthralled by the Leonard Cohen song, “Hallelujah” – he’d never heard that particular version before. He loved it so much that he sat until the very end of the credits to try and find out what recording they used.
“And every December, I just can’t wait to break out Sarah McLachlan’s winter songs,” he says.
He leaves us with some parting recommendations for good restaurants in the area. I asked for two names; the list extends to about a dozen. He recalls the names of proprietors and staff, and you’re left thinking, it’s not so much food that delights Justin Trudeau. It’s people.