Home / OPINION / Analysis / The evolution of Justin Trudeau

The evolution of Justin Trudeau

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

After a stinging 2011 defeat, the Liberal Party licked its wounds and began to cast about for a new leader.

And Justin Trudeau decided to quit.

Although he had just been re-elected, Trudeau told anyone who asked that he would not be in the running to become the party’s leader. He would say Liberals had to get over their habit of looking for saviours at the top and reconnect with Canadians at a grassroots level.

Lanthier also confided in interim Liberal leader Bob Rae that Trudeau was rethinking his future, leading to a “heart-to-heart” talk over dinner in Ottawa.

“I wanted to let Justin know I thought he had a tremendous amount to contribute to the life of the party and the life of the country,” Rae said.

“I told him, ‘Look, I’ve been through moments of self-doubt and not being quite sure of how to go forward or what to do.’ And I said, ‘You’ve got a lot to contribute … you’ve got a lot to give to the country.’”

Lanthier says he still doesn’t know why Trudeau had the change of heart, but he remembers when he realized it had happened.

It was in Toronto, late in the summer of 2011, “and we’re having a good day, a feel-good day, meeting lots of people everywhere,” said Lanthier.

“I’m looking at him and I’m just looking at the way that he’s looking at people in the crowd. It’s not an event, he’s at a mall, just watching everybody walking around and doing their thing and there’s a glimmer. There’s something there.

“And I just looked at him,” recalled Lanthier, laughing. “‘You S.O.B., you changed your mind, did you?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah.’ And I’m like, ‘All right, let’s go.’”

Lanthier wonders if it was a combination of things — the Rae conversation, the work across the country. “Sometimes it’s just, as individuals, we all need to matter to our tribe. Maybe that’s where he found out that he mattered.”

Marc Miller, a Liberal candidate and a friend of Trudeau’s since they were both 11-year-old students at Montreal’s private Jesuit-run College Jean de Brébeuf, doesn’t recall that Trudeau wanted to quit politics altogether. But Miller says his friend was “a work in progress” well into his adult years.

After university, Miller and Trudeau backpacked through Africa before Trudeau went on to Asia. It was a long trip, during which the son of a former prime minister “was essentially a nobody” for the first time in his life, says Miller. He believes the trip and the experiences of campaigning door-to-door in Papineau were formative for his friend.

It’s in Papineau that the roots of Trudeau’s pitch to “the middle class and those working hard to join it” took root, a refrain that gelled during a meeting of friends and advisers at Mont-Tremblant in 2012 to plan his leadership bid.

“That’s in a way what he wanted to stand for,” said Miller, who was also elected in the Liberals’ improbable come-from-behind election victory in 2015 and is now seeking reelection. “He’s fundamentally someone who is average in arguing things that he doesn’t believe in, but very passionate and able to articulate an intelligent argument over things that he really deeply cares about.”

Trudeau has been painted as someone born not only into wealth and entitlement, but into politics and supreme self-confidence, an image he tried to debunk in his 2014 autobiography, “Common Ground.”

Justin Pierre James Trudeau was the eldest of three boys born to Pierre Trudeau — who was prime minister at the time — and his wife Margaret, the daughter of one-time B.C. Liberal MP James “Jimmy” Sinclair.

His middle brother, Alexandre, is a more introverted and private person who works as a documentary filmmaker and author.

When Michael Ignatieff stepped down after leading the Liberals to a historic low of just 34 seats in Parliament and 19 per cent of the popular vote, Trudeau weighed what restructuring the party would look like “and how much would be on him,” his former campaign manager Alex Lanthier recalled. He privately decided on a December exit.

“I was like, ‘Well, that’s your choice,’” Lanthier said. “‘But you’re the best tool I have right now for the party and I’m gonna use you for every single bit that I can.’”

A longtime Liberal and former Parliament Hill staffer, Lanthier had helped Trudeau learn the ropes of retail politics after he won a contested Liberal nomination in Papineau in 2007. He had coached and prodded the son of a former prime minister: Say your name when you shake everyone’s hand. Don’t assume they know you. Wade into crowds. Engage people in real conversations.

Trudeau went on to win the seat from the Bloc Québécois in the following year’s election, and later said the lessons he learned in that race were foundational.

So in 2011, when Trudeau was having a crisis of confidence, Lanthier dispatched him to wherever “anybody anywhere in Canada from a riding association was asking me for him to attend something” to raise funds, as well as party workers’ spirits — and maybe his own.

His youngest brother, Michel, died in an avalanche while skiing in the B.C. interior in 1998.

Michel’s death left their father reeling. The former prime minister was soon stricken with pneumonia, and later diagnosed with prostate cancer. He died in September 2000, and Trudeau’s emotional eulogy during the nationally televised funeral captured the country’s attention; seen by some as overly sentimental, it was regarded by others as a skilled address that foreshadowed a political career.

But Trudeau’s foray into politics wouldn’t come until years later, after he’d received an undergraduate degree in literature at McGill University and a teaching certificate from the University of British Columbia, taught at private and public schools in Vancouver, and then returned to Montreal. There he started, and shelved, studies in engineering at Ecole Polytechnique and environmental geography at McGill, before he turned to public speaking and advocacy work for avalanche safety, and the Katimavik program.

Today, he contrasts his father’s detached, top-down “reason over passion” type of leadership with what he sees as his own style: respectful, emotionally connected, collaborative and approachable.

Not everyone agrees. When MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes quit the Liberal caucus earlier this year, she said Trudeau had been anything but empathetic to her struggles. There are other Liberal MPs who say they’ve rarely had a one-on-one conversation with him that lasted more than a few minutes in the past four years.

Sometimes Trudeau the son has adopted a “passion over reason” approach and come out the worse for it: He was criticized for elbowing NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau as he tried to hurry along a vote in the House of Commons, and for calling Conservative MP Peter Kent a “piece of shit” across the Commons aisle.

While Trudeau has reached out to check his instincts at times, seeking advice from Liberal elders including former prime ministers and their senior aides, his inner circle remains a tight, fairly young team that includes veterans of his leadership bid and the 2015 campaign. Among them are his close friend — and, until last winter, principal secretary — Gerald Butts, who he met at McGill’s debating club. That team had to restructure after the SNC-Lavalin scandal laid bare the inner workings of a top-down Prime Minister’s Office, which had repeatedly pressured then-attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould to settle criminal corruption charges against the Quebec-based company.

Wilson-Raybould’s revelations about SNC-Lavalin rocked the Trudeau government, leading to the departures of Butts and clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick. They also resulted in a formal finding that Trudeau had violated conflict of interest and ethics guidelines for a second time.

Few insiders are willing to speak about how the Liberal leader has changed since he came to power but Miller says Trudeau knows that “he’s got to focus on governing, because all the international attention … the megastar stuff, like probably for most stars, is largely undeserved.”

The question of how he has evolved in power — and whether he plans to remain in politics, whatever the outcome of the upcoming election — has not yet been asked of Trudeau himself. Requests for interviews with Trudeau, his wife, and some of his closest advisers for this profile went unanswered. That may come as a surprise to those who see his government as media-friendly. But in 2019, Trudeau is running a tightly controlled and risk-averse campaign, quite unlike his unbridled 2015 bid that brought him from behind.

Those who know Trudeau well say he is nevertheless the same man he was before the 2015 win and before the turmoil of the past year. Miller, when asked if Trudeau’s done anything that’s surprised him over the years, blurted out, “Well, he became prime minister.”

In the lead-up to the 2015 election, Miller said he felt “that everyone was building up this Cinderella story so that it would really fail. Except it didn’t fail, and then kind of this Cinderella story blossomed a bit, which it really isn’t.

“The fact [is], it’s a lot of hard work, luck and the right mix of policies at the right time, and that mixture kind of congealed into something that everyone’s been calling a Cinderella story.”

Certainly the caricature of Trudeau – being to the political manor born — doesn’t take into account the life experiences of someone who was in the public eye from the moment of his birth on Christmas Day, whose mother struggled with mental health issues, who was raised by a father so cheap his friends say the son often had no cash, who couldn’t quite land on a career that felt right, who became a politician despite describing himself as a shy person.

And though he has always been around politics, his political instincts have sometimes failed him.

Jetting off to the Aga Khan’s private island in the Bahamas for a Christmas vacation in 2016 – and his admission of a similar undisclosed trip in 2014 — landed him on the wrong side of the federal ethics code, the first of his two violations.

Trudeau’s admission that he’s been “more enthusiastic” to don costumes “than is sometimes appropriate” fell short of fully explaining why he and his family dressed up in lavish traditional garb during a 2018 official visit to India. Or why, as a 29-year-old teacher, he dressed in “brownface” and a turban at an Arabian Nights-themed fundraiser. Or why, in his teens and early 20s, Trudeau dressed in “blackface” at a talent show and a party.

In hindsight, Trudeau has been at a loss to explain or count the face-painting incidents, which he called “racist” as he apologized over and over.

That said, the Conservative portrayal of Trudeau as an entitled lightweight sidesteps evidence of someone who clearly has an immense capacity for hard work, and a gift for actually connecting, even if only momentarily, with people. Just watch him wade into a crowd.

Trudeau has tried to counter the Conservatives’ slam that he is “not as advertised” by pointing to his record in government, one his supporters believe defy caricature. That record includes a massive redesign of government transfers to individuals that overhauled child benefits and low-income worker benefits that lifted 900,000 families out of poverty, including nearly 300,000 children. It includes an overhaul of the Canada pension plan that will have long-term benefit, and the successful completion of three major trade accords, key among them the renegotiation of a modernized North American free trade deal – no small thing faced with the erratic Donald Trump administration in the U.S.

Trudeau wrote in “Common Ground” — before he won the 2015 election — that campaigns are “part art and part science.”

He also wrote that much of politics is “fleeting and ephemeral. And much of it is, well, merde. The connections you make with the people who invest their hope and trust in you, that’s what gets you through all of the rest. That’s what makes it worth doing.”

He’s about to find out if the merde of the 2019 campaign was worth it.