With Justin Trudeau set to announce that he intends to seek the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada, I thought the time was right for me to reproduce the Cover Story I wrote on him for the
Western Standard's March 26, 2007 issue. (NB: The following is the unedited version of the article that I submitted to the editor; I do not have e-access to the published version. Finally, I did not write the coverlines and headlines.)
He's 35 going on 25: Justin Trudeau has the name and the buzz.
But is he an empty suit?
By Terry O'Neill
Justin Trudeau strolls through the front entrance of the posh clubhouse at the Nicklaus North golf course in Whistler, B.C. just before dusk on February 23. There’s no fanfare, no entourage, and no paparazzi in tow, which is surprising, considering that Trudeau’s dreamy mug is all over the front pages of the morning’s newspapers in recognition of the fact he announced his official entry into federal politics the day previous in Montreal, just before he jetted off to Vancouver. Yes, Trudeau had finally ended months of speculation by declaring his intention to represent the Liberal Party of Canada in the Montreal riding of Papineau. This meant, of course, that Pierre Trudeau’s eldest son had at long last made the big decision to try follow in his late father’s famous and controversial footsteps.
Justin Trudeau was at the upscale ski resort to raise money for the Canadian Avalanche Foundation, with which he became involved as a director shortly after the death of his brother Michel in an avalanche in 1998. The dress code was advertised as “mountain evening,” which the invitation explained should reflect something alpine. Many guests arrived in ski sweaters and crisply-pressed slacks, but Trudeau didn’t follow the script. Instead, he showed up in blue jeans with a designer rip in the left knee, a sports coat and a striped shirt—its wide-open neck revealing an almost-hairless chest.
Revellers at the $175-a-plate event wouldn’t necessarily have known it, but his get-up was virtually the same outfit Trudeau wore to many of his numerous public outings over the last several months, whether it was to announce his candidacy or to address members of a Chamber of Commerce, like he did in February in London. Trudeau even embraced the tie-free, two-buttons-open look at a more-formal avalanche-fundraising gig in Calgary on Feb. 24, although he did ditch the jeans and jacket for a natty sand-brown suit.
The look is definitely a youthful one. But then, even at the age of 35, if Justin Trudeau is known for anything, it’s for his youth and the promise he holds for a Liberal Party of Canada desperately seeking some vitality. A press agent couldn’t have put it any better than did Glen Pearson last November, when Trudeau attended a rally to support Pearson’s ultimately successful bid to win the London-North Centre by-election. “We have someone in our midst who some day may be prime minister,” Pearson gushed about the Trudeau prince. “We are in the presence of royalty.”
But while much is being expected of the nearly middle-aged Trudeau, he seems to be the very embodiment of someone 10 years his junior. And it’s not just the way he dresses. Consider this: while many other men of his age and privileged background are married with kids, well established in their careers, and settling into their lives, Justin Trudeau is childless, has flitted from job to avocation to cause to acting gig with little apparent impact in any area in which he has alighted, and has only now settled on attempting to find a place for himself in the House of Commons. And even then, politics is a profession for which, despite the many figurehead positions he has held, he actually has few legitimate qualifications—other than his famous last name, of course, and the celebrity that accompanies it.
Yes, he’s been a teacher, but so have hundreds of thousands of other Canadians. And yes, he’s sat in the board of Katimavik, the youth-volunteer organization, but he clearly got the job through family and political connections. Yes, he’s working on a master’s degree in environmental geography at McGill University, but being a 35-year-old grad student isn’t exactly an accomplishment to write home about. And, yes, he hosted last year’s televised Giller Prize to honor the country’s literary set, but he’s never written a book, let alone a major policy paper.
In other words, he’s a lightweight, but at least a well-known and apparently youthful one. “He’s not taken very seriously,” political commentator and recently retired Liberal MP Jean Lapierre said upon learning of Trudeau’s decision to try to run for office. “So he will have to show that he has something in his belly. We don’t know that yet.” Lapierre also revealed that Trudeau hadn’t even been a member of the Liberal party until last fall. “I sold him his first membership card about four months ago,” Lapierre said, “so he never really cared about the party before.” Ouch.
Nevertheless, the fact that Justin Trudeau is a Peter Pan-ish 35 going on 25 may explain why the Liberal Party of Canada chose him to head its youth task force last year, even though he was nine years older than the official age limit of 25 for membership in the Young Liberals of Canada. In fact, that youth task force is as good a place as any to begin a consideration of the young Mr. Trudeau’s record, which in recent years seems to have been designed to give him maximum possible publicity with the minimum of actual accomplishment.
The “task force on youth and civil engagement” was one of several such study groups the Liberals established in an attempt to “renew” itself following its defeat at the hands of the Conservatives in January 2006. Two things are immediately evident about the youth task force’s interim report, which was made public late last year. The first is that, despite his name being on its cover page, Trudeau was not actually its primary author; a reader has to turn to the inside to discover the report’s “lead writers” were actually two other individuals, Chris Holcroft and Danielle Kotras. Exactly how much work Trudeau did on the report is not clear.
The second notable aspect of the report is its vacuous but still ominous findings: vacuous in that the paper’s most important specific recommendation seems to be that Elections Canada “work with school boards across the country to hold comprehensive mock elections in high schools” to help young people understand the electoral process; ominous in that the paper declares that the young Canadians with whom the task force met “want a return to activist government.”
The paper doesn’t spell it out, but to anyone who lived through the governments of Pierre Trudeau, “activist” clearly means a high-spending, high-debt, interventionist government. It’s nothing to worry about if you’re a left-winger, but it’s cause for great concern if you’re on the right or even a main-street centrist. Moreover, this type of government is anathema to the West, especially Alberta, which bore the full brunt of the elder Trudeau’s “activist” government in 1980 when the Grits imposed the National Energy Program, which is estimated to have sucked $100 billion out of the province’s economy.
But Justin Trudeau’s expression of this sort of interventionist sentiment, especially in relation to the need for government to take action to “save” the environment, shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone who has been listening to what he has been talking about in his many public appearances and interviews over the past half year. In fact, Trudeau has become something of rich man’s David Suzuki, the environmental Jeremiah who preaches global-warming doom, and big-government salvation.
Consider this collection of his musings of late:
*“Canada actually isn’t doing so well environmentally. We’re falling behind. Were not taking care of things and a large part of the responsibility is on its citizens.” (Owen Sound Sun Times, Oct. 2, 2006)
*“We are completely misunderstanding the fundamental relationship we have with this planet that sustains us. Our relationship with the natural world needs to fundamentally inform, shape and guide our lifestyles from the simplest element to the biggest.” (Victoria Times Colonist, Oct. 19)
*“All of our advances in science and everything have led us to this point, and now we’re going to have to do something that no civilization has ever been able to do, which is to have certain behaviours, to reach the top, and then suddenly change direction, change our habits, and change our ways away from the very things that brought us here.” (National Post, Nov. 8)
*“We have achieved tremendous success with this civilization, but it has come at a cost. We’re at a point where the behaviour and habits that got us here are the very same ones that will ruin us. They will cause total collapse.” (Montreal Gazette, Feb. 15, 2007)
Sound like something Suzuki would espouse? It’s not a coincidence: Trudeau has said he admires the Vancouver geneticist and broadcaster, and was even seen assiduously taking notes at one of the environmentalists’ recent lectures.
As evidenced by Lapierre’s less-than-laudatory comments about Trudeau’s decision to seek the Liberal nomination, his entry into politics hasn’t exactly been cheered, even by fellow Liberals. In fact, he was criticized within the party for making his headline-grabbing announcement on the same day as leader Stephane Dion was delivering a major speech about Afghanistan. Nevertheless, criticisms from both within and outside the party have centred more on his lack of experience than on his public pronouncements. Clearly, though, his calamitous predictions bear scrutiny too. The Western Standard
sent a selection of his quotations, including the ones above, to two expert observers. Their reactions were less than positive.
Jason Clemens, director of fiscal studies at the Fraser Institute in Vancouver, says Trudeau is just plain wrong when he says the environment in Canada is getting worse. Measurements consistently show that water and air quality are actually improving in this country, Clemens says. Moreover, he argues that Trudeau shows a basic misunderstanding of the free-market economy when he argues that big government should intervene, through such mechanisms as subsidies and taxes, to improve the environment.
“So I guess my challenge to him would be, name me the situation where that approach has actually solved the problem. I mean, historically, I just can’t think of any major problem where the government took that activist approach and actually made things better.” On the other hand, Clemens says that one thing going in Trudeau’s favour is that, unlike Dion, he actually seems to recognize that there will be hefty price tag attached to green initiatives.
Environmental consultant Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace, believes Trudeau “is certainly apocalyptic” in his worldview. “I had many of the same sentiments at that age,” Moore says, “now I believe it is wise to remain calm at all times, especially if a sink is sinking.” Moore has hope that new energy technologies will reduce fossil-fuel consumption and that the Earth’s population will stabilize. “[Trudeau] sounds like a bit of a dreamer and is too pessimistic for me,” Moore concludes, “but like so many people today, probably just buys into Suzuki, [former U.S. vice-president Al] Gore, and [environmentalist James] Lovelock.”
There are always two sides to politics, of course: style and substance. Moore and Clemens don’t think much of the substance. What about the style? Political scientist Faron Ellis of Lethbridge College thinks Trudeau’s celebrity may actually backfire on him. “People who are looking for the second coming of the old man,” he says, “are probably going to be sorely disappointed.” Once one looks past all the hype surrounding Justin Trudeau, it’s evident, “This is just a rich kid who has done nothing,” Ellis continues. “He was supposed to be a teacher, but didn’t stick with that. He’s got the celebrity. You know, the most important thing that brought him celebrity was the deaths of family members, right? His dad and his brother. You know, you’ve only got so many family members to keep that going.” Double ouch.
(Trudeau’s first big media splash came when he delivered a eulogy at his father’s funeral in 2000. He won wide praise for the speech, but it’s a little known fact that his long-time buddy Gerald Butts, currently an assistant to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, helped write the eulogy. Moreover, in retrospect, the speech seems sophomoric, especially in its use of an inappropriate quotation from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
—“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”—as an opening line. As any literate English-speaker knows, the line following that, which Trudeau didn’t cite, is “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” Had Justin come only to bury his father, and not to praise him? Of course not, but that is what one might have been led to believe by the strange opening citation.)
B.C. political analyst and broadcaster Bill Tieleman uses the “D” word to describe Trudeau: “dilettante.” “I think that he has not distinguished himself with actually having done anything,” Tieleman says. “You can’t even say he’s written some interesting papers on politics, has been involved as a door knocker or organizer. He’s a media creation at the moment.” This doesn’t mean he won’t get elected though, even though “Justin Trudeau’s political weight seems to come more from his mother’s side than his father’s.” Triple ouch. (That’s a reference to Justin’s mother, Margaret, whose bizarre and scandalous behaviour while still married to Pierre Trudeau was to the Canada of the 1970s what Britney Spears’ current shenanigans are to the world today.)
Of course, Justin Trudeau need not be disqualified from politics simply because he is the son of a famous politician. U.S. president George W. Bush is the son of a former U.S. president, of course. And in Canada, former prime minister Paul Martin’s father was a prominent Liberal cabinet minister. Former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis’s father, David, was a national NDP leader.
Justin Trudeau refused to be interviewed by the Western Standard
for this piece, although he did give a brief comment about his candidacy when approached at the Whistler event. “For me, being involved with communities, like the mountain community, like the avalanche community, has allowed me to connect with Canadians, and understand some of the real priorities they have,” he said. “My life has been, over the past decade or so, being involved with a number or organizations, and this is one of the organizations that I have learned and grown an awful lot though, and understood a lot of the way that society needs to take on its responsibilities, involving education, involving funding of particular organizations and programs, and that is all sort of an amount of experience that I will bring with me to Parliament.”
Asked how important it would be for him to carve out his own reputation, distinct from his father’s, Trudeau was straightforward: “Well, listen, everyone already has their minds largely made up about me from the outset. My challenge is going to be to have them discover who I really am and what I really stand for at the base. And no amount of me telling them what I am and what I stand for is enough. I need to get to work and show them that. And the first way to do that is what I do very well, and is to connect with people and listen to people and learn how to present, particularly the constituents in Papineau.”
Not exactly stirring stuff, except, that is, if you’re a member of “the avalanche community.” Trudeau had nothing to say about everyday concerns involving employment, taxes, education, the economy and childcare; in fact, he didn’t even offer any concrete ideas about how he’d implement his environmental agenda.
It was the same the day before when he announced his attempt to win the Grit nomination in Papineau, a riding currently held by the Bloc Quebecois. True to form, Trudeau talked style, not substance, saying he wants “to change the way the game is played, to a certain extent, try to bring back a certain amount of nobility and reduce some of the cynicism there is around politics these days…Canadians need to hear a different message. Canadians need to start believing in something noble about politics and I’d like to be a part of that.”
Trudeau’s evocation of nobility implies, of course, that he believes he, himself, is noble. Maybe he actually thinks he is. After all, the first definition of the word, in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary,
is “belonging by rank, title, or birth to the aristocracy.” But that’s the easy part for a fellow with such a famous and successful father. It’s the second definition—“of excellent character; having lofty ideals; free from pettiness and meanness, magnanimous”—which is the real challenge.