Justin Trudeau has difficulty staying out of the headlines. Of course it’s natural for Canada’s Prime Minister to turn up in local newspapers from time to time. What’s surprising is that occasionally Trudeau makes it into American news as well. For example, on August 3 Slate ran a piece on an Ontario family encountering a shirtless Trudeau as he exited a cave system in a national park, where he’d been vacationing with his family. And people were fascinated—at least to judge by Twitter, where some are always fascinated by Trudeau’s activities, particularly when he’s missing articles of clothing. Which may explain why the Independent ran a piece on Shirtless Trudeau In A Cave two days later.
Meanwhile, in late July Trudeau’s government granted two permits for the Site C dam project in British Columbia. That’s a provincial hydro scheme that’s met with opposition from environmentalists and First Nations groups who argue that the project infringes on their treaty rights (a court hearing is set for September). It’s unlikely any Prime Minister would’ve wanted to interfere with something that essentially falls under provincial jurisdiction—the federal government’s only involved because of the impact on waterways and fisheries—but the appearance of complicity in a project that’s bad for the environment and challenged by First Nations doesn’t do anything to quell suspicion of Trudeau. Which is visible in Canada both on the left and on the right.
Canada’s Conservative Party roasted Trudeau as an inexperienced pretty face during the last election. On the other hand, people on the left remember that Trudeau’s Liberal Party has a long history of running elections campaigns from the left and then governing from the right. Trudeau became Canada’s first meme-worthy PM, a heartthrob on social media. But a bewildered foreigner might well wonder: who is this guy, really?
I don’t know. I suspect few people outside his friends and family do. But as a Canadian, I’ve been trying to work out how much there is to my current Prime Minister. It’s tricky; he’s a politician, and a good one. It’s his job to manage expectations, to handle symbolism, and to lead people even when they don’t want to be led. I don’t claim to have any deep insight into the man. But like most Canadian voters I’ve learned a bit more about him than I get from the info-light stories that seem to catch international attention.
Let’s start with some of those, though, if only because that’s where an international audience will most likely have heard of him. And because they’ve helped burnish, if not create, Trudeau’s image. So: after winning a majority government last October, in early November Trudeau named a cabinet that was perfectly gender-balanced; asked at the following press conference why he did this, he said “because it’s 2015,” and shrugged. The mix of the sentiment, the visual impact of the shrug, and the casual assumption of gender equity went viral. Then in December, Trudeau went to Toronto’s Pearson airport to greet the first group of Syrian refugees his government had agreed to take in. The images again went viral worldwide.
Add to these moments of state more casual images and video clips that spread like wildfire: Trudeau doing yoga, Trudeau hugging pandas at the Toronto zoo, Trudeau giving a breathless explanation of quantum computing, Trudeau shirtless. It’s a tremendous change from his predecessor, the dour-yet-oleaginous Stephen Harper of the Conservative Party. More than a stylistic change, Trudeau is in many ways the anti-Harper, in the same way Barack Obama at his election was viewed by many as the anti-Bush.
Obama’s a useful point of comparison more generally. Both men are youngish leaders who caught the imagination of their country; both are technocratic centrists with some left-wing instincts on social policy. Unsurprising that, according to a recent article in The Atlantic, Obama “sees Trudeau as very much the younger brother and is mentoring him actively.” On a recent trip to Washington the bond between the two men was obvious; The New York Times resorted to describing their connection as a “bromance.” Reaction on Twitter and elsewhere was less restrained and frequently more carnal. This was the state visit that launched a thousand slashfics.
Trudeau’s unlike Obama in one important way, though, having been born a son of privilege. More precisely, the son of a man who was at one time perhaps Canada’s most popular and certainly most flamboyant Prime Minster. Pierre Elliott Trudeau was aristocratic yet dashing; a journalist and public intellectual turned law professor, in 1965 he won a seat as a Liberal MP and was named Justice Minister. In 1967 he introduced a bill that brought in new gun restrictions while also decriminalizing contraception, abortion, and homosexuality. Regarding this last, he observed that “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation,” highlighting his knack for a pithy quote.
Pierre Trudeau became Prime Minister in April 1968, taking over from the retiring Lester Pearson, then won an election later that year thanks to his immense personal popularity—as it was dubbed at the time, Trudeaumania. As PM, he was a mixed bag. He’s notorious among some for sending in the army to deal with terrorist activity in Quebec in 1970. (“How far would you go with that?” he was asked at the time. “Just watch me,” he shot back, creating yet another memorable Trudeau quote.) He’s notorious among a whole different group of people in an entirely different part of the country for a largely failed National Energy Program. These things demonstrated what many of his detractors felt to be his main weakness, if not defining characteristic: a tendency to arrogance, to assuming he was the smartest man in the room.
On the other hand, Trudeau very often was just that. And much that has become key to contemporary Canada was initiated or formalised under his rule. He passed the Official Languages Act, establishing English and French as Canada’s official languages. His administration formally committed the federal government to multiculturalism (following the increase to immigration instigated by his predecessor, Lester Pearson). Perhaps most important, Trudeau brought in Canada’s constitution, and along with it a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Which led to another classic Pierre Trudeau moment: having gone to London to receive Royal assent for the new constitution, a photographer caught a picture of Trudeau turning a pirouette behind the Queen’s back.
What the younger Trudeau and the elder have in common is that kind of unconscious knack for being newsworthy. For doing something distinctive, something individual, at moments others don’t. And yet there’s a difference in tone. Pierre Trudeau was seen as prickly, combative. He immortalized phrases like “the Trudeau Salute” (for The Finger) and “Fuddle Duddle” (following a loud debate in the house, an opposition MP claimed Trudeau had told him “fuck you;” when asked about it, Trudeau acknowledged he had moved his lips and then to further questioning said “What is the nature of your thoughts, gentlemen, when you say ‘fuddle duddle’ or something like that?”). Compare, as a contrast, “because it’s 2015.” There’s a kind of positivity—even earnestness—to Justin that I think was alien to Pierre’s public persona.
It’s oddly appropriate that the son of the Prime Minister who first enunciated a formal multiculturalism policy is himself the first Prime Minister to have verified non-European ancestry (obviously, on his mother’s side). Justin Trudeau first made a name for himself when he delivered his father’s eulogy in the year 2000; I can remember observers at the time speculating that the speech was the beginning of a political career. In 2008 he was elected as MP for the Montreal riding of Papineau. Re-elected in 2011, he became leader of the Liberal Party of Canada in 2013, despite criticism from opponents that he was too young and inexperienced. Conservative Prime Minster Stephen Harper would recycle those comments in the federal election of 2015, one of the rare instances of the anti-environmentalist Harper recycling anything. It didn’t help him. Harper, a right-wing ideologue who’d dedicated himself to trying to undo some of the progressive initiatives spearheaded by Pierre Trudeau, found his party knocked out of power by Pierre’s son in a rare instance of the universe creating note-perfect poetic justice.
But let’s skip back to 2012, and an earlier knockout. Trudeau was looking to raise funds for Fight for the Cure, a cancer research charity. He wanted to take part in a charity boxing match, but couldn’t find a Conservative opponent. Eventually a mutual friend asked Senator Patrick Brazeau to fight him, and Brazeau agreed. Brazeau, who has a second-degree black belt in karate, had been a reservist in the Canadian Forces. He was widely viewed as the favorite in the match, and some worried that Trudeau would be badly hurt. Instead, Trudeau knocked Brazeau out in the third round. The match was a risk for Trudeau on multiple levels: he could’ve been gravely injured physically, but losing might also have crippled his political career, tarring him as a weakling or giving his opponents a picture ripe for satire. Instead, he came out a winner in what now has to be considered a well-calculated risk. It might be atavistic, it might even be barbaric, but among at least some elements in the media Trudeau’s ability to punch seemed to outweigh his youth and presumed fecklessness. He gained credibility. Three years later, he gained a majority government.
The question remains: what kind of Prime Minster is he? I’d say mixed so far. There’s a reasonable argument that he’s already the most progressive PM since his father. But he’s also pledged to introduce the Trans-Pacific Partnership, criticized as a neoliberal trade deal that could compromise the privacy of Canadian citizens and make it too easy allow foreign businesses to take over Canadian industry. He promised during the election to pull Canada’s military out of Iraq and Syria; but while Canada’s no longer dropping bombs in Syria, the Canadian Forces are still involved in training and assisting the Iraqi army.
Still: Trudeau campaigned on a promise to run a deficit, asserting that government had a role in jump-starting the economy when it hit a lull. And, as promised, his first budget indeed ran a deficit, notably funding infrastructure repair work across the country. As he himself said, it’s not sexy stuff. But it’s stuff that needs to be done. At his best, then, Trudeau does more than generate headlines—he actually ensures at least some of what needs to be done gets done. And, like his father, he sees the government as having a valid and valuable role within the economy. Add it all up, and what does it mean?
Again, it’s hard to say. He’s a difficult man to get a firm read on, at least from a distance. But look back over his career and you see he has a tendency to lead his opponents to underestimate him, and then to take advantage of that. He gets criticized for photo-ops like greeting refugees—but I suspect Trudeau also understands that in his line of work, the things you are seen to do matter. Calling himself a feminist or becoming the first sitting Prime Minister to march in Pride parades in Toronto and Vancouver matters. These things are symbolic, but also important; it’s part of the job of being a leader.
It also strikes me that as much as you might look at Trudeau as a little brother to Obama, you could also call him the anti-Trump. Trudeau and Trump both have a knack for newsworthiness. Trump has to exert himself to get headlines, though, struggling to find new things to rant about. For Trudeau, by contrast, the headlines follow him around naturally. Even when he goes away to a cave in the wilderness. It’s the difference between a master artist and a journeyman who tries too hard. Trump the journeyman relies on increasingly desperate taboo-breaking. Trudeau, the naturally gifted political talent, doesn’t need to be so crude. Trump bloviates about how tough he is. Trudeau goes out and wins a boxing match. Which may be the one thing that’s clear about Trudeau: he’s a better fighter than he gets credit for.