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The Year the Trudeau Mystique Returned to Canada

It's been a while since the world took notice of Canada in this way. Justin Trudeau's election as prime minister has ushered in a new era of 'Trudeaumania' that his father started.
Justin Ling
Montreal, CA
December 26, 2015, 10:00pm

"In politics, it was the year of Trudeau."

That was a headline in the Montreal Gazette in January, 1969. Pierre Elliott Trudeau had been prime minister of Canada for roughly six months.

A columnist for the paper wrote that "despite his enthusiastic capitalization on his public image, his reliance on a magnetic personality to reach out to the public, his use of Madison Avenue public relations techniques," Trudeau was in a fight to keep his private life private and that no other prime minister had been elected in Canada "with less known about him, his policies, his intentions and his motivations."


And while it may have been the senior Trudeau who first created 'Trudeaumania,' it is his son, Canada's new prime minister, who is perfecting it.

Justin Trudeau, who routed Conservative incumbent Stephen Harper in an unprecedented wave of support, whipped up Obama-like fervor in 2015 to propel himself to 24 Sussex Drive, the prime minister's residence which he had called home as a child in Ottawa. Part of the legend, the mythos that he's already enveloped in, was the apparent effortlessness with which he went from a distant third place to one of the most popular prime ministers in recent history. Another part was the ambition of his plan, full of promises that were thought to be political suicide — deficit spending, higher taxes, legalizing marijuana.

It was that legend, culminating in the October vote, that took no time to captivate international audiences.

The morning after the election, Trudeau was glad-handing unsuspecting commuters in his native Montreal, waltzing through the Jarry metro station, ahead of his security detail, who were known for clinging closely to Harper. It set the tone for the weeks to come.

He and his wife, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau, graced the glossy pages of Vogue. A photo of Trudeau pressing his forehead against an Aboriginal elder at his swearing-in ceremony went viral. An invite from a British Columbia teenager, asking the prime minister to her prom, blew up online. Rocker Neil Young cheered his victory and proclaimed "Canada is back," while The New York Times landed the first print interview with the leader.

Trudeau with his wife, daughter and son/Facebook

It was The New Yorker that dampened the enthusiasm of the international press, fawning over the new Canadian leader.

"Another Trudeau Makes Canada Cool," the magazine wrote in a headline. But in the body of the story, after noting that Trudeau's father had won the praise of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, it remarked that the elder Trudeau "undercut his own image early on." The magazine noted that Trudeau senior's popularity at the time, and his legacy, suffered from his introduction of the War Measures Act in 1970, which effectively suspended civil liberties for the entire country amid a wave of violent actions by Quebec separatists.


The magazine summed up the father  thus: "As he sought to liberalize Canadian society — he is credited most prominently with advancing the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — he never lost the pugnacious edge."

The modern Trudeau is facing a similar conundrum, as the threat of Islamic State-inspired terrorism continues to haunt the country. It was on that very topic that Trudeau's chance of bringing the Liberals back to power was nearly derailed.

To his right, Stephen Harper warned that a vote for the opposition would mean the unravelling of the security agenda and, thus, a renewed threat of another lone-wolf attack like the killing of two Canadian Forces personnel in 2014 by a radicalized Muslim Canadian. He hammered on Trudeau's plans to withdraw Canada's jets from the coalition against the Islamic State.

On the left, Thomas Mulcair's New Democratic Party maintained that a vote for Trudeau would endorse continued state surveillance and increased power for the country's spy agencies, akin to the work of Trudeau senior. Mulcair warned that Trudeau would keep in place C-51, the anti-terror legislation that Mulcair likened to the War Measures Act.

But, like his father, Trudeau seemed to successfully convince voters that the needs of security and liberty are not at odds.

"Keeping these freedoms safe from those who would undermine them through violence is a vital national responsibility," Trudeau told a crowd at McGill University, his alma mater, during the campaign. "It is both true and obvious that Canadian liberty cannot exist without collective security."

Making a similar pitch, the elder Trudeau told the nation, upon introducing the act that expanded the powers of warrantless search and indefinite detention, that "freedom and personal security are safeguarded by laws; those laws must be respected in order to be effective."


Security is just one of the topics on which Trudeau walked a conflicted middle ground, and has appeared to come out on top.

On climate change, Trudeau refused to agree to any national mandate to reduce CO2 emissions. He opted to push Canada's provinces to set up their own systems.

Since the election, oil-rich Alberta has agreed to a carbon tax, while Manitoba announced its intention to join a continental cap-and-trade system, signing a deal with Ontario and Quebec in the process. The other provinces are set to figure out a unifying framework for their own systems in the coming months. That means that nearly every major emitter in Canada, save Saskatchewan, now has some CO2-reduction plan, suggesting that Trudeau's back-seat approach may actually be producing results.

At other times, Trudeau's ambitious promises have proved nearly impossible to fulfill.

On Syrian refugees, Trudeau vowed to bring in 25,000 before the end of 2015, despite a flurry of calls for him to slow the process. Finally acknowledging that the timeline was impractical, Immigration Minister John McCallum extended the deadline, committing to just 10,000 before the end of the. He had to walk that number back again on Wednesday, acknowledging that just a fifth of that reduced number will have arrived in Canada by Christmas Eve.

On Aboriginal affairs, Trudeau promised nothing less than re-establishing the relationship between Ottawa and Canada's indigenous people. One element of that promise was a commitment to provide clean drinking water for all of the country's First Nations reserves — a prospect that could cost billions in the short term — but the Liberals have yet to explain where that money will be coming from. Beyond that, his plan to adopt every recommendation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which offered a roadmap for how the government could make amends to the Aboriginal population and close the societal and economic gaps between Aboriginal and non-aboriginal people, remains unspecified.


But, generally, domestic and international press has generally been positive, even fawning, on the 44-year old, good-looking prime minister. His decision to personally greet the first government-sponsored planeload of Syrians produced a striking image of generosity and openness that traveled around the world. It all fits into the "sunny ways" motto lifted from a previous prime minister — not his father, but Wilfrid Laurier, elected in 1896 — that Trudeau keeps repeating.

Still, Trudeau's shortcomings have not gone unnoticed.

"From Canada's new prime minister, we have the world's most meaningless quote," wrote the New Republic last month. The American leftist magazine was referring to these words: "It is clear that the way forward for Canada will be in a solution that resembles Canada, that is shared values and shared desires for outcomes and different approaches to achieve those outcomes right across this great country." Vague, indeed.

It wasn't the first time in 2015 that Trudeau the younger was guilty of something his outspoken father certainly never was, fudging an answer into meaninglessness.

Pierre Elliott Trudeau's famous exchange, days before invoking the War Measures Act in 1970.

Asked, for example, about how Canada can improve human rights in China, Trudeau told reporters: "I think Canada has an awful lot to offer to many countries around the world, whether it's better governance, whether it's the idea that diversity is a source of strength, not a source of weakness. There is a positive engagement firmly based on our values that we know are not just Canadian values, but in most cases, are universally shared values across the world, that we have work to do and we will do that work."


Yet it's Trudeau himself who had promised in a townhall in December that "it's not about image. It's about substance."

But the image, too, has become a sticking point. Canadians, often nervous about the Americanization of their politics, have wrung their hands about some of the glitzier aspects of Trudeau's rise to prominence.

Columnists balked at the fancy attire the Trudeaus sported for their Vogue fashion shoot, while the country seemed downright uncomfortable as images emerged from the Phillippines of teenage girls screaming and crying over Trudeau, who even got hashtagged as the #APECHottie when he arrived in the country for the APEC summit.

The contrast is distinct between Trudeau and every other Canadian prime minister — save for one. (Yes, that's the other Trudeau.) Harper was a man who shirked the limelight whenever possible — once shooting down the proposal of an enterprising staffer that he serve hot chocolate to children at a nearby skating rink, because it would be a distraction — while previous Liberal prime ministers Jean Chretien and Paul Martin had a uniquely Canadian, understated charm.

But even the previous Trudeau kept his private life as private as possible, especially as he faced a dissolving marriage to Justin's mother.

But Trudeau's style does have an effectiveness to it.

Image via Trudeau's Facebook page.

In October 2014, as a lone gunman blew through the front doors of Parliament and traded gunfire with security, Trudeau, then a member of parliament, was barricaded in his office on the fifth floor. After the shooter was killed, but the building remained on lockdown, Trudeau was escorted to the cafeteria, where dozens of other Parliament Hill staffers, members of Parliament, and journalists were waiting. At one point, Trudeau got up from his huddle with staff, and strode over to sit at a table where a visibly-affected construction worker was staring blankly at the opposite wall. Trudeau began quizzing the worker about renovations to Parliament's West Block, asking him about his work, and vowing he would go check out the renovations.

A day before he was sworn in as Canada's 23rd prime minister, Trudeau stepped out of his car outside of Parliament's Peace Tower and crossed the construction site to check out how that work was progressing.

The mystique around the current prime minister is certainly as rife with paradoxes as his father's. But in some ways, it's one he's made all his own.

Follow Justin Ling on Twitter: @justin_ling