After a hard-fought election, Canada’s Liberal party has won a decisive parliamentary majority, and Canada will soon have an unfamiliar prime minister with a familiar last name. But 43-year-old Justin Trudeau’s rise to the top of Canadian politics was far from certain, even despite his remarkable political pedigree.
His father, the late Pierre Trudeau, dominated Canadian politics between 1968 and 1984, winning four elections and—uniquely for a Canadian politician—building a substantial reputation outside of his home country. Though lionised at the time of his death in 2000 (two of his honorary pallbearers were Fidel Castro and Jimmy Carter) he was a controversial and divisive figure in Canada. Loved by many, he was equally loathed throughout his federal political career by numerous voters, particularly across Western Canada and among Quebecois separatists and nationalists.
While the elder Trudeau’s career was unquestionably a success, he still never managed to get higher than 46% of the popular vote. He left his Liberal Party in disarray when he retired, and although the party has won elections since, it has never truly recovered.
How ironic, then, that Pierre’s eldest son, Justin, has led a Liberal resurgence—and has done so while not being much like his father after all.
A different path
Temperamentally speaking, Stephen Harper, Canada’s Conservative prime minister since 2006, resembled Trudeau the elder much more than Justin does.
Pierre Trudeau was respected for his intellect, having been a law professor and a writer, but equally reviled for at times coming across as arrogant and aloof. He was never known for his warmth, and his persona certainly would not lend itself to today’s more touchy-feely era of national politics as projected through television and social media.
Born to Pierre and his wife Margaret while Trudeau was prime minister, Justin spent his childhood in full view of the media—particularly when his parent’s marriage publicly disintegrated in the 1970s. Personality-wise, he is said to much more closely resemble his vibrant mother than his stoic father, and he appeared destined for a life outside of Canadian politics.
He became a school teacher, hardly the typical launchpad for an ascent to the top of political life. But Justin interrupted his relative anonymity with a nationally televised and generally well-regarded eulogy at his father’s funeral in October 2000—an event that seems to have triggered a more political impulse in him.
Perhaps because of his lack of political experience or his own chosen career, Trudeau the younger gained the reputation of being a political lightweight. There was certainly nothing inevitable about his becoming head of the party his father had once led.
After a defeat to the Conservatives under Harper in 2006, the Liberals tried to replicate the Trudeau magic with similarly credentialled individuals. First there was Stéphane Dion, a Quebec academic turned politician. When he floundered in the 2008 election, the party headhunted Michael Ignatieff, an academic and public intellectual widely known in both the UK and the US. At the 2011 election, he captained the party to its worst ever electoral defeat, netting a third place showing with only 18.9% of the popular vote.
With three disastrous wipeouts under its belt, the party was ready to try Trudeau the younger.
Elected as a Member of Parliament in the 2008 election, Justin handily won the party leadership in 2013, and quickly established a name for himself through controversial statements and positions.
He called for the legalisation of marijuana, and remarkably for any modern western politician, not only admitted that he had smoked pot in 2010 but declined to apologise for having done so. The new Liberal leader took a strong position on the right of women to have access to abortion including refusing to allow candidates to run for the party who would not support that right in a vote, an approach which drew scathing criticism.
The day after the Boston Marathon bombing he called for an exploration of the “root causes” of such violence, a response that was widely ridiculed as naïve and poorly timed even though the Canadian government itself dedicated resources to understanding the causes of terrorism.
He later alienated many progressives when his party supported the Harper government’s controversial counter-terrorism legislation, Bill C-51.
Justin Trudeau’s stumbles and lack of political experience provided space for the Harper Conservatives to try to diminish him further in the mind of the public. Hence, a series of television and radio advertisements were launched even before the 2015 election was called that centred around Trudeau’s lack of gravitas.
One such repeatedly aired ad took the form of a hiring committee reviewing Trudeau’s resume and deciding “he’s just not ready”—a committee member patronizingly, “nice hair though.”
The constant streams of attack ads against Trudeau may well have backfired in. Public expectations about him were so lowered that all he had to do to outperform them was remain standing and sound coherent. Better yet, the Liberals made a good job of answering the attack ads directly.
One early response showed Trudeau in a classroom speaking of his pride in having been a teacher. Another saw Trudeau speaking confidently into the camera about how he wasn’t ready—not ready, that is, to see Canadians fall behind economically.
Finally, Trudeau managed to hold his own throughout the debates despite at times arguing for unpopular causes, among them women’s right to wear niqabs at citizenship ceremonies or convicted terrorists’ right to retain their Canadian citizenship.
Whether it was Justin’s personality, a popular hunger for change, or the magic of the Trudeau name, the end result is a majority government. The party added 21 percentage points to its share of the vote in 2011. Once the dominant Canadian political party at the federal level, the Liberals are back—and a new Trudeau era has begun.