A penchant for Canadian politics: how a childish flight of fancy slowly grew into another burning passion of mine

Once television had replaced radio as the primary source of news and information, programs became geared more and more toward shallow entertainment. But it was the intimacy of radio that had made it so attractive to many people. My love affair with this particular medium started at a very young age. Turning my little wireless into a constant companion of mine, I could leave behind the narrow confines of my upbringing by getting a sense of the wider world and dream big. During my childhood my shortwave receiver became a sanctuary of sorts.

Growing up in a boarding school for the blind on the outskirts of East Berlin in the latter half of the 1980s, our exposure to the media was tightly controlled. Most of us children had a radio of course, but it was official school policy that we were only allowed to listen to programs broadcasting from East Germany. By today’s standards, this may sound laughable, but this policy was strictly enforced, and some of our supervisors made it their hobby to catch us children violating this holy rule. Once being caught, the radio receiver was confiscated for a few days, only to be returned after making amends. Yet kids are incredibly creative when it comes to flouting rules, and we were no exception in this regard. Listening to the ‘West’ without getting caught became a matter of pride for many young children at my school, and so I remember long nights with my little wireless safely tucked away under my pillow, with my finger always on the dial in order to switch back to an East German station in case somebody unexpectedly entered my room. When I started falling in love with the crackling sound of shortwave reception, I must have been about 10 years old, and it was then that I encountered Radio Canada International’s German service. The wider world out there fascinated me, and for this I probably have to thank my late father. Having read plenty of fairytales to me out loud when I was still little, well before I left my parents home for boarding school at the tender age of 5, he helped nurture my independent spirit, instilling in me a longing for distant places and faraway lands worth exploring. When I was 4, I told my parents one day that, once I had grown up, I would go far, far away and only return home at the age of 64. How my little mind came by this specific number I honestly don’t know, and personally I have no recollection of this mighty proclamation of mine, but my parents swore that the story was true, and there is no reason not to believe them.

Coinciding with my regular attempts to tune into Radio Canada International was another event of note. My father had given me the story of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on tape to listen to. Among other things, my curiosity regarding Canada was reinforced because the country featured as a potential safe haven for black slaves fleeing their terrifying ordeal.

Unearthing the same radio play I had listened to more than 30 years ago specifically for this piece unleashed an emotional tsunami, moving me to tears as I hadn’t listened to it in decades. Suddenly, I was 10 years old again, sitting in my dorm at my boarding school with headphones on my ears, playing the story again, again and again. In my mind at the time, Canada had not just become a place of distance and possible adventure, but was also transformed into a country of ‘goodness’. Since the signal on shortwave was so weak, I felt certain that Canada was truly light years away and difficult to reach. There was one particular talk I had with my father back then that stuck in my mind. I wanted to know more about the place, and he told me about a girl he knew at his school in the early 1950s who had escaped to West Germany and later moved on to Canada. As it transpired, I would eventually have the opportunity to verify his story more than a decade later, and, as it turned out, the story was true. Full of boundless curiosity, I wanted to know from him if I could go to Canada one day too. “Well”, he said, “sadly, as long as the Berlin Wall stands and the party rules our country, we cannot go to many places.” Perhaps it was the sad expression on my face that moved him. “I doubt that anything will change quickly. But one day”, he assured me, “things will change, and the wall will fall and our countries will be reunited. It’s unlikely that it will happen in my lifetime, but it may well happen in yours.” “Then”, he chuckled, “you can even go to Canada.” I could do little more but tell him that it was so unfair that we children couldn’t listen to the radio as we pleased at school, and that grown-ups were not allowed to go wherever they wanted to be. In a simplistic way, I thought there was something deeply troubling about the society I grew up in. How little did the two of us know that less than 18 months later, our lives would be turned upside down, as the so-called socialist experiment finally met its doom. At the age of 10, however, politics of any sort was still far beyond me. But this would all change on November 9 1989. Literally from this day forth, my life would constantly revolve around politics in one way or another.

I still had plenty of growing up to do before Canada surfaced once again in my life. With my interest in politics having been firmly established by then, I paid rapt attention when the German news media reported in 1993 that long serving Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney had resigned, and his likely successor would be Kim Campbell, Canada’s first woman prime minister. The subsequent election saw her going head to head with the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada Jean Chrétien – the lion as he was nicknamed by friends and foes alike. With a killer instinct only the most majestic of creatures possess, the Canadian lion zeroed in on his prey, devouring Campbell’s Conservatives with the passion of a predator starved of power for almost a decade. But there was more to this particular election than meets the eye. Leaving the Tories with only two seats in the House of Commons, thus denying them even official party status, marked the end of an era in Canadian politics. Gone were the days of the Conservative Party as a big tent political movement which had served Mulroney so well. Even though Conservatism survived, it would gradually notch to the right, as activists who had cut their teeth in the Reform Party came to the fore. The astonishing rise of the Reform Party in 1993 was not the only seismic shift the major political parties had to endure. The breakthrough of the Bloc Québécois deprived the Liberals of valuable regional representation too and, given the Bloc’s separatist agenda, would put severe strain on the federation, leading up to the 1995 referendum which saw the Quebec nationalists almost win. Due to breathtaking levels of complacency in Ottawa, the pro-independents movement fell short of victory by only 54 thousand votes. To this day, Chrétien’s lack of leadership has tarnished his reputation, though most Canadians hold him in high regard as one of their more successful prime ministers. Any attempts to tame the lion proved pointless. Chrétien, whom I came to respect and admire later in life, won two more elections in 1997 and 2000 before retiring in December 2003. Naturally, the complexities and inner workings of Canadian politics were still alien to me in 1993. Not having the most nuanced view of the world at the age of 15, I appreciated the victory of the Liberals only because any party, as long as its name didn’t start with a capital C, deserved to win. Getting all my information exclusively from the German news media, my knowledge of the country remained rudimentary.

Approaching Toronto Airport on September 17th 1999, a glass of sweet tasting dry French red wine alerted me to the moment’s significance. I marvelled at the occasion. No radio was required anymore to nourish my imagination – at last, I was in for the real thing, and it would be a hell of a ride. In a few minutes I would set foot on Canadian soil, entering the country I had fantasised about just a decade earlier. Neither a shortwave receiver nor the vague interests of a 15-year-old had any prophetic powers in my life. Making such a claim would be ridiculous – preposterous even – and would do little more than reinforcing cheap cliches not worth writing about. But, even though I have never been superstitious or believed in any sort of karma, when the time came to choose between either attending language school in the US or Canada, my childhood flirtation with the country may have helped tip the balance in Canada’s favour. How could I possibly squander such an opportunity? Before departing the plane that evening, I swore that I would do whatever was necessary to turn this stage of my life into a stunning success, going far beyond studying at a language school. Hindsight is a benefit I didn’t have at the time, but choosing Canada set the stage for later events and helped me to make my dream come true, becoming a member of the English-speaking global community. Despite quick and lasting progress with the English language, the journey would be a long and arduous one. I had my work cut out for me, and Toronto was only the beginning.

Kelly and John were true soulmates. Feeling as passionate about politics as I did, the three of us hit it off straightaway. Both of them didn’t just study politics at the University of Toronto but were also active members of the Liberal Party of Canada. For the first time in my life I didn’t feel like a fish out of water, and it didn’t take long until we were socialising outside the lecture theatre. Enrolling at a Canadian university was well beyond my financial means, but no one stoped me from sneaking into introductory lectures on Canadian politics. The two of them wouldn’t be the only well informed Canadians I hung out with. Jessica, a student of international relations, also came into my life and lightened up dark, chilly autumn afternoons. Having told her about my affinity for her country, she in return peppered me with questions as to what life was like behind the wall in East Germany, and, because her interest was genuine, I resolved not to answer in platitudes. Since I was only 11 years old when the political system collapsed, my insights had to be subjective in nature. As long as you excepted the natural order of things and didn’t stand out from the crowd, I told her, life was bearable, even very enjoyable at times. East Germans had plenty of fun, and my parents could testify to that. There is good reason why sociologists have termed East Germany a ‘niche society’, referring to the fact that citizens vented their anger and frustration at party and state only within the confines of their private living rooms. A public square or anything resembling civil society didn’t exist. For me, my father was a prime example of this phenomena. While having been politically aware and harbouring no sympathies for the regime, he chose to keep his thoughts to himself. “Otherwise”, he let on years after the wall had fallen, “I would have put my entire family in jeopardy.” I leave hero worshiping to others. In my estimation he made the right choice at the time. As Jessica and I got to know each other better, we noticed the same love of books. As a visually impaired student in the late 90s and early 2000s, gaining access to printed material remained challenging, but my new Canadian friend did her best to provide me with books on floppy disks, which I could then read on my computer. There is more than chance to life I suppose, and things came full circle when, one day, she gave me a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the original. “You know this is a great book, and I know you will love it.” For the record, I had told her about my shortwave receiver and Radio Canada International as a 10-year-old, but I had never mentioned Uncle Tom’s Cabin to her. Why she decided to give me a copy of this so profoundly moving story is still a mystery to me, even today.

In spite of making plenty of headway with my English, the language barrier remained formidable. Teachers at my school heaped plenty of praise on my abilities, and to some degree I had truly earned it. A French guy and I topped all our classes in a short period of time, but my progress gave me only partial satisfaction. Trying hard to follow complex policy discussions on Canadian radio and television reminded me how much more I would have to learn in order to become genuinely proficient. My benchmarks for success weren’t my classmates, but rather Canadians such as Kelly, John and Jessica. One day, I was hoping, the English language would reveal itself in all its complexity, and conversing on Canadian politics would come as naturally to me as it did to native speakers like Kelly, John and Jessica. Though the more complex my reading material got, the more insurmountable the English language appeared to be. Facing up to the fact that there would be no moment of instant gratification tested my resolve to soldier on. No magic wand, allowing me to declare ‘mission accomplished’, was available. Indeed, no button labelled ‘success imminent’ was anywhere in sight. Reaching the top of Mount Olympus proved to be perilous, with the air getting thinner and thinner and no summit to be seen on the horizon. In spite of putting plenty of effort into speaking, listening, reading and writing, getting to grips with a new language required time and patience. Gradually it dawned on me that the task I had set for myself demanded a holistic approach. Rather than reducing the English language to a mere object of study, I had to start understanding it as a living breathing organism. Picking up a new tongue is like learning to sing a new song. Somehow, I had to get the rhythm of the thing. Whenever you bump into a teacher who can make you see things from a completely different angle, count yourself lucky. Maybe the best language teacher I have ever come across (a linguist by trade) became my source of inspiration, somebody I could confide in, telling him about my inner demons and, after having been such a dismal failure in English at school, my lingering sense of self-doubt. “Trust me as a professional”, he would tell me, “Language is the most imperfect construct the human mind has ever invented.” “The more you strive for something as subjective and illusive as perfection, the more you will deprive yourself of the opportunity to say what it is you want to say – in fact, you may end up never speaking or writing well.” All I was after, I told my teacher, was to get a better grounding in Canadian history and politics, and my register just wasn’t good enough. “What you eventually must do is to attend university in an English-speaking country. You won’t have any trouble immersing yourself in a new culture. Then, things will fall into place more quickly than you at this stage in your life can imagine.” A few years later, as I was moving swiftly toward my first degree in London and had firmly established my new identity as a member of the global English-speaking community, I recalled our conversations from time to time. The top of the mountain I had once been so keen on reaching never came mind you, or, if it ever did, it had escaped my notice. What my teacher had tried to tell me in as many words was that only the journey mattered. Despite my current physical location, the spiritual journey is ongoing. But because I am not in search of a summit to conquer any longer, the travelling goes much more smoothly nowadays.

At my language teacher’s behest, the school contacted the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) to whose librarians I owe a lasting debt of gratitude for supplying me with a wide range of books on tape and floppy disk. One of the most educational reads was a comprehensive biography on Canada’s philosopher king and prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, a man who was the exception to the universal rule that intellectuals rarely succeed in competitive electoral politics. Riding a wave of huge public enthusiasm in 1968, Trudeau, the man who had proclaimed ‘the just society’ and believed in ‘reason before passion’, would come to dominate Canadian politics for the better part of 16 years. Apart from discussing Trudeau the nationalist, federalist and political leader trying his utmost to bring bilingualism into the heart of the federal government in Ottawa, the author also researched the prime minister’s approach to cabinet government, dedicating a large chunk of his volume to the committee structure he had set up for policy development, thereby stretching my own language comprehension to breaking point. Nevertheless, the man of the world appealed to me right away. Until very recently, historians and biographers failed to take stock of the enormous transformation Pierre Elliott underwent as a young man. At long last, political scientist Max Nemni, together with his spouse Monique Nemni (linguist and writer) attempted to pinpoint the many reasons which prompted him to turn away from pro-fascist sympathies coupled with a pronounced dislike of democracy and become a crusading Liberal. How, the authors ask, did the son of the clerical-nationalist Quebec elite come to disavow the ideals and values he grew up with?

Conventional wisdom holds that in the 1950s, this rich father’s son was just a playboy whose sole interest was travel and other frivolous activities. He lacked perseverance, pursued no serious long-term goal and shirked all responsibility. We take the opposite view. The conventional portrayal of Trudeau in the 1950s does not explain why and how he ended up rejecting the very values he had held up to 1944. Was this metamorphosis brought about by a few months and some classes at Harvard? Was his goal in life to wander around the world in search of adventure? And if he led the life of an idle dilettante in the 1950s, where did he learn the arts and crafts of statesmanship? In this volume, we will examine the development of Trudeau’s political thought from the fall of 1944, when he left Montreal to study at Harvard until November 8, 1965, when he was elected Liberal MP for Mount Royal. We will see that the conventional portrayal of Trudeau the dilettante does not stand up to the facts. In reality, the 1950s were anything but “wasted years.” Trudeau seemed to be everywhere at once. The mere act of drawing up a list of his intellectual activities and campaigns leaves us breathless, as we consider this statesman carefully preparing himself for office.

Trudeau transformed, Max Nemni & Monique Nemni.

Returning from his education and adventures abroad a changed man, Trudeau resolved to use his intellectual faculties to fight ‘La Grande Noirceur’ (the Great Darkness) which had descended upon his Province under the long and controversial leadership of premier Maurice Duplessis. Although Trudeau was influential only on the margins, it was during this period that he earned his reputation as a provocative rabble rousing intellectual, and it was this sort of baggage he carried right across Alexandra Bridge to Parliament Hill in 1965. Reminiscing about the Trudeau years decades later, Jean Chrétien conceded that Trudeau wasn’t seen as a likely leader of the Liberals let alone prime minister – in fact, even finding a riding for him to run in proved challenging. Lester Pearson’s natural successor was John Turner, but he would have to wait almost two decades to be granted his brief moment of glory as Canada’s 17th prime minister.

Given his political acumen, Canada’s 15th prime minister emerged from the economically turbulent 1970s relatively unscathed. However, his legacy has been questioned on other counts as well. For instance, his government’s hurried response to the FLQ crisis left Canadians wonder if the man they had elected just two years earlier was indeed as staunchly committed to individual freedoms as it had appeared. Even his landmark achievement, the Canadian Charta of Rights and Freedoms, came at a price. While the intriguing manoeuvrings surrounding the patriation of the constitution dazzled the public, the schism between English and French Canada widened. Accounts differ as to whether Quebec was kept in the dark about the emerging final version of the accord on purpose, but whatever unfolded at the ‘one and last time conference’ led to ever increasing levels of frustration and alienation among Francophone Canadians. “And in spite of the joyous outpourings of most of my colleagues while they were giving their reaction to that, maybe second thoughts and further events will make them understand that this could have incalculable consequences.” In light of subsequent events, the words of Quebec premier René Lévesque were prophetic. The failure of the Meech Lake Accord inflamed separatist fervour in the Province even more, leading eventually to the 1995 referendum. Even many of those favouring constitutional accommodation became disillusioned. A case in point was Lucien Bouchard, Mulroney’s environment minister and Quebec lieutenant. Until the collapse of Meech Lake, Bouchard had believed that national aspirations in Quebec could be reconciled with confederation by assigning Quebec the status as a ‘distinct society’ within Canada. Seeing his hopes dashed, however, Bouchard broke with Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives and became a founding member of the Bloc Québécois, emerging less than a decade later as one of the most popular, eloquent and potent campaigners for the sovereignist cause. Indeed, the campaign he spearheaded almost succeeded in breaking up the country. Iconic Francophone Canadian journalist Chantal Herbert, a woman delightfully free from pride and pretence, believes that, while recent demographic trends as well as shaky Party allegiances have weakened the separatist cause for the time being, the Quebec question is far from settled and will likely resurface as a politically extremely divisive issue in the future again. But there was also trouble brewing in the west. Trudeau’s National Energy Program, an attempt to share the western Provinces oil wealth more equally throughout the federation, backfired spectacularly and was eventually abandoned. Nevertheless, it has cost the Liberals the west of the country, and, except for the occasional outlier here and there, the party of Trudeau has failed to recover, eroding the regional base of the Liberals even further.

Justin’s woes: with the 2019 federal election resulting in a hung parliament and minority government, is Canadian Liberalism already on life support?

Imagine that the wind and the sun are locked in a bitter dispute. Both mighty forces of nature just cannot agree as to which of them has more power. In order to stop quarrelling, they decide to put their respective abilities to the test by trying to take off a travellers coat. Going into the match equally confident, the wind keeps howling and howling while the sun shines brighter and brighter. Only as temperatures gradually rise does the traveller surrender to the elements and, all by himself, takes off his coat. This is why Canada’s 7th prime minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, whom Justin Trudeau has referred to frequently as his role-model in public life, always preferred the “sunny ways.” Having spent a considerable part of his childhood at 24 Sussex Drive, the official residence of Canada’s prime minister, the “sunny ways” were familiar terrain for young Justin. Growing up in the shadow of political fame usually elicits two very different responses. Either the children of such families become naturally gifted politicians themselves, or they turn their backs on the profession altogether. “I won the birth lottery”, Justin told the National Post in November 2006. Cashing in on his lottery win, however, wouldn’t be straightforward. Never a man traversing the conventional paths in life, his eureka moment was late in coming. Prior to entering the political fray, young Trudeau was a man of many talents: a snowboard instructor, a bouncer, an actor and a teacher.

Like his father Pierre Justin, together with his two younger brothers Alexandre and Michel, attended the prestigious bilingual Collège Jean-De-Brébeuf in Montreal. In the telling of his biographers Huguette Young and George Tombs Justin, although academically bright and intellectually curious, never reached his father’s lofty heights. But, in sharp contrast to Pierre Elliott, he was reportedly very charming, outgoing and sociable, displaying already the sort of character traits necessary to play the political game in the 21st century.

Brébeuf had instilled in Pierre Trudeau “the demon of knowledge.” Justin was full of intellectual curiosity, but he wasn’t the kind of person to write long diatribes for the pleasure of proving he was right. Justin didn’t leave behind a trail of writings as a youth. Naturally, he read a lot and was interested in everything. In this respect he followed his father’s lead, as he once explained to Jim Lefebvre: “Oh! My father has always been telling us how important reading is. I got that from him. I try as much as possible to delve into many different subjects.” Collège Brébeuf gave him opportunities to broaden his horizons. Reading was encouraged and there was no lack of subjects. Current affairs were discussed in class. Discussion was encouraged without teachers imposing any single point of view on the students.

Justin Trudeau, Huguette Young & George Tombs.

Excelling on the debating circuit, Justin gave his political debut as an 18-year-old in 1990, taking part in a debate at Brébeuf on Quebec sovereignty.

Following the death of Meech, the government of Quebec set up the Commission on the Political and Constitutional Future of the Province, also known as the Bélanger-Campeau Commission which was charged with exploring options regarding Quebec’s future in Canada. Since the Commission was composed of federalists and sovereignists, it could hardly agree on anything and did little to resolve the Quebec question. It’s work did, however, spark ferocious debates between the two sides with positions becoming more and more entrenched.

In late 1990 31 Quebec CÉGEPs representing more than 74 thousand students took part in a mini-referendum campaign. The separatists were clearly in the lead winning overall with more than 80%. At Brébeuf the federalists were a minority, but the victory of the sovereignists was less pronounced than elsewhere. They gained 63% of the vote with 34% of students voting in favour of Canadian unity. Leading up to the mini-poll Brébeuf, like many other colleges, organised vigorous debates on the issue, and it was in this context that Justin Trudeau carried the torch for the federalist side. Yet, as classmates and teachers told Young and Tombs, Justin was not at all interested in politics, or at least not in a political career. It was more a question of “news events just getting in the way.”

The Trudeau family had its own rendezvous with tragedy in late 1998. Skiing in the Kootenay mountains of British Columbia, Justin’s youngest brother Michel was swept away by an avalanche. While some of his buddies made it to safety, Michel’s body was never found. Two years later the ‘father of modern Canada’ Pierre Elliott passed away.

Delivering his father’s eulogy, Justin Trudeau struck a chord with the wider public, impressing many Canadians with the substance, style and presentation of his address. Party elders started wondering if he had what it takes to one day follow in his father’s footsteps. Knowing full well from his time at 24 Sussex the sort of sacrifices any political career would entail, young Trudeau remained hesitant. Prior to taking the plunge into public life, he married his fiancé Sophie Grégoire. Only in 2007 did he finally decide to seek preselection in the Montreal riding of Papineau, and despite the fame attached to his family name, getting the nomination was far from certain. The party internal contest pitted him against popular city councillor Mary Deros. Once nominated, however, he put together a strong grassroots campaign, and, in the federal election of 2008, which saw Stephen Harper’s Conservative minority government returned, he won back Papineau from the Bloc Québécois which had won the seat just two years earlier. Trudeau has held the riding ever since. “The most beautiful wonderful, fabulous part of the country is the magnificent riding of Papineau. I have the honour of representing it in the House of Commons and there is no place more beautiful in this country. Actually, specifically, at the heart of my riding is Jarry Park and I used to go there as a kid, all the time with my dad. You know he was a huge lover of outdoor baseball and that was a tradition we had, but also I saw the pope there and I love to bring my kids there. Jarry Park in my riding is a beautiful place”, Trudeau said about his riding in an interview with Global News in 2014. Back in 2007, more hard nosed political calculations were at play. By insisting on choosing his own riding, hardly the norm in the Liberal Party, Trudeau had surreptitiously signalled to his colleagues that he didn’t intend to languish on the back benches for long. After all, in Trudeau’s own words, Papineau is a “microcosm of Canada.” The new star MP rose quickly through the ranks, becoming the party’s critic for multiculturalism and youth in late 2009, moving on to shadow the government on citizenship, immigration and youth in 2010.

Following the orange wave in 2011, which saw Jack Layton’s NDP emerge as the second strongest party, thereby becoming the official opposition on Parliament Hill, the Liberals were thrown into disarray. Questions were raised about the party’s viability as a competitive force in federal politics. Even so, Justin Trudeau only decided to run after interim party leader Bob Rae had announced that he was not seeking the leadership after all. Proving the bookies right, Trudeau won the party internal contest in a landslide. But was his victory only a product of celebrity politics? Professor Alex Marland, who has written extensively on the subject and won the Donner Prize 2016 for his book Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control, told Trudeau’s biographers Young and Tombs that his political success couldn’t be reduced to celebrity alone. “It’s easier to become the leader of the party, and it’s easier potentially to become head of government, but whether that helps you once you’re in government, I am not sure”, Marland said. While Trudeau has become the most commodified politician in the country, his celebrity, unlike that of his father, is not something he achieved through his actions. He didn’t earn it in his own right. Even the late Jack Layton spent most of his political career losing elections before finally breaking through. Therefore, the glamour surrounding Trudeau has one fatal flaw: it allows people to project onto him whatever they want to see in him as a leader. Any political career built on such flimsy foundations is usually short lived especially once high office has been achieved. Canadian journalist Chantal Herbert, however, reminds us that not even a prime minister’s son can be held responsible for having grown up in the limelight, and she acknowledges that Trudeau has grown immensely in stature since becoming party leader and subsequently prime minister. “There were many things we knew about Justin Trudeau including his shortcomings. He is not a great parliamentarian, and his speeches often suck. What I didn’t know but found out during the campaign is that Justin Trudeau is very hard-working. These 5 debates, he didn’t come out of them because he has a pretty face, and he was on the podium with people who actually do their homework: Stephen Harper and Thomas Mulcair. When people say Justin Trudeau won the election on style, I go back to those debates. They gave him a lot of opportunities to screw up and show no depth. But he came out of these debates further ahead, and this speaks to hard work. And for what I do, I don’t think it’s helpful to judge a politician for how he looks when he is elected leader. You judge a politician for how he grows. At some point, we all stop growing, but some never grow, and some grow, and Justin Trudeau did grow in the job”, Herbert told her audience in 2016. Back in 2013, Trudeau’s opponents either tried to belittle him as a lightweight, or they attempted to ignore him altogether. Yet the rise of Trudeau must have worried the Harper government in particular. The well funded Conservative blue machine jumped into gear, engaging in the sort of character assassination which had proven so effective in destroying previous Liberal leaders Michael Ignatieff and SStéphane Dion. With Trudeau’s public persona well established before he chose to embark on a political career, the Conservative onslaught didn’t resonate. Too many older Canadians remembered him growing up at 24 Sussex, and younger Canadians made up a constituency Harper’s Conservatives had trouble reaching at any rate. In order to further minimise the risk of being exposed to attacks by his opponents, Trudeau opted for a slow process of policy development, causing many to view him as a leader presiding over a party devoid of any depth. Had Trudeau prematurely put out his policy positions, however, both the Conservatives and the New Democrats might have succeeded in squeezing him out of the picture, and those voices in the commentariat, who tried to bully him into being more specific on the policies the Liberal Party intended to take to the next election, would have scorned him for being naive and not ready to lead the country, especially if he had lost in 2015. In fact, at this early stage in his leadership, he played his cards brilliantly, and, as it turned out, team Trudeau read the political map much more astutely than the Conservatives or the NDP did. Though sociologically difficult to define, the middle class or an imagined community of ‘aspirational voters’ remain fertile fishing ground for politicians intend on garnering votes. “There are all sorts of different ways of calculating the decile or quintile that constitutes the middle class. The reality is that I consider the middle class is people who work for their income, not people who live off their assets and their savings”, Trudeau told the Ottawa Sun in April 2014. By defining the middle class as broadly as possible, the Liberals tried to kill two political birds with just one stone. First, they made it very difficult for their opponents, particularly the Conservatives, to attack the plan without putting their own economic credibility on the line. As a package, promising income tax cuts between 44 thousand up to 89 thousand Dollars, tax free child benefits for children under 18 and abolishing family income splitting introduced by the Harper government, the policy was very popular, making the Liberal Party of Canada relevant again to millions of voters. Second, it put the NDP on notice. They could either choose to fight the campaign on issues resonating only with the left in Canadian politics, or they could slack it out with Harper and Trudeau on the economy. As the campaign 2015 demonstrated, it was the NDP leader who felt the pressure most and stumbled quickly. When prime minister Stephen Harper visited Rideau Hall on August 2 2015 and asked the Governor General to dissolve parliament, he kick-started the longest election marathon in Canadian history since 1872. Because the Conservatives had stagnated in the polls between 28 and 32% since 2013, and two thirds of Canadians wanted a change of the guard in Ottawa, the prime minister hoped that the long campaign would ensure that NDP leader Mulcair, still topping the polls, would trip up. Harper’s strategy was sound and would have been successful if it hadn’t been for a very volatile electorate, a point completely lost on both the Conservatives and the New Democrats. Trudeau, for all his rockstar appeal, started in third place, and even seasoned Liberal strategists didn’t anticipate that he could succeed in running up the middle and top the field on election night. How did he do it? There were two reasons for his success. For one, Trudeau and his party ran a disciplined campaign, sticking to the core message of helping the middle class and bringing change to Ottawa. By refusing to buy into the conventional wisdom that deficit reduction and keeping the budget in surplus must top all other priorities, he embodied change more than Thomas Mulcair did. What had been a risky stance at the time was not meant to impress economic experts. Rather, dropping the surplus fetish conveyed a political message, and, to the consternation of prime minister Harper and opposition leader Mulcair, it worked. While there can be little doubt that the Liberals had run an impressive and savvy campaign, one universal political truth applied even to this election. Governments loos elections; oppositions rarely win them. In this respect, the first leaders’ debate on August 6 changed the trajectory of the whole campaign. Not just were voters prepared to take a serious look at Justin Trudeau as Harper’s replacement, but they started viewing Mulcair more and more with suspicion. Even though the NDP leader had done what he had to do in order to come across as a prime minister-in-waiting, inadvertently, he had already blown his chances. First, like Harper on the podium, his party hadn’t recognised how moody the electorate was in 2015, and this applied also to Quebec, the Province the NDP had taken by storm in 2011. When the NDP leader came under pressure to explain his commitment to repeal the Clarity Act, he reaffirmed his belief in confederation, but he was seen as saying one thing in Quebec to woo the separatist vote and another in English Canada. His attempts to reassure the public proved unconvincing. In fact, he was perceived more and more as devious, dishonest even, and his slide in the polls had begun. Stephen Harper’s plan to draw out the NDP leader yielded results, but unfortunately for him the economy caused him headaches, and to the dismay of Conservative strategists he admitted that Canada was headed for a recession. For a leader who had little more to offer than his credentials on economic matters and, though not without controversy, national security, this was an extraordinary blunder. The weeks following the first debate did nothing to reinvigorate the campaigns of either Harper or Mulcair, and the stage was set for a historic night on October 19, recording the biggest numerical increase in the number of seats for a political party in Canada since confederation, handing the Liberals a majority government with 184 seats in the House.

Based on a wide range of interviews with MPs, ministers and staffers, Canadian journalist John Ivison was first in publishing a critical assessment of the Trudeau government, hoping to lay bare the many wounds Trudeau will have to patch up if he is to achieve longevity in office.

Trudeau was elected promising to be the great unifier, the leader who would forge consensus and bridge partisan divides after the partisan Harper years. Conservatives are not your enemies, he told Liberals, they are your neighbours. But years of playing identity politics with its baked-in hostility toward anyone deemed “privileged,” has cleaved fresh breaches, disharmony and estrangement. Stephen Harper did a lot of things that made his opponents resentful. But despite riding to power on a wave of good intentions, the Liberals through their attempts to control Parliament, their lack of transparency, abuse of process, talking of public policy, and programs for partisan advantage have been no better than the Conservatives. “Of course they don’t see it that way,” wrote journalist Andrew Potter. “No one ever does, because people tend to interpret their own behaviour in light of what they see as their true motives. And because they see their motives as fundamentally good, the Liberals give themselves a pass for engaging in the behaviours for which they (and the press gallery) crucified Harper.” 30 The SNC-Lavalin scandal in early 2019 was a perfect example. Trudeau was accused of pressuring his then-attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, to strike a special plea bargain with the Montreal engineering company accused of bribery and corruption overseas. Many Canadians viewed the story as blatant abuse of the rule of law and the prosecutorial independence of the attorney general’s office. Partisan Liberals looked the other way, viewing any transgression as a necessary evil to secure votes in Quebec, win the election and enact more of their enlightened policies.

Trudeau: The Education of a Prime Minister, John Ivison.

Though an intellectually honest writer and diligent researcher, the overall tone of his book suggests that Ivison is on a mission of his own, intend on cutting Trudeau down to size no matter what. Much of his criticism comes across as slightly overblown and somewhat staged. While acknowledging that identity politics is as much a problem of the right as it is of the left, the author is less persuasive on other counts. For example, he celebrates the post-war national consensus built by Progressive Conservative and conservative Liberal prime ministers alike, but the reader is left in the dark as to how preserving this post-war consensus would help advance Canada’s national interest, or to what extent it could be helpful in tackling 21st century problems such as global warming. For Ivison, politics is at its best when reduced to a mere exercise in managing a burocratic state machinery. Any leader with a transformative agenda stands in the way. Except for Trudeau’s engagement with the Trump administration, he has no complementary things to say about his government’s foreign policy record either. The Scottsman’s competitive edge informs much of his writing in this hastily constructed account of Trudeau’s first term. Unlike Ivison the journalist, scholars Norman Hillmer and Philippe Lagassé, bringing to bear all their expertise and appropriate professional detachment, calmly place the Liberal government’s actions into the wider context of Canadian foreign policy. Their book Justin Trudeau and Canadian Foreign Policy is part of the series Canada Among Nations, and a number of highly regarded and influential scholars have penned articles for this volume, providing in-depth analysis of various aspects central to the Trudeau government’s engagement with the world. The takeaway for the reader is immense, since it becomes apparent quickly that Trudeau’s record is highly contentious among academics and professionals. Particularly intriguing is the scholarly controversy between Kim Richard Nossal and coauthors Jerome Klassen and Yves Engler. While Nossal gives the government high marks on its international conduct and argues that the promises made in 2015 have not compromised its ability to act in the national interest, Klassen and Engler deliver a scathing rebuke of Trudeau’s foreign policy, postulating that by promising a new international agenda based solely on socially progressive values, Trudeau has not just been misleading but was in fact lying. In their view, the Liberal government has continued pursuing the policies of its Conservative predecessor. Only style and tone have changed. The constant mismatch between rhetorical ambition and actual policy outcomes is picked up and discussed by other scholars in this monumental work.

Once the brightest star in our vicinity has reached its zenith, it knows one direction only – it’s bound west. Justin’s father Pierre Elliott told colleagues shortly before departing 24 Sussex in 1984 that he had done all he could about Quebec but would gladly leave it to somebody else to deal with the west. Not family ties but political circumstances might force his son’s hand on this delicate issue. Because western separatism wasn’t based on ethnic or linguistic grievances, it never grew into a political movement with mass appeal. The argument for separating from the rest of the country was based entirely on a vague notion of being economically and culturally distinct. In an era in which rational actors were free to make rational choices, the idea of the west splitting from Canada was given no credence and the tiny few advocating divorce were not perceived as a threat to confederation. With primordial nationalism gaining traction all over the world, the ability of leaders to pursue rational policy options is more and more constrained by ideological fervour. Even though ‘Wexit’ is mentioned mostly with tongue-in-cheek and widely seen as pie in the sky, the danger of a populist movement capitalising on profound grievances in the western Provinces should not be underestimated. In the not so distant future, Canada’s territorial integrity might well be at stake once again. It is time for Justin Trudeau to strap on his boots and take his father’s famed ‘long walk in the snow’ to adjust to the new reality of minority government in Ottawa. Given his inclusive style of leadership and the inability of the Conservatives to expand their base at present, the sun may not set on the Trudeau Liberals in the prairies any time soon, especially if the prime minister starts to understand what a hung parliament requires: good governance and less political ambition.

One thought on “A penchant for Canadian politics: how a childish flight of fancy slowly grew into another burning passion of mine

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