Justin Time

Canada's new Prime Minister has managed to convince the electorate he isn't one of the elite

Joanna Baron

Justin Trudeau: Quintessential Laurentian (photo: Alex Guibord CC-BY-ND-2.0)

Justin Trudeau — son of legendary prime minister Pierre Trudeau — soared to a triumphant electoral majority in Canada last October. This followed a lengthy and tumultuous campaign in which the incumbent Conservatives, under the efficient but moribund Stephen Harper, led a misguided winner’s campaign and focused their barbs on the Liberal party leader’s youth and inexperience (“Justin: He’s Just Not Ready”). The result was particularly astonishing following the Liberals’ dismal showing in the last election.

The pivotal moment of the campaign was the controversy Harper manufactured out of a single Pakistani woman’s refusal to remove her niqab for a citizenship swearing-in ceremony. A heady debate over the latitude of Canadian multiculturalism ensued, in which the Conservatives defended a possible ban on public servants wearing niqabs and forced Trudeau into defending the right to cover one’s face. Polls suggested that most Canadians sided with Harper on the issue; however, they proved to be unmoved at the ballot box.

The debt Justin (as both his opponents and the media generally called him throughout the campaign) owes to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign is apparent: his proposed hike in taxes and spending to “grow the economy . . . from the heart of the middle class” parroted Obama’s deriding of the Republicans’ budget proposals. He touted a Larry Summers-endorsed fiscal plan, centred on raising taxes on the wealthy and going into debt by way of injecting $9 billion (£4.5 billion) a year into infrastructure. Pamphlets featuring the Harvard president’s endorsement of Trudeau-style infrastructure spending were circulated in my trendy downtown Toronto neighbourhood.

Trudeau is 43 and baby-faced, with an expectorating manner of speech in English (his French is less grating) that his staff unsuccessfully tried to smooth out. His platform is exuberantly left-of-centre: he intends to fight climate change (though he supports the development of Canada’s rich oil sands via the Keystone XL pipline), legalise marijuana, and bring back the “sunny ways” to Canadian politics, quoting prime minister Wilfrid Laurier from 1895. All this feels somewhat refreshing after years of Harper’s “sadistic Victorian schoolmaster” style of governing, as Conrad Black described him in a column.

Politics is a realm of slippery appearances, and perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the young Trudeau’s ascent was described on a recent evening at Massey College, the University of Toronto’s imitation of All Souls, and effectively the inner sanctum of what has been deemed Canada’s “Laurentian elite”: the political, academic, cultural, media and business establishment of Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal residing along the St Lawrence River or its watershed who, historically, debated and decided the major public issues of the day among themselves.

A venerable senior political scientist, sitting with four of my friends and me after a roundtable discussion, reflected: “Being elite is out of vogue in today’s politics. Justin’s genius was that he was able to convince the Canadian electorate that he wasn’t part of the Laurentian elite, although he is quintessentially so.”

In fact, though tattooed and pro-legalising marijuana, as well as being an erstwhile charity stripper, actor, high-school teacher, amateur boxer, nightclub bouncer and snowboarder, Trudeau is heir to one of the few true Canadian political dynasties, brought up in the glittering heart of Laurentian privilege and shuttled between Ottawa and Montreal mansions.

The young Trudeau’s sleight of hand has somewhat diminished the perceived pressure of his father’s legacy, but it remains to be seen whether there is any substance at all underneath the style.  

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