- Legacy: Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau’s father Pierre Eliot Trudeau was at the helm for 15 years.
- Poll Booster: Several opinion polls have shown the PM’s Liberal Party could win a super-majority if elections were held now.
- Pop Appeal: In August, PM Trudeau appeared on a variant cover for Marvel’s comic Civil War-II: Choosing Sides.
Trudeaupia was the somewhat derisive term used to describe the liberal wonderland the late Canadian prime minister Pierre Eliot Trudeau sought to craft. The father ruled for 15 years. And 32 years after he last demitted office, his son, Justin, who will turn 45 this Christmas, completes a year as PM, idolised as a progressive poster boy.
As a clutch of polls have shown, if elections to the Canadian House of Commons were held today, his Liberal Party could capture a super-majority. His personal approval numbers (65 per cent in September, according to the Vancouver-based Angus Reid Institute) outstrip those of his party. “I don’t think the resonance he’s been able to achieve with the Canadian public, the goodwill he’s been able to take on, is at any risk of coming to a screeching halt. It has the potential to last for years,” says Shachi Kurl, an executive director at Angus Reid. “He’s going to have to spend some of this political capital he’s earned…. Remember, he came in with a majority mandate but thereon he earned even more political capital. He hasn’t actually done anything yet, but on tone, he’s done quite well.”
Pierre-Gerlier Forest, director of the School of Public Policy, University of Calgary, and former president of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, is optimistic the son will spend down that cache well: “He’s been very good as a leader, as a government, at projecting an image of people who are open, courteous, patient, willing to consult and full of diversity.”
Trudeau’s messaging, so far, has been on point; he ensured half his ministers were women “because it’s 2015!” and appointed four Indo-Canadians of Sikh heritage, including Canada’s “badass” national defence minister Harjit Sajjan. “We’ve continued as a community to feel very positive about the appointments,” says Satwinder Bains, director of the Centre for Indo-Canadian Studies, University of the Fraser Valley.
Trudeau also marched at Pride parades in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. Among those left impressed was Mumbai-based filmmaker Sridhar Rangayan, who led the Montreal march as a grand marshal: “Canada has always been one of the most LGBT-friendly countries, but Justin Trudeau has pushed the envelope further. I salute his courage and, of course, love his charisma!”
Projecting “sunny ways”, an easy, happy style of functioning favoured by Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Canada’s seventh PM, has helped. Rana Sarkar, an advisor for Trudeau’s 2015 campaign, says: “Canadians were seeking optimistic leadership and liked it. Optimism was a strength and a strategic decision.”
As US President Barack Obama completes his tenure at the White House, Trudeau is a liberal lodestar. “On the world scene, he doesn’t have much competition. Obama would have been his major competitor. Are you personally much inspired by (British PM) Theresa May or (French President) Francois Hollande or (President Vladimir) Putin in Russia?” asks Forest. “Once again, the values he’s projecting—respect for diversity, women, differences, courtesy and so on—are also very widely shared at this moment, at least among the educated middle class in the world.”
Sarkar agrees, “He brings a unique set of skills. That gets a resonance a lot of leaders didn’t have in the past and an additional set of gears that other leaders haven’t had.” He has a “unique asset” of being able to leverage his charisma to catalyse relations globally. Even in China, he is affectionately referred to as xiao tudou, or little potato.
That personal appeal, or “Hollywood factor” as Forest describes it, is working for Trudeau, as Kurl says, “hugely”, or as (Donald) Trump would say, “bigly”.
Actually, pro-Trudeau ratings are almost equal to the unfavourables for the two main candidates for US president, Trump and Hillary Clinton. That contrast helps. As Kurl says, “When you look at the trainwreck south of the border, you say, things are pretty good here.” As that American ugliness wafts through Canadian airwaves, it isn’t a surprise that many in the True North feel lucky to have a winsome face to their government in Ottawa.
Adding to the mystique is that Trudeau is quite the internet meme. This is one PM who has truly gone viral. From images of doing yoga, to topless photobombing of a British Columbia beach wedding—those are the GIFs that keep on circulating. In that sense of celebrity leadership, Trudeau may be emulating his father. Pierre Trudeau died in 2000, before social media, but in his day, he came with the sort of persona that captured popular imagination. Before his first marriage (Justin is his eldest child), he dated Barbara Streisand, among others. Between marriages, he hooked up with Margot Kidder, who played Lois Lane in the 1978 Superman movie. But, Forest says, “They are not the same person. His father was an intellectual, first and foremost. Justin is not an intellectual…. [But] he’s a remarkable breed; he’s able to learn.” And even though he was born in 24 Sussex Drive, Ottawa’s 10 Downing Street, he was hardly the heir apparent. As he entered electoral politics in 2007, capturing the party’s nomination for a riding (the Canadian equivalent of a Lok Sabha constituency) in Montreal, he faced competition from other Liberal Party contenders. After his victory, national daily Globe and Mail quoted him saying, “I am carrying the Trudeau name, yes, I am also carrying my own name. What was achieved was to demonstrate that I’m not just a last name.” A similar nomination process challenged him as he sought leadership of his party. The Trudeau moniker may have been an advantage, but DNA didn’t dictate his success.
There are plenty of examples of how Trudeau is now part of the pop culture paradigm, including his appearance on a variant cover for Marvel’s Civil War II: Choosing Sides in August. Coincidentally, his father also popped up in the pages of another superhero comic, Uncanny X-Men, in 1979. Justin was in full pugilist mode for the Marvel cover. That may also be fitting, as Trudeau may well have captured the Canadian imagination in 2012 while taking on Conservative senator Patrick Brazeau in a televised boxing bout. He prevailed then, and three years later, exceeded expectations in the Federal elections, punching way above his weight and taking a party that hadn’t won enough seats in the 2011 polls to even be the official Opposition, to the Treasury benches.
As prime minister, though, he hasn’t faced much fight yet. There have been some jabs, like criticism of his shoving aside an MP in the House of Commons, or his closest aides crossing an ethical line in claiming reimbursements or the nation paying for a household nanny, but those have hardly dented his appeal. Partly the reason is the lack of opposition. The Conservatives have yet to elect a leader to replace former PM Stephen Harper. As Kurl says, “It’s hard to see he won’t get a second mandate, though a lot of that is because the opposition is in complete disarray right now.”
In recent weeks, Trudeau has faced protests from various groups during public appearances as Canadians await tangible policy measures rather than rhetoric. “A policy doesn’t exist until it’s implemented; it’s just discourse,” says Forest. “In a few areas—environment, indigenous (peoples) policy, international trade—we’re still wanting to see exactly what the government will be able to achieve.” Kurl agrees, “We’re now transitioning from that first year of ‘everything is awesome’ like the Lego movie, to really, ‘what have you done for Canadians lately’? I’m not saying the honeymoon’s about to end, but we’re entering a period when the government will have to make big legislative and policy decisions. They’ve been signalling the direction they’ll head in, but you could have the indicator on forever, at some point you have to take a direction and change the lanes.”
That shift is awaited, but at least for now, the Canadian prime minister is still cruising on Trudeaumania.