He was a Christmas baby born on that special day in 1971. His dad was someone who led the way for us in the ‘70s and into the mid-‘80s, and came back after a few times to rescue the nation, in a certain sense, when it seemed threatened. We have seen this son grow up through the years mostly on television. We have, in a common way, shared the joys and sorrows of his family.
I am talking about Justin Trudeau, the Federal Liberal MP who is the Liberal critic for youth, post-secondary education, and amateur sport. I recently sat down for a 60-minute chat with Justin in his north central Montreal office. It was a candid and pleasant conversation about the young days, memories and values his parents instilled in him, some things that matter the most to him, and, of course, like previous interviewees, his influences, his passions, hobbies and a few favorite things.
Before entering politics, Justin was a French and social studies teacher in BC after having obtained Bachelor degrees in Education from UBC and in Literature from McGill, but was politics his calling when he was young and in high school himself?
“Outside of the usual options as a kid… being a fireman, Mountie, or an astronaut were my first choices. Through my high school years, and it solidified in university, I realized that I wanted to be a teacher. It was a way for me in concrete terms, of having an impact,” said Justin.
“That was the one thing that we were raised by our parents to be very aware that it didn’t matter so much what we did, so much as what we did had a positive impact on the world, and for me the way I wanted to do this was to be a teacher, and that’s what I loved to do for a good five years when I was living in Vancouver. After that I got involved as Chairman of Katimavik, Canada’s National Youth Service, and then I started giving conferences on the environment, youth, on engaging acts of citizenship, and that sort of led me into politics.”
I asked Justin what was it like living at 24 Sussex and seeing all those world leaders, basically living there from a newborn until the start of his school years at about 13, when his father retired from the political scene.
Justin recalls, “One of the things that we were aware of is that it wasn’t our house, it didn’t belong to us, and the fact that I was in a house that was bigger than all of our friends didn’t make me better or more special than them, we were sort of lucky, but it came with the responsibility of being in politics.”
“We knew that if my father lost an election, we would lose the house, so there was a sense of understanding the privilege that came with being in politics and it caused us to truly value the opportunities that we had while we had them and never take them for granted, and I think that was the message of growing up there.”
COMING INTO HIS OWN
It was a crisp, sunny day one October morning in 2000, when, I was standing, along with countless Montrealers in Place D’Armes across from Notre Dame Church. We were there for personal reasons to give our respect to a leader who was there and strong during times of national crisis. We stood for hours to be part of history. We gawked at many former and current world leaders walking into the church and watched in silence on giant screens outside as the funeral of Canada’s 15th PM, the late Rt. Hon. Pierre Elliot Trudeau was taking place.
But it was when his eldest son Justin took to the altar area of the church, and gave the eulogy of a lifetime, where it’s now considered by many, that he came into his own and into national prominence. Justin spoke for over 10 minutes, and during that time, inside the stately church, needless to say, it was so very quiet. Outside in the square, there was an eeriness that could not be explained. And it was then when the crowd knew, towards the end of his eulogy, that this could be the start of another dynasty.
“He came back for Meech, he came back for Charlottetown, but now he’s not coming back, it’s now up to all of us,” said Justin near the end of his eulogy. While watching a summary of the service during the CTV late night news, the cameras were panning across the faces of the nationalist intelligentsia of the day while Justin was saying those words showing their straight faces and one commentator said that it looked they were saying to themselves, “ Oh no, not another one.”
A certain smile of relief came over me when I heard that. I had to ask Justin, if at that moment, there a subliminal message being sent.
“It was eight years after that eulogy that I even thought about going into politics. As soon as my father’s funeral was over people started asking about the possibility, but I wasn’t looking for that, it wasn’t something that I was thinking about. I just wanted to focus on the values that my father raised me with, which was to try and make a difference for the better for what we have,” recalled Justin candidly.
“Given the eulogy at that point I knew it was something I could do and make people feel ripe on, and that was the focus for me. It wasn’t any stepping stone to anything. I was happy to go back to teaching and happy to the work that I was doing.”
POLITICS COMES CALLING
Following the funeral and for the next 8 years, Justin now 29, continued the journey to finding himself and became more involved with the Liberal Party. After the teaching period in Vancouver, he studied engineering at U of M and began working towards a Masters of Arts degree in Environmental Geography at McGill.
Also during that time, Justin chaired a national youth service program called Katimavik. In 2006, Justin also took a stab at some acting and appeared in the two-part mini-series called The Great War and played the role of Talbot Papineau who was one of Canada’s first Rhodes Scholars. As we all know, Justin Trudeau is the current sitting MP for the north-central Montreal riding of Papineau.
Justin took on another responsibility in 2005 and married Sophie Gregoire, a Quebec TV host, who many might know as the Quebec correspondent for CTV’s ETalk, which is co-hosted by another son of a former PM, Ben Mulroney. Sophie and Justin have two children, Xavier and Ella-Grace.
During the Liberal Convention that elected Stephane Dion, and staying away from the leadership circus, he decided to do some policy work for the party and worked on how the party was doing in reaching young people and connected in a way that he felt that there was a place for him to contribute in politics.
But Justin knew that he couldn’t go in easy realizing his family legacy.
“I always knew that if I went into politics, people would say that I got in because of my father, so I realized if I ran, I’d have to run in a hard riding knowing the party wasn’t going into help me. Nobody expected me to beat Vivian Barbot in 2008. Everything was lined up against me with Gilles Duceppe and the gang throwing everything against me, and I still managed to win an election,” recalled Justin.
Justin Trudeau tripled his margin of victory this past May in a province that was swept by the Orange wave, and also went on to tell me that he’s proud that he can say that he won on his hard work and not on his name.
YOUTH IS CLOSE TO JUSTIN’S HEART
Justin, who now serves as the Liberals’ critic on youth, post-secondary education, and amateur sport, has issues that are dear to his heart and feels that Canada is lacking in strategies in these areas.
“One of the things to look at is that Canada is one of the only countries in the western world that doesn’t have a policy on youth and how, then, can we give our young people the tools to be our leaders of tomorrow and today?
“The way we engage them, the way we make sure they have all the chances through education and services, because that’s a missing piece in the puzzle, kids gets focused on schools and on jobs, they don’t realize there’s another level which they have to offer to the community around them,” stated Justin.
Justin continued to mention that sports are also extremely important. He feels sports are a confidence builder, creating a sense of engagement and purpose.
“It was eight years after that eulogy that I even thought about going into politics. As soon as my father’s funeral was over people started asking about the possibility, but I wasn’t looking for that, it wasn’t something that I was thinking about." - Justin Trudeau
JUSTIN’S INFLUENCES AND PASSIONS
Someone of Justin’s stature certainly has had some influences, and it was no surprise to me as to who it was. “Obviously, my father shaped me deeply in terms of values and intellectual vigor that he demanded of us. My mother taught me strength of a different kind than my father’s, it as a form of resilience, a capacity for love that is extraordinary to this day.
“These days people are coming up to me almost as often to ask about my mom and the work she’s done around destigmatizing mental illness and encouraging people to get treatment, and her advocacy for mental health is something that has inspired a lot of passion in a lot of people and it makes me so proud that so many people are realizing how extraordinary my mom is.”
Being an outdoorsman is Justin’s main hobby or pastime outside of work, from the winter hills to scuba diving and being near sharks. He’s done some rock climbing, and whitewater canoeing, and lots of skiing. He was a ski instructor at Whistler in BC while he was teaching in Vancouver. He’s also did some scuba diving to which I jokingly asked him if he ever ran into sharks.
“ Oh yeah, I’ve done a couple of shark dives deliberately and a couple of dives where I ran into them, with the hammerheads in the Bahamas where I kept chasing after them, as they were coming along the wall towards me, and I drifted off the wall and it would have to shift its path to get around me. They could get vicious, but if you keep yourself in a certain zone it’s ok,” mentioned Justin with a smile after admitting that he would not dive with a great white without a cage.
With the schedule that Justin Trudeau understandably keeps, he doesn’t have much time for TV these days, and is currently reading books about the War of 1812 and picking up a paperback on the plane when he gets the chance. I really had to ask and promised myself that I wouldn’t, but wondered what he listens to and uncovered some eclectic tastes. He listens to everything from Daniel Lanois to Leonard Cohen and Sarah McLachlan and all the way to classic rock to the bands like Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.
INTO THE FUTURE
Justin sees Canada in 10 to 20 years in terms of the global context and believes the country is facing a variety of issues and challenges. He believes that people bringing with them their cultures and perspectives actually strengthens Canada.
As the Liberal critic for youth, post secondary education, and amateur sport, I asked Justin about some of the challenges facing today’s youth. “The greatest challenge is for young people to realize how powerful they are, individually and collectively, our young people are part of a generation that’s more informed, more plugged in than any generation before, it’s just feeling empowered by that knowledge and by the information they have, they tend to be overwhelmed by it,” stated Justin in that passionate voice that we now have come to know.
“We must make them understand that their voices do matter. That what they have to say will shape the world around us and that they have the capacity to determine what kind of world they’re going to grow old in is for me the big challenge, because once young people realize how important they can be, everything changes in our politicians, and suddenly they have the political capital to tackle the long-term challenges we’re facing, instead of just sticking band-aids on until the next election cycle,” continued Justin.
I was there in 1968 as a high school student when a refreshing politician by the name of Pierre Elliot Trudeau sought a just society and invoked a new passion and got us involved in the political process and, yes, we all called it “Trudeaumania”, but it stands in sharp contrast to today’s stagnant and lackluster political scene.
The apathy of today’s youth is there to see and just waiting to be reined in and replaced with the passion and excitement of this new century and millennium. Justin has worked hard to do things on his own and not get bogged down with the family legacy. Maybe the time is right for another bout of “Trudeaumania” of another kind…