Let’s begin by synchronizing our watches. We are in the Eastern time zone.
The legislative session is over, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is about to give his wrap-up press conference. The reporters trudge into the gallery, grumbling, as reporters like to do, about traffic and editors. Someone gives the “10 seconds” signal, and Trudeau strides to the podium. He gives a nod and starts ticking off his accomplishments. The first is self-praise for cutting taxes on the middle class and raising them on the one percent. “We’ve given nine out of 10 families more money each month to help with the costs of raising their kids,” Trudeau says.
It’s strange to witness: He speaks in a modulated, indoor voice. His dark hair is a color found in nature. At home, there is a glamorous wife and three photogenic children, still not old enough to warm his seat at next week’s G-20 summit or be involved in an espionage scandal.
When Trudeau moves on to his feminist bona fides (women and minorities make up more than half of his Cabinet), he pauses for a moment, but does not lose his train of thought. His words are coherent and will not need to be run through Google Translate when he is done (except if you want to translate his French into English).
He talks about steps taken to deal with the opioid crisis and mentions the country’s dropping unemployment rate. He uses the original Clintonian recipe on the crowd: “We’re focused on getting people into good careers and helping families get ahead and stay ahead,” he says. “But we know there’s more hard work in front of us than there is behind us.”
Then he gives the press corps a high-five.
“The back and forth between the press and government is essential to any good democracy,” he says. “When you’re at your best, it reminds us and challenges us to be at ours. So thank you all for your tireless work.”
Where are we? Narnia? Coachella recovery tent? 2009? We are in Ottawa, Ontario, a mere 560 miles from Washington, D.C.
And yet, we are half a world away. Join me as we visit a nation led by a man who wore a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy T-shirt on national television, rides a unicycle and welcomed 40,000 Syrian refugees with open arms.
The contrasts between here and there are not just superficial. Trump is defunding Planned Parenthood. Trudeau is firmly pro-choice; abortions are provided as part of Canada’s universal health care. (We know Trump’s position on that issue.) Meanwhile, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is trying to roll back America’s weed laws to Reefer Madness days. Over the border, Trudeau, who admits he smoked pot after being elected to Parliament, campaigned on legalizing it across Canada. Trump ditched the Paris environmental accord. Trudeau is urging American cities and states to work with their northern neighbors to cut emissions. The opioid crisis that Trudeau spoke of in his press conference? His government is fast-tracking safe-usage areas to cut down on overdoses, while America’s opioid-related deaths have reached epidemic levels.
And then there’s Russia. Trump’s son met with Russian nationals who promised dirt on Hillary Clinton. Trudeau’s foreign minister is Chrystia Freeland, a Canadian of Ukrainian descent who is banned in Putin’s Russia.
“Our support for Ukraine, including militarily, is something that stands us very clearly on the ‘Russia is an unhelpful actor in the world’ side of the dynamic,” Trudeau tells me.
Justin Trudeau is trying to Make Canada Great Again. He is using, let us say, different methods.
On a recent summer afternoon, Trudeau takes off his suit jacket and we settle into two ornate chairs in a corner of his Parliament Hill office. His sleeves are pushed up, his tie blue, his shirt white, his socks festooned with moose.
Trudeau reminds me of, well, Obama as he smiles and listens patiently to me droning on about my Canadian wife as if it is actually interesting. For Trudeau, listening is seducing. But as soon as I start asking questions, he snaps into place, admiringly forthcoming on his life journey and frustratingly on message when it comes to political answers. As we chat, he smiles and locks in with his blue eyes, but Trudeau, whose mother’s side is of Scottish descent, swats away all Trump-baiting questions with a look that says, “Not today, laddie.”
He is always pushing his product: a kind but muscular Canada. I asked him why his country, insulated by two vast oceans and a superpower to the south, was increasing its military spending by $14 billion. Some of it was about Canada doing its part in a dangerous world. But some of it, according to Trudeau, had to do with the sheer awesomeness of his native land.
“A Canadian on the ground in different parts of the world, whether they’re a diplomat, an aid worker or a soldier, has an extraordinary, powerful impact,” Trudeau tells me. “I mean, the image of Canada, the way people look at you as ‘Oh, you’re Canadian’ – subtext ‘not American’ – ‘but you’re here to help, you’re not here for oil, you’re not here to tell us how to run our country.’ ”
That was a Canadian burn.
During the campaign, Trump talked of NATO being obsolete. Trudeau doesn’t agree and is all about expanding Canada’s influence across the globe. Canadian forces are installed in the Baltics to deter Russian aggression, the country’s largest sustained military presence in Europe in more than a decade. He tells me a story about Harjit Saj-jan, now his defense minister, but once a major in the Canadian military in Afghanistan. Sajjan was born in Punjab, India, and wears a turban. Trudeau recounts how an Afghan chieftain quizzed the major about his position, first wondering if he was with the Indian Army and being shocked when he told him he was Canadian and in charge.
“The head man sort of watches, he goes, ‘Wait, they let a man who looks like you lead in the Canadian army?’ ” says Trudeau, who clearly loves telling this story. “Harjit says, ‘Yes,’ and the head man looks out: ‘Maybe, maybe you can actually help.’ ”
And that was a Canadian brag.
Trudeau’s skeptics have declared him “emotionally intelligent.” This is Canadian for “the man is a mimbo.” But that’s not the case. Trudeau is the son of Pierre Trudeau, a 15-year prime minister and Canada’s iconic 20th Century Man. There are things he should have learned at the knee of Papa, as he called his father. But sometimes Justin doesn’t think things through. Upon Fidel Castro’s death, he declared the dictator “a larger-than-life leader who served his people,” making little mention of the unseemly portions of the Cuban despot’s tenure. On Canada Day, the country’s Fourth of July, Trudeau’s speech praised all of Canada’s provinces, but somehow he forgot Alberta, Justin and his father’s greatest provincial nemesis. Trudeau jumped onstage and tried to make things right. “Let me just start by saying I’m a little embarrassed – I got excited somewhere over the Rockies. Alberta, I love you. Happy Canada Day.” But within hours, some Albertan politicians were saying the slight was intentional.
He can come off like some modern dauphin; as a child, he traveled the world with his father, practically as a member of the prime minister’s official envoy. He likes himself. A lot. (His critics call him “shiny pony.”) Once, before a boxing match that would make or kill his career – more on that later – he was caught babbling Obama-like about his personal destiny. His wife, Sophie, grabbed his arm, looked him in the eyes and said, “Be humble.” Sophie and Justin met in their hometown of Montreal, and Justin decided by the end of their first date that they would eventually get married.
Trudeau doesn’t play golf; he snowboards. There is a real person inside him. A longtime dork, he used to throw himself down flights of stairs at parties for laughs. He went trick-or-treating last year dressed as the pilot, while his son Hadrien went as the prince, from The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
And he has a quirky sense of humor that doesn’t score points at the expense of his enemies. Trudeau, who is the equivalent of a centrist Democrat, ran on returning an optimistic “sunny ways” to governing after the almost decade-long reign of the Dick Cheney-like Stephen Harper. Leaving a House of Parliament room filled with portraits of French kings – where I heard him sing an off-key verse from Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” – Trudeau points out a portrait of Louis XIV. “He was the original believer in ‘sunny ways,’ ” Trudeau tells me. He chuckles. (Louis XIV was known as the Sun King. I got the joke after I looked it up.)
As prime minister, Trudeau is often photographed surprising everyday Canadians as he kayaks or jogs across his vast land. He recently was caught in Vancouver posing for pictures with kids on the way to prom while out for a run. Somehow, his official photographer always happens to be nearby. A Trudeau skeptic told me if he was running against him he’d have the homeless and the dispossessed pose holding signs saying “Where’s my selfie?”
His country has some problems. Canada’s immense size makes it as much of a slave to fossil fuel as the U.S. in both usage and trade. No North Dakota oil field can compare with the Alberta oil sands, where the countryside is pockmarked like a B-52 bombing range. I ask him how he squares that with his evangelical support of the Paris environmental accord.
“It’s a great question,” Trudeau tells me while giving the distinct impression it’s not a question he is psyched to answer. “One of the things that we have to realize is we cannot get off gas, we cannot get off oil, fossil fuels tomorrow – it’s going to take a few decades.” He shrugs a little bit. “Maybe we can shorten it, but there’s going to have to be a transition time.”
The eco-spouting Trudeau is also a Keystone-pipeline supporter to the end. Part of this is paying for the sins of his father, who infamously taxed much of Alberta’s oil profits and redistributed the revenue across the country. The younger Trudeau gave a speech in Calgary a few years ago and, afterward, a man shook his hand and said, “Good speech, good to meet you – your dad was a piece of shit.”
“The question becomes, how do we transport it?” says Trudeau. “Obviously, trucks are expensive and dirty, rail is both expensive, dirty and potentially catastrophic. Pipelines are safer.”
This is debatable, as the folks at Standing Rock will tell you. Less known in America is Trudeau’s support of an expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline between Alberta and the British Columbian coast, pumping bitumen for sale to Asian markets.
“Do we want to be locked into the U.S. market as we are right now?” asks Trudeau rhetorically. “Or do we want to be able to internationalize or to create a new market?”
Despite these contradictions, the prime minister is a progressive, rational, forward-thinking leader. Yes, he was -manor-born, but he actually feels his citizens’ pain because he’s had his own unthinkable personal tragedies. A majority of Canadians believe he genuinely has the interests of Canada’s 36 million at heart. In 2015, Trudeau met Syrian refugees at the airport and handed out winter coats. One of the refugees thanked him a year later in person on Canadian radio. Trudeau wept. Another named his son after the PM. Meanwhile, Trump is pushing Muslim bans, and Mike Pence went to court to prevent any Syrian refugees from coming to his state.
“If we take in 40,000 Syrian refugees, it wasn’t because the government sent a couple of planes and signed a decree,” Trudeau tells me. “It was because communities opened up their homes, their churches, their community centers. Everyone said, ‘Let’s do our part to give some people in a terrible situation a better future.’ We understand that bringing people here to build a better life for themselves makes the world a better place and makes our communities better as well. But I’ve only been able to do this because Canadians are open, generous and dream big for the country.”
Here’s the ingenious thing. Donald Trump likes Justin Trudeau. While the president hangs up on Australia, Trump describes Trudeau as his “new found friend.” This might be because Ivanka kept shooting wolfish glances at the prime minister on Trudeau’s visit to the White House, or because Trudeau is hiking his country’s military spending by more than 70 percent, satisfying Trump’s obsession with American allies paying their fair share of defense costs. “We have a great neighbor in Canada, and Justin is doing a spectacular job in Canada,” Trump said at the G-20 summit.
Meanwhile, perhaps unknown to the details-averse Trump, Trudeau has largely ignored the president and is in the process of enacting trade and environmental agreements with state and local officials. The New York Times reported Trudeau has enlisted former Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to help with Trump, and Ontario’s government has hired a New York-based lobbying firm to lean on New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to go easy on imposing trade restrictions on the Empire State’s northern neighbor.
But ask the prime minister about these policies and it’s clear Trudeau would prefer if none of us in the Lower 48 actually noticed his exploits on the trade front.
“I don’t feel that I or Canada has to prove anything through big, loud, overt acts,” Trudeau tells me while sitting in the prime minister’s office, where he used to cavort – JFK Jr.-style – as a kid.
“Obviously, I disagree [with Trump] on a whole bunch, but Canadians expect me to accomplish two things at the same time, which is emphasize where we disagree and stand up firmly for Canadian interests,” says Trudeau, loosening his jacketless tie. “But we also have a constructive working relationship, and me going out of my way to insult the guy or overreact or jump at everything he says [that] we might disagree with is not having a constructive relationship.”
Justin Trudeau is now the adult in the room.
The evening after Trudeau’s session-ending press conference, the prime minister is clad in a tux with Sophie next to him in a tan evening gown. We are in a ballroom at Rideau Hall, the home of Canada’s governor general. The Italian president is in town for a dinner of northeastern suckling pig and Québec wildflower panna cotta with Niagara cherry-and-apricot compote.
The Canadians will hate this, but at times Trudeau and his young staff give off the aura of a well-meaning Netflix adaptation about a young, idealistic Canadian prime minister. Trudeau even has a body man who draws good-natured comparisons with Gary, the Tony Hale character on HBO’s Veep.
Trudeau, unlike his father, doesn’t seem to mind the small talk of the cocktail crowd. He works the room, giving a wink here and a shoulder grab there.
Trudeau was born into this world. He grew up a half-kilometer away at 24 Sussex Drive, the official prime minister’s residence. (The residence is being remodeled, so his family lives in a 10,000-square-foot “cottage” a few hundred yards away.) His birth – Christmas Day 1971 – was King of the North front-page news. It culminated a shocking year that saw Pierre Trudeau, a 51-year-old walk-to-work introvert who happened to be prime minister, secretly marry his 22-year-old girlfriend, Margaret, who then instantly became pregnant. A jubilant Pierre strode out of an Ottawa hospital to announce his son’s name to a slew of cameras.
“He was in the public eye from the minute he popped out,” says Terry DiMonte, a close friend and Montreal DJ who first came into contact with Justin when the PM’s son called his radio station looking for movie tickets in the late 1980s. The comparisons to a Canadian Camelot are inevitable. Sitting in his office on Parliament Hill, Trudeau shows me a secret hole in the wall where he used to hide. “When I first came in here, I thought the walls used to be brighter when I was a kid,” he recalls, “but I saw photos and it’s the exact same color.”
Two brothers soon joined Trudeau, but it was Justin who began traveling with his father. There’s Justin showing off his yo-yo to the Swedish prime minister. There’s Justin listening as Ronald Reagan recites the Canadian cowboy poem “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” to him, a verse his classics-loving father found lowbrow. And there’s Justin ogling Princess Diana when she hit the residence for a secret swim during a state visit.
“I got to see how international relations is all about relationships and how you get along with people,” says Trudeau. “How you listen to them. I mean, the way I chat with Merkel is very different than the way I chat with Trump.” (Trudeau had to deny a Der Spiegel report that he asked Merkel to go easier on Trump after he opted out of the Paris accord.)
Pierre had a public image as Canada’s most interesting man. He oversaw the writing of a new Canadian constitution and somehow held the country together as French-speaking Québec threatened secession – most by ballot box, few with terror. In October 1970, the Front de libération du Québec murdered a provincial minister and kidnapped an English diplomat. Pierre put troops on the streets of Montreal. He was asked by a journalist how far he would go in restricting civil liberties, and the otherwise progressive prime minister famously snarled, “Just watch me.”
Behind the public facade, however, there was strife in the Trudeau home. Much of Pierre’s public flair was to cover up a wounded man obsessed with regimentation, who told Justin and his brothers on which floors of their house they would speak English and on which they would speak French. Pierre famously did a seemingly spontaneous pirouette behind the queen in 1977 at Buckingham Palace, but even that was planned in advance – a signal of Canadian disdain for Brit pomp.
“My dad lost his dad when he was 15, and it knocked the life out of him,” Trudeau tells me, not five feet from where his father once governed the country. “It left a mark on him that would stay with him for the rest of his life.”
Meanwhile, Margaret chafed as a twenty-something showpiece and acted out in ways that much later were diagnosed as bipolar disease. His parents split when he was six, and Justin became a too-young companion for his father on those foreign trips and a consoler to his mother, who once showed up at his school in despair about a boyfriend who left her.
“My mom has always been so generous and so sensitive and so vulnerable and yet exudes so much strength,” Trudeau tells me. “Even through her tremendous, real challenges with mental health.” He pauses and smiles. “She understood people and got interpersonal relationships to a better degree than perhaps my father did.”
As a kid, Justin endured headlines about his mom partying with the Rolling Stones and dancing at Studio 54. When Justin began making his way into politics, his critics sniped that he was more Margaret than Pierre. It didn’t bother the boy heir.
“My dad was an incredibly tough, brilliant, strong figure in all the classic senses of strong, but also with the weaknesses that come with being a sometimes emotionally distant person,” says Trudeau. He smiles sadly. “People used to try and insult me by saying, ‘He’s not his father’s son – he’s his mother’s son.’ And I’d immediately say, ‘Thank you very much.’ ”
Trudeau lets me travel with him in a sedan to an appearance at the Acadian Games in Fredericton, New Brunswick. When we arrive, I try to exit, but my door won’t open. Trudeau looks over with a “be patient” look.
“You have to wait for them to open it,” says Trudeau, pointing to his Royal Canadian Mounted Police detail. He grins a bit. “It took me six months to figure that out.”
Trudeau emerges from the car and is swarmed Hard Day’s Night style. He is supposed to watch a badminton match, but that’s not going to happen. Instead, he swims through a crowd of kids swaying and pulling, and producing what seem like 6,000 phones. Trudeau feeds on the energy, a trait he shares not with his father but British Columbia MP James Sinclair, Margaret’s dad. Sinclair loved nothing more than wading into a throng, making everyone feel important whether he was a banker or a miner. His grandson is the same.
Trudeau’s style is to focus on individuals to make the crush of constituents slightly less frightening, and today he tries to engage some camp counselors in conversation. No dice – a wave of teens pushes him into the gym. It’s a joyous occasion with a slight undercoating of Canadian darkness; these kids are the descendents of survivors of the Great Expulsion of 1755, when the British forced much of the French-speaking Acadian population to flee either to Maine, France or, eventually, Louisiana. Today, there’s nothing but love here. It’s at a level I’ve never seen with a politician, sort of Obama-esque, if Obama was ever allowed to wade into such uncontrolled mayhem.
“Think of Roosevelt on the radio,” says Noah Richler, a Canadian journalist and former NDP (socialist) parliamentary candidate. “Churchill is a great speaker. Trudeau is an appalling speaker, but he looks good.” After a moment, Richler grudgingly gives Trudeau some credit. “He loves his job – it is kind of fun to watch.”
Trudeau insists there’s a reason for the up-close approach besides the massive ego boost. “I have a deep conviction that you cannot do this job unless you stay connected to the people,” Trudeau tells me back in Ottawa. “And that means being close enough that they can feel close to you.”
The rest of the day is equally joyous, although there’s more than a little stagecraft involved. His next stop, at the Fredericton Fire House on the occasion of its 200th anniversary – where he jokes that his wife was angry that she was never allowed to accompany him around firemen – is buoyant, with the youthful Trudeau climbing to the top of a truck and mucking about with rescue equipment. An hour later, he jumps onto a picnic table to eat ice cream with supporters along the shores of the Saint John River in postcard-perfect Grand Bay-Westfield, New Brunswick. He’s still taking pictures as his staff gently pushes him toward a waiting car. The day goes without a hitch until the motorcade detours onto a New Brunswick dirt road after leaving the ice cream social. I wonder if there is a crisis or a security threat. And then I see the prime minister roll down his window and daintily drop his ice cream cone in the dirt. He doesn’t want to be seen littering on A Canadian highway.
The personality cult and the cone disposal speak to the choreographed way that Justin Trudeau rose to power, one that began with an avalanche and a funeral procession.
After Pierre’s retirement from politics in 1984, he moved his three boys – Justin, Alexandre and Michel – back to Montreal and into Cormier House, a cold, art-deco home near Mount Royal. Pierre occupied an off-limits floor filled with books and his memorabilia, while the three boys had wrestling mats down on the ground floor. The four guys would gather for supper, where Dad would query his kids on Shakespeare and Thomas Hobbes. Justin attended a prestigious Jesuit high school, hanging out with an eclectic group of Protestants and Jews in a predominantly Catholic school. Some tried to taunt him with headlines of his mother’s latest exploits, but mostly he was left alone. His classmate Marc Miller describes him as “more of an acrobat than an athlete,” once arriving at school on a unicycle while juggling. “He wasn’t a fan of that locker-room mentality, where it’s a bunch of alpha males,” says Miller, now an MP from Québec.
Among Trudeau’s best memories were days spent with his dad and brothers roaming the Canadian countryside, hiking and kayaking. Much like he was at the dinner table, Pierre, perhaps sensing at his advanced age that he wouldn’t live to see his kids reach 30, was obsessed with teaching his sons everything he could before he was gone.
“He taught us we needed to know how to build a fire in the rain, needed to know how to portage a canoe,” says Justin. “All these things, trying to make us as well-rounded as we possibly could be in terms of all fields of knowledge.”
Occasionally, a young Justin would publicly pop up, much to the amusement of Canada. At 18, he appeared at a high school debate, arguing that Québec should stay in Canada, with an eloquent sound bite in French of “Canada is not shitting on Québec,” showing an early whiff of his father’s prickliness.
He went to McGill University in Montreal, where he joined the debate society and established a fast friendship with Gerald Butts, now a top aide, cemented over endless games of pool. “I think Justin’s greatest accomplishment is somehow staying a regular person,” says Butts today.
After graduation, Trudeau headed west, first working as a snowboard instructor and then as a schoolteacher in Vancouver. His extended childhood ended when he was 26. Trudeau received a call that his younger brother Michel had been killed in an avalanche while backcountry skiing near British Columbia’s Kokanee Lake. The slide carried his body into the lake, and though his friends were rescued, Michel was never found.
The nation watched as helicopters and divers searched fruitlessly for “Miche,” as his friends called him. Justin flew to Montreal to be with his father. The weather turned dangerous, and the family made the decision to call off the search. They let the youngest Trudeau rest forever in the lake.
Justin moved back to Montreal at the end of the following school year, after learning that his father had prostate cancer, a fact Pierre hid from his oldest son because he didn’t want him to abandon his students in the middle of the term. Justin watched his father slowly slip away over the next few months. While it was cancer that killed his father’s body, Justin is convinced it was the loss of Michel that extinguished his spirit.
“I watched it kill my dad,” Trudeau tells me, his eyes watery. “He just lost it. He couldn’t understand why God had taken his son away from him like that.”
Pierre Trudeau died in the fall of 2000. Besieged by the media, Justin took shelter in an unlikely place: the home of his DJ friend Terry DiMonte, both figuring correctly that it was one place reporters wouldn’t look.
His father’s funeral would be held in Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica, a 19th-century landmark that was once the largest church in North America. For better or worse, it was going to be a torch-passing moment. Trudeau didn’t leave anything to chance. He gathered old friends Butts and Miller in DiMonte’s kitchen. He’d write a paragraph and then his friends would help him edit it. He wrote and rewrote his eulogy. “He knew the wattage of the spotlight he was going to be under,” remembers DiMonte.
The state funeral was held on October 3rd, with Castro and Jimmy Carter in the pews. Justin spoke of his dad, ending with a Robert Frost line: “He has kept his promises and earned his sleep.” He began to cry and shake. “Je t’aime, Papa,” he said and rested his forehead on his father’s flag-draped coffin, before collapsing in his mother’s and brother’s arms.
There had long been a buzz that Justin should enter politics, even before his father’s death, but he bided his time. The year before his dad’s funeral, DiMonte and Trudeau sat down for one of their usual lunches, and Justin explained why he wasn’t immediately entering the political fray: He was waiting for the right moment and wanted to steer clear of the wreckage of the Liberal Party’s meltdown. Liberals were in the process of plummeting from a Parliament-controlling 172 seats in 2000 to 34 in 2011, as old left-leaning war horses fought and squabbled over the party’s carcass. “He knew the party had farther to fall before it could reinvent itself,” says Butts.
Trudeau went back to school for an advanced degree in engineering. There was a lamented turn as an actor in a Canadian production celebrating the country’s service in World War I. He did not make a political move until the announcement that he was running for Parliament, in 2007. One of the quirky things about the parliamentary system is that party organizers ultimately decide which riding (district) candidates should run in. It might not even be in the same province. Trudeau was dispatched to the Papineau section of Montreal, just a few miles from his father’s house, but a different world.
Papineau is filled with African immigrants, Haitians and an increasing sliver of gentrifiers. A Haitian separatist held the seat, and Trudeau’s shiny-teeth look wasn’t given much of a chance. But then, he just outworked everyone.
“If somebody was opening an envelope and invited [Trudeau] to be there, he was there,” says DiMonte.
Trudeau won in an upset in 2008, made all the more significant because his Liberal Party took another national thrashing. Even now, as prime minister, Trudeau gets excited about his first race.
“I beat the Greek candidate from the Greek community,” recalls Trudeau. “I beat the Italian candidate, even in the Italian community. My main adversary was a Haitian woman, and the Haitians voted for me.”
Before I could ask why, he has the answer.
“Canada’s a place where people don’t always vote on surface identity, but vote on values,” Trudeau tells me. The broad hint is that this is quite different from the United States, where tribalism dominates all of politics. “My vision of the country reflected the community,” he says.
There have been recent chilling moments when Trudeau and Canada’s live-and-let-live ethos has been violently punctured.
In January, a 27-year-old Canadian murdered six Muslims inside a Québec City mosque. Trudeau took comfort in the nationwide evening vigils, but the country and its leader were clearly traumatized.
“People of the Muslim faith are all too often, unfortunately, victims of terror,” Trudeau says. The contrast with Trump’s Muslim ban and what a nation can be could not be drawn any more starkly.
Trudeau’s journey from backbencher to prime minister was less elegant, but perhaps more calculated, than it appears. Reporting this story, I stayed in the Ottawa Hampton Inn, where Trudeau’s life changed in a boxing ring.
Trudeau’s professed desire to learn the ways of Ottawa as a young MP was hampered by his big name and his big mouth. In 2011, Trudeau called a Conservative politician a “piece of shit” on the floor of the House of Commons during a heated debate. He had to apologize, and it played into the Conservative media take on Trudeau as a pretty-boy hothead.
He seemed to walk right into a trap the following year, when he agreed to box Conservative Sen. Patrick Brazeau for a cancer fundraiser. “You can’t find anyone who isn’t lying who didn’t think it was a terrible idea,” says Miller, his close friend and adviser. “He let everyone underestimate him.”
On a March night in 2012, the odds were 3-to-1 against Trudeau. Brazeau, an indigenous Canadian, had long black hair and a slew of fierce tattoos. (Trudeau has a tat of a raven and, sigh, the planet Earth.) Brazeau looked like a guy who could manage a dozen alkies at a strip club. The Conservative media couldn’t stop salivating, openly dreaming of the death of the shiny pony.
Screens were turned from hockey to the bout in bars across Canada. The fight started with Brazeau rushing Trudeau and hurting him with some wild haymakers. At first, the crowd seemed like they would get what they wanted: Trudeau on his ass inhaling smelling salts. But Trudeau weathered Brazeau’s early storm and began making the shorter man eat his jab. Brazeau took a couple of standing eight-counts and looked frightened. The ref finally ended it in the third round, with Trudeau whaling on his defenseless opponent in a corner.
The victory was twofold: It showed that Trudeau could back up his words, and that the stereotypically weak-kneed Liberal Party could take a punch. Five years and a few miles away, Trudeau mischievously smiles when I ask how much of the boxing match had been planned out. “It wasn’t random,” Trudeau says. “I wanted someone who would be a good foil, and we stumbled upon the scrappy tough-guy senator from an indigenous community. He fit the bill, and it was a very nice counterpoint.” Trudeau says this with the calculation of a CFO in a company-budget markup session. “I saw it as the right kind of narrative, the right story to tell,” he says.
The Sunday before I met Trudeau, the prime minister was in Toronto dancing and marching in the city’s gay pride parade, wearing socks marking the end of Ramadan. It was a twofer talisman to downtrodden minority cultures that would make Sean Hannity sick in his shoes. But this is how Trudeau became prime minister.
He inherited his dad’s Liberal Party at its lowest point, after a disastrous 2011 campaign left it with 34 seats out of a possible 308. Trudeau became party leader in 2013 and immediately began the Obamanization of the Liberals: reaching out to the young and minorities, and utilizing social media. He even imported one of Obama’s deputy campaign managers.
Trudeau’s charisma didn’t hurt, either. Richler sensed the opposition was in trouble when he got a call from a colleague who had watched Trudeau work an Edmonton pride parade. “My buddy was stunned how everyone young just flocked to him,” recalls Richler. He then watched Trudeau hold his own in nationally televised debates. “That’s when I knew we were done.”
Trudeau’s party swept into power on October 19th, 2015, increasing its vote total from 2.8 million in 2011 to almost 7 million. A few days later, his Cabinet – an exquisite sample of Canada’s multiculturalism – marched together into Rideau Hall to be sworn in. A reporter asked what message he was trying to send with his cadre of female advisers. Trudeau just smiled.
“Because it’s 2015.”
Trudeau’s tenure has sometimes been like watching a kindergartner ride a bicycle by himself for the first time: so much promise, so many wipeouts. He still can act like a brat on occasion. Last year, he barreled through the House of Commons in an effort to stop the stalling tactics of his opponents, and his elbow grazed the breast of MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau. This became known as Elbowgate. His opponents jumped on Trudeau, morphing impatience into a charge of abuse. In turn, Trudeau apologized four times, making him the butt of John Oliver jokes.
“I texted him right away,” says DiMonte, “and he texted me right back and said, ‘My temper got the better of me – it’s not going to happen again.’ ” DiMonte laughed. “He’s like his dad. He’s kind and patient, to a point. Is he more polished? Yes. Still a bull in a china shop, sometimes? Absolutely.”
Recently, Trudeau’s been getting hammered by the right wing for OK’ing a payment of $10.5 million to Canadian Omar Khadr, who as a 15-year-old was involved in a 2002 Afghan firefight that left an American soldier dead. (Khadr’s father was a close associate of Osama bin Laden.) The teen was held at Guantanamo, where he was tortured and then transferred to a Canadian prison. Khadr was released in 2015, after spending half of his life incarcerated. Canadian courts ruled his rights had been grossly violated. Khadr sued the Canadian government, and Trudeau agreed to a settlement. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer called the payout “disgusting,” while Trudeau argued the settlement could have quadrupled if taken to court, adding that “the measure of a just society is not whether we stand up for people’s rights when it’s easy or popular to do so, it’s whether we recognize rights when it’s difficult.”
Trudeau’s Liberals have also fumbled on some campaign promises, including electoral reform, but none as glaring as Trudeau’s promise to Canada’s 1.5 million indigenous citizens. The country created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and publicized the plight of more than 150,000 indigenous children taken from their families since 1883, only to be placed in orphanages and residential schools. (Another board is looking into the murders and disappearances of more than 1,000 indigenous women, and is already being criticized for disorganization.) The commission also listed the usually enlightened country’s neglect of everything from education to water quality on the nation’s reserves. Trudeau has promised cleaner water, new schools and, most important, more self-determination on how resources are spent on native lands. But progress has been excruciatingly slow. At his press conference, Trudeau preached patience: “It took us hundreds of years to get here. It’s going to take many, many generations to end this legacy.”
A few hours after his news conference, Trudeau wants me to see his vision of Canada. We make a 30-minute drive out to Berrigan Elementary School in Nepean, an Ottawa suburb. As the Mounties do a security check, I stand in the back of a room not unlike the classroom where George W. Bush learned of 9/11.
It feels like I’ve wandered into an ad hoc third-grade plenary session of the United Nations. The principal told me later that the school of 900 featured more than 20 languages and children from 35 countries. But here, the kids jabber in English, French and their own tongue. It made me remember something that Richler had told me about his country: “This country is so vast and will never be completely settled – we need immigrants as much as they need us.”
Trudeau waltzes in and listens as an Indian boy talks of a country where he feels welcome as a Canadian, but also feels no fear in singing the Indian national anthem.
The prime minister takes the mic and speaks in both English and French. “When you look at a community, or a country, divisions within the country can lead to weakness, can lead to fights, can lead to arguments,” he says. “We have differences in Canada, different backgrounds, different stories, different religions, different languages.” He gives the kids his old schoolteacher look. “We figured out how to make this a source of strength, a source of creativity, a source of resilience for our communities.”
Trudeau heads back toward his three-car motorcade that stops at all red lights. In the hall, a couple hundred kids hold signs that say “Hope” and “Respect.” They grab his sleeve and then skitter away wearing giant smiles. It would have been corny if it had not been so goddamned beautiful. This is Trudeau’s vision of what a country can be. His land races toward inclusion, while our nation builds walls and lusts for an era of vanilla homogeneity that ain’t coming back. At this moment, Justin Trudeau’s Canada looks like a beautiful place to ride out an American storm.