After an unprecedented minority reign, Justin Trudeau wants another chance
OTTAWA -- Many Canadians are looking to put the last two largely miserable years behind them, and Justin Trudeau is one of them. The 49-year-old world leader and MP from Papineau grew the facial hair, struggled with virtual technology, and had travel plans halted. Now he wants to move on, and hopes you do too.
While minority governments often don’t last much longer than his did, the question has been asked: Why call an election now? It’s in part because the Liberals like their chances of clinching a second majority government in the current political landscape.
But, if you talk to people who know him, have worked with or for him, or have closely analyzed his life and career—as CTVNews.ca did for this piece—for Trudeau, this election is about more than winning the ability to have a relatively unchallenged four years to lead.
“We have a lot more to do,” said outgoing MP, former cabinet minister, and current Liberal Party National Campaign Co-Chair Navdeep Bains in an interview. “He is more motivated than ever to put forward a set of solutions, because he knows that coming out of pandemic… this sets the tone for the next 20, 30 years.”
REST, REFOCUS, REFORM
With this federal election, Trudeau isn’t looking to rehash or reflect on the last year and a half. Though, being buoyed by the positive sentiment still resonating for how the Liberals ‘had people’s backs’ through the pandemic—as they regularly say—has made the risk of campaigning while the country plays chicken with a potential fourth wave too enticing to pass up.
What he is after now— banking on the electorate’s ability to move on from big events, as has happened in the past—is the ability to lead Canada out of the COVID-19 crisis, and into a new era of considerable change.
Those who spoke with CTVNews.ca for this piece agreed, this vote will be less about Trudeau’s minority years and more about whether voters want to see what he could make of the next four.
“If they were smart they’ll keep it forward-looking,” said long-time Liberal and principal at Bluesky Strategy Group Susan Smith. “Who is the person to lead us out with a plan? That's what I think people will be thinking about during the election, and they'll look to Trudeau.”
You’ve heard him say it: The pandemic exposed many of society’s shortcomings, and the Liberal leader wants the opportunity to wrap up some unfinished business on climate change, Indigenous reconciliation, and the ‘she-cession,’ and consequently cement some legacy-making policy in addressing these inequities.
“In terms of legacy… they want to get certain programs like childcare up and running, so that it'll be more difficult for a government in the future to undo them,” said Liberal strategist and Proof Strategies’ senior vice-president of government relations Greg MacEachern. “If they're in a majority government, they can do more.”
‘EVENTS, MY DEAR BOY, EVENTS'
More than ever before the “events, dear boy, events,” quote from former British prime minister Harold MacMillan could be the headline of the Liberal government’s last two years. It was MacMillan’s response to the question of what challenge was most likely to cause governments to go off course and it’s a sentiment Trudeau likely feels deeply.
When voters dealt the Liberals a blow in 2019, reducing them to a minority and shutting the party completely out of Alberta and Saskatchewan, the country was, as his then-Conservative rival said on election night, “further divided.”
It was the first real challenge of Trudeau’s time as a minority leader: how to try to stitch up the divisions in the national patchwork. It was an effort he didn’t get to make much progress on before the coronavirus pandemic essentially did the work for him, forcing all of the premiers to the same table to take on COVID-19.
“Things were moving fast… It was a big deal. And the prime minister was clear: We’ve got to save lives, we’ve got to save jobs, whatever it takes… And to have that kind of clarity from the prime minister set the tone for how we managed the pandemic,” said Bains, who was at the cabinet table in the early days of the global health crisis.
There was no playbook for this scale of a health and economic crisis and after his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau’s COVID-19 infection forced him into isolation, Trudeau adapted and began daily press conferences from outside of his Rideau Cottage home.
There he announced the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), that the borders were closing, and when the government had inked new deals for vaccines. The COVID-19 vaccine rollout was the pandemic file that the Liberals struggled withthe most with early on, but they have since had some redemption, bringing enough shots in for all who were eligible two months earlier than they—likely strategically—promised and catapulting the country to the top in the G7.
The bounce back on getting doses into arms was helped along by the spring 2021 creation of a centralized COVID-19 response unit within PMO, sources said, likening it to the PMO’s Donald Trump-era NAFTA war room.
“That shows some political maturity. Instead of announcing it and telling us what they were going to do, they just did it,” MacEachern said.
The other major change for the Trudeau minority was the hybrid—but largely virtual—Parliament.
After a few close calls with confidence votes in two parliamentary sessions broken up by a mid-WE Charity scandal prorogation, the Liberals managed to make the promises needed to remain propped-up by the progressive parties, but amid an increasingly tense Chamber, ultimately didn’t get a lot of legislation through.
He’ll be carrying that, as well as the baggage from his majority years—the gaffes abroad, his past wearing of Blackface, a small stack of ethics scandals, controversial court challenges, and some unkept key promises to important voting demographics—into this campaign.
Trudeau’s defenders say there have been victories: keeping the Canada-U.S. relationship on the rails during Trump’s most tumultuous years and installing the price on carbon, while other precedent-setting moves seem like distant memories now such as marijuana legalization and resettling of Syrian refugees.
“Did it [the pandemic] move him off his agenda? Absolutely. It moved everything off of everybody's agenda,” said Liberal strategist Smith.
It wasn’t just the COVID-19 crisis that shook up the country. Last summer’s reckoning on race and the ongoing confrontation with Canada’s colonial history as more unmarked graves are found on former sites of residential schools have also challenged political leaders to meet the moment.
While Trudeau took a knee, his NDP counterpart called for more than symbolic gestures and it’s possible a more engaged younger demographic may be looking for the same this fall.
“Will it meet their expectations?… It’ll be challenging to meet every young person's expectations, but I think in terms of someone who could walk the talk and has a track record of proving that he's walked the talk, Trudeau was there,” said Smith.
PUTTING AN OLD FACE ON A NEW TIME
Fresh-faced for the first time since 2019, when he debuted the beardless look on June 30, it was an instant signal that something was different, deliberate or not. Most sources chalked the difference up to Trudeau finally being able to visit a barber, but the Liberal leader himself said the beard fit the moment.
While it started as what his kids Xavier, Ella-Grace, and Hadrien call a “vacation daddy” beard two Christmases ago, his wife of 16 years Sophie suggested he keep it when he landed back from Costa Rica to respond to downing of flight PS752, and as he told his friend and Montreal radio host Terry DiMonte, his team didn’t hate it and it became a topic of analysis.
“It just felt like it went with 2020, as 2020 just continued to be a really difficult and challenging year,” Trudeau said.
Whether he now feels the moment that the facial hair fit is one we’re no longer in is up for interpretation, and whether it’ll remain a ‘minority years’ look will depend on what happens after voters have their say this fall.
GETTING BACK OUT THERE
Trudeau started preparing for this campaign in the months before it formally kicked off. It seems the minute he was vaccinated and the COVID-19 case count dipped enough to make it safer to step away from the podium, he was back out there among people and it seems to have reanimated him.
“There are some politicians that you know, the cliche is that they derive energy from it… And I think Justin Trudeau may fall into that category,” said MacEachern. “We need to keep in mind the context of somebody who, from the time they were born, was a public entity. His birth was national news.”
While he is the son of a former prime minister and has been in the spotlight for his entire life, he entered the national political arena as a bit of an underdog—after five years as an MP he took hold of a then-severely weakened Liberal Party—but has since become the top dog with something to prove.
“He’s always been underestimated… He’s physically, emotionally and mentally prepared for this job,” said Bains, who has known him since 2006 and still talks with him often about their running times.
The pair have also bonded in the last year over shared experiences of helping their kids navigate the stress and anxiety of growing up during a global pandemic.
One of the silver linings of COVID-19 for the Trudeau family was that it became a “time of reconnection,” as Trudeau has put it, allowing him to be home more with his kids as they grow up.
While he regularly used to be able to win attention for some of his more stunt-like public appearances—surfing next to a wedding ceremony for example—Trudeau is now facing a younger Conservative opponent who is making a point of bringing a cameraperson along when he laces up. Those who support Trudeau have dismissed any concern that he’ll lose any ground to the Tory leader on this.
Ultimately, Smith said this time around the Trudeau that Canadians are being asked to vote for is a “wiser, more mature, more experienced version.”