He may be as famous for his last name and weed smoking as his political policies, but he’s got a few good ideas under that killer coif. For starters, Justin Trudeau says Canadians deserve better than “vote-against” elections. We caught up with the Liberal leader during a recent stop in Toronto to talk transit drama, teenage BS detectors, and what an aspiring leader can learn from Rob Ford.
We’ll get to the more important issues, but first—can we talk about your recent case of potty mouth? [Trudeau dropped the f-bomb at a boxing match in March and swore again during a TV interview.]
You know what, everywhere I go people tell me they’re tired of the level of scriptedness and sanitized and say-nothing version of politics and politicians. I made a decision, probably not even a conscious decision, to just focus on being myself, on being natural and saying the things that I genuinely feel and believe. In a boxing ring, on a fight night, in a casino at 10 o’clock, I was…authentic.
So then it’s not part of a strategy to endear yourself to youth voters, or tarnish the silver spoon, as some people have suggested?
One of the things I learned as a high-school teacher is that young people are very [pause]… discerning consumers of what’s out there.
You mean they have good bullshit detectors?
I was looking for a way not to say that! For me, it’s just being the person I am and not worrying too much about what kind of spin the pundits or newspapers are going to put on it. If I spent my time worrying about what people were going to write about me, I’d go insane.
Political leaders from George W. Bush to Rob Ford have demonstrated how a lot of voters will support the guy they could have a beer with. Are you that guy?
Well, I certainly won’t turn down a beer with anyone, but really I think that has become shorthand for people wanting leaders who they can connect with, where they can actually imagine sitting down with them and talking about last night’s hockey game. It’s about being relatable.
Let’s go back to Ford for a second. What lessons can you extract from his improbable success?
His strategy and the strategy taken by a lot of right-wing politicians is to run on the platform “Politics is bad.” They are the anti-politicians. That is fundamentally offside with what I think. Canadians have indeed resigned themselves to the idea of voting against—you vote against the ones you don’t like. I’m not saying government has all the answers, but it can certainly be a positive force.
Government as agent of good. It’s an interesting approach.
It should be [an agent of good]! The fact that it’s revolutionary or even jarring to say something like that just shows how far we’ve come in our cynicism.
It seems like Ford is successful because he knows who he’s trying to please, whereas your campaign—at least so far—has been about trying to please everyone. Might that have some pitfalls?
Absolutely. The politics of division and negativity, the careful strategizing of who you’re going to reach out to and who you’re going to simply ignore, can be very effective to get elected. [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper got a majority off of that. Mayor Ford won by running against the urban core. What you also see is that even if you get elected that way, it’s very hard to govern responsibly. We’re a country and Toronto is a city of different identities that live seamlessly side by side. Playing up those differences as a way to gain short-term political advantage is irresponsible.
What is your relationship like with Toronto—have you ever spent significant time here?
I have huge numbers of friends here, so I’ve been spending time in Toronto all my life. I’ve watched it evolve into an exciting, vibrant, culturally rich city. Montrealers tend to be, “Oh, Montreal [is the place for] culture,” but Toronto has this energy that comes from the multiculturalism, the thriving economy—it’s exciting.
Someone just needs to tell our hockey team.
Well…no, you know what, no. I promised to be nice. I was very pleased to see the Raptors winning a playoff game. It will be nice for the city to get excited about a winning sports franchise.
City councillor Adam Vaughan recently announced that he is planning to run for the federal Liberal Party on the condition that he will create a national urban agenda if you guys win.
There is no question for me [on the importance of] a strong urban agenda. We are one of the most urbanized countries in the world. Four-fifths of us live in cities and yet we have a federal government that has stepped back from having any real sense of partnership with or commitment to our cities. Someone like Adam Vaughan has a tremendous amount of on-the-ground insight into where the federal government can help, where we could be a partner in creating the kind of infrastructure that our cities need, whether it’s more housing, better roads, better public transit.
If you can say anything smart about how to fix our transit, I will give you my vote right now.
How about an actual national transit strategy? Making sure that public transit is seamless and properly used and reliable and maybe people will get out of the cars so there is less traffic. We need to make sure there is a plan to do something that is beyond the next election cycle. Where’s the 10-year vision? Where’s the 20-year vision?
Any thoughts on what those might look like?
I’m looking forward to unveiling specifics of my transit strategy when we’re closer to the election. Right now we’re gathering information, I’m listening, we’re putting together a plan. There’s still a long time before the election.
You have been pretty open about being on a steep learning curve, so I hope you don’t mind if we play a little game called “Flub or Fine.”
You recently paused to take a selfie with a fan during the funeral procession for Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. Was that a flub or fine?
Wherever I go, if someone comes up to take a picture with me, I’m going to oblige. I didn’t take a selfie. A selfie at a funeral is like a person taking a picture of themselves with a casket behind them. That would be inappropriate.
Admitting to pot smoking: flub or fine?
The alternative would have been a lie, so fine.
What about claiming that Quebeckers are superior to other Canadians: flub or fine?
I never said that. If you watched the full interview, I was talking about the way our father raised us to not feel like Quebec needed special protection, to not give in to separatism. I was quoting something he might say. And then the Conservatives chose to attack me.
I’m sorry—I guess that was my flub.
No, no. I’m going to let my opponents focus on me and I’m going to focus on Canadians.
And, of course, there was the incident during the Olympics where you made a joke about Russia invading Ukraine. [On the Radio-Canada entertainment show Tout le monde en parle, Trudeau suggested that Russia’s hockey loss would make them angry.] Presumably we can all agree that was a flub?
It was certainly an occasion where I missed a bit with my wry sense of humour. It’s a challenge when you’re on a variety show that’s known for its humour, to figure out how to get through it.
Can you see how your opponents might use these kinds of incidents to suggest you don’t have the good judgment to govern a country?
Stephen Harper wants to make judgment a campaign issue, [but] he appointed people like Mike Duffy, Dimitri Soudas, Arthur Porter, Bruce Carson, Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau, Nigel Wright. The list goes on and on and on. I’ll stack my judgement against his any day.
Do you get annoyed by all of the attack ads? They seem to want to paint you as a moustachioed mimbo.
The ads [released by the Conservative Party] are increasingly ridiculous, whether they question my masculinity or the charity work I’ve done. The facial hair was for Movember [to raise awareness and funding for prostate cancer]. It just goes to type. People are being reinforced in their view that Mr. Harper and the Conservatives want to use fear and negativity to win the election. I am going to be extremely firm in my disagreement on a number of policy issues, but I’m not going to stoop to personal attacks.
Click here for a close-up view of the timeline below.
BETTER KNOW A JUSTIN
Match the man with the quote.
CORRECTION, MAY 1, 2014: The original version of the “Better Know a Justin” graphic above—at it appeared here and in the May 1, 2014 print edition of The Grid—contained an incorrect answer key. The errors have been corrected.