There was some time to kill in Ottawa on Sunday, April 14 before the Liberal Leadership results-announcement meeting at the Westin hotel on Sussex Drive, so I took a long wander down the street to check out Justin Trudeau’s childhood home, at number 24. After Justin was born on Christmas Day in 1971, he came home from the hospital to live here. He was the first child to ever live in the place. A stranger happening by can’t get all that close to it, to tell you the truth, what with the iron gates and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police SUV blocking the entrance to the driveway. But it looks like a nice enough place, where a father might teach his son, say, the finer points of sliding down bannisters and cannonballing into pools, or receiving foreign heads of state to discuss trade or gathering provincial first ministers to hammer out a deal to patriate the constitution.
There’s a nice view out over the Ottawa River, although I admit the place seems a bit isolated—I wonder if the neighbours at the French Embassy next door or the South African High Commission across the street would make good playmates, maybe come out for a few hours of road hockey after school. Whatever the case, Justin must have liked growing up there. As I’m sure you know, he’s trying to move back into that old house with his own wife and young children.
Back up at the Westin, there are quite a lot of other people gathering to help him complete that sentimental journey to a place where memories of what was coexist with hopes for what is to come. And as I enter, they convey this enthusiasm through a display of pure noisy exuberance at the top of an escalator. This is a thing, you realize after you go to a few of these types of events. There’s always a series of escalators you need to take to get to where you going and, whenever you step off of one, you’ll find a crowd of people waving signs and chanting as if their candidate was about to begin a late-game touchdown drive. In this case, they are wearing red and black, mostly—shirts and buttons that say “justin TRUDEAU”—and rattling cowbells and shouting, “Just-in Time! Just-in Time.” Though by now all the votes have already been cast and the crowd is assembling purely for the formality of learning the results—the only suspense here is the size of Justin’s margin of victory—there is a whole room just off to one side dedicated to the propagation of this display of loud hype.
A guy in his early twenties named Jason in a plaid shirt is thumping some thundersticks and chanting away. He’s been volunteering for the campaign since November 2012, working the phones and doing whatever else needed doing—in fact, he was at home in Toronto until 8 p.m. the night before, calling likely voters to encourage them to cast their ballots for Justin, then hopped a midnight Greyhound to be here to enjoy the results of his hard work. I ask, why? “I’ve heard him speak in person—he has a positive vision of Canada, much better than the current one. He has a strong environmental message, he’s youthful—these are important things for the future.” I ask him what about Justin makes people believe that these things are possible—that he can deliver on this positive vision, deliver voters to the party, deliver great things for Canada. “That’s a hard question. I don’t know, exactly. When you listen to him speak, there’s just something about him…”
Kelsey Johnson, a third year poli-sci student at McMaster is standing nearby, looking sort of like an old-fashioned cigarette girl with wavy hair with a feather in it, holding a box of Justin buttons in front of her. She thinks she has an answer to the question of his appeal—the reason she’s been motivated to work for the campaign for a couple months. “He’s just so passionate about what he does. He has all the components of a great leader.” And what are those components? “He’s compassionate, he has great leadership ability, he believes everything he says and we stand behind him 100 per cent.”
A few feet away, a red-shirted Ryan Barber from Toronto cottage country—Simcoe North—is presiding over a box of thundersticks and, for my money, diagnosing the cause of Justin Fever a little more clearly than many others. “I got onboard the campaign on day one and ended up being the coordinator for my riding,” he says. A teacher, like Justin, Barber is a relative veteran in this crowd at age 32. “I haven’t seen people this excited about politics in over a decade. Justin has natural charisma, he has substance and good ideas, and he gets people excited and makes you believe.” Barber says he’s been to small towns where it’s hard to draw a dozen people out to meet any kind of candidate—when you bring Trudeau to the local meeting hall, hundreds turn out to meet him. “If Justin walks in, it’s almost electric. It’s a unique gift,” he says. “You’re born with it.”
And there we are again, in this crowd chanting their inane chants and thumping their goddamn thundersticks and clanging those cowbells into the hopeful future, returning to the gifts that accompanied Trudeau’s birth. You cannot escape it. But then the circumstances at the time of his birth are not something most Liberals care to escape. Which is kind of the point.
Trudeau’s biographer John English noted John Ralston Saul’s observation that Canadians all seemed to feel like they had a special bond with Pierre Trudeau, “but ‘much of that myth of knowing has to do with how we see ourselves through the mirror of his long years in power.’” That mirror told Liberals a story they liked.
A National Archives photo of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and Justin Trudeau, as featured in the elder Trudeau’s Memoirs.
It’s not entirely about this father, of course. But his father is a big and inseparable part of the story—as National Post comedian-in-residence Steve Murray pointed out on Twitter, we like stories, and we know how this one starts. And there are too many undeniable comparisons to his father to ignore: Pierre Trudeau represented a generational change for the party and the country (leaving old hands Paul Martin Sr. and Robert Stanfield looking like men stuck in a previous era). Pierre Trudeau ran a purposely vague leadership campaign, based on a few guiding principles, to leave him a lot of room to wiggle when it came to tailoring an electoral platform. Pierre Trudeau was dismissed as a dilettante, an inexperienced lightweight, just a few years in Parliament, who had never had his own home before he moved into 24 Sussex. People thought he was younger than he was, and his youthfulness and good looks were part of his appeal. He was thought then—and remains thought of now—as different from other politicians. Marshall McLuhan thought Pierre Trudeau represented a new kind of politician for a new age of media. And just as Pierre was custom-built for TV, Justin seems todominate the emergent social-media sphere.
There are differences, of course—Lysiane Gangon says he is his mother’s son more than his father’s, and she may be right. Justin doesn’t display the fierce intellect his father did, the possibly arrogant unconcern for the masses, the instinct for the jugular in debates. “Reason over passion” was Pierre’s motto—it was emblazoned on a quilt that hung at 24 Sussex—even if his own appeal was rooted to a large extent in the passions he aroused in people. Justin’s candidacy has seemed rooted in a different kind of unofficial motto: Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît pas. Justin cares for The People, he feels bonded to them by his birth and entire life up to this point, he feels obligated to serve them, and he is willing to turn his platform’s planks over to their deliberations and desires. For all his talk of the principle of placing evidence over ideology, neither of those things makes the case for his candidacy. Here, passion provides its own reason: his ability to inspire people, to make them believe, this “unique gift” he has been “born with”—these are the reasons the Liberal party is willing to turn the keys to the bus over to him. You can hire advisors to build good policy, and to teach it to a leader; you can recruit very experienced candidates to surround a leader. You cannot teach an experienced or intellectually towering leader to have magnetic appeal, as Stephan Dion and Michael Ignatieff vividly demonstrated.
And so far, Justin has demonstrated that the elusive gift is not a matter of pure media speculation. As the party faithful gather in Ottawa, Trudeau’s campaign has raised twice as much money than all the other candidates combined—his campaign will claim to have raised more than $2 million (more than four times what Thomas Mulcair raised in his winning NDP leadership bid last year), from more individual donors. (Trudeau found more than three times as many donors than Michael Ignatieff did.) His campaign claims 12,000 active volunteers, which is more people than will even vote for any of the other candidates. He has over 210,000 Twitter followers. And largely because of his presence in the race, more than 100,000 people will vote to decide who should lead the third party in Parliament. That kind of leadership campaign becomes an argument in itself.
Indeed, when Barack Obama first ran for president, the campaign organization he built to mobilize people, solicit donations, and inspire hope was by far his greatest claim to executive experience and managerial competence. And that was no small claim—running a national organization well, one able to persuade people to support political positions and rally behind them, is actually a pretty good test of many of the skills needed to run a government effectively. Not all of the skills, but some of them.
There’s another parallel, however, that offers a less rosy conclusion. When Stockwell Day cruised to the leadership of the Canadian Alliance in 2000, the race drew even more voters than this contest did (even though the Liberals in Ottawa will claim otherwise from the stage). The provincial cabinet minister with the fresh face inspired thoughts of generational change, did political image-making differently, and ran a very successful campaign juggernaut. And we know how that worked out in the larger electoral scheme of things.
Next page: The Justin effect and the Obama influence