The handshake. When I walk into the quiet upper lobby of Vancouver’s Pacific Rim Hotel, Justin Trudeau gets up from the couch and moves toward me like a guided missile. The way he approaches, it feels like he’s coming in for a hug. Instead, there’s a firm handshake, accompanied by a pat on the shoulder.
It’s the sort of greeting you’d expect from an old friend, but an old friend from an earlier era. “Good to see you,” he says, like this isn’t the first time we’ve met.
I’ve heard that one of Bill Clinton’s gifts is that of making anyone he is talking to feel like they are the only person in the world. I don’t know about the former U.S. president, but long-time B.C. MP Svend Robinson was great at it. And when Trudeau sits on the couch and leans forward to talk about his plans to woo B.C. voters, his eyes are locked on mine for the next 25 minutes.
A few days earlier, I saw the federal Liberal leader’s charisma in action at Pride. Dressed in blue jeans and a white shirt with a couple of bead necklaces, he was welcomed with cheers and hoots as people ran onto the street in front of the Denman Place Mall to hug him, shake his hand, snap his photo, and pose for selfies with him. It’s not Trudeaumania, it’s more like #Trudeaumania.
Canada’s second, possibly third, most famous Trudeau—and second-most-famous Justin—has 410,000 followers on Twitter. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has just over 73,000 (and they’re both trailing Stephen Harper, who has over 500,000).
Before handing over the microphone, emcee Caryl Dolinko reminded the crowd that Trudeau’s dad was the prime minister who declared that the government had no place in the bedrooms of the nation. Then Trudeau delivered a brief speech about the importance of LGBT rights, the crowd cheered again, and Dolinko declared, “We love him, yes we do.”
Trudeau grins when I ask about Pride. “What a good time that was… For me, it’s about meeting people and being able to shake people’s hands and dodge water cannons and be able to dance down the street the way everyone else is. It’s fun,” he says with a laugh.
As Trudeau danced toward the water cannons, Dolinko introduced Vancouver Centre MP Hedy Fry, who was decked out in high heels, a gold leopard-print outfit, and a wild blond wig that some drag queens might be too demure to wear.
In a post-Pride phone interview, Fry told the Straight that “the reaction to Justin is absolutely phenomenal. I’ve not seen anything like it with a leader before.” Fry said she’s consistently impressed by Trudeau’s willingness to listen—both to voters and to the Liberal caucus. “He actually likes people, he will engage with you and chat with you, and he’s always interested in what people have to say. And I think people feel that in him, they feel that genuineness, which is what he really has going for him.”
The Tories and the NDP have tried to turn the 42-year-old MP’s star power into a liability, pushing the message that he’s big on style and light on substance. But he’s okay with opponents dismissing him as a celebrity featherweight—just like Conservative senator Patrick Brazeau did before being knocked out by Trudeau in a charity boxing match.
Trudeau says he learned to tune out the sniping in 2008, when he was running for a nomination in the Montreal riding of Papineau he wasn’t supposed to be able to win for the chance to challenge a Bloc Québécois MP the Liberals had no hope of beating.
“My opponents focused on the celebrity factor,” says Trudeau. “I completely ignored that and rolled up my sleeves and I met as many people as I possibly could. I listened to them, talked with them about their issues, and I talked about how we’re going to build a plan together, and that’s how I got elected in Papineau. Same thing when we talked about the leadership. I didn’t sit back and put a big picture of my father up and say”—he continues in a glib, sarcastic voice—“ ‘Vote for me. I’ll bring the Liberal party back to power.’ ”
Then he returns to his earnest, teacherly tones. “I said, ‘Let’s build a better country.’ And then I went out and I met with and listened to Canadians in every single riding across the country.”
A picture of his father wouldn’t have hurt. In June the Canadian Heritage Department compiled a list of Canada’s heroes and Trudeau’s dad, Pierre, topped it.
Since Trudeau has no trouble drawing the spotlight, his strategy is to share it and emphasize his bench strength. The hashtag his team is pushing on Twitter: #teamtrudeau.
“I think a lot of people have fallen into the poor habit of thinking about leadership as, well, Stephen Harper’s model—that the only person he takes advice from is the person he sees in the mirror every morning. And that’s just not what I understand as being leadership. I think that’s not right for a country as rich and diverse as Canada. And I certainly saw from my father’s own example that he used to surround himself with the brightest people he could possibly find, experts in all sorts of different areas, and draw on their strength and expertise to build the big picture.”
Trudeau rattles off the names and credentials of his B.C. candidates like he’s reading a list, but when he pauses a moment it’s clear he’s picturing them. “I’ve got to scan around,” he says. The B.C. candidates he’s seeing in his mind’s eye include the current Assembly of First Nations British Columbia regional chief, Jody Wilson-Raybould; former West Vancouver mayor Pamela Goldsmith-Jones; and stalwarts like Fry and Vancouver Quadra’s Joyce Murray.
I ask if his memory was this impressive when he was teaching high-school social studies and French in Vancouver. He almost shrugs. “You learn to get good at recognizing people, remembering people.”
Since this is the Georgia Straight, and this is B.C., the most interesting candidate on the horizon is Jodie Emery, wife of B.C.’s marijuana martyr Marc Emery, who’s taking a run for the Liberal nomination in Vancouver East.
Trudeau’s rapid-fire responses slow as he carefully chooses his words at the mention of Emery and clarifies she’s a potential contender, not the nominee. “She’s interested, as are an awful lot of people. We have an open nomination process, it’ll be the local Liberals at the riding level who pick their candidates.” But whether Emery is a candidate or not, the Tories have decided to use Trudeau’s stance on B.C.’s biggest cash crop to paint the Liberals as the second coming of the Marijuana Party.
Trudeau says he initially resisted taking a pro-pot stance— “I knew the political attacks that would come”—and that it wasn’t marijuana activists who changed his mind on the issue. He credits “a group of self-professed soccer moms who weren’t pot smokers who said, ‘Our kids have easier access to pot across this country than they do to beer or cigarettes and we don’t think that’s right.’ They came to me and said, ‘Protect our kids.’ ”
Trudeau says those concerns were driven home by a 2013 United Nations study showing that Canada has the highest rate of teen marijuana use of 29 developed countries around the world. “The current approach is not protecting our kids. And whatever you say about pot being less harmful than alcohol or tobacco, it’s still not good for the developing brain. We want to keep our kids safe. Adults can make their own choices, that’s fine. But protecting our children from marijuana use is why I think controlling it and regulating it is going to do a better job of that.…I think it’s time that we actually had an adult conversation about it and talked about how to stop criminalizing the thousands of people who don’t deserve criminal records, prevent this steady revenue stream to criminal organizations and gangs, and make sure that kids don’t have as easy access to it as they have now.”
Trudeau knows one of the other issues that will be key for B.C. voters is his stance on pipelines like Keystone XL, which he’s supporting, and the Northern Gateway Project, which he’s opposing. Again, he’s calling for “a grown-up conversation” about how to balance environmental issues and the economy—a balancing act he feels the current government has no interest in.
“They don’t seem to understand that even though governments grant permits, only communities grant permission. And projects like that don’t get to go through without social licence. The Great Bear Rainforest is no place for a pipeline, so Northern Gateway is a nonstarter for me. Keystone XL is a pipeline that passed an appropriate review process and is getting the support necessary from local actors.”
Asked about appealing to a generation of voters infamous for not voting—just ask B.C.’s former “future premier” Adrian Dix—the high-school teacher argues that young people aren’t tuned out of the issues, they’re just tuned out of party politics.
“The problem isn’t getting young people motivated to try and change the world. The challenge is convincing them that politics is a worthwhile use of their energies in terms of changing the world. And that’s where the more complex and yet frank positions I’ve taken on various issues, I think, are appealing to people’s intelligence. I’m not going to try and sound-bite and buzz my way around or out of issues. I’m trying to be straight about the challenges that we’re facing and the world we’re trying to build together and the need to have young people involved.”
As his assistant gives the signal that it’s time to wrap up, I ask about his Vancouver roots and Trudeau talks about the West Coast branch of his family tree. “My grandfather was the MP for Vancouver North [which became Coast-Capilano] from 1940 to 1958, minister of fisheries. People think about my political antecedents. My father was in politics, everyone knows that. People forget about Jimmy Sinclair, who is as much a part of me and my political identity as anything else. And being his grandson, being my mom’s proud son and having grown up here in Vancouver—learning how to sail at Jericho Beach—so when I’m talking in the House about how bad it is that they shut down the Kits coast guard station, I actually know because I was racing Lasers with other kids at 13 years old around the tankers. I’ve driven the Sea-to-Sky Highway thousands of times on my way up and down from being a weekend warrior teaching snowboarding up at Whistler while I was teaching here. I got my professional start here as a teacher, which is the career and calling that still defines me. My family roots here are deep, but my personal roots—this is the place I moved to when I wanted to get out from under my father’s shadow and create myself as independent, and a person of my own strength. And that’s what Vancouver is for me—one of the most incredible parts of the world and a city I love very much, in a province that means the world to me.”
And then, before he can get into any trouble in his home riding, he adds: “But I remain a proud Quebecker throughout.”
Then he laughs as he recalls how former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion described him at a 2008 campaign rally, “as the most British Columbian of all Quebeckers and the most Quebecker of all British Columbians”. Says Trudeau, “I thought that was a really nice way of balancing identity. I love B.C. I’ll always be child and grandchild of B.C. and it doesn’t take away anything from my pride in being a Montrealer and a Quebecker. And I think that sort of layering on of identity is typically Canadian, and seeing no contradiction between all that is what we manage to do every day. We’re from every corner of the country, with every different background. And that’s the great thing about this country—that we’re strong not in spite of our differences, but because of them.”
He laughs again before adding, “Anyway, that’s my rant.” Then Trudeau’s back on his feet offering one last, firm handshake. He has to run.