The Gambler: Risk-loving Justin Trudeau puts his career on the line with a summer election

There are plenty of possible future leaders of the Liberal Party of Canada if things don't go well for the prime minister

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      Back in 2015, video-game producer Sean Smillie shared a story with CBC News about his longtime friend, Justin Trudeau. According to Smillie, Trudeau was “one of the most dangerous people in the world to snowboard behind” when he visited Whistler in the 1990s. That was because of Trudeau’s love of speed and sharp corners.

      He was a daredevil and a thrill-seeker.

      Trudeau’s propensity for personal risk-taking has been on display on many other occasions since entering federal politics in 2008. Rather than choosing a safe seat, he ran and narrowly won in the largely French-speaking Montreal-area riding of Papineau, which had been held by the Bloc Québécois since 2006.

      In 2011, Trudeau burst into the national political spotlight by doing something quite reckless. He accused a Conservative cabinet minister of being a “piece of shit” during a debate over a climate agreement in the House of Commons.

      Trudeau quickly apologized for his unparliamentary language and the incident was written off as an emotional outburst.

      The next year, Trudeau took another personal risk by deciding to participate in a charity boxing match with a Conservative senator, Patrick Brazeau. Trudeau clobbered the Conservative, generating international media attention and plenty of praise from national political commentators.

      Video: Watch Justin Trudeau's boxing match against Conservative Patrick Brazeau.

      Trudeau goes to the polls

      This summer, Trudeau may have taken his greatest personal political risk: calling an unnecessary election as COVID-19 case counts are rising, B.C. wildfires are burning out of control, Haitians are coping with another devastating earthquake, and Afghanistan came under the control of the Taliban.

      In his first news conference of the 2021 election campaign, Trudeau was repeatedly asked if he would resign if the Liberals didn’t win a majority. Although he easily sidestepped the reporters’ questions, he must realize that if there’s another Liberal minority government, his political career could be in jeopardy.

      That’s because there are Liberals who might be very appealing alternatives to centre-left voters fed up with Trudeau. Deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland, former Bank of Canada and Bank of England governor Mark Carney, former industry minister Navdeep Bains, and former environment and climate change minister Catherine McKenna could all mount very credible challenges if they chose to do so.

      While it may appear that Trudeau already has the election in the bag, things can go awry during campaigns. An international crisis, unforeseen scandal, or political misstep have derailed incumbent prime ministers in the past.

      Just ask Stephen Harper about the impact of a photo of a three-year-old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, face-down and dead on a Mediterranean beach in 2015. Or talk to Paul Martin about the effect of the RCMP disclosing a criminal investigation into a finance-department leak in the midst of the 2006 campaign. In 1993, Kim Campbell told Canadians that election campaigns are not a time to discuss serious issues, which was a devastating blunder.

      All three of these former prime ministers would likely tell you that elections are never in the bag until all the votes are counted. The same could be said for Iain Rankin, the Nova Scotia Liberal premier who was leading in the polls early in the campaign but woke up this week to a Conservative election victory.

      The biggest threat to Trudeau might be if his traditional supporters conclude that if he is held to a minority, they’ll get a better Liberal leader in the future. And to achieve this, some may decide in this election to vote for the NDP, Green, or even Conservative candidate in their riding.

      Amir Attaran, a University of Ottawa professor of law and medicine, has noted on Twitter that there are “real superstars” within the Liberal caucus.

      “I know many of them,” he stated. “But until they cast off their insubstantial, narcissistic, unctuous husk of a leader, it is with apology to those men and women that I urge voting for anyone but Liberal.”

      To rub it in, Attaran also tweeted: “It is necessary to dethrone Trudeau, and it is also easy, because he cannot survive a second minority government. Accordingly my desire is this: no Liberal majority. Also this: a more progressive Parliament, for science, fighting poverty, and climate change.”

      In the meantime, Trudeau already has a problem with his personal-approval rating. According to the Angus Reid Institute, it dropped below 40 percent this month. Although that may not be enough to defeat him, it’s not going to engender complacency within Liberal ranks.

      According to the Angus Reid Institute, Justin Trudeau's personal approval rating has been falling in recent months.
      Angus Reid Institute

      Embracing generational change

      Most Canadians don’t think of Trudeau as a gambler. But he demonstrated this side of his personality in 2012 when he refused to tell his interim leader, Bob Rae, if he would be seeking the federal Liberal leadership.

      Rae, a widely admired elder statesman in the party, had to decide if he would seek the permanent job—knowing that he might face a challenge from Trudeau—or if should he step down. Rae chose the latter, clearing the way for Trudeau to become federal leader in 2013 at the age of 42. Trudeau’s risk paid off.

      Trudeau took another political gamble by anointing rookies to run in the 2015 federal election rather than holding competitive nominations in many winnable ridings, including North Vancouver, Vancouver Granville, and Vancouver South in the Lower Mainland.

      That paid off handsomely when future cabinet ministers Jonathan Wilkinson, Jody Wilson-Raybould, and Harjit Sajjan were all easily elected.

      Trudeau took another chance by including 18 first-term MPs in his first cabinet, leaving some caucus veterans on the backbenches. Rookies were rewarded with key portfolios such as finance, justice, defence, and health. Two of the veterans who made the cut, John McCallum and Stéphane Dion, didn't last very long before they moved on.

      It sent a message of generational change, positioning Trudeau as a politician for millennials.

      In 2019, Trudeau took yet another political risk by demoting Wilson-Raybould from justice minister to minister of veterans’ affairs. This came after she refused to go along with yet another Trudeau gamble: trying to engineer a deal to sideline the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin on corruption charges, even though this was adamantly opposed by the independent Public Prosecution Service of Canada.

      Trudeau hasn’t been immune to taking financial risks with the public treasury, either. In 2018, his government paid US$4.5 billion to Kinder Morgan to buy its Trans Mountain pipeline system, despite his oft-stated concerns about the climate crisis. Then he proceeded with a costly pipeline-expansion plan that has soared to $12.6 billion.

      But that was chump change in comparison to what Trudeau was prepared to spend in response to the pandemic. By 2024, the federal debt is expected to reach $1.4 trillion, thanks in part to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, a federal wage subsidy, and other economic-stimulus programs.

      Trudeau risked his career by participating in a cabinet decision to award a $900-million student-grant program to WE Charity, which has close ties to Trudeau’s wife, mother, and brother. The WE organization reportedly paid $312,000 to Margaret Trudeau for 28 speaking engagements.

      Pierre Trudeau is seen taking his then 10-year-old son, Justin, to a museum in Lille, France.
      PBA Lille

      Trudeau emerges from his father's shadow

      Trudeau has lived most of his life in the spotlight—and both his mother and father each took their own risks in life. His mom partied with the Rolling Stones when her husband was prime minister. Pierre Trudeau went on long canoe treks in the wilderness.

      In 2018, we at the Straight pondered about what it must have been like growing up as the son of the former Canadian prime minister.

      We noted that Justin Trudeau would have heard scores of people telling him how the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms changed their lives. He would have people of many cultural and religious backgrounds telling him how grateful they were that his father enabled them to come to Canada to build a new life.

      Scholars would have told him that his dad was a brilliant intellectual. Gays and lesbians would have praised his father for saying that the state had no place in the bedrooms of the nation. And on his father’s death, he would have witnessed hordes of Canadians visiting Parliament Hill to view his casket.

      The article pointed out that this would be a lot to take in for a young man trying to carve out his own identity in the world. Even in ordinary families, the shadow of the father can be overwhelming.

      Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung described the process of “individuation” as integrating the conscious and unconscious parts of ourselves to become self-actualized.  According to Jung, the first stage is known as “differentiation”, which involves developing an individual personality.

      But how could Trudeau become his own man when his dad has had such a strong influence on the nation?

      The article noted that for Trudeau, he had to break free, in a psychological sense. He became a snowboard instructor living on the West Coast. He decided that his marriage, unlike his father’s, was going to last for a very long time. And he would demonstrate his manliness in a boxing match.

      On the policy front, Trudeau has actually been significantly less daring than his father. The pugnacious Pierre took on Quebec nationalists and boldly proceeded with constitutional change. His son, on the other hand, has been content as more of a status quo politician, refusing to rock the country with dramatic moves to address the climate breakdown and overdose crisis.

      Here again, the son carved out his own identity.

      In a Jungian sense, Justin Trudeau’s process of individuation has unfolded quite well. He has his own fully formed personality, even after having grown up with such a famous and revered father.

      But this also involved taking personal risks, embracing his impulsive side, and giving himself space to make errors, whether it was on the snowboard trails or in politics.

      On September 20, Canadians will find out if one of those mistakes was calling an election just when the world seemed like it was going to hell.