Monday 21 May 2018

Canada's golden boy - the emergence of Justin Trudeau

He once took on a rival senator in a charity boxing bout but now Justin Trudeau - son of the country's most popular former prime minister - is emerging as a favourite on the world stage

Close allies: Trudeau and Obama.
Close allies: Trudeau and Obama.
Family man: Trudeau and wife Sophie in 2012

Joe Callaghan

The hostelries of the Bowery, on the lower side of Manhattan, already had a less than likely place in American presidential history. It was in the Bull's Head Tavern, on the oldest thoroughfare in New York City, that George Washington stopped off for a celebratory cold one in November 1783, before heading down to the docks to wave the British off on their merry way.

The week before last, just the 233 years later, two men hoped that the Mile End Deli - purveyors of smoked meats rather than cold ones - would become a similarly seminal staging post en route to the White House. While the rest of the city was celebrating St Patrick's Day, the pair dropped to their knees in front of the only man they could see saving the US from a presidential race that ever more rapidly looked to be tearing the country apart at the seams.

"Please, all our guys are so bad," they pleaded.

Only one problem... Justin Trudeau already had a job. The Canadian Prime Minister reminded the men as much as he helped the pair back to their feet, shared a laugh with them, and went back to enjoying his smoked special on rye.

The two, it transpired, were professional jokers. They've popped up at numerous stops along a GOP campaign trail that has too often seemed far beyond parody. But the fact that their pleas to Trudeau went viral and were initially accepted at face value, said a whole lot about the rancorous, ridiculous race that Donald Trump has led the Republican Party on since the middle of last year.

At the same time, it also said everything about Trudeau's rocketing rise into the public consciousness both Stateside and beyond. The 44-year-old has been in power for a little over five months now but it is in the past three weeks, on official visits to the White House and the UN, that 'Trudeaumania' has taken hold of the US and begun a global creep that looks like quickening.

The boy(band)ish good looks, the wispy curling locks, the down-to-the-pavement charm, Canada had known all of that for many years now. But the relentless optimism, the renewed openness, the Sunny Ways slogan that his Liberal Party trumpeted throughout last autumn's campaign struck a new chord with the country as Trudeau went from last to first in a whirlwind triumph that bore more than a few similarities with Barack Obama's 2008 breakthrough.

"Sunny Ways, my friends, Sunny Ways," he beamed in his victory address. "We beat fear with hope. We beat cynicism with hard work. We beat negative, divisive politics with a positive vision that brings Canadians together."

That was October and Canada had bought in. Fast forward five months and now the western world - liberals at least, but many more you suspect - wants to buy in, too. Why? In no small part, because of the man south of the border. Trudeau and Trump share the first three letters of their surname, but that's about all. In a political vacuum that the Republican frontrunner has seemingly sucked all sanity and decency out of, Canada's leader represents a breath of fresh hope.

While he has continually - and understandably - been compared with Obama, it might be more pertinent to reach for another three letters when looking at Trudeau, namely JFK.

For Trudeaumania is no modern phenomenon. By rights, this incarnation should be called Trudeaumania Two, but as we move toward the summer blockbuster season, this one doesn't shape as a lazy sequel, but a fresh instalment in a dynastic drama that has shaped the very core of modern Canada.

Justin Trudeau was born, almost inevitably for someone so unabatingly upbeat, on Christmas Day 1971. He was the first child of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Canada's most popular, at times polarising but always unavoidable, prime minister. The elder Trudeau ruled for almost all of a 16-year period from 1968 and transformed the country, severing ties with Britain, giving Canada a national identity, a flag. He championed equality, bilingualism, multiculturalism, civil liberties, women's rights, gay rights.

Throughout, he was manna from media heaven. He came to power as a flamboyant 48-year-old sports car-driving, Barbara Streisand-dating bachelor. He broke hearts and married Margaret Sinclair, two decades his junior, nine months before his first son was born.

Justin Trudeau's young life, then, was one lived in the spotlight and, always at his father's side, in the global halls of power. At just four months old, he was saluted at a gala buffet in Ottawa as "the future prime minister of Canada" by the visiting Richard Nixon. In 1980, still busy cultivating her unbending reputation, pictures show Margaret Thatcher leaning down outside 10 Downing St for a casual chat with Trudeau Jr.

One of the many contrasts that Trudeau struck on the campaign trail last year was as an open-book, transparent antidote to the sealed-off incumbent Conservatives. Yet, after such a public childhood, there inevitably was escape. After university, Trudeau took to the road, trekking across Africa and Asia, returning not to Montreal but to Canada's west coast. A nightclub bouncer, a snowboard or kayak instructor, depending on the season, these years away from the typical gilded life of political progeny shaped Trudeau the people person, equally at ease shooting breeze with a world leader in Davos or an immigrant fresh off the plane from Damascus. But Kennedy-esque tragedies shaped him, too. Trudeau's mother battled personal problems and wild swings for years before being diagnosed as bipolar and becoming a mental health advocate. His younger brother Michel was killed at 23 in an avalanche in 1998, a loss that sent his father into a downward spiral. It was at Pierre Trudeau's funeral two years later that Justin would return to the spotlight with a stirring eulogy to his beloved 'papa'.

While it would take a decade for him to begin fulfilling what many saw as his destiny - political triumph - the wheels were in motion. It was triumph in another arena that was to spur the eventual breakthrough when, in 2012, Trudeau dominated a televised charity boxing bout against Conservative senator Patrick Brazeau, a physically daunting former soldier with a martial arts background. The 'Thrilla on the Hilla' woke Canada up to Trudeau. "The fight was... a way of highlighting and surprising people," he told the New York Times magazine in December. "It was a way of pointing out to people that you shouldn't underestimate me."

Yet underestimate him they did. The Conservatives and then PM Stephen Harper ran campaign ads targeting Trudeau's inexperience, "just not ready". Yet after nine sterile years of Harper, Canada was ready for a change in outlook, ready for Trudeau.

Has substance matched style? While Trudeau and his Instagram-perfect family of wife Sophie, children Xavier (8), Ella-Grace (7) and Hadrien (2), pepper glossy front pages, Sunny Ways has shone strong through the bitter cold of a Canadian winter. Trudeau's landmark cabinet - exactly half female and more multicultural than any in history with the PM symbolically appointing himself Minister for Youth - have got to work on enacting his vision.

While Europe has dallied as children drown, Canada has resettled 25,000 Syrian refugees in four months. Many more are en route. Last week, as Toronto was saying goodbye to its late former mayor Rob Ford, a notorious politician who was all too recently Canada's figurehead (his crack smoking and various vices lampooned on late night TV Stateside), Trudeau's maiden budget looked to kick-start a lagging economy. Benefits for families and children were to the fore. Trudeau's approval rating has risen to from 39.5pc on election night to the high 50s now.

Many challenges await but the positivity and transparency remain relentless.

"Ultimately, being open and respectful towards each other is a much more powerful way to diffuse hatred and anger than big walls and oppressive policies," Trudeau said earlier this month. The inference was clear. Trump and Trudeau...three shared letters but nothing more. For that we should all be thankful.

Joe Callaghan is an Irish journalist based in Toronto

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