Portrait of the Politician as a Young Man

Pints of beer in hand, we philosophize over the past and future of Canada with Justin Trudeau.

Located quite literally around the corner from the Canadian Houses of Parliament in Ottawa, the Metropolitain Brasserie Restaurant is the kind of place that — owing to sheer convenience — must everyday welcome for drink and sustenance the political architects of the country’s future. Because the overtly Parisian-themed brasserie restaurant tries to be something it is not (namely, a Parisian brasserie restaurant) a cynic might observe the phoniness in decor to be appropriate surrounds for politicians whose public-facing personal brands are all too often seen to be thin veneers. That Justin Trudeau has agreed to our obscure lunch project for a meal, with seemingly little-to-nothing to be gained in terms of exposure, suggests, before we even begin, that the man may be more than veneer.

When Justin Trudeau sits down, he takes a minute to get his bearings. He’s just emerged from the opening proceedings of the Liberal Biennial Convention being hosted in Ottawa over the course of the weekend, the first large scale assembling of the political party after a humiliating implosion in the last federal election. The Liberal Party of Canada, a centrist party whose policy compass and value system fall somewhere between the Conservative Party on the right (who currently form majority government) and the New Democratic Party on the left (who form official opposition), has for much of Canada’s history held or checked power. And never so famously as when the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Justin’s father, served two terms as Prime Minister (1968-79, 1980-84) with a public appeal and charisma that had not been seen before or since. Pierre’s fame has been sealed by many pivotal moments in recent Canadian history (like his invocation of the War Measures act to fight violent separatists in Quebec during the October Crisis) and the memorable quotes he left in his wake (including the well-turned “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.”). Richard Nixon referred to him variously as a “clever son of a bitch”, a “pompous egghead” and “an asshole”.  Canadians ate up his antics, his good looks, his grand ideas. P.E.T. famously advocated for Canada becoming a “Just Society”, introduced Official Bilingualism to the country, instituted a Charter of Rights and Freedoms within the constitution and pushed the nation’s cultural tapistry to the extreme by popularizing the embrace of  ”multiculturalism” as grand national project. In this way, Trudeau the father continues to mark the country to this day.

We lunch today with Trudeau the son, who must certainly tire of having his name never mentioned without having first evoked his father’s (ed: apologies, Justin) but it is impossible to understand the heir and his future without this contextual grounding. Justin Trudeau emotionally pierced into the Canadian public consciousness on October 3rd, 2000, when he delivered perhaps one of the country’s most famous and touching public eulogies for his famous father. “Je t’aime papa”, the closing lines of that speech, still send shivers down the spines of those who witnessed it. Today, at 40, Justin Trudeau, has stepped into the political octagon himself. He now serves as Member of Parliament for Montreal’s Papineau riding, and acts as party critic for youth, post-secondary education and amateur sport. With the Liberal party rebuilding and reorganizing, the natural question on everyone’s mind is just how Justin Trudeau’s future will shape the party’s, if not that of the country.

We each order pints of Creemore premium lager. We’re seated in the back corner of the bustling restaurant, where the din is relatively lessened. Justin wears a black silky dress shirt sans tie, taken down an extra button for good measure. His hair is voluminous and wavy. His eyes blue, and kind. It’s hard to deny that he’s a handsome man, seemingly bred to impress the camera.

He tells me that he grew up perfectly bilingual, owing to the fact his father only spoke to him in French, his mother only in English. Now established with his own family in Montréal, he’s raising his children in French but considers himself completely “bi-cultural”, as so many Montréalers do. Multilingualism is important, he says, because it’s “not just about knowing that chair is chaise in French, it’s about understanding that with a language comes a set of thought processes and values that get packaged in culturally to the language”. He notes how it is said that French is more romantic. Why is that? He cites the example of expressing longing: “I miss you” in French is said as “Tu me manques”. Literally, “you are missing from me”, subject and object inverted from the English, suggesting perhaps the greater importance of the Other. “Fundamentally, I think the 21st century is one in which we have to learn to open ourselves up more to diversity, to different perspectives, to different solutions, as a society and as a planet.”

While bilingualism is an obvious way to understand and relate to at least one other culture more deeply, Official Bilingualism in Canada was never about making everyone bilingual, he says. Rather, its goal has been to ensure that anyone, irrespective of which of the official languages they spoke, would feel at home — able, at a minimum, to receive federal government services in their language. He acknowledges that in the global context French may not necessarily be the language with the brightest future, but that’s not really the point. Historical circumstance led the country to choose two languages, sewing it into the nation’s fabric of identity.

Our beers arrive and we sip conservatively. Justin orders a sliced steak sandwich with side salad. I get a club. Several patrons seated around us wear telltale red lanyards from which hang their Liberal National Convention security badges. Most have stickers proclaiming support for their preferred candidate for Liberal party president. Justin sports neither lanyard nor sticker.

He goes back to effortlessly riffing on Canadian history in a way that I have not experienced outside a classroom. He points out that this friction between multiple cultures, this cultural tension, can be a great positive force for creativity. “Whether it be poets and writers, or painters or musicians or visual stage artists, you have something interesting that comes out of conflict” he says. He then winds this thesis all the way back to the founding of the nation, where it was true in even starker relief. “From before Confederation in 1867, Canadians had to accept that someone who spoke French, was catholic and attached to continental Europe was every bit as Canadian as someone who was a British protestant, spoke English and would like God to save the Queen. 150 years ago these were huge, almost irreconcilable differences. To say that we’re going to build a country that not just included both these identities, but was defined by these two identities — that’s a really challenging thing. And the fact that we have now succeeded to be such a tremendously open and confidently diverse country is because from the very beginning we could never find an easy definition of what makes a typical Canadian: what we look like or sound like or our religion. Instead it’s a collection of values that defines us, but it’s not any core identity. And that is what makes Canada, for me, one of those places that can be a model for the world that is struggling with how to make diversity a strength and not a weakness.”

His discourse is like a history lesson and political manifesto all-in-one. He speaks with passion, with full-body gesticulation, a knowing smile throughout. His polish suggests that he’s delivered this speech a thousand times before, but there is no hint of anything but genuine, emotional, conviction. The enthusiasm of someone happily carried away by his own thoughts, confident that he has spun something good. Something that he believes in, and that so should you.

As our sandwiches arrive, and wanting to capture more of Justin’s culturo-historical analysis, I ask him to tell me more about Canadian values. He ignores the sliced-steak and jumps right in.

He fingers two elements that have shaped Canadian values: (1) winter and (2) our First Nations. “We’re in a country that is too big, too vast, too cold too many months of the year for anyone to be truly individualist. You need to know that you can rely on your neighbors to help push your Buick out of the snowbank. You need to have an openness to the needs of others.” He juxtaposes this against America’s competitive survival-of-the-fittest culture. He points out that in Canada even Conservatives defend public medicare, underpinned by a philosophy of being there for one another. From this philosophy has emerged our social contract.

But through collaboration alone we likely would not have survived. Justin points out, paraphrasing from John Ralston Saul’s A Fair Country, that this view of French/English cultural tension and mutual help leading to harmony is simplistic — nothing guarantees a tremendously open society will emerge. But in early Canada, First Nations people had a huge hand in helping the first generations of settlers survive and thrive. And through the mediating effect of the First Nations came an osmosis of certain elements of their culture. Namely fluidity of identity (they equated being adopted into a tribe with true membership) and respect for pan-community and multi-generational views of the impact of actions on the land around them. “The influence of our First Nations cultures has had a lasting effect on what Canada became.”

He points out that most of the country’s shared, non-negotiable public values are articulated in the Charter: equality of religions, genders, sexual orientations, races and cultures. But also, in the cadre of Canadian values there is the unwritten — what Justin describes as an openness and a respect of each other despite our differences. He provides the example of the razor thin defeat of Quebec separation in the 1995 referendum. “The next morning there were no riots, no strikes, everyone sort of shrugged and said ‘Oh, that was close’ and we all went back to work. Our biggest conflicts don’t tend to have that same visceral antagonism behind them you see elsewhere — although there is passion. I think that is something that is a big part of our identity in Canada. I mean how boring is our national motto? Peace, order and good government. I mean, it’s ridiculous.”

Aware that he has still only barely touched his steak sandwich, I move him away from espousing on Canadian history and shift instead towards politics in the modern age. Justin’s an active Twitter user (@justinjptrudeau). Second only to the Prime Minster, no Canadian politician has more followers. He tweets everything himself, and holds back little. A quick read through his tweetstream reveals him sparring with other users, issuing challenges to other parties, cheering on his favorite NHL team (The Habs, of course), being sarcastic and funny, and offering personal reflections. In short — using Twitter in the scatter-shot-but-somehow-endearing way it begs to be used, through which emerges a picture of a real human being, perhaps even flawed, rather than that of a well-crafted brand image obsessed over by handlers.

His one line Twitter bio reads Changing the world a little bit every day. I ask about that. “It’s something I think all of us should try to live by every single day” he deadpans back.

Campy and idealistic it may be, but I already get the impression that JT doesn’t care. Human beings, he says, define ourselves by our need to feel relevant to the community that matters to us — regardless of the size of that community. Rather than accumulating status, wealth or fame as traditional markers of relevance to our communities, he says “people are beginning to realize that you have an impact on the world based on what you offer the world, not by what you get from the world.” His advice for the young people he works with is to eschew the macro scale and instead focus on the small scale impacts in the parts of the world over which we have influence: our relationships with family, coworkers, bosses, employees, politicians and community activists, and with how we view our own choices as consumers, and by thinking about how the consequences of those decisions ripple both across geography and time. “Everything you choose to do, like the fact that I ordered red meat today and not fish like I sometimes do, has an impact on the world. A very small impact, but we change the world by what we do. So by being mindful of the impact that I have on the world, it’s not just a Twitter bio, it’s a motto for how I’m trying to live my life.”

He disassembles with fork and knife the open-faced red meat sandwich on his plate rather delicately, in the manner of a gentleman. I eat my messy, mayonnaise-y chicken club sandwich with bare hands, and feel a little caveman-like in his presence.

Gone, he says, are the days in which a leader of any kind of organization could achieve meaningful change in culture without its members being engaged. Social media offers a way forward, for the the next-gen leader. I ask him if he thinks the notion of a politician interacting directly with constituents scales — by which I mean can grow sustainably over time as the audience grows? “On Twitter, it’s just me” he says. “I’m honest. Philosophically, my politics are to reach out and engage with as many people as possible; it’s about negotiating and engaging. Twitter is a useful tool that allows people to get to know me and have access to me, where I can share my concerns and my passions. Can it scale? Can I get people to vote for me? Probably not directly. Can I get people to feel that they know me a little bit better? Yeah.”

And in that light, Twitter really does seem like the perfect medium for a more personal modern politic. As Justin puts it, our representative democracy is moving towards people wanting to choose politicians not based on a package of promises but rather based on “who understands my concerns, who’s going to make better decisions in the long run, who’s going to respond to my hopes and fulfill them, who’s going to respond to my fears and allay them. Who do I get? Who do I feel I know and who do I feel I can trust?” If Justin’s right, this implies that honesty, transparency and authenticity are the new means to achieving votes, a new benign weaponry required to take power. Trudeau both in person (beer-in-hand) and online (via Twitter) appears to exude all three.

Apparently Justin used to be a huge gamer. He reflects on this. He sees people’s love of video games, and similarly online social networking, resulting from a “crisis of relevance”. Online or in games, your actions have consequence. In a game you level-up, defeat a level, steal a car. On Facebook, your status update elicits immediate reaction from friends. So he sees these virtual interactions as being templates for what it means to have impact on the world around you, of achieving a relevance to your community. But now that he has tasted how “exponentially satisfying” it is to have meaningful impact in the real, rather than virtual, world, video games no longer hold his interest. Maybe he’s just getting old, as we all do, but he thinks it’s important that people learn how to use online and digital media not just as a substitute for reality, but as a way to enhance it. If he’s right, then perhaps reality can be thought of as the ultimate game where the goal is impact, and the virtual merely a training ground for how to live.

The lights suddenly go off. The restaurant oohs, aahs, laughs and heckles like a class of high school students misbehaving. They come back on momentarily, only to go off again. In the darkness someone facetiously starts singing Happy Birthday. In French. Ottawa is in the midst of its biggest snow storm of the season, and the grid is having trouble coping. Throughout, Justin keeps talking.

I wonder about how the next generation develops from here, with digital media all around them. Justin is well-versed in the issues. There needs to be less friction between content creators and consumers. Middlemen are merely incidental, he says. Speaking of antiquated minimum Canadian-content rules on radio waves imposed by the government telecommunications regulator, he recognizes it makes no sense to legislate content requirements on the Internet. We need more content flowing in, more content flowing out. More encouragement of Canadian artists directly to produce content for the world, regardless of if or where it gets sold. He thinks we need a culture shift in Canada to encourage more entrepreneurship, writ large. He points to our social safety net and explains how studies show that its existence counter-intuitively inhibits risk taking in this country.  Rather, he suggests, Canadians need to recognize they have all the advantages and opportunities here to take on the world.

When asked how the education system should change to reflect the techno-cultural shifts that are underway, JT doesn’t think teaching more computer programming per se is the right solution, but instead that we need our kids to understand logic and critical thinking, how to access the information they need and to think critically about it, how to apply  it. “We’re not sitting in a one-room school house anymore where the teacher is responsible for explaining the world to students” he says. As a former high school teacher himself, Justin speaks from experience. In a computer class he taught, early in his career in Vancouver, he once asked his pupils to look up references to the poem Desiderata by Max Ehrmann (from which Justin quotes verbatim the opening line: “Go placidly amidst the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence”). Within 15 minutes, his students had produced 15 different URLs, each reference containing a slightly different version of the poem, exhibiting minor variations in punctuation, verbiage and spelling. Which one represented Truth? He and his students spent the rest of the class reasoning through the variants, editorializing towards an answer. To paraphrase Justin’s message: we should be teaching our kids to fish in the very murky digital sea.

This message leads into what he sees as the potential for a new grand project for the country. “If you look at our great projects of the past, the railway connected East to West, multiculturalism connected Canadians from all backgrounds to each other — now, could we become the most connected nation in the world?” He points out that not only does Canada boast political, economic and geographic stability, it also enjoys ample hydro-electric renewable energy and a very cold climate in much of the country. “What if we could help solve the challenges of the physical manifestations of the Internet? Imagine a server farm near the James Bay hydroelectric dam, where it’s always cold.” Then, with labor virtualized through disintermediation from  geography, robust connectivity established throughout the nation, cheap & clean power and education modernized to give young people the tools they need, Canadians could become positioned, perhaps best positioned in the world, to do any of the knowledge work that is now being done in far flung places. “Why in India and not in Miramichi?” he asks rhetorically.

He checks his watch. We need to wrap things up. A third of his pint remains, which he downs in one motion. I tell him that I’m very curious to see where his life takes him, a coded message of sorts in which I really mean to ask, but dare not, whether we will ever seen him with the country’s top job.

“I’m mindful of how incredibly lucky I am. The upbringing I’ve had, the travels, the conversations, the education, the opportunities. I know I’ve been lucky. But because of that, I’ve defined my life  not by how I pay back that luck, but how do I do right with what I’ve received.”

“We’ll see how it unfolds,” he says with a carefree shrug and a smile, as we shake hands and I wish him the best of luck.

***

Where we ate:
Metropolitain Brasserie Restaurant
700 Sussex Drive  Ottawa, ON K1N 1K4, Canada
(613) 562-1160

What we ate:
Sliced Steak Sandwich
Club Sandwich
Creemore Springs Lager (x2)
This entry was posted in Ottawa, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.
Justin Trudeau

Justin Trudeau is Member of Parliament for Montreal’s Papineau riding, representing the Liberal Party of Canada. He is that party’s critic for youth, post-secondary education and amateur sport. He is eldest son of the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau, former Prime Minister of Canada.

4 Responses to Portrait of the Politician as a Young Man

  1. Very interesting that he quoted one of Saul’s latest books, a Fair Country. this book outlines some very unique perspectives on our history, but because Saul is a bit of a rogue in Canada, he’s not often referenced. Heartening to hear Trudeau refer to this book. It would appear that his father’s ability to see the big picture has rubbed off…!


    Reply
  2. Super interesting. Well written. I think JT needs to toughen up his image if he wants to take on the big boys in the court of public opinion. His dad was a gunslinger and didn’t take shit from anyone. Canadians love that, and we need more leaders like him.


    Reply
  3. great work i hope we see more


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  4. A wonder interview — what impressed me most about JT was hearing how he ran in a tough, poor riding and won it by door-to-door campaigning.


    Reply

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