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Justin Trudeau: Is he Canada's J.F.K.?

Profiling a political progeny

Young, energetic, and optimistic, the new prime minister seeks to return Canada to its traditional position as a liberal society and a global peacemaker. 

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Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau pauses as he spoke to supporters during a campaign stop in Toronto in August 2015.

Darren Calabrese, The Canadian Press/AP/File

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Rookie politician Justin Trudeau glides into a makeshift boxing hall to take on a fierce, muscled senator. It’s a Saturday night in March 2012, and expectations are low for the man who would later become prime minister of Canada.

But Mr. Trudeau looks confident as he enters the Ottawa ballroom with a Canadian flag emblazoned on the waistband of his trunks. A conservative television network has organized the charity boxing match, and the hosts are relentless. “Come on, shiny pony, dance!” gibes one. “Use your ballet training!”

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Though in the same weight class as his opponent, Trudeau, with his 6-foot, 2-inch frame, looks much less brawny than the former Navy reservist standing across the ring. The bell rings, and Trudeau takes the first swing. Sen. Patrick Brazeau dodges, responding with a series of blows to Trudeau’s shoulders and head. Trudeau spends the next two minutes dodging, stepping back, and guarding his face. He stumbles a few times, landing just one punch before the first bell.

In the second round, Trudeau throws the first jabs, cornering his opponent, who’s now heaving. He whacks the senator’s face and stomach. Round 3 brings another pummeling by Trudeau, until the referee calls the match. The crowd erupts in cheers.

“You’re not the shiny pony; you’re the stallion,” declares the television host.

Trudeau tends to surprise his opponents. His carefree waltz into the boxing ring came after three months of quiet but intensive training. Similarly, he plotted his recent elevation to the prime ministership of Canada years in advance, vaulting the Liberal Party from a dismal third place to a majority government. 

Both achievements highlight a truism about Canada’s second youngest leader in history: Others – particularly his foes – tend to underestimate him. 

As Canada’s first Generation X prime minister, Trudeau has already put together an impressive political coalition: He knows a mix of selfies and ambitious goals can motivate young people, low-income immigrants, and others who feel isolated from politics. Harboring relentless optimism, he touts a “sunny ways” approach to politics that echoes a politician of a different ideology and different country, Ronald Reagan, and harks back to his party’s heyday at the turn of the 20th century. 

Trudeau espouses his father’s vision of a country that is strong because of its diversity. Other countries are taking notice of the cabinet he appointed, one of the few in the world that has an equal number of men and women, and his warm embrace of refugees at a time when many nations are erecting walls to keep foreigners out. 

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Justin Trudeau, son of the late Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and his new bride, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, left, after their wedding ceremony in his father’s 1959 Mercedes in Montreal on May 28, 2005.
Christinne MuschiReuters/File

Though his nascent leadership remains untested, Trudeau, like his father, knows when to seize a moment and how to win. In some ways, at least to his friends, Trudeau seemed destined to be both the accidental and inevitable prime minister of Canada. Now, as he prepares for his first state visit to the United States on March 10, the question swirling around Canada and beyond is, Does he represent a new politician for a new age or is he just a bantamweight leader with a familiar name?

“I don’t see a lot of politicians stepping into the boxing ring,” says decade-long friend Sean Smillie. “He’s the most exciting thing to happen to Canadian politics in a long time.”

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Prior to his boxing match, the last time Trudeau had made front-page news was 12 years earlier, after his father died. “He encouraged us to push ourselves, to test limits,” Trudeau told a packed Montreal cathedral in his eulogy in October 2000. “To challenge anyone and anything.”

Pierre Elliott Trudeau had served 15 years as one of the most polarizing prime ministers in Canadian history. His father’s temperament and time in office helped shape how Justin views the world today, and where he might take Canada. A stern Roman Catholic who legalized homosexuality and created more flexible divorce laws, the man known as P.E.T. took office in 1968 as a bachelor. His liberal views and Mercedes-Benz convertible sparked fawning crowds of young women in a craze known as Trudeaumania.

P.E.T. pioneered official multiculturalism, a bilingual civil service, and Canada’s version of the Bill of Rights, all three of which continue to define the country. But he also responded to terrorism by Quebec separatists with a repressive three-month state of emergency that saw 465 arrested without charge.

At age 51, he married a playful, creative 22-year-old named Margaret, who would bear him three sons. As the firstborn, Justin Trudeau met Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. On a visit to Ottawa, US President Richard Nixon toasted 4-month-old Justin as “the future prime minister of Canada.”

But Margaret Trudeau found the high-profile life of a first lady grating. She occasionally tried evading security guards, and once called the prime minister’s residence “the crown jewel of the federal penitentiary system.” Margaret gradually abandoned her family, showing up in scandalous tabloid reports of her partying with The Rolling Stones at Studio 54. She was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder and became an advocate for the mentally ill.

In his memoir, “Common Ground,” Justin Trudeau recalls his weeping mother coming to his elementary school to have him pulled out of a gym class. In the hallway, she grabbed his shoulders and told him the man she’d been dating had just left her.

“I did my best to console her, giving her hugs and patting her back and telling her it was all right, that things would get better,” Trudeau writes. “I was eleven years old.” 

He describes a happy childhood, but admits to escaping in books. His father, who had custody of his three sons while running the country, urged them to read centuries-old classics. Trudeau had traveled to 50 countries by the time his father left office in 1984 and settled in Montreal. That year, Trudeau, then in eighth grade, met Mathieu Walker, who recalls a security detail trailing the school bus as the only indication he was from a famous family.

“I think his father was very careful about that; he didn’t want his child to be a spoiled brat,” Mr. Walker says. 

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (l.) and Mr. Trudeau talked to Trudeau’s son Justin in London in 1980.
Lawrence Harris/AP/File

Trudeau spent his high school years with a quirky group of friends, sometimes riding his unicycle home. But by the end of his university time, he had taken an interest in whitewater canoeing and boxing, and protested passionately against Quebec separation.

It was one of the few times that Trudeau, who was drawn to public service but repelled by the probability of being compared with his father, delved into public debates. He spent his first three decades cultivating an array of hobbies, with the same zest for life as his mother. In his memoir, Trudeau recalls his teenage rebellion as doing mediocre in classes that didn’t interest him, to break with his perfectionist father. He lived with P.E.T. until age 22, when he finished an English literature degree. 

Trudeau, Walker, and a handful of friends then decided to trek across Africa and Asia, where no one recognized the son of a former prime minister. “When you’re in Africa nobody really cares who you are,” Walker says. “He grew from that.”

Trudeau spent his 20s on Canada’s west coast, working multiple jobs. As a nightclub bouncer, he talked drunken patrons out of fighting, while his bulkier colleagues would throw their weight around to shut down conflicts, one friend recalls.

“He’s just a very intelligent, genuine, sincere person,” says Mr. Smillie, whose couch Trudeau slept on for years in the resort town of Whistler, British Columbia.

When Smillie opened a snowboarding school, Trudeau was one of his best teachers. “He’s a very vibrant, energetic person but not in a ridiculous, overbearing way,” he says, admitting it took him months to realize his friend was the son of a former prime minister.

Trudeau went to a teachers college and later taught math, French, and drama. 

But painful moments also marked Trudeau’s early adult life. In 1998, his brother died in an avalanche while skiing in the Canadian Rockies. His father died two years later. “The lights began to dim in my father’s soul when Michel died,” Trudeau writes, while his mother’s mental health “left her entire family struggling to help.”

Trudeau recounts going to therapy, and transforming from a lapsed Catholic into an active Christian. “It has helped me deal with the things I cannot change,” he says. “Sometimes we need God’s help.”

In his eulogy, Trudeau recalled mocking one of his dad’s opponents at a restaurant. His father told 8-year-old Justin never to belittle an adversary, and then introduced him to the man.

“We need genuine and deep respect for each and every human being, notwithstanding their thoughts, their values, their beliefs, their origins,” Trudeau told a crowd of 3,000. “That’s what my father demanded of his sons, and that’s what he demanded of his country.”

The press described the eulogy as both rousing and hammy, but longtime friend Terry DiMonte says it was entirely sincere. “He was under a great deal of pressure because he knew the whole country would be watching, and he handled it with grace and dignity,” says Mr. DiMonte, at whose kitchen table Trudeau wrote his speech.

Trudeau ended his eulogy by challenging Canadians to live up to his father’s vision of a united, multicultural Canada. “He won’t be coming back anymore. It’s all up to us – all of us – now.”

Until then, many analysts had dismissed Trudeau as a flake. But after his speech, many believed that Trudeau would follow his father into politics. The Liberals asked him to run as a candidate.

It would be another eight years before he heeded their calls.

Liberal Member of Parliament Justin Trudeau (l.) and Conservative Sen. Patrick Brazeau fought during a charity boxing match in Ottawa, Canada, in 2012.
Chris Wattie/Reuters/File

In 2007, boxing coach Ali Nestor Charles was at his gym in a working-class Montreal suburb where he teaches at-risk youth how to box when a stranger pulled up and offered to volunteer. It was Trudeau. “He gave a lot of his time to young people here,” says Mr. Charles. “He seemed really involved in the community.”

Though Trudeau had eyed a Liberal stronghold in Montreal’s moneyed Outremont area to launch his political career, the party instead suggested he run in Papineau, a gritty, immigrant-heavy district with a separatist streak. Trudeau knocked on doors, introducing himself at community events and loitering in laundromats. 

Few people knew who his father was; many who did refused to vote for the son of a staunch anti-separatist. “When he initially told me he was going to run in Papineau, [we] told him he was nuts,” DiMonte recalls. “Everybody always assumed he was a spoiled rich kid because he was the son of a prime minister.”

In his memoir, Trudeau describes months of reflection before entering the race. “The association with my father was never a reason for me to get into politics. It was, rather, a reason for me to avoid entering the political arena,” he writes. “The battle to convince myself and others that I was my own person had challenged me all through high school and university.”

After his father’s death, Trudeau continued teaching for a year, before moving to Montreal and dabbling in different career paths. He briefly studied engineering and then environmental geography. He married a vibrant entertainment reporter and yoga instructor he met at a charity gala.

He became a high-profile campaigner for winter-sport safety and chaired Canada’s national youth volunteer organization. Walker says his childhood friend kept finding passions that he quickly got bored with. “You always felt that he was a bit jittery, sort of looking for something,” he says.

In 2006, the scandal-ridden Liberal Party was decimated in an election that ended its 12 years in power. Party leaders asked Trudeau to join their renewal committee to help find ways to engage young people. Later that year at a leadership convention, Canada’s equivalent of a primary election, Trudeau campaigned for a friend, working the room and giving speeches. “The experience of the convention had taught me something: I had political skills independent of my last name,” he writes in his memoir. 

Trudeau’s friends differ on why he entered politics. Smillie says it’s because he’s a perpetual optimist. DiMonte says he cares deeply about his country. Charles chalks it up to an ambitious drive. 

Trudeau often speaks about restoring Canada to the open-minded, diverse country his father engineered. But Walker believes his friend’s political awakening was inevitable. “It’s a bit of a surprise that it happened as fast as it did, but it’s not a surprise that it did happen,” Walker says in his office at St. Mary’s Hospital Center in Montreal. “I’m a cardiologist. I’m supposed to be a man of science. But I do have these beliefs, and I kind of do believe in destiny.”

Trudeau first had to win the nomination and went up against a longtime city councilor. Despite his unlikely prospects, Trudeau gained twice as many votes as the expected winner. The next year, Trudeau won a seat in Parliament. “He worked extremely hard to win,” Walker says. “He was pounding the pavement to meet people.”

Three years later, he widened his margin of victory, even though his party fell to a historic low across Canada. DiMonte says Trudeau had planned years before to get elected when the Liberals weren’t in government, to learn the levers of power before running for party leader. 

“I said, ‘Don’t you want to run and be a minister and be in power?’ And he said, ‘No, you want to run and arm yourself.’ That’s the kind of vision that a lot of people didn’t realize he had.”

After only five years of sitting in Parliament, and one famous boxing match, Trudeau was elected as head of the Liberal Party. 

Canadian Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau embraced Evelyn Commanda-Dewache, an Algonquin elder, during a Truth and Reconciliation Commission meeting in Ottawa, Canada, in 2015.
Blair Gable/Reuters/File

During the morning rush hour, Trudeau shows up at a subway station in his shabby district, shaking hands with constituents. It is Oct. 20, 2015, a day after one of the most dramatic upsets in Canada’s political history: Trudeau’s Liberals have increased their seats in Parliament fivefold, ending a decade of Conservative rule. He is Canada’s prime minister-elect. 

“I remember when our prime minister was Pierre Elliott Trudeau. I was 13 years old,” a beaming gray-haired woman tells him. “Work hard. We believe in you.”

Boys in hoodies and women in business suits pose with Trudeau in dozens of selfies. Spotting a woman in a hijab, the leader-to-be puts his hand on his heart and nods, knowing that some Muslims don’t touch unrelated people of the opposite sex. She smiles and heads for the train.

The moment was vintage Trudeau – humble in victory, embracing diversity, always optimistic. In fact, his trademark “sunniness” is one reason why the Liberals triumphed so unexpectedly in October. Mixing his father’s principles with his mother’s warm persona, Trudeau offered an ambitious vision for the country instead of playing into voters’ fears.

His morning at the subway stood in stark contrast to the previous 11 weeks, which marked one of the harshest elections in modern Canadian history. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives tried to position themselves as a tested choice for a country rocked by terrorist threats and “a time of growing economic uncertainty.”

Conservative attack ads showed footage of Trudeau stripping down to his undershirt at a charity event, followed by the slogan “In over his head.” Another showed a hiring panel going through his résumé, deeming him “just not ready” for office. “Great hair though,” quips one of the hiring managers.

The Liberals resisted running attack ads, instead touting the benefits of multiculturalism and pledging to take in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2015. At events across Canada, he drew crowds of young people. Smillie admits many were probably drawn to his snowboarding friend’s good looks and boxing antics.

“I think that attracted them, but they stayed for the conversation,” he says. “People who weren’t interested in Canadian politics suddenly became very interested.”

Walker says there’s something electric about Trudeau’s personality. “People have all these preconceptions of Justin,” he says. “But when they meet him ... something comes over them and they realize that they like him, and they want to hear more.”

Trudeau’s opponents claimed he put style over substance, and chided him for spotty attendance in Parliament. His first major campaign pledge, to legalize marijuana, prompted ridicule. Trudeau broke from his opponents’ penchant for balanced budgets by promising to run three years of deficits to invest in infrastructure. The move outflanked the left-wing New Democrats, who were already losing support among Quebec nationalists over the party’s opposition to a ban on face-covering niqabs at citizenship ceremonies. Trudeau’s Liberals became the agent of change, surging in the polls leading up to the Oct. 19 vote.

“Sunny ways, my friends. Sunny ways,” Trudeau said in his victory speech. 

“We beat fear with hope. We beat cynicism with hard work. We beat negative, divisive politics with a positive vision that brings Canadians together.” 

Mr. Trudeau paddles a canoe down the Bow River in Calgary, Alberta.
JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/FILE

A month after being sworn in as prime minister, Trudeau was at a Toronto airport, flipping through a rack of winter coats in a welcoming room. “You’re safe at home now,” he told the first arriving family of Canada’s 25,000 Syrian refugees, offering them warm jackets.

Earlier that evening, Trudeau told a hangar full of public servants they were making history. “This is a wonderful night where we get to show not just a planeload of new Canadians what Canada is all about, but we get to show the world how to open our hearts and welcome people who are fleeing extraordinarily difficult straits,” Trudeau said.

His remarks prompted a New York Times editorial urging other countries to follow suit. The British press took note of his diverse cabinet. At last year’s climate talks in Paris, Trudeau declared that “Canada is back,” returning the country to its perceived role as a principled middle power.

All this is in contrast to the Conservative government, which broke Canada’s tradition of winning a United Nations Security Council seat every decade since its inception. Mr. Harper positioned Canada as unambiguously pro-Israel, anti-Iran, and a rising military force – leading to cool relations with President Obama. He deemed the UN an irrelevant, outdated body, noting the global inaction on stopping Syria’s civil war. He summed up his approach as “moral clarity.”

Trudeau sees Canada as a multilateral “honest broker” in a world ravaged by political crises. During a recent visit to Ottawa, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised Canada’s Syrian airlift and Trudeau’s desire to have Canada’s Army reengage in peacekeeping, which Canadians claim to have pioneered during the 1956 Suez Crisis. It’s no surprise that Trudeau is the first Canadian leader to be invited for a White House state dinner in 19 years. 

After 100 days in office, Trudeau’s approval rating hovers around 45 percent, up from 39.5 percent on election night. Still, his critics say he’s a showy lightweight who doesn’t know how to run a Group of Seven country. He does face considerable problems. 

Government officials have been scrambling to meet a deadline for resettling the Syrian refugees that has already been pushed back by two months. Resource-strained cities are asking for a halt to the Syrian influx altogether, while some refugees cooped up in hotels for weeks want to go home. 

Last month, he followed through on an unpopular campaign promise to take Canada’s six fighter jets out of the US-led bombing mission against the Islamic State group. He didn’t give a clear rationale for doing it. Low oil prices caused at least 100,000 layoffs last year, while provinces are squabbling over pipeline projects that would let the energy sector export to Asia and Europe. Trudeau’s opponents have urged him to “put down his selfie stick and get to work building these pipelines.”

So far his leadership is untested. But his close friends have faith in his abilities. “He is there for the right reasons,” says Charles, in between boxing classes. “And he’ll do everything in his power for his country.”