Sunday, October 07, 2012

Justin Time

This week saw the announcement by Justin Trudeau that he will seek the leadership of the federal Liberal Party. Nearly defunct after the beating it took in last year's federal election, the Liberal Party of Canada, long referred to only slightly ironically as "the natural governing party of Canada" was in power more often than not in the 145 years since Confederation. Now it's not even the Official Opposition, and that's a historic low for the party.

In recent decades, the Liberal Party has given Canada our own national flag; the elimination of any ethnic or racial consideration in the immigration process and its broad expansion; socialized medicine, which is now a sacrosanct birthright from coast to coast to coast; the decriminalization of homosexual acts between consenting adults; the end of capital punishment; and the patriation of the British North America Act as the Constitution Act, 1867, and with it the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that has become another defining characteristic of Canadian identity over the past 30 years. With the exception of the first two items on the list, these were all policies brought to Canadian life by Pierre Elliot Trudeau, either as Minister of Justice in under Prime Minister Lester Pearson, or as the prime minister himself, from 1968-1979, and again from 1980-1984 after the collapse of Joe Clark's short-lived minority Tory government.

Pierre Trudeau was prime minister most of my life while I was growing up. For people my age and a decade or so either side, he looms large... larger than life. He essentially vanished from the public eye after his resignation in 1984, but when he did speak out, on Meech Lake or the Charlottetown Accord, the nation's attention was focused on him like a laser, even after a decade out of sight. When he died in September, 2000, I felt like the man who was the real Prime Minister of Canada, even after 16 years in retirement, was gone. I wonder how many others felt that way.

It was at this point that another Trudeau came to prominence... his eldest son, Justin, who delivered his eulogy. And I think, in some way, since this moment, in the back of its collective mind, this country has been waiting for the moment Justin would take up the mantle his father set down. I realized I was waiting when I heard he was running for Parliament several years ago. He's currently the member for a Montreal riding. By next spring, he could be the Leader of the Liberal Party. In the long run, in three years beyond that, perhaps the Prime Minister.

Being the son of Pierre Elliot Trudeau is both Justin's blessing and his curse. It's his blessing because people rightly see in him the things they saw in his father that got him elected and re-elected over and over. No matter how much he upset them, infuriated them, or confounded them, they never lost their fascination with the man, and that, too, is Justin's inheritance. But it's his curse, too, for two reasons. One is that his father is not universally well-remembered, particularly among Quebec nationalists and Western Canadians who remember his National Energy Program and confrontations with wheat farmers with a bad taste that lingers to this day. The other is that it means that Justin has before him a very narrow line to walk: one that appeals to the fascination in which this country continues to hold his father as one of the most exceptional people ever to called a Canadian; and the need to distance himself from that legacy, and be his own man. His father's son, yes; but not his father's living shadow.

Brian Mulroney, who was himself prime minister from 1984 to 1993, had some kind things to say about Justin in the past week, which was generous considering Mulroney was Pierre Trudeau's political rival. Mulroney cautioned the Tories and the NDP not to underestimate Justin, saying that his father was a formidable opponent, and that "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree". It strikes me that this is both praise and a warning... either to Justin himself, or to those whom his father rubbed the wrong way should the observation be lost on Justin.

Justin made the right move out of the gate. His first stop after announcing his intention to run was in Calgary, Alberta... a city that scarcely exists on the map of the Liberal Party of Canada. There he made the very conscious move of announcing that he would not use the wealth of some parts of Canada as a wedge issue to gain votes elsewhere. It hardly needs to be said that he was speaking of Alberta, rich with oil, in the former reference, and Ontario and Quebec, rich with voters and over half the seats in the House of Commons between them, in the latter.

He's made no bold promises yet, nor should he, with half a year to go before the convention. He's recognized that furvor over his candidacy will soon fade, as it should. The last thing he needs is for people to be tired of him before the balloons even get blown up and the streamers hung. I expect he'll keep his face in the news at occasional key moments, attending the right functions, saying the appropriate things here and there, but keeping his cards to his chest till the convention. Let's be honest... Justin Trudeau is, for all intents and purposes, running against himself. His coronation as leader of the Grits next spring is pretty short odds. His challenge will be presenting himself as a bold alternative to the government and the Official Opposition, and maintaining the fire long enough to parlay that into taking up residence in 24 Sussex Drive and for years beyond, or risk becoming the greatest coulda-shoulda-woulda in Canadian political history.

Good luck, Justin. We've been waiting, and we'll be watching.

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