Friday, October 23, 2015
I went looking for this photo this morning. Took me a while to find it. Wasn’t the year, or camera, or event I was expecting to find it. But I do remember taking it. I remember it as the first time I seriously thought, “we just might be seeing a lot of this guy in the future”. It was, as it turns out, May 28, 2005.
I’m old enough to remember mentions of Justin Trudeau by dint of the fact that he was the son of Pierre Trudeau. The first time I was actually aware of him as a person rather than a footnote was when he gave the eulogy for his father in a state funeral at the end of 2000. Inspiring both warm laughter and bitter tears, it moved and impressed me. I suppose it was his emergence onto the national stage in his own right, at the very moment his father no longer lived to cast the shadow that he did.
Five years of just living his life went by, and he got married. When he did, it was front page news. Another three years went by before he ran for Parliament and won a seat. Another five before he made a run at the leadership of the Liberal Party. And now, after the longest election campaign in Canadian history since, I’m told, 1872, here we are. On November 4th, Justin Trudeau will become the 23rd Prime Minister of Canada.
Seventy-eight days. I was fed up with it in September. Honestly, I don’t know how Americans put up with it… the campaigns for the presidency seem to start two years in advance. But put that aside. A typical Canadian federal election runs about five weeks. This one ran eleven. The thinking at the outset was that Stephen Harper, prime minister through nearly 10 years and three previous elections, was making a cynical move to cause the Liberals and the New Democratic Party to run out their war chests half way through the campaign, and then just bury them in Conservative ads that went unopposed and unanswered… the Tories have far more money to spend. My guess is that kind of “yes, strictly speaking, it’s allowed, buuuut…” trickery left a bad taste in the mouth of a lot of his supporters, and not just those of us hoping to evict him from 24 Sussex Drive.
There was also some idea that the more Canadians saw of Justin Trudeau, the colder their feet would get about voting Liberal. The thinking here clearly was that more time meant more clips of Trudeau screwing up, flopping around, and proving what Tory ads were saying about him: “Justin Trudeau: he’s just not ready”. The Conservatives bought their own message here, and it looks like it backfired on them. As it turned out, the more Canadians saw of Trudeau on the hustings, the more we realized he was ready. He had answers. He could think on his feet. Harper’s long campaign in fact simply gave Trudeau more and more opportunities to demonstrate himself as a credible prime minister… and more importantly, one we could actually like.
I have to confess that there were things about his performance in Parliament that gave me pause. I did not like the fact that he supported the Conservative government in passing the egregious C-51 anti-terror bill. I’m still not sure why he did. It caused me doubts about supporting him, and I decided to support the NDP. We have never had an NDP government at the federal level, and I admit, I was… I still am… curious to see what kind of country they’d give us over four or five years. In August, the NDP was riding high and it was in no way unreasonable to imagine they would form a government (albeit a minority one) for the first time. I remember trying out the phrase “Prime Minister Mulcair” and seeing that it didn’t sound outlandish.
But the fact is that when you have more than two parties in your system, a split vote between similar parties has a tendency to send the one you don’t want up the middle. I remember that happening in 1988. Most Canadians did not want the Free Trade Agreement the Tories were foisting on us. 57% of us voted for parties opposed to it. But there were two of them. They split that vote, and the other 43% of Canadians who voted for the only party pushing it, the Tories, got what they wanted instead. That memory was clearly at work in this election, and deep down, 70% of the country knew that this time, we had to watch and see who was going to make it happen, and then vote strategically. As we moved into September, Justin Trudeau seemed more and more energetic and positive… Mulcair increasingly staid and cautious. A bit too much like Harper. A bit too much like what most of us wanted to replace. And so support for the NDP began to ease down, and transfer to the Liberals. By October there seemed no stopping it, and support for the NDP, at one time around 34% in some polls, dropped to below 20% by election night. When I realized my own riding was polling over 50% Liberal, I knew voting for the NDP was a wasted vote and, in fact, one that might just hurt the Liberals and help the Tories if things got slippery. So sometime in September, I had a change of heart, and decided to help Justin Trudeau achieve that destiny that perhaps glimmered in 2000, and then broke the surface of my mind in 2005.
Watching the returns that night, and seeing every single riding in Atlantic Canada go Liberal, I started feeling confident we would see a Liberal minority government. But when Quebec abandoned the NDP for the Liberals, giving them over half their seats, and the major cities in Ontario blazed Liberal red, their numbers soared. By the time British Columbia was chiming in with its count, we were all stunned as the number topped 170 and kept on climbing. And here we are. A Liberal majority government, unthinkable even as people started casting ballots, and the projected seat count for the Liberals we were seeing all that week hovered around 140.
“Sunny ways,” Justin Trudeau said at the top of his victory speech, citing the campaigning style of Wilfrid Laurier, our first Quebecois prime minister, just over a century ago. He was right. We were tired of Stephen Harper’s wedge politics and admonishments that we needed to be afraid of The Other, here and abroad; and that our economy was supported only by the might of his Atlas-like shoulders, prone to fail without. When Trudeau evoked Abraham Lincoln as he spoke of “the better angles of our nature”, he hit the nail on the head. We wanted optimistic things again… a shopping list: We wanted a government of people, not a person, again. We wanted to be inclusive and accepting again. We wanted to trust rather than bully again. Care, and help, and – yes, I’ll say it – be admired and worthy of admiration again. We wanted our old Canada back. I hope we just gave it back to ourselves.
In 2005, Justin said yes to Sophie. Last Monday, Canada said yes to Justin. I hope we’re all as happy ten years down the road as she is.