A Portrait of Justin Trudeau

The world is in love, but contradictions between the prime minister’s ideals and his government’s actions are testing public support at home.
August 24, 2017

Cartoon of Justin Trudeau as Dorian Gray

Illustration by Remie Geoffroi

Can we finally admit it? The world really does love Justin Trudeau.

When he first proclaimed, after his 2015 election victory, that “Canada is back,” global audiences reacted with political optimism and fawning approval. Prominent media outlets like the New York Times, VogueandParis Match ran glowing features about the celebrity prime minister and his famous family, their political legacy now firmly entrenched. From the world of public diplomacy to the fashion world the buzz only grew louder. We’re now even talking about Trudeau’s sock diplomacy.

Part of Trudeau’s appeal is his willingness to be available to international media. He appeared on the cover of an airline magazine. He was interviewed on a baseball podcast. When host Kelly Ripa of Kelly and Ryan, the popular American daytime television show, asked Trudeau what it was like to be the sexiest politician alive, he expressed no shock or outrage. His wife, Sophie Grégoire, “knows what I look like when I get up in the morning,” he quickly joked. Trudeau, comfortable in pop culture and the public world of social media, seems to know that just being “out there” enhances his appeal.

I am writing this column from Switzerland. When I tell Swiss I meet that I am Canadian, their first question is often about Justin—do I like our young and exciting prime minister? I ask what they know about him, apart from his age. Normally they simply say he is unlike old politicians, and that he helps people abroad see Canada apart from the U.S. and its current president. When I probingly ask what Trudeau and Canada stand for, they inevitably admit they don’t know. He just seems interesting, exciting and different.

While anecdotal, such reactions are instructive, for they put the global media’s love affair with Trudeau into context. For a great many people outside Canada, he appears to embody the cool, hip, young and progressive politician the 21st century needs. To be fair, this impression is not pure superficiality. Whereas the Harper Conservatives in 2015 unsuccessfully tried to paint Trudeau as an inexperienced neophyte with nice hair, the Liberal election platform addressed serious issues like inequality and climate change, proposed novel policy changes for addressing them, and proclaimed firm stances and a clear value set that voters assumed would guide future policy actions.

In the beginning, that’s what seemed to be happening. At the UN climate summit in Paris in late 2015, Trudeau said that Canada would become an engaged actor on climate change in contrast to his predecessor. In a visit to London, and later at the World Economic Forum in Davos, he declared that diversity was a Canadian strength and a key ingredient of future prosperity. In another context this would be a boilerplate Liberal talking point. But when ethnonationalism was threatening many European countries, and at the time putting a mark on the 2016 U.S. presidential election, it was a bold statement.

By early 2017, when a newly elected President Trump issued his executive order restricting migration from seven Muslim-majority countries, Trudeau tweeted, “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.” When Trump announced that transgendered Americans would be banned from the military, the Canadian Armed Forces, channelling a prime minister who strongly supports LGBT rights and marches in Pride parades, promptly tweeted, "We welcome Cdns of all sexual orientations and gender identities. Join us!"

It is no doubt because of these outward expressions of socially progressive values that the international media continue to pump up Trudeau. German newspaper Bild called him “the new Kennedy and the anti-Trump.” Rolling Stone put Trudeau on its cover, asking “Why can’t he be our President?” and “Is he the free world’s best hope?” As much as it made Canada’s national media cringe at the time, perhaps “Canada is back” was more than an empty political slogan.

Not so fast.

A look at the Trudeau record

Writing in the Monitor after the 2015 election, I cautioned Canadians on being overly optimistic about what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau might achieve (“Electoral reform will test Trudeau’s leadership, and his values,” January/February 2016). Nearly two years into his mandate, it is hard to identify any high-level success stories.

Yes, Trudeau has managed Canada–U.S. relations fairly well, in that President Trump seems to like the young prime minister, and Canada has not borne much of the infamous wrath suffered by Germany, Mexico and other countries. Yes, the political conversation seems less polarized or angry, a not insignificant feat. Yes, the economy is growing, but all leaders like to claim credit for good times, even if growth is often attributable to factors beyond their control.

Perhaps the government’s most significant achievement has been the introduction of gender-based analysis to the federal budget, a new gender-based violence strategy and a reframing of development policy through a feminist lens. Attitudinally, when combined with a cabinet comprised equally of women and men, these initiatives mark a fundamental break with the status quo, though many activists argue that more investment is required if any of these initiatives are to work.

But then there are the numerous policy stumbles, reneging entirely on electoral reform chief among them. And Trudeau has made political missteps: getting physical with opposition MPs in the House of Commons; an ethics investigation into his holidays; and, most recently, talking about his well-known boxing match with Senator Brazeau in such a disparaging manner that it was widely interpreted as picking on Indigenous peoples to promote his political narrative.

Not surprisingly, a growing number of journalists and analysts are contrasting the government’s record with Trudeau’s international image. Michael Harris notably called him “the do-nothing Trudeau the global press doesn’t know.” Others, like the National Post’s Jen Gerson and Canadaland podcaster Jesse Brown, are writing to international audiences that Trudeau and his government are not as progressive as they insist they are. A quick review of how the government has handled key issues backs them up.

  • On climate change and the environment, Trudeau’s policies to date have not strayed significantly from the Harper era. Both the Liberal and Conservative governments advocated a vision of responsible expansion of tar sands oil production and the pipelines to take it to market. As in the Harper era, critics contend that current Canadian actions ensure the country will not meet its international emissions reduction targets.
  • While Trudeau was widely praised at home and abroad for welcoming Syrian refugees to Canada and promoting a belief that they belong here, Kamal Al Solaylee argued that Canadians had “hijacked the narrative” and made the story about “us” and not the refugees. In fact, compared to other countries (on a per capita basis), Canada did not bring in significant numbers of Syrian refugees. And when people started crossing the Canada-U.S. border this spring to escape anticipated deportation in Trump’s America, the Trudeau government responded rather harshly, with a spokesperson for Ralph Goodale saying, “To be clear, trying to slip across the border in an irregular manner is not a free ticket to Canada.” With rhetoric like that, it’s not surprising that half of Canadian respondents in a July 2017 poll said they believed terrorists were posing as refugees to get into the country. In August 2017, a new wave of people fearful of being deported back to Haiti began crossing the border. In response, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen stated, “We discourage irregular crossings.” This was despite the prime minister’s tweet, noted above, about welcoming those fleeing persecution. McMaster University’s Vic Satzewich summed it up best: “Canada welcomes refugees, but shuts the door on asylum seekers.”
  • While the government’s first budget in 2016 was economically activist (e.g., on the expansion of child benefits and promises of new infrastructure spending, including for housing), it is business as usual when it comes to free trade. The CCPA regularly identifies the high costs Canada will pay for Harper’s European trade deal (notably for brand name prescription drugs, which will get longer patent protection in CETA). Former diplomat David Mulroney criticized the government for not paying attention to the human rights dimensions of a possible free trade deal with China. Documents reveal that the government has tried carefully to manage adverse reactions to closer ties with China, apparently intent on getting a deal done. And there is concern that the government is ignoring national security concerns in its rush to attract Chinese investment. Meanwhile, the Liberals’ new national security bill, according to Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom, is quite similar to the Harper government’s Bill C-51.
  • The Trudeau government is exploring the rather Orwellian concept of “asset recycling" as it seeks to privatize Canadian airports and use the proceeds to invest in other infrastructure projects—something Australian economist John Quiggin likened to “selling your house to buy an expensive car.” The proposed Canada infrastructure bank also allows for (insists on, actually) greater private participation in public infrastructure.
  • Thus, as economist Michal Rozworski outlines, while the Trudeau government is often called “activist” because of its willingness to incur deficits, the devil is in the details. Numerous changes to the management of the welfare state, including easing control on foreign investment, continuing the policy trajectory of the temporary foreign workers program, repackaging social welfare programs to look more proactive, and privatization, all ensure the furthering of Canadian neoliberalism.
  • Trudeau harkened to liberal internationalism’s glory days with frequent mentions of a return to peacekeeping, no doubt linked to his much-publicized campaign for Canada to regain a seat on the UN Security Council. However, plans for a new UN mission continue to be delayed. At the same time, the government, preoccupied with ensuring good relations with the United States (given President Trump’s frequent criticism of the lack of military spending by allies), offered up a new defence policy that promises many billions of new dollars for the military. Daryl Copeland argues that the new orientation of Canadian foreign policy is “very much the product of [Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s] cheerleading for hard power.”
  • The government proceeded with a controversial sale of military equipment to Saudi Arabia, despite outcries from human rights activists and a poll showing a majority of Canadians opposed the deal. Trudeau claimed that cancelling the contract would hurt Canada’s image as a country that could be relied upon. He said the deal would go ahead “because we’re not a banana republic.” However, by August 2017, the federal government began investigating new allegations that equipment from a Canadian company in a previous deal might have been used in a crackdown that resulted in the death of at least five Saudi citizens.
  • Trudeau seems concerned about being seen as criticising some of President Trump’s more outrageous tweets and statements for fear of disrupting Canada–U.S. relations (something that would not be politically difficult given Canadians’ low regard for the president). Canada’s ambassador to Washington, a Trudeau appointee, declared that “Canada needs to let Trump ‘declare victory’ on NAFTA.” Most tellingly, German newspaper Der Spiegel reported that Trudeau suggested Chancellor Angela Merkel remove references to the Paris Accord in a G20 statement on climate change, so as not to not provoke President Trump—an act of “appeasement” according to the newspaper.

Politically, the government has shielded itself from backlash to these policy choices through the strategic use of consultations. For example, Minister Freeland has enlisted from the left (NDP strategist Brian Topp, Canadian Labour Congress President Hassan Yussuf) and right (Conservatives Rona Ambrose and James Moore) for an advisory committee on the NAFTA renegotiation. These people may or may not have any real power to affect the trilateral talks, but their presence in the government’s camp creates the impression that there is widespread ideological consensus on what could turn out to be a highly contentious final deal.

Two Trudeaus?

So who is the real Trudeau? The emotionally genuine leader who wears his heart on his sleeve, or the much more cautious and conservative leader whose policies and actions often do not match his soaring rhetoric? In some ways, Trudeau has a Zelig-like quality after the Woody Allen character: he is able to adapt his outlook and policy pronouncements to whatever audience he is speaking to, allowing diverse constituencies to simultaneously project their visions on to him. (In his illustration for this article, Remie Geoffroi compares Trudeau to Oscar Wilde’s famous protagonist, Dorian Gray, who maintained a youthful appearance while his portrait changed to reflect his age and less savoury deeds—eds.)

Thus, while some are encouraged by Trudeau’s regular pronouncements on climate change, he also speaks warmly to the oil industry. "No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there," he told a Houston energy conference in March, in a speech that earned him a standing ovation. The Liberal government argues forcefully that pipelines are needed to export bitumen from Alberta. In his rhetoric, Trudeau makes it clear what he believes in, but his actions make it less clear about what he stands for.

The political danger of this strategy for Trudeau is that contradictions will ultimately get noticed. A Public Radio International news story recently noted how his “green and progressive” image disappears when talking about increasing oil and gas exports to the United States, a fact not lost on Bill McKibben: “He's as big a hypocrite as there is,” said the well-known environmentalist. “I don’t know whether he’s confused or if he’s just a straight up liar, but those seem like the two possibilities.”

This explains why, despite the love for Trudeau outside the country, within Canada he is increasingly criticized from both the right and the left. Before the summer break, in a column comparing the Liberals’ ambitions with their policy record, former Harper communications director Andrew McDougall pointed out, “We’re now into month 20 of Liberal majority government and, to date, there have been only 19 bills passed, despite closure being invoked 23 times. This is parliamentary peanuts.” Duncan Cameron, writing in Rabble.ca, worried “The real business of governments is carried out behind closed doors in meetings between lobby groups and Liberal (or Conservative) ministers and/or officials of the PMO.”

There seems to be a growing concern that, rather than offering the country something truly new, Trudeau is very much your classic Liberal prime minister, speaking from the left, acting from the right (or at the least not acting in accordance with his stated values), and assuming throughout that the party’s visions of and for the country are one and the same as what the Canadian public believes and wants.

Indeed, proclaiming that Canada is back, right after an election victory, is indicative of this arrogance. As veteran political journalist David Akin asked at the time, was Canada under Trudeau back to breaking its word on commitments made to international environmental treaties, just as Canada had done under Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien when he proudly signed the Kyoto Accord?

Indeed, where had Canada gone during the Harper era? What about Harper’s complaints that the Liberals always talked a good game internationally but didn’t act accordingly, such as on development or peacekeeping? Are non-Liberals also not Canadian? After all, shortly after his election victory in 2006, Harper also proclaimed that Canada was back and would have a new role in the world, in which Canada would act in a principled manner and be a strong supporter of its allies in the fight between good and evil. There would be no more dithering in Harper’s global Canada.

Looking to 2019

So what does this mean as the next federal election nears? I have argued elsewhere that in the era of domestic brand politics, the communication of values is central to political competition. This is apparent in Trudeau’s political strategy. “Canada's a place where people don't always vote on surface identity, but vote on values,” he told Rolling Stone.

Many Canadians will no doubt appreciate the prime minister’s favourable contrast with President Trump in that heavily discussed article. And despite dropping approval ratings Trudeau remains popular. Given these realities, and how many Canadians identify with Trudeau’s values, we can expect to see a lot more of him—particularly given that his cabinet has performed unevenly and with few accomplishments—as we get closer to the 2019 federal election.

The risk is, of course, that Trudeau may end up wearing his government’s shortcomings. For example, while the Liberal government expresses a desire for a new relationship with Indigenous peoples, critics maintain they have not invested sufficient resources to fix longstanding socioeconomic inequalities. Rethinking the relationship may also require stepping back on pipelines and fossil fuel expansion, and putting much more effort into implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples—both tough sells, apparently, for a party not accustomed to seeing such vigorous pushback on its initiatives. Soothing rhetoric may not be enough.

Justin Trudeau Rolling Stone cover

In the Rolling Stone feature, Trudeau recounted his boxing match with Senator Brazeau, essentially admitting he was preoccupied with managing his public persona for political advantage: “It wasn’t random.… I wanted someone who would be a good foil, and we stumbled upon the scrappy tough-guy senator from an Indigenous community. He fit the bill, and it was a very nice counterpoint…. I saw it as the right kind of narrative, the right story to tell.”

By admitting his concern for political narrative, Trudeau instantly undermined his desire for reconciliation. The reaction to the Brazeau fight was stinging. Two comments under a Guardian(U.K.)article about the Rolling Stone piece sum up its effect: “So ‘privileged white guy beats up Indian’ was the ‘right kind of narrative?’ Seriously?”; and “White guy in power & entitlement looks 4 an #Indigenous human to beat up so he looks like a strong white dude. How precious & colonial supreme.”

Trudeau was forced to take back his words, expressing regret in a public statement several days after the article came out. But his underlying concern for shaping his own personal narrative has ultimately hurt his brand. The interview revealed not only the public side of Trudeau that many people know and love; they also saw a calculating and rather insensitive politician.

Among Trudeau’s other challenges, regional tensions can be expected to resurface. While he has worked hard to improve his party’s support in the West, his family name is still widely reviled by many Albertans who disliked (to put it mildly) his father’s National Energy Program. While the Trudeau government has good relations with the Notley NDP in Alberta, a recent poll showed a newly united right would overwhelmingly win the next provincial election. Even small mistakes, like forgetting to mention Alberta when listing Canadian provinces on Canada Day, showed the depth of resentment that remains.

We also have a new NDP-led government in B.C. that could be a source of tension with respect to pipelines. Meanwhile, according to an analysis by the Angus Reid Institute, Liberal vote intention is dropping considerably in Atlantic Canada, the region that most strongly supported Trudeau in the last election. The analysis also showed that vote intentions now only narrowly favour the Liberals over the Conservatives nationally.

Federally, much has been made of Conservative leader Andrew Scheer’s friendly disposition, commitment to family values, and optimism, with references to him being “Harper with a smile.” This could be reassuring to voters who liked Harper’s conservatism but did not like the tenor of his government, with its secrecy and constant politicking.

While appointing Lisa Raitt—an equally optimistic (and better known) leadership candidate in that race—as deputy leader, and even “absolutely” declaring himself a feminist in an interview with Chatelaine, Scheer nevertheless comes from the social conservative wing of the party, and his initial actions indicate that he is concerned with shoring up the Conservative base. How else can we explain why he has invested so much in stoking public fury over the Omar Khadr settlement, to the point of allowing party members to highlight this issue in the United States?

Meanwhile, the Conservatives are again resorting to hyper-partisanship rather than focusing on values and alternative visions, such as the absurd claim that Trudeau’s Rolling Stone cover will weaken Canada’s position in the NAFTA renegotiations. MacDougall argued in Maclean’s that this approach by his former cohort plays into Liberal hands by reminding the public that the Conservatives are the “nasty party.” A “going for the jugular” approach on hot button issues helps Trudeau, he claimed. The party’s best hope to grow its base and to win in 2019 is probably to continue its outreach to new Canadians by focusing on traditional conservative economic issues, a key to Harper’s success.

The Trudeau Liberals will also be challenged from the left. As I noted in my 2016 Monitor article, the collapse of the NDP and its mainstream message allowed Trudeau to emerge the improbable victor in 2015. Will disaffected NDP supporters continue to vote Liberal? The “at least he’s not Harper” effect has still not worn off. The party may need to show that we now have a prime minister whose rhetoric, when push comes to shove, far exceeds his willingness to live up to proclaimed values. “Harper Lite” may not resonate beyond a small group today, but as the Rolling Stone experience showed us, the carefully crafted Trudeau image is not impervious.

We have seen in other western nations, notably the United States, Great Britain and France, that many voters—especially young people who historically do not vote in high numbers—are interested in and will support unabashedly left-wing politicians like Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and Jean-Luc Mélanchon. These leaders have not only developed messages that respond directly to these voters’ concerns; they are increasingly developing communication strategies rooted in social media to mobilize large numbers of people at election time. If the NDP can do the same, this could have a dramatic effect on the next election, given the nature of the “first past the post” system.

The NDP is currently in an important transition period following the removal of Thomas Mulcair as leader. Party faithful, still stinging from the 2015 mainstreaming of the party platform, will likely push leadership contenders to promote more classic left-wing economic ideals. While news reports highlight conflict between the four major candidates—in particular, Jagmeet Singh’s policy proposal on old age security and Charlie Angus’s accusation that he is “acting like a Liberal”— collectively the party is poised to challenge Trudeau on files where he has had some political success, despite a lack of progress: promoting feminism, reducing inequality, the energy-environment nexus, and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples are some examples.

In many ways, we can now see that Trudeau won the 2015 election because he successfully told Canadians that the Harper government was not living up to perceived Canadian values of generosity and compassion, and that government could and should do better. As voters become increasingly focused on this government and its accomplishments, and whether the prime minister is himself living up to his stated values, the superficial dimensions of Trudeau’s public persona will carry less weight, especially as voters continue to experience economic angst.

In an article for the Progressive Post magazine, Stuart Trew, editor of The Monitor, cogently outlined how Trudeau’s “radical centrism” emerged and could be challenged if economic conditions don’t improve. Star Wars socks may be cool and may get attention, but they do not create economic security for concerned Canadians. Sustained pressure from both the left and the right could chip away enough support from the Liberals that we see another change in government in 2019.

Richard Nimijean is a member of the School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa.

This article was published in the September/October 2017 issue of The Monitor. Click here for more or to download the whole issue.