PERSPECTIVES: New Wave Of Truedeaumania Or Maybe Not

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By Ernest Corea* Image Credit: justin.ca

WASHINGTON DC – “We don’t do dynasties,” a Canadian friend said quite huffily, when asked about the likelihood of Justin Trudeau, the son of the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, and Margaret Trudeau, being voted into office as the country’s next prime minister.

Or, as Canadian author Bruce McCall wrote recently in the New York Times: “There are no Kennedys or Bushes in Canadian politics, let alone anything like the successive Kims: Il-sung, Jong-il and Jong-un. We have no shortage of dimwits and blowhards in high office, but ours have never run in families.

“Maybe the idea of a dynasty is just too gaudy, too overreaching for a culture that can’t help sounding modest even when it tries to brag – which explains why Canadian show-offs are almost inevitably banished to the United States.” (McCall lives in the US.)

Canadians are famously/notoriously low-keyed – with some strident exceptions – and the very idea of a political dynasty throwing down its roots there seems out of sync with the Canadian character. Canada has, in fact, sometimes even found it difficult to assert its national identity, despite its strong record as a caring, innovative, and prosperous nation.

A Canadian actor noted, for instance, that when Canadians travel beyond their shores and speak English, they are asked: “Are you from America?” So they quickly switch to French and are asked: “Are you Belgian?”

Nevertheless, the emergence of a “new” Trudeau as the leader of the once triumphant Liberal Party, now occupying a lowly third place in Canada’s Parliament, appears to have given Canadian right-wing activists some serious rumbling in their intestines.

On to Leadership

Justin Trudeau, born on Christmas Day in 1971 has been a Member of Parliament (MP) from 2008. Officially, within the Liberal Party’s parliamentary caucus, he has been the party’s parliamentary “critic” (in effect, Minister-in-waiting) dealing with a variety of national issues including citizenship and immigration, education, the environment, national unity, youth affairs, and sport.

He was considered something of a “rock star” on the Liberal side of the aisle, and was active in outreach to the media as well as in the arts. His political lineage was firmly established as his father was a prime minister who was known as a towering figure both at home and abroad, and his maternal grandfather James Sinclair was a Cabinet Minister in the government of Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent.

His parliamentary career has coincided with something of an eclipse in the life of the Liberal Party. Its political clout has receded in recent years, and it gave the appearance of having become the happy hunting ground of mediocrities seeking leadership roles. Justin Trudeau’s ascension to the party’s leadership could reverse that trend.

As the party sank lower and lower in influence and popularity, political commentators repeatedly predicted that his peers would at some point throw the leadership ball to Justin Trudeau. This happened on April 14, 2013, when he was elected leader of the Liberal Party, securing 80 percent of the vote, with five contenders ranged against him.  This was 45 years after the mantle of leadership was bestowed on his father, Pierre Trudeau,

Hope and Change

Right-wing critics have pounced on the “new” Trudeau. .

He was too young and inexperienced, they said. He couldn’t win the people’s respect. He was trying to ride on his father’s name. He was attempting to “do an Obama.”

Reporting on the unseemly political dog fight, Barbara Yaffe wrote in the Vancouver Sun: “A message on the federal Liberal party website, promoting an ad that defends the new leader against recent Conservative attacks, reads: ‘Hope and Hard Work. Be Part of the Change.’

“Catch those two words in there? Hope. Change. Obama's 'Yes, We Can' could be coming next. The Liberal pitch, made last week, solicits a $5 donation in a bid to raise $1 million to ‘make sure every Canadian hears our message….The other side is trying to bury our message of positive change under an avalanche of negative attacks,’ says the message from Trudeau, with a photo showing him in an open-necked shirt.

"’Let me be clear: We aren't going to let them get away with it’."

The next general election is due no later than 2015. Nevertheless, the political battle has already been joined. Canadian voters have been subjected to a barrage of directed mail attacks on the Liberal Party leader from almost the day he was elected to the post. Some of his expatriate detractors have emerged from outside the country to throw verbal missiles at him and his party.

At times it has been unclear whether his detractors are actually fighting the Liberal Party’s new leader, or his father whom they looked on with awe and disliked with great intensity. Are they scared by the potential impact of his father’s political reputation on the fortunes of the son?

Harmonious Society

Pierre Trudeau was endowed with a sharp tongue, a ready wit, and a great capacity for the “mot just” – exactly the right word or phrase in tricky situations. He had a powerful intellect, and a probing interest in all things connected with his role as a national leader.

He traveled widely before he entered politics, and knew at first hand the problems and potential of many of Canada’s partnering countries. Like the internationally reputed Lester B. Pearson before him, Trudeau turned out to be very much a “foreign affairs president.” He maintained effective relations with China and Cuba to the mutual benefit of all three countries.

When he was no longer in office, a reporter sought his views on a controversial piece of legislation sponsored by Prime Minister Joe Clarke. “What should Mr. Clarke do about his Bill?’ the reporter asked. Without waiting so much as to bat an eyelid, Trudeau replied: “Pay it.”

On being a neighbor of the US, Trudeau told an audience at the Washington Press Club: “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

In domestic affairs, he was less engaged in economic management than in keeping the fabric of society intact. He was challenged by intolerance on both sides of the language divide (English and French), and more viciously, by a separatist-terrorist movement.

He showed fortitude in dealing with the terrorist threat, at first scaring the pants off middle-of-the-road Canadians, who did not relish the prospect of military influence in their land.  His approach was perfectly illustrated in this brief excerpt of cross-talk with a Canadian reporter at the time:

Trudeau: Well there are a lot of bleeding hearts around who just don't like to see people with helmets and guns. All I can say is, go on and bleed. But it's more important to keep law and order in the society than to be worried about weak-kneed people who don't like the looks of a soldier— Reporter [interrupting]: At any cost? How far would you go with that? How far would you extend that? Trudeau: Well, just watch me.

When the threat had passed, his courage and wisdom were both recognized and praised.

Over the long term, his goal was to create a harmonious society in which Canada’s much talked-about “two solitudes” would co-exist. An important instrument of policy that he deployed in his efforts to reach this objective was bilingualism. He rejected the notion that Canada consisted of two nations. His son Justin supports his father’s position, and recently dismissed the dual-nation theory as belonging to the 19th century.

Into the Future

Justin Trudeau has opted for an easy-rider style. He wore a v-necked T-shirt and cargo shorts as he glided through a crowded food court in a shopping mall, dropping friendly smiles here, offering warm handshakes there, and acting the crowd-pleaser with grace and charm.

His approach has already brought his party early results – although elections are not just around the corner. The party, say Canada-watchers, appears to have surmounted even temporarily, the fund-raising difficulties they have faced in recent times.

The Liberals have raised over one million Canadian dollars since his ascent to the leadership. The money came from 14,000 donors, of whom 6000 were making a political donation for the first time ever. Meanwhile, polls have shown that the relentless campaign against him has not shaken his current popularity. Liberals have taken a 7 point nationwide lead in the polls. Their rating stands at 35 percent with Conservatives at 28 percent and the left-leaning National Democratic Party at 22 percent.

Globally, where the current government’s lackluster style has resulted in an erosion of influence and a leadership role among like-minded nations, greater attention is being focused on Canada. Critics have “given up” in despair and want even the Montreal-based ICAO moved to the Middle East. Others, remembering Canada’s stellar role in the past are hoping for better days to come.

There will be more developments as the months go by, and topsy-turvy changes of fortune, no doubt. However the results turn out when a general election is held, it is quite clear that the new Trudeau’s rise to his party’s leadership has enlivened Canadian politics beyond expectations. For the first time since the now almost forgotten Trudeaumania of the past, Canadian politics have been transformed into a fascinating spectator sport.

*The writer has served as Sri Lanka's ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon 'Daily News' and the Ceylon 'Observer', and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore 'Straits Times'. He is Global Editor of and Editorial Adviser to IDN-InDepthNews as well as President of the Media Task Force of Global Cooperation Council. [IDN-InDepthNews - May 7, 2013]

Image Credit: justin.ca

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