For a country that abhors political dynasties, the announcement by Justin Trudeau on October 2, 2012, that he would vie for the leadership of the Canadian Liberal Party drew a stream of comments and analysis. Surely, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (1968-1979, 1980-1984) would have been proud of his son’s decision, but he would undoubtedly have known that the expectations would be high. The response in Canada’s English language media ranged from skepticism to nostalgia to hope and excitement. In Québec’s French language media, the response was more tepid, with a mixture of indifference, amusement and curiosity.
Trudeau’s main claim to fame outside of his illustrious name is his ability to have been elected in a Montréal riding that once belonged to the separatist Bloc Québécois in 2008 and resisting the New Democratic Party (NDP) wave in 2011. Lately, the 40-year-old Trudeau took on a Conservative Senator in a “boxing” match for charity, and won handily. For moxie, the young Trudeau can be reminiscent of his dad at times.
This being said, the Canada of Pierre Trudeau has been transformed since the former prime minister left the scene in the 1990s. Constitutional issues involving Québec no longer dominate the political landscape. The preponderant role of Central Canada (Ontario and Québec) in Canadian politics has begun to shift toward Western Canada (Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia) making Justin’s Québec credentials less significant than they were for his father.
The Liberal Party, which he wishes to lead, has also been transformed from its “natural governing party” status to that of a third party. Quite a descent for a party that governed for 75 years in the twentieth century! The progressive voice in Canadian politics is now primarily in the grasp of Tom Mulcair, official opposition leader and head of the NDP party. Becoming the leading progressive voice in the Canadian parliament will be the primary challenge for Justin Trudeau if the Liberal Party hopes to regain a semblance of its former status.
Canada’s current governing party is under the leadership of Conservative Stephen Harper. While Canada has had a Conservative party since its inception in 1867, this current version has its base firmly entrenched in Western Canada, and is the product of a western populist movement. It currently has a majority status in Canada’s Parliament and is far more to the ideological right of the political continuum than any of its predecessors. With the clearly leftist NDP in opposition and the governing right wing party, a second challenge awaits Trudeau as he will have to forge a distinctive path with the Canadian electorate if his Liberal Party is to avoid the risk of permanent marginalization—or third-party status . In the past, Liberals were seen as progressive pragmatists. Is there still a constituency for this brand of politics?
Finally, the biggest challenge facing Justin Trudeau will probably be the legacy left by his father. Pierre Trudeau was seen as possibly Canada’s most charismatic prime minister in history, but he was also seen as a content politician who took on the leading political thinkers of the day. Sure he was controversial, but he was respected for his keen intellect, his breadth of vision and his significant accomplishments.
Finding his own voice, articulating his convictions and presenting a new vision of where he and his party wish to take Canada will obviously draw contrasts with his celebrated and controversial father. It is too early to predict how well Justin Trudeau will do. Suffice to say, he has sparked some interest and should be the dominant story in Canadian politics until the leadership convention in April 2013. Exciting times are ahead where Canada’s Liberal Party may sink or swim depending on Justin Trudeau’s candidacy. Stay tuned.
John Parisella is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently an invited professor at University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. His Twitter account is @JohnParisella.