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Today, we come to the end of the line for Part 1 of From John to Justin. Over the past 23 weeks, I have looked at every prime minister in Canadian history and today we finish with the current prime minister, Justin Trudeau.
I will be returning next week with my ranking of all the prime ministers in Canadian history, and the week after I begin Part 2 of the podcast, looking at the opposition leaders who never became prime minister.
This episode will be a bit different than the previous episodes as we are still in the second term of Justin Trudeau. So, this episode will only cover the life of Trudeau up to the election win for his second term. I will do an update on the second term when it comes to an end, with either an election win or loss.
In 1659, the first of the Trudeau family would arrive in New France, beginning the line of the family that would produce two prime ministers. Etienne Trudeau arrived on Sept. 7 of that year, and by 1663 was a master-carpenter. He and his wife would have 14 children, with most staying in the area. That line would produce two prime ministers, Pierre, and Justin.
Justin Pierre James Trudeau was born on Dec. 25, 1971 to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his wife Margaret Trudeau in Ottawa. This makes Justin Trudeau the first prime minister to be born after the Centennial. His birth was only the second time in Canadian history that a child was born while a prime minister was in office. The first was Margaret Macdonald, who was born on Feb. 8, 1869 when her father Sir John A. Macdonald was prime minister.
The first public appearance of Trudeau would be on Jan. 16, 1972 when he was christened at the Notre Dame Basilica in Ottawa.
Politics was something the Trudeau family was heavily involved in. Not only was Justin’s father Pierre the Prime Minister of Canada, but his maternal grandfather was Jimmy Sinclair, who served as a Member of Parliament from 1940 to 1958, including as the Minister of Fisheries from 1952 to 1957 in the government of Louis St. Laurent. One of his ancestors, Francis James Bernard, on his mother’s side, would found the first Singapore Police Force in 1819, and the first newspaper in Singapore in 1824.
Born to the most famous couple in Canada, Trudeau was immediately in the public eye in the country, On April 14, 1972, US President Richard Nixon would visit Canada and say, quote:
“I’d like to toast the future prime minister of Canada, to Justin Pierre Trudeau.”
Nixon’s wife Pat would give Justin Trudeau a stuffed toy Snoopy.
When Trudeau was seven, his parents would divorce, and Justin and his brothers Alexandre and Michel would live with their father at 24 Sussex Drive. The divorce was hard for Justin, who was close with his mother. His nanny Dianne would say in 1979, quote:
Trudeau would state of his parent’s marriage, quote:
“They loved each other incredibly, passionately, completely. But there was 30 years between them, and my mom never was an equal partner in what encompassed my father’s life, his duty, his country.”
At first, Trudeau was going to attend a private school, but his mother convinced Pierre to have Justin attend a public school. In 1976, Justin would attend Rockcliffe Park Public School, the first school his mother attended. Rather than be dropped off by limousine, Justin took the school bus with an RCMP vehicle following behind.
When his father announced he was retiring in 1979, a retirement that did not stick, he told Justin about it at bedtime, before anyone else in the country knew. That first retirement came due to an election loss, which was not an easy time for Justin. The principal at his school, Ken Nicol, would state quote:
“After the spring election, Justin took a bit of a beating. Kids are cruel.”
When Trudeau turned 12, his father retired from politics and he moved with his father to Montreal where he began to attend College Jean-de-Brebeuf, the same school his father attended.
Being the son of the prime minister would also lead to some unusual incidents for the young Trudeau. In 2013, he would say quote:
“There were lunch hours where I wouldn’t eat at school because we had to rush home to have lunch with the queen for example, which actually happened. At the same time, it was instilled upon us that this was a privilege and a responsibility, and nothing made us better than anyone else, maybe randomly luckier.”
After high school, Trudeau would attend McGill University where he was a member of the debating team and a volunteer with the Sexual Assault Centre. While at McGill, he would become friends with Gerald Butts, who would go on to become his principal secretary decades later.
In 1994, he would graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in English literature and then spent a year traveling. After this year, he returned to McGill to complete his degree to become a teacher.
Prior to finishing his degree, Trudeau moved to Whistler to work as a snowboard instructor and as a bouncer in a nightclub. He then returned to finish his degree, this time attending the University of British Columbia, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Education in 1998.
His teaching career would begin with his work as a substitute teacher in Coquitlam, B.C., until he gained a permanent teaching position at West Point Grey Academy, a Vancouver private school. He would then move on to Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School in Vancouver where he began to teach.
It was around this same time that he would go through two family tragedies within only two years of each other. The first was when his brother Michel was killed in an avalanche at Kokanee Lake, B.C. in 1998. Two years later, his father Pierre would die from prostate cancer.
At the funeral of his father, Trudeau gave a eulogy that was broadcast nationwide, and it would bring him back into the public eye for the first time since his father left politics in 1984. It would also lead to rampant speculation that Trudeau would follow his father into politics at some point. In 2003, a book issued by the CBC included the speech in its list of significant Canadian events from the past 50 years.
Trudeau would say later, quote:
“I wasn’t at all surprised by the reaction. I put everything I was given as a son into that eulogy. I was showing myself as his accomplishment.”
In 2002, Trudeau would return to Montreal and study engineering at the University of Montreal, and then switch to environmental geography at McGill. He would leave his post-secondary education in 2007 to focus on advocacy work.
Around this same time, he would tell Maclean’s magazine regarding running for Parliament, quote:
“If enough people put you out there you become something but I’m far from a finished product. I haven’t done anything. I haven’t accomplished anything. I’m a moderately engaging, reasonably intelligent 30-year-old, whose had an interesting life-like someone who was raised by wolves or the person that cultivated an extremely large pumpkin.”
During his time in Montreal, he would meet Sophie Gregoire in 2003 and they would start dating. She had been a friend of his brother Michel and at the time was working as a television and radio host for French and English networks in Quebec. On May 28, 2005, they would marry and have gone on to have three children together.
One aspect of advocacy work that Trudeau was drawn to was avalanche awareness, brought on by the death of his brother. He would become the director of the Canadian Avalanche Foundation and helped create the Canadian Avalanche Centre. During the Kokanee Summit in 2000, Trudeau raised funds in honour of his brother and others who died in avalanches. After the event, an unsigned editorial in the Creston Daily Advance stated that Trudeau groped a female reporter while at a music festival. In 2018, Trudeau would be asked about this and said he did not remember any negative incidents from that time.
He would also become the director of the Katimavik Youth Volunteer Service Program, which had been created by his father’s government in 1977. He would also head the Nahanni Forever campaign, which had the goal of expanding the Nahanni National Park Reserve in the Northwest Territories that was in danger from a proposed mine project.
From 2003 to 2004, Trudeau served as a panelist on CBC Radio’s Canada Reads series and inaugurated the Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Toronto.
Trudeau would also begin to increase his exposure in the country. In 2006, he was the MC at a large rally in Toronto that was urging the United Nations to do more to end the genocide in Darfur. He would also serve as the MC for the Giller Literary Prize Gala, and he portrayed Talbot Papineau in a miniseries on CBC about the First World War called The Great War. In that movie, he portrayed his fifth cousin, twice removed.
When the Liberal Party was defeated in the 2006 election, Trudeau became more involved in politics for the first time since his youth. When he was 17, he offered his support to John Turner in the 1988 federal election. He would offer to help Tom Axworthy, who had been the principal secretary for his father. Axworthy was part of the Renewal Commission, which was working to reinvigorate the Liberal Party that had become stagnant. Axworthy would accept the offer and make Trudeau the chair of the task force on youth issues.
Trudeau would criticize Quebec nationalism, much as his father did in his youth, calling it, quote:
“An old idea from the 19th century.”
During the 2006 Liberal leadership race, after the resignation of Paul Martin, Trudeau put his support behind Gerard Kennedy, and then transferred his support to Stephane Dion, the eventual winner, when Kennedy dropped out. In 2008, Trudeau took his first leap into politics for himself when he won the Liberal Party nomination for the Montreal riding of Papineau. He was able to defeat the Bloc Quebecois incumbent, picking up 41.5 per cent of the vote and 1,000 more votes than his opponent. The Liberals lost the election, and Trudeau began his political career as a member of the opposition. He would be the first member of the 40th Parliament of Canada to introduce a private member’s motion, calling for a national voluntary service policy for young people, which gained support from all parties.
Controversary soon arrived for Trudeau when it was revealed he collected $1.3 million in public speaking fees from charities and school boards, $277,000 of which he received after he became a Member of Parliament.
In 2009, Michael Ignatieff became the leader of the Liberal Party and Trudeau was named the party’s critic for youth and multiculturalism.
In 2011, Trudeau won his seat in Papineau again, this time by a greater margin with 4,000 votes over his second-place opponent. Unfortunately, the election was a disaster for the Liberal Party, which fell to third-party status for the first time in its history. Many predicted that the party was near death and Ignatieff resigned as leader.
Trudeau by this point was thinking of challenging for the leadership of the party but many of his critics questioned his experience.
Trudeau would say quote:
To prove himself on the public stage, Trudeau would challenge Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau to a boxing match for cancer research. Brazeau was younger and larger than Trudeau, who was also a former soldier with a black belt in karate. As such, many questioned Trudeau on why he chose him as an opponent, and the consensus was that he would lose. Trudeau would say quote:
“People often underestimate me. They see me as a lightweight. If I win this fight, perhaps they’ll take me more seriously.”
Trudeau, who had experience as an amateur boxer, began an intense training routine. He also believed that Brazeau, who smoked, would not be able to last too many rounds in the ring due to limited lung capacity. In the fight in March 2012, Trudeau won in the third round when the referee stopped the fight.
With Bob Rae as the interim leader of the Liberal Party, Trudeau stated he would not run for the Liberal leadership as he had a young family. When Bob Rae announced he would not enter the leadership race, Trudeau began to receive calls from supporters to reconsider not running for leadership.
On Oct. 2, 2012 Trudeau launched a campaign for leadership of the party and became a frontrunner. In anticipation of a Trudeau victory, the party began to rise in the polls. On April 14, 2013, Trudeau became the leader of the Liberal Party, only one week off 45 years to the day that his father won the leadership of the party. In that leadership race, Trudeau won on the first ballot with 80.1 per cent of the vote, with 21,000 more votes than his next closest challenger.
Within days of taking over as the Liberal leader, polls showed that the Liberal Party was now the choice of 43 per cent of respondents, 13 per cent more than the Conservatives.
As the new leader of the party, Trudeau began to rebuild the party that had hit its lowest point and was fractured due to the decade old fight between Jean Chretien and Paul Martin over leadership. He would help build up the fundraising of the party and was often seen throughout Canada building his visual reputation among voters.
In 2015, Prime Minister Stephen Harper launched a two-month election campaign, the longest since the 1870s. The election would be one of the most contentious in Canadian history. Typically, in the past, there would be a French television debate and an English television debate. During this election, the New Democrats pushed for more debates believing that Trudeau would fold under the pressure, and all three parties agreed to five debates in total.
Trudeau would perform well in the debates, and the Liberals ran a strong campaign as the Conservatives suffered setbacks. Among his pledges were to legalize marijuana, to admit Syrian refugees and to run small deficits.
On Oct. 19, 2015, the Liberals moved from third party status to a majority government, winning 184 seats, 150 more than they had in 2011. This was the second-best performance of the party in its history, thanks to taking most of eastern Canada, including 40 seats in Quebec. Those 40 seats were the most the Liberal Party won since Pierre Trudeau in 1980. The 150-seat gain was also the biggest numerical increase for a single party since Confederation and the first time a party had gone from third place to a majority government.
On Nov. 4, 2015, Trudeau became the 23rd Prime Minister of Canada, and the second youngest after Joe Clark. He also became the first child and relative of a previous prime minister to assume office.
In his victory speech, Trudeau would say, quote:
“Canadians have spoken. You want a government with a vision and an agenda for this country that is positive and ambitious and hopeful. I promise you tonight that I will lead that government.”
One of the first acts by Trudeau as prime minister was to create a cabinet that was composed of an equal number of women and men, which was a first in Canadian history.
During the next two years, Trudeau’s government admitted 40,000 Syrian refugees, cut the personal income tax rate, and increased the tax rate on wealthy Canadians, revised the Canada Pension Plan and launched the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Unfortunately, this inquiry was highly disorganized and deep in internal conflict. Several members would resign, and new commissioners would be appointed. In 2019, the commission would release a report that stated that police and prosecutors were often indifferent to the murders of Indigenous women. It would also state that the treatment of the Indigenous amounted to genocide. Trudeau would state quote:
“We accept their findings including that what happened amounts to genocide. There are many debates ongoing around words and use of words. Our focus as a country, as leaders, as citizens must be on the steps, we take to put an end to this situation.”
Regarding climate change, Trudeau’s government would encourage provinces to implement measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In 2019, the federal carbon tax came into effect.
The government would legalize assisted dying in certain cases, and most famously, legalized marijuana, making Canada only the second country to legalize marijuana nationwide. Trudeau’s government also apologized for several wrongs in Canadian history including the 1914 decision to deny East Asian passengers on Komagata Maru entry to Canada, the abuse of children at Newfoundland residential schools, the rejection of 900 German Jews in 1939, the management of the tuberculosis epidemic among Inuit from the 1940s to 1960s and the discrimination against civil servants based on their sexual orientation. He also exonerated Chief Poundmaker for the crime of treason during the North West Rebellion of 1885.
The Senate was also reformed, for the first time since 1964, with a retirement requirement for all senators at the age of75. He also promised to work towards a non-partisan Senate, and he removed several Liberal Senators from the party caucus.
One of the most significant challenges his government faced was the election of President Donald Trump in 2016. The Trump government stated that it would be cancelling the North American Free Trade Agreement and Trudeau would consult with Brian Mulroney and Rona Ambrose about how to maintain strong ties with the United States. In 2018, the Trudeau government took a hard line with the United States over NAFTA, filing a complaint with the World Trade Organization. In November of 2018, Canada, the United States and Mexico reached a new agreement called Canada-United States-Mexican Agreement. There were few major changes between this agreement and NAFTA.
Canada’s relationship with China also deteriorated during the first term, mainly because of the arrest of Meng Wanzhou and the detainment by China of two Canadians. The relationship with Saudi Arabia also declined as human right groups called on Canada to stop selling military equipment to the country. In 2018, Saudi Arabia would recall its Canadian ambassador and froze trade with Canada.
The Trudeau government also reduced the debt-to-GDP ratio every year until 2020.
In a July 2019 study by 20 independent academics, it was found that the Trudeau government kept 92 per cent of its pledges, including complete and partial pledges. When looking at only completed pledges it was 53.5 per cent. The first Trudeau government term and the first Harper government term have the highest follow through on campaign promises of any Canadian government since 1984.
While the Trudeau government had several successes during its first term, there were also several controversies. The government failed to balance the federal budget by 2019 as it had promised, and its new federal employee payroll system was deeply flawed since its launch in 2016. Trudeau also approved the Trans Mountain Expansion Project, which would cause a rift with the British Columbia government. In 2017, Trudeau was found to have breached the federal conflict of interest law when he took his family to a holiday on the private Bahama island of spiritual leader Aga Khan, whose Canadian foundation had received federal funding. This makes the first time a sitting prime minister broke federal conflict of interest rules.
One of the biggest controversies erupted in February 2019 when Jody Wilson Raybould resigned from cabinet as attorney general over allegations of improper pressure on her from the Prime Minister’s Office over the federal case against the engineering firm SNC-Lavalin. After she testified before a parliamentary committee, the opposition in the House of Commons called for Trudeau to resign. Gerald Butts, the principal secretary to Trudeau would resign, as would Jane Philpott, the Treasury Board president, stating she had lost confidence in the government. Both Philpott and Raybould were ejected from the Liberal caucus. Trudeau did waive privilege and cabinet confidences, allowing Raybould to speak on the matter. On March 19, 2019, the Liberal Committee members voted as a group to shut down the Justice Committee’s investigation. In August 2019, the Ethics commission report stated that Trudeau had exerted pressure on the Attorney General and breached the conflict-of-interest law. Trudeau stated that he accepted responsibility for the mistakes he made, but he disagreed with some of the findings of the report. Following this scandal, support for the Liberals fell heavily before rebounding several months later.
On Sept. 11, 2019, Trudeau launched the federal election campaign. Early in the election campaign, photos and videos surfaced of Trudeau in blackface on three occasions, including when he was a teacher at West Point Grey Academy in 2001. The other two incidents occurred when Trudeau was in high school. The images of Trudeau in black face not only became national news, but international news and even made their way into several television shows and movies, including the Borat sequel. Trudeau would state quote:
In the election on Oct. 21, 2019, the Liberal Party lost 20 seats while the Conservative Party under Andrew Scheer gained 26 seats. The Liberals were able to maintain their position as the ruling party in the House of Commons, but it was now with a minority government. The Liberals also saw Alberta and Saskatchewan did not elect a single Liberal MP. The Liberals also lost the popular vote to the Conservatives, marking only the second time in Canadian history that a governing party formed a government with less than 35 per cent of the popular vote. The Liberals also received the lowest percentage of the popular vote for a governing party in Canadian history.
Thus began the second term of Trudeau, one that will most likely be dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic. When this second term comes to an end, I will upload a new version of this episode that chronicles this second term.
Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, Library and Archives Canada, CBC, CTV, Global News, Wikipedia, OurCommons.ca, Macleans, Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau, Biography.com, New York Times, Maclean’s,