Ten years ago, I spent a week trudging through the mountains of B.C. with Justin Trudeau.
We got dusted by an avalanche, had an emotional visit to the lake where his brother, Michel, died, and we talked. A lot. Believe me, you really get to know someone in these circumstances, and over those days I got a glimpse of where he wanted to go and how he would do it.
For context, we weren’t just two guys hanging out snowboarding and drinking beer. I was shooting a one-hour documentary about him, so we had company.
Even back then, he had an understanding of his celebrity status. At that time it wasn’t serving any purpose, but he didn’t walk away from it or complain about it. He accepted it, and in fact, was gracious in dealing with the people who wanted a handshake or photo. Our cameras captured that . What the lens couldn’t show however was his internal discipline. That came during walks we would take before the cameras arrived or over beers when the day was done.
It was impressive and telling.
Here was a young man with few remarkable accomplishments and with no particular focus, weighing every phrase, every word, to either shape a perception or to obscure a revelation.
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He may have been a public figure, but he wasn’t about open his private life carelessly. Conversations about family were brief and devoid of much detail. His own personal fears or failures were closely guarded, and even talk about his cottage was brushed aside, lest its location could be determined and unwanted visitors appear.
What became obvious over that week was he was getting bored. The causes he supported, then and now, such as avalanche awareness, still had his full attention, but his ambition was ten years ahead. He was playing the long game and clearly it involved making a run for the highest office.
And yet, he knew there was a timetable. Get ahead of it and it could unravel. So he was proceeding slowly, deliberately, and collecting people as he went. None was more important than Gerry Butts, now his principal secretary.
In those long ago conversations, something else emerged. This was not a simple play for power. His ambition was legacy.
Over beers, he talked about political office being a means to an end, rather than a prize of its own.
Like the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley, the object was not to secure power and fortune, but to change the world. And if your message doesn’t reach and resonate with at least one billion people, you’re not going to change much.
So ten years later, how much has changed?
The internal discipline is still there although the pursuit of power last year sent it off the rails a few times.
He’s at his best when he’s challenged, and at his sloppiest when he feels too relaxed. But the October win seems to have settled him down, in my view, for one reason: the stakes are no longer aspirational or imaginary. It’s now go-time for all those thoughts of years gone by, and it’s clear, at least so far, that those goals and hopes of a transformed world are still very much active.
People close to him today say the transformation from thought to action is unfolding on a big canvas. Not only does he want to be the focus of progressive politics in Canada, he wants to take it global. He wants to be the voice championing liberal causes everywhere.
Already, less than six months into his mandate, he’s taken the world stage in Washington and at the United Nations to demand the spotlight for causes ranging from gender equality to ending austerity budgets.
So far, he’s getting attention. Michael Bloomberg calls him Canada’s new hope. Obama asks what’s not to like about him? Even stodgy bureaucrats at the UN are describing his visit as akin to Beatlemania, which is apparently something like Trudeaumania of the 1960s.
As for being the global focus for progressive liberalism, one response might be: why not? Somebody has to do it.
But on another level this ambition is littered with landmines. Back in the 1980s his father tried to be the rallying point for a new world order of peace and it failed miserably. Pierre Trudeau misread the world and didn’t realize that the Cold War was well on its way to a stunning end. The collapse of the Soviet Union was less than a decade away and the elder Trudeau was simply on the wrong side of history.
The quest of this prime minister is much more in tune with his times.
A lower carbon world, pay and gender parity, a more level distribution of wealth are all aspirations shared by many people, in all but the most backward of countries.
The danger doesn’t lie in being offside, but in being seduced by the grandeur of the plan.
Arrogance is a by product of flattery, and entitlement the outcome of small success.
Both elements have stalked the Liberals for generations, and have often gone in for the kill.
Every leader wants to leave a mark, the bigger the better. We’ve had many Prime Ministers, both Liberal and Conservative, who have made a difference not only to Canada but the world. Pearson revolutionized the peace process, Harper brought hope and money to thousands of women and children in Africa.
Trudeau is aiming to do no less, but wants more. He’ll either do it, or like Icarus flying to close to the sun, fail spectacularly.
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