Federal Liberal leadership front-runner Justin Trudeau has provided a rare disclosure of his personal finances to quell speculation about his family’s wealth and head off concerns over potential conflicts of interest.
At the request of The Ottawa Citizen, Trudeau’s campaign staff produced a valuation of the company that manages the money he inherited from his father and gave a full list of his paid speaking events in the years before he announced his run for the leadership.
The documents show that although Trudeau’s inheritance is now worth about $1.2 million, he has also built up a public-speaking business that earned him more than $450,000 in its best year.
Should he become Liberal leader, Trudeau says, he will set a new ethical standard by moving the stocks and bonds he inherited into a blind trust, a requirement currently in place for cabinet ministers, but not for most MPs.
Trudeau, 41, allows that he “won the lottery” by having a wealthy family but says there are misconceptions about the size of his estate.
“I’ve quietly grown used to people being shocked that I don’t live in a castle,” said Trudeau, who resides in a semi-detached two-storey Montreal home with a sizable mortgage.
He said he agreed to speak about his personal finances, a subject he has never discussed publicly, so that people would better understand how he chose to use his money.
“It wasn’t to go off and spend a year in St-Tropez or buy a boat and sail around the world,” he said after a campaign stop in St. Catharines, Ont., last week.
“I worked as a high school teacher and a whitewater river guide in the summer to make money. I worked as a camp counsellor earning $900 for a summer.”
Dividends from the family’s holding company were not enough to live off, Trudeau says, but the money did allow him to travel, study and take lower paying jobs before he became a professional public speaker and, later, an MP.
Trudeau says his father had hoped the family money would allow him and his brother to pursue their interests – his in education and now politics, brother Alexandre (“Sacha”) in filmmaking and journalism – without having to take the well-trod path of Montreal well-to-do into law or business.
“Whatever we wanted to do, we had enough to live a modest but decent life. And that was incredibly lucky.”
The Trudeau family wealth originates with Justin’s grandfather, Charles-Émile Trudeau, who made his fortune in Montreal gas stations in the early part of the 20th century. He rolled his money into real estate, carrying the family through the Depression, and also owned part of Montreal’s Belmont amusement park and the Montreal Royals baseball team.
Charles-Émile Trudeau died suddenly in his early 40s of a heart attack, which his wife, Grace, blamed on the drinking and cigar-smoking lifestyle of businessmen of the day.
Pierre Trudeau, age 15 at the time, was devastated by his father’s death. Combined with his mother’s Scottish temperance, it forever coloured his own attitude to money, his son says. He didn’t smoke, rarely drank more than wine and developed a reputation for tight-fistedness.
“He was very careful about it,” Trudeau said. “He was notorious for under-tipping in restaurants.”
Pierre Trudeau inherited a share of his father’s money, split with his own siblings. Later in life, he prepared to portion it out to his sons.
The boys were given shares in 90562 Canada Inc., the federal corporation that held Trudeau’s portfolio of securities, managed by Montreal investment firm Jarislowsky Fraser.
The succession plans were set up to transfer the company’s assets to the Trudeau sons over time, to guard against the possibility the money would vanish in a spending binge in their wild 20s. This scheduled transfer concludes only when Justin reaches age 45 in 2016.
As they came of age, the heirs received regular dividends from the company – Justin’s topped out at about $20,000 annually – to supplement their incomes.
Aided by this stipend, Justin backpacked around Europe after high school and later travelled through Africa, then went to teachers’ college. His undergraduate studies at McGill University were funded, in part, by the Canada Savings Bonds his father had bought every year at Christmas.
After school, Trudeau ended up in Whistler Village, B.C., teaching snowboarding and putting his martial arts and boxing training to work as a doorman at the Rogue Wolf nightclub.
In Whistler, he slept on a friend’s sofa and drove a beat-up used Mercedes with holes in the floor.
“There was no thought of going off to be a ski bum. I knew I had to go off and work … But I didn’t have to worry about what my salary was.”
As he became serious about a career, the family money backstopped him when he took a job teaching in Vancouver, supplementing his salary of about $44,000.
His first grown-up car followed – a modest Volkswagen Jetta – but he continued to share a home with roommates for a time. When he decided to return to Montreal to study engineering, the earnings from the estate helped him.
Starting in 2006, Trudeau tapped into a vocation that became far more lucrative than teaching: paid speaking. His family name and advocacy for youth issues put him in demand, and he signed up with Speaker’s Spotlight bureau.
The arrangement proved highly profitable. Trudeau earned $290,000 from speaking events in 2006, according to documents voluntarily provided by his campaign. His first events were booked at $5,000 each, but his fee quickly rose with the demand.
In 2007, with some clients paying $15,000 for an event, Trudeau earned $462,000 on the speaking circuit.
In addition to his fee, Trudeau received business-class plane tickets, according to his standard speaking contract. The only special demands required of the host were non-bottled water, a stool, two microphones and a room at the venue to prepare.
With this large salary rolling in, Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire, sold their Montreal condo and bought a $1.2-million home in Outremont, with plans to start a family. Grégoire became pregnant with their first child almost immediately.
The speaking work tailed off in 2008 when Trudeau ran for the Liberals.
With Justin earning a lower income as an MP, and Grégoire staying home with their growing family, the Trudeaus decided to downsize rather than draw down on his inheritance.
In 2010, they sold the Outremont house for $1.6 million and bought a smaller, semi-detached home near Mount Royal for $777,000, with a $622,000 mortgage.
With the approval of the federal ethics commissioner, Trudeau continued to take on occasional paid speaking jobs while sitting as an MP, though far fewer of them. In 2012, he earned $72,000 for four speaking events. Now that he is seeking the Liberal leadership, Trudeau has discontinued this work.
Over the years, there were adjustments to the inheritance scheme, to account for the death of youngest son Michel in an avalanche in 1998, and in the early 1990s, the birth of Sarah, Pierre Trudeau’s daughter with constitutional lawyer Deborah Coyne, who is also running for the Liberal leadership.
In 2010, the holdings in Pierre Trudeau’s original numbered company were “butterflied” and split into separate companies.
Justin’s company, had assets worth $1,242,522 as of August 2011, according to a statement prepared by accounting firm BDO.
Of this amount, $958,154 was held in short-term investments and $255,455 in cash.
The Trudeaus are also beneficiaries of another numbered company that receives royalties from their father’s autobiography and other sources – about $10,000 a year, Trudeau estimates.
Trudeau says while he is aware of the approximate value of his holdings, he pays no attention to which stocks he owns through the company.
He says part of his portfolio is likely invested in oilsands companies but he isn’t certain. It’s just as well he doesn’t know, he says, so he can comment on issues such as the sale of Nexen Inc. or the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline without concern he is acting in his own interest.
Also part of the Trudeau estate are a summer place on a lake near Morin Heights and the family’s distinctive art deco home on Pine Ave. that is now occupied by Sacha and his family. Justin got to keep the Mercedes-Benz convertible his father famously drove on Parliament Hill in the late 1960s.
“For me there are only two things that actually remind me of my childhood with my father that were permanent – one was that car and the other is the lake up north.”
Trudeau stores the Mercedes at a Montreal car dealership. He takes it out for drives in the summer sometimes, but even if he wins the leadership or the larger prize of reclaiming 24 Sussex Dr., he won’t be doing a victory lap on the Hill.
“That was my dad’s thing. I’m a different person. I don’t wear roses, either.”
If Trudeau wins the leadership and takes the Liberals into the 2015 federal election, he knows his comparative wealth could become an issue.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has built his political persona by targeting the middle class, with tax credits for pee-wee hockey or gymnastics and allusions to Tim Hortons.
Trudeau knows he can make no such claim.
“I’m not middle class. I don’t pretend I am,” he said.
Trudeau said he was confronted with questions about his wealth when he first ran in Papineau, one of Quebec’s most economically disadvantaged ridings.
He said he realized he could use the education and experience his family money afforded him in the service of people in his riding.
“I realized I couldn’t feel guilty about what I had. I just had to do right with what I had.”