Trudeau's Canada, Again ; New Leader Aims to Show That Cultural Differences Are His Nation's Strength

By Lawson, Guy | International New York Times, December 12, 2015 | Go to article overview

Trudeau's Canada, Again ; New Leader Aims to Show That Cultural Differences Are His Nation's Strength


Lawson, Guy, International New York Times


With the legacy of his father on his side, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sets out to redefine what it means to be Canadian.

Tuesday, Nov. 10, six days after Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party, was sworn in as prime minister of Canada, I was shown into his office on the third floor of the Parliament building in Ottawa. A dark oak-paneled room, it contained a jumble of outsize furniture chosen by the previous occupant, Stephen Harper, whose Conservative Party was in power for a decade. Trudeau's father, Pierre, occupied the same office for 16 years, during the 1960s, '70s and '80s, and the new prime minister would shortly install his father's old desk, a symbol of restoration but also an emphatic rejection of his predecessor.

"We're going to move this place around," Trudeau said. "This is very much the last guy's style, not mine. I'll have a smaller desk in the corner and a bigger couch so we can sit down and actually have discussions. I'll put a reclining seat over there, for me to read."

There is virtually no transition period in Canadian politics, and it was clear that the electoral win on Oct. 19 had caught Trudeau, his staff and the country by surprise. Trudeau, who is 43, was still working on getting his staff to call him "prime minister." For years, he was "Justin," and staff members often still referred to him that way.

In person, Trudeau was as upbeat and friendly as might be expected of a politician with a campaign mantra of "Sunny Ways," a reference to the optimistic adage of Wilfrid Laurier, a Liberal prime minister at the turn of the 20th century. Trudeau is 6 feet 2 inches and has an athletic build, his hair neatly trimmed after years of his experimenting with shaggy manes. This was the first print interview Trudeau had granted since taking office, and in his presence there was a palpable sense that he was still figuring out exactly how to play this new role. Despite his studied manner, he was prone to providing glimpses of his unguarded self.

"It's very, very cool to have the president call up, and I say, 'Hello, Mr. President.' I've never met him," Trudeau said. He dropped his voice an octave to imitate President Obama: "Justin, I like to think of myself as a young politician. The gray hair caught up with me, and it'll catch up with you. But calling me 'Sir' makes me feel old. Call me 'Barack."'

Trudeau shook his head, amazed. "That's going to take some getting used to," he said.

One week later, a new geopolitical relationship between America and Canada would begin in a conference room in Manila, at the Asia- Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting, when Trudeau and Obama sat down for the first time to talk. In an age of Middle Eastern chaos and Russian belligerence, the United States has no relationship more important than the one with Canada. The country is a crucial ally in global affairs -- when the relationship is functional, as it hasn't been in recent years. Harper's hawkish foreign policy put him at odds with Obama on the Iran nuclear treaty, Israeli-Palestinian relations and Syrian refugees.

The 45-minute session in Manila was casual and friendly. In a private conversation, the president advised Trudeau to be active early, but also to think about calibrating sky-high expectations with a long-term plan for governance. Obama shared his impressions of world leaders, suggesting whom to build relationships with, and whom to steer clear of.

"It was nice to confirm in person how like-minded we are on so many issues," Trudeau told me. "He said that seeing my family on TV on election night reminded him of his election in 2008 with his family. I'm looking forward to having a beer with him."

identity

The election this fall was nothing less than an existential struggle over what it means to be Canadian. On one side, there was Harper's vision of a nation in an age of terror, in a world afire with conflict. On the other was Trudeau's moderate liberal belief that the world is not riven by an epic clash of civilizations, and that cultural and religious differences are Canada's strength. …

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