Four years ago, Justin Trudeau swept onto the world stage as the new prime minister of Canada — an international introduction for an Instagram icon who had enthralled young Canadians with his fresh approach to politics.
After a dour decade of Stephen Harper as Canada’s leader and with Donald Trump ensconced in the White House, Trudeau seemed the antithesis, an antidote to right-wing populism.
But that was four years ago.
Now, Trudeau is fighting for his political survival. In what had been predicted as a relatively easy re-election campaign — his Liberals had a full seven percentage point lead over the Conservatives, the only other Canadian party with any realistic chance of winning the October 21 vote — and more Canadians are willing to give Andrew Scheer, the relatively unknown Conservative leader a second serious look. The parties are now in a statistical tie according to the latest national opinion polls.
Young Canadians wanting change after nearly 10 years of Conservative government played a critical role in electing Trudeau and his centre-left Liberals in 2015, when he promised to tackle climate change, legalise marijuana and reform the electoral system — issues that resonated with younger voters.
The trouble for the 47-year-old Trudeau, pollsters say, is that these same voters are now frustrated after a series of Liberal scandals as well as the government’s decision to buy an oil pipeline in an attempt to shore up Canada’s key fossil fuels industry.
And Trudeau has been hit hard by reaction to past images of the Liberal party scion in blackface and dark make-up. One was at a 2001 “Arabian Nights” party, when he was a 29-year-old teacher. Two other images and a video of him in blackface later emerged.
Trudeau also promised there would be no repeat of his actions. The question now for Trudeau is whether there will indeed be a repeat for him after four years in that high pressure job
One poll by the Globe and Mail this week found the proportion of 18-to-29-year-olds who plan on voting Liberal was 27 per cent, down from 38 per cent on Aug. 2. Their Conservative support was 23 per cent compared with 19 per cent in August. In this year’s election, 18-to-34-year-olds account for nearly a quarter of all Canadians eligible to cast ballots.
Trudeau is no stranger to the ups and downs of political life. He was born on Christmas Day in 1971 in Ottawa, the eldest son of then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Trudeau senior led Canada between 1968 and 1979 and again between 1980 and 1984 — an icon of public life still revered 15 years after his death. It was at his state funeral that Justin was largely introduced to the world, hugging his father’s casket and uttering the words: “Je t’aime Papa” — “I love you, Dad.”
His rise through the Liberal ranks was rapid with the party eager to embrace his youthful exuberance, charms, photogenic looks and political pedigree.
Now, that youthful exuberance has been blurred by bad political judgement, with the father of three embroiled in a series of scandals and missteps since taking power in November 2015.
The office of the independent ethics commissioner — one of Canada’s top watchdogs — declared in August 2019 that the prime minister’s team had breached ethics rules a year earlier by trying to undermine prosecutors pursuing construction giant SNC-Lavalin Group Inc to face a corruption trial. Trudeau said he took full responsibility but declined to apologise, saying he had been trying to save jobs. Trudeau is the only Canadian prime minister formally found to have broken ethics rules.
The ethics watchdog first sanctioned Trudeau in December 2017, ruling that the prime minister broke some conflict of interest rules when he accepted a vacation on the Aga Khan’s private island in 2016. At the time, the Aga Khan’s foundation was formally registered to lobby Trudeau and his officials. Trudeau said he accepted the report and would clear future vacations with the watchdog.
The Trudeau family repeatedly donned elaborate coloured costumes during an eight-day trip to India in February 2018, sparking widespread scorn on social media, especially since many of the Indian officials he met were wearing suits. During the trip the Canadian side faced awkward questions about how Jaspal Atwal, who was convicted in 1986 of the attempted murder of an Indian politician visiting Canada, had been invited to a reception for Trudeau in New Delhi.
Trudeau, who says one of his main priorities is helping Canada’s marginalised and impoverished aboriginal population, was forced to apologise in March 2019 for making a sarcastic remark to an indigenous woman who interrupted a Liberal Party fund-raiser to protest about poor living conditions. He told her “Thank you for your donation” as she was escorted from the room.
And in a May 2016 incident an impatient Trudeau — frustrated by what he felt were the opposition’s stalling tactics — crossed the floor in the House of Commons to grab a legislator but accidentally elbowed a female parliamentarian.
He apologised repeatedly for the incident, saying he was only human and in a high pressure job. He also promised there would be no repeat of his actions. The question now for Trudeau is whether there will indeed be a repeat for him after four years in that high pressure job.
— With inputs from agencies