With Justin Trudeau and the Liberals ahead of Stephen Harper and the Conservatives by as much as eight points in the final months before a general election, what manner of man is Justin Trudeau and what are his leadership skills? Some answers flow from a reading of his just-published book, Common Ground. First off, he is self-deprecating, no prima donna trying to ride on his father’s political coattails. Indeed, he says Pierre was poor at retail politics and did little to nurture the party’s grassroots. Justin says his political chops come more from his maternal grandfather, James Sinclair, a minister in the St. Laurent government. On his first day in the House of Commons, Justin wore a Sinclair tartan tie to acknowledge that heritage.
His mother’s mental health is fully acknowledged and lovingly explained. Margaret was bipolar in an era when no one knew much about that condition. One poignant anecdote has Margaret, who had by then moved out and was living with a man named Jimmy, showing up at Justin’s school with an urgent request to see him. After Justin was summoned from gym class, a weeping Margaret seized his shoulders and told him she’d been dumped. “He even took his TV,” said Margaret. Justin was eleven at the time. When his opponents say he is just like his mother, he claims he knows what they are really saying: Justin is crazy.
From his father, Justin got his ability to speak French, a love of the outdoors, belief in public service and a spirit of adventure. Along the way he also learned what it’s like to be an outsider. In middle school at Brébeuf in Montreal, he was regarded as an Anglophone because he spoke English with no accent. He also had to suffer the ignominy of having the infamous photo of Margaret wearing no panties thrust in his face by fellow students. “I learned at Brébeuf not to give people the emotional response they are looking for when they attack personally.”
Other lessons on life’s path included being a male facilitator in the Sexual Assault Centre at McGill where he was among the first cadre of men in an outreach group leading fraternity members in discussions about date rape. That experience puts in perspective his recent handling of abuse allegations against two Liberal MPs. Justin also details his travels to almost one hundred countries, many of them while backpacking. In Thailand, he got a tattoo of the globe on his left shoulder. He later added a Haida raven tattoo that wraps around the globe.
Surprisingly, Justin’s ascent in the Liberal Party was not easy. Then leader Stéphane Dion was against his candidacy for MP. Justin won the nomination and election in Papineau on his own by building an organization from the ground up. He also learned who to trust and how to inspire loyalty in campaign workers, essential ingredients in any successful run for office.
At times, the book sags as it turns into a civics lesson. But for the most part, the memoir moves along well and demonstrates less personal vanity than you might except. There is too little policy pronouncement for my taste. Instead, this is a book about Justin the person that makes for useful and entertaining reading as a nation makes up its mind.