The Justin Trudeau I Can’t Forget

For better or worse, the Liberal leader will always be shaped by the emotional agony caused by his mother’s abandonment

Photograph by Boris Spremo/Toronto Star
Margaret Trudeau holds her son Justin before she leaves on an overseas trip.
Photograph by Boris Spremo/Toronto Star
Boris Spremo/Toronto Star/Getty Images Margaret Trudeau holds her son Justin before she leaves on an overseas trip.

In late 2013, I spent several months working as a freelance editorial assistant on Justin Trudeau’s memoir, Common Ground. Aside from interviewing Trudeau himself over many days, I spoke with the Liberal leader’s relatives, colleagues, and close friends. During these discussions, I leafed through albums of old photos, laughed at funny stories, and watched a few people cry. The experience felt intimate. I had to remind myself that these people were not my friends, even if they treated me in a friendly way. They were editorial resources—made available to me on a temporary basis, for a narrowly defined purpose.

After the book was written, my communication with Trudeau and his social circle ceased. By the time Common Ground was published, I was back at my day job as a journalist. When I appeared on TV or wrote about politics, I critiqued Trudeau as I would any other politician. I felt confident that my role as editorial contributor had been decisively air-locked from the rest of my professional life. Justin Trudeau was just another paycheque.

Then, this past August, a newspaper writer preparing a profile of Trudeau sent me an email asking for my thoughts about the man. I always like to help out fellow journalists on this sort of project, and so I started typing out a brief reply.

A few hours later, I was still typing. My wife walked into the dining room of our vacation guest house, where I was working, and asked why I wasn’t at the pool with the kids. “This may sound weird,” I said, “But it turns out I have a lot of unresolved feelings about Justin Trudeau.” She left, and I kept typing. And it was in the act of my fingers hitting those keys that I came to terms with my understanding of what truly makes this man different from other politicians.

I spent more than thirty hours interviewing Trudeau. He told me hundreds of stories, not all of which made their way into the book. But there is one, from his young childhood—during the period after his mother, Margaret, abandoned the family—that stands out clearly.

“Whenever I knew my mother was on her way to visit 24 Sussex, I could barely contain my excitement, and began planning my welcome,” is how Trudeau tells the story in Common Ground:

On one occasion I decided to mark her arrival with a musical theme. I had received a small record player as a gift and enjoyed playing the hits of the day—“the day” being the early 1980s—especially Journey’s romantic ballad “Open Arms.” I had heard my mother say how much she liked the Journey song, and I decided that this would be the soundtrack to her entrance at 24 Sussex after one particularly long absence. I waited for her to arrive in her VW Rabbit before cueing up my tiny, tinny record player in my room upstairs. As she opened the door and entered the foyer I cranked up the volume and rushed to the top of the stairs. “Listen, mom,” I yelled down to her. “It’s our song!” Her reaction was to stare up at me, happy to see me but a little confused because she couldn’t hear the music at all. The volume on my record player was about half the level of a modern cell phone. I remember being crushed by that, so desperate was I to inject a sense of magic into every moment that we did have together as a family.

When Common Ground was published in 2014, and the Trudeau camp chose to disclose my role in preparing it, lots of friends asked me some variation on the question: “What’s he like? ” I would say, “Read the book.” And like clockwork, they would roll their eyes and reply, “No—what’s he really like? ” The underlying assumption is that books of this type are mere propaganda. Depending on the politics of the person asking me the question, there usually was some suggestion that, behind closed doors, Trudeau is either a closet socialist or a corporate shill. That he is a thumb-sucking ignoramus who is spoon-fed his lines by Gerald Butts—or a tactical genius who wears his glibness and childlike enthusiasms as a political mask. That he is a tormented scion who is desperate to rise to his father’s epic legacy—or who bitterly detests the old man’s oversized shadow. Since we have spent the last decade trying to figure out the “secret agenda” of Stephen Harper, it was perhaps inevitable that the country would become convinced that there is some “real” Justin Trudeau lurking below the surface.

You can find the real Justin right there, at the top of those stairs, playing his record player. He’s someone who desperately wants to do the right thing. Who believes that what he does and says can set things right; that he can heal people and relationships; that he can make people like him and—a sad fantasy for many children of divorce—one another.

Two years after I met Trudeau and interviewed him, much about our discussions has faded from my mind. What remains in my memory are the stories from his childhood. It’s one thing for daddy to leave. That happens all the time, sadly. But when mommy walks out, that’s something very different. We are conditioned to think of a mother’s love as the one unshakable emotional pillar of a child’s life. When that pillar folds up and walks out the front door, how do you keep the roof from collapsing?

Many ordinary people never recover psychologically from that kind of rejection. And Justin’s case was far from ordinary—because the whole world knew he’d become motherless. There she was, on the pages of sleazy magazines, partying it up in skimpy clothing at Studio 54. Trudeau’s classmates showed these photos to him at school. Lots of boys endure “yo momma” taunts. Not all of them come with a glossy, full-colour appendix.

A need to deal with maternal rejection doesn’t just define Justin Trudeau. It defines the attitudes of people around him. Once you enter his world and know something of the emotional pain he experienced as a youth, the knowledge knocks the metaphorical silver spoon out of his mouth. What good is the glitz of being a prime minister’s son when you’re living a childhood parched of mother’s milk?

Trudeau himself doesn’t linger over these elements of his upbringing. (During our interviews, I repeatedly had to force him to walk back over these coals.) Nor does he dwell at great length on the heartbreak caused by the avalanche death of his brother Michel, twinned by his father’s demise soon thereafter. But no empathetic person can exist long in Trudeau’s presence without sensing the existence of this pain in the emotional ether.

Trudeau often is described as “charismatic,” a word that aptly describes his presence in a large room full of strangers. But among the people who know him well, there is something more complex and melancholy at work—an inchoate urge to protect the man from further pain. Even after all this time, I feel that protective urge assert itself when I hear Conservatives casting Trudeau as a dilettante who glided through life on the strength of his surname. No one glides through a mother’s abandonment.

Later in life, both Justin and his mother would pick up the pieces of their relationship. Margaret, in particular, came to terms with the mental health condition that lay at the root of her unstable behaviour. But by then, Justin was an adult. As a child, he had been left to confront all sorts of existential questions about family, love, and identity that few of us ever have to deal with. Many of the personality traits that Conservatives lampoon as symptoms of shallowness—gregariousness, exuberance, robust youthfulness—strike me as an outgrowth of his dogged effort to escape the sense of rejection that hung over his early childhood.

I freely admit that I am playing the role of pop psychologist. But I’ve seen enough of life to know that people who’ve endured this sort of childhood risk falling into sullenness, self-pity, and self-destructive behaviour in adulthood. Trudeau instead had the strength to choose the opposite path. That counts for something with me.

My mother-in-law, an intelligent and generally well-informed person, once told me she would never vote for Trudeau because he’s “such a boob.” (She reversed herself recently, at the height of the coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis, with an email to me that declared,“At least Justin seems to have some compassion.”) It’s a four-letter word that summarizes a commonly held belief. But I can report that Trudeau is very much an un-boob. Several of our interviews took place in his home study, which is lined with thousands of books. When he was called off to a phone call or a diaper change, I had lots of time to walk around and peruse the titles. It’s an extraordinary mix of high and low literature mixed together in a jumble, all well-thumbed—the mark of a reader who reads exactly what he likes, without regard to the impression created among visitors. We spoke at length about the Greek classics his father had foisted upon him as a child (and which he revisited on the syllabus at Brébeuf), and the policy-oriented fare he now reads as part of his life in politics. But in the same breath, we also spoke about George R. R. Martin, Douglas Adams, Stephen King, and the rest of every precocious schoolboy’s back catalogue.

Trudeau probably reads more than any other politician I know. And yet you wouldn’t know this from the way he talks about ideas: His boyish, eager-to-please personality leads him to project publicly in a way that can seem intellectually unsophisticated. Political oratory always sounds best when it’s relaxed and natural. Trudeau’s hyperactive personality makes that a difficult act for him to pull off.

In the official biographical material about Pierre Trudeau and his sons, one reads much about their endless nature hikes, canoe trips, skiing vacations, and so on. But it is one thing to read about Justin, and another thing to actually spend time with him. Even many of his followers still do not appreciate how much shoe leather he wore off in his Papineau riding, and how crucial that was to his early foothold in politics. During our interviews, he always was pacing, swivelling, twirling.

I noticed that his performance as a public speaker tended to be more natural and fluid when he was walking around. I remember one particular event at Algonquin College, in Ottawa. While he roamed the stage, a student asked him, à propos of nothing, to name his favourite Canadian bands. Moving his legs in metronome to his words, he ticked off some in English, and then French acts to match, throwing in capsule summaries of their style. It was amazing to see. (I fully appreciate that we are talking about music, not the Iranian nuclear deal, but still.)

On one occasion, I accompanied Trudeau to his boxing gym—an intimidating place full of hard men covered with ink, including one chiseled specimen scheduled for the undercard of an upcoming fight. I am no boxer. But in my youth, I had just enough training at the local Y to know a rank amateur from a polished intermediate. Though no knowledgeable observer would mistake Trudeau for a true professional, he is light on his feet, takes a punch stoically, and can devise stratagems under fire. These are not good reasons to elect a leader to high office. But they certainly serve to debunk the stereotype of a pampered dandy whose fey character was formed in the back seat of his father’s limo.

The last time I saw Justin Trudeau was in late 2013. I admired him for all the reasons I have described above, and thought he would become prime minister. Soon thereafter, he started saying a few things that troubled me. In particular, I rejected his views on abortion as rigid and dogmatic, and said so in print. (I happen to be pro-choice in outlook, but recognize the issue as a moral one on which reasonable people can disagree). And like many others, I found his comments about ISIS and CF-18s to be flippant. On both subjects, the ideas he expressed were more in keeping with the reflexive leftism of campus politics than with the centrism that voters traditionally have expected from the Liberal party. Trudeau is not an ideologue, but he does exhibit the ideologue’s weakness for energizing slogans and bold statements of purpose.

If Justin Trudeau crashes and burns later this month, it won’t be because he is juvenile, or dumb, or “not ready.” It will be because his profound connection with young people—an outgrowth of his cultural interests, his young age, and the course of his own psychological development—naturally brings him into the gravitational field of modish, youth-oriented policies and postures (think marijuana, quasi-pacifism, proportional representation, bioethics) that are alienating to the older, stodgier voters who decide elections.

This is how it must be. Win or lose, that’s just who Trudeau is. Anything else would have been fake.

As for me, I have no idea who will get my vote on October 19. It’s the first election in which I can picture myself voting for any of three, or possibly even four, different parties. One thing I do know, however, is that if election day ends with Justin Trudeau delivering a concession speech, it’ll be a hard thing for me to watch.

Jonathan Kay
Jonathan Kay (@jonkay) is a journalist, book author and editor, and public speaker.