Trudeaumania, 2012

Trudeaumania, 2012
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Though the Liberal Party isn’t scheduled to elect a new leader until around this time next year, the customary lack of political news in Canada’s summer months has nevertheless prompted endless gossip of the topic to dominate recent headlines.

Following the June 13 resignation of current Liberal boss Bob Rae, all eyes (and cameras) quickly turned to political dauphin and longtime dreamboat Justin Trudeau, whose supposed bona fides as the Liberals’ obvious next-in-line have been trumpeted by the press for quite some time. Justin has so far remained coy on his actual intentions, but he remains the race’s clear front-runner just the same, with recent polls putting him light years ahead of the various other nobodies the pundit class assumes likely to run. Much like the Republican Party in the States, the Canadian Liberals tend to pick their leaders through a kind of nursery school system where everyone eventually gets a turn. Practically from the moment Trudeau first entered elected politics back in 2008 it was assumed he was queuing for the top job, and now that the Liberals have finally cycled through the top three veterans of their 2008 leadership contest — their last competitive internal election — it seems his number has finally been drawn.

If Trudeau does decide to run, however, there will be at least one weirdly Oedipal wrinkle in the story. Last week, Deborah Coyne, a woman who was once impregnated by Justin’s father, former prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, formally announced her candidacy for the Liberal crown, declaring herself more than ready to take on her kinda-sorta half stepson.

A lawyer by training, Ms. Coyne is an odd creature of the Ottawa establishment about whom much is known but little is cared. Though she has run for office in the past, she’s never actually been elected to anything and her civic engagement has mostly taken the form of hackish appointments on federal advisory councils and the like. Like many Liberal women of her generation, she was said to have idolized Pierre Trudeau, and fantasized about someday mothering his child. During the 1990s, this became possible due to the two of them traveling in the same small circle of contrarian voices who opposed Prime Minister Mulroney’s constitutional reforms, and in 1991 the deed was done, and Pierre Trudeau’s only daughter was sired. They broke up shortly after, if that’s even the right way to describe the nature of their relationship.

Coyne — who is also the cousin of one of Canada’s most famous political commentators — will quite clearly not be a serious contender in the Liberal race. Though the press has charitably described her as a “constitutional scholar” her national profile is exceedingly low beyond this one lurid anecdote. Her candidacy does nevertheless represent something troubling about the state of the modern Liberal Party just the same.

Both Coyne and Justin are “outsiders” in their own way; she on the fringe of electability and he, with his thin political resume and youth, on the fringe of qualification. Yet both are also biologically linked to the same domineering figure of Canadian history, and it’s from their connection to this man that their public profiles enjoy any credibility at all.

Even now, a dozen years after his death, the spirit of Pierre Trudeau haunts the Liberal Party in a way that makes the legacy of Ronald Reagan in the GOP look like that of a forgettable interloper. To many, Pierre continues to be the last universally accepted “good” Liberal leader, with all successors merely crude attempts at immitation.

Jean Chretien’s credibility as party boss, for instance, was largely due to his lengthy (and oft-mentioned) status as the head apparatchik of the Trudeau administration, whose values he continued to laud to during his own decade-long prime ministership. His failed successor, Paul Martin, who could claim no such historical link, seemed hopelessly miscast in contrast.

More recently, leaders Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, with their heady backgrounds as intellectual heavyweights, were openly elected, in part, because they represented some attempt to ditch the corporate pragmatism of Martin and return to Trudeau’s “philosopher king” model. When they too failed, they were accused of not understanding the role. So the crown now passes to a man whom, at the very least, can never be accused of being too far removed from the Trudeau tradition.

The underlying irony of all this, of course, is that the original Pierre Trudeau could probably never be elected in today’s Canada. His economic theories, which included openly socialist ideas like wage and price controls, are now universally discredited by the modern Canadian left, while his once provocative “national unity” reforms, like bilingualism and multiculturalism have become mainstream to the point of dullness. Modern politicians, likewise, can rarely act as true “philosopher kings” in the Trudeauvian sense. Unapologetically prideful of his own brilliance, much of what Pierre did in his own time was considered offensive and snobbish. By today’s standards, with a far more adversarial press and populist electorate, the man’s persona would be a downright democratic death wish — as the vastly milder Dion and Ignatieff learned first hand.

Nor can “big ideas” of the sort Trudeau favoured really be done anymore. Like most western democracies, Canadian government has become exceedingly technocratic, managerial, and conservative (in the unambitious sense) in recent decades; attempts at “sweeping” anything are regarded with either fear or resentment. Can anyone imagine a proposal as grandiose as the 1982 Charter of Rights being attempted in the year 2012, for instance? Yet modern Liberals continue to speak as if their party is just one “big idea” away from a phoenix-like resurgance.

The key problem of the Liberal Party, in other words, may be that it’s never stopped being the party of Trudeauism, even as Canada ventures deeper and deeper into a post-Trudeau era. Those years between 1968 and 1984 are still venerated as the party’s best — certainly Coyne and Justin won’t be eager to quibble with that assessment — but so long as official Liberal mythology remains tied to a dated, personal, idiosyncratic legacy of one highly eccentric individual (particularly at the expense of the conventional left/right axis) the party’s future will remain uncertain.

Justin Trudeau is probably still the best bet to save the Liberals, at least in the narrow sense that his charisma and media-friendly persona will help the party remain “relevant,” which is to say, not entirely ignored. But even then, the underlying dilemma remains how to properly exorcise the lingering spirits of Trudeauism from the Liberal brand — even as it’s led by a Trudeau.


  1. matvail2002

    The way I see it, the party downfall started in 1984.

    Except if the party do a radical turn to classical liberalism (à la Wilfred Laurier), I cannot see how it will be different then an NDP under Mulcair.

    The problem with Trudeau is that family ties don't seems to work well in Canadian politics as opposed to south of the border. Add also that being a coalition based on ''power'' and no clear platform except the persona of Trudeau among some people who haven't defected to the Tories or the NDP, the party have difficulty raising money while being in opposition for a long time.

    The provincial wings of the party are also much weaker then a decade ago. Except in PEI, add that the Liberal parties provincially (even the ones not formally connected to the federal party like QC, BC, AB or SK) are getting weaker and weaker each election since about five years. In some provinces (MB, SK, AB) they are close to the point of irreverence. Add also, then maybe in one or two years, a real possibility could be that only PEI (which is ironically the smallest province in Canada) will still have the Liberals in power provincially.

  2. Kwyjor

    Yikes on the coathanger thar. Just, Yikes.

  3. ThePsudo

    Hrm… would a back-alley abortion survivor be more likely to be pro-choice or pro-life? Keep in mind he's an EVIL back-alley abortion survivor.

  4. @Cristiona

    That one on the left looks kind of like you, JJ. If you wore tartan…

  5. Gray

    "But they will never take our…"


    "…uh, guys, what is it we're supposed to be trying to stop them from taking again?"

  6. Tim Lai

    I know that you had said that you weren't planning to see Pixar's Brave, but I have to say that your caricature of Justin Trudeau looks almost exactly like one of the suitors from the movie. This is hilarious because throughout the movie I kept thinking that he looked a lot like Justin Trudeau. I'm not sure if you decided to see Brave after all or if this is merely a coincidence but I'd be curious to know. :D

  7. Taylor

    To be fair to her, the media obsession with Ms. Coyne is the Trudeau relationship, but she really has downplayed it as much as possible. I actually think their focus is rather sexist.

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