Former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker (right) with former Prime Minister Lester Pearson. (Canadian Press)
Fifty-five years ago on Oct. 12, 1957, something happened that had never happened before to a Canadian, and hasn't happened since. Lester Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize. He had been Canada's Minister for External Affairs (we now call him or her the Minister of Foreign Affairs) until the St Laurent government was defeated. Pearson had also spent time as Canada's ambassador to the United States, worked at Canada's High Commission in London, and been an MP for nine years.
A year after he won the Peace Prize, he became the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and then went on to become Prime Minister. By most accounts he was one of the best. Though he led minority governments (perhaps because
he led minority governments) he gave us the Canada Pension Plan, universal health care, and our maple leaf flag. Liberal leadership candidate Justin Trudeau speaks at a rally in Mississauga, Ontario. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)
Which brings me to Justin Trudeau. Even though he's the frontrunner and has done well in surveys just this week against Stephen Harper and Tom Mulcair, there's still lots of talk that he isn't ready to be a party leader. Well, that's certainly true if you use Lester Pearson as your standard because that's a very high standard. But Trudeau hasn't been wasting his life. It's just that he's young, at 40 years old.
Pearson had time to build his resume because he didn't become Liberal leader until he was 61. Pierre Trudeau took over the Liberals at 48. Jean Chretien became leader when he was 56. Paul Martin was already 65.
We did have a Prime Minister before who was just 40. That was Joe Clark. Didn't work out too well.
So are we to conclude by all this that anybody as young as Justin Trudeau should be disqualified from leading a national party? I don't think so.
There are obvious gaps in Trudeau's life story. He has no substantial national political record. Though he's been in parliament for four years, he's made barely a ripple on the Hill (Okay, he did win a boxing match against a Conservative senator, but how often have you seen him in
television clips of the day's major policy debates?) It may be unkind to say, but it's not untrue, that if his name weren't Trudeau, his already thin national profile would be non-existent.
But it's too easy to pile on.
I'll tell you what caught my attention a few weeks ago. Brian Mulroney talking with my colleague Amanda Lang. When they talked about Justin Trudeau, Mulroney said, "People who trivialize his achievements and hold out little hope for his prospects ought to be very careful ... If I were leading a political party I'd treat him with considerable respect."
Now say what you want about Brian Mulroney, but his political instincts are often razor sharp. Why is he saying nice things about Trudeau?
Maybe because young Justin Trudeau reminds him, at least a little, of a young Brian Mulroney. In 1976, when Mulroney ran for the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives for the first time, he was just 37-years-old. He had never sat in parliament. In fact, he had never run for a seat. Nor had he ever run in a provincial election. Or a municipal election. Or even a school board election.
Mulroney was a labour lawyer at the time. He had been a commissioner on a Quebec inquiry looking into the construction industry. I'm pretty sure most Canadians outside Quebec had never heard of him. But Mulroney thought he was ready to run a national party and be Prime Minister of Canada.
Mulroney didn't win that leadership race. And maybe Trudeau won't win this one. But so many of Trudeau's critics imply he shouldn't even be running. They scoff at his 159,000 followers on Twitter and his 55,000 followers on Facebook as trivial. They see his rallies, often full of young people, and sniff that the kids are attracted only by Trudeau's "charisma," as if that is a disease.
But my sense is that this rush to judgment is unseemly. There's five months for everyone to find out if there's more to Justin Trudeau than a splashy launch party. He deserves some show time. Can he grow? Canadians, and Liberals especially, should hear what he stands for, see if he has ideas and assess whatever detailed vision he articulates. His youth is seen as a handicap, but maybe it's an advantage. Does he hold special appeal for a generation that seems to be turning its back on politics?
I have no idea if Justin Trudeau would make a good Liberal leader, or, down the road, a good Prime Minister.
I do know he doesn't have a Nobel Peace Prize. But I also know there's been only one Lester Pearson.