Trudeau follows in father's footsteps as leader for generational change

When Justin Trudeau tweeted a picture of himself and two of his children in a DeLorean this week, it struck a chord not only with younger voters who remember the Back to the Future films, but also among older voters who remember Pierre Elliott Trudeau's rise to office in 1968.

It's back to the future as Trudeau the younger becomes standard-bearer for younger generations

Prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau poses for a selfie with a supporter as he takes part in a welcome rally in Ottawa on Tuesday. Young voters were drawn to a post-baby boom leader. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

When Justin Trudeau tweeted a picture of himself and two of his children in a DeLorean this week, it struck a chord not only with younger voters who remember the Back to the Future films, but among older voters who remember Pierre Elliott Trudeau's rise to office in 1968.

The humorous tweet captured the essence of the younger Trudeau's status as the first Generation-X prime minister, and all the pop-culture cachet that goes with it.

The time-travel reference also conjured the notion of the young Trudeau energetically following in the footsteps of his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who, rightly or not, is associated with the fractious baby boomer generation of the 1960s, and its desire for change.

Pierre Elliott Trudeau's popularity with young voters helped maintain his support in the 1970s. (CBC)

Justin Trudeau's new status as the standard-bearer for Gen-Xers, Gen-Yers and millennials is indisputable, says longtime Liberal John Duffy, founder of Toronto government relations firm StrategyCorp and unofficial historian for his party.

"There's no question he's now regarded as one of their own," said the author of Fights of Our Lives, a behind-the-scenes chronicle of several Canadian election campaigns.

Duffy added the Trudeau campaign most definitely appealed to younger voters.

"From the first days of observing Trudeau's campaign, I certainly saw a clarity about contemporary Canada that felt youthful to me, and I knew would appeal with first-time voters ... on everything from doctor-assisted end of life, through to LGBT issues, to marijuana and, to a degree, environmental issues as well." 

Of course, Trudeau's careful cultivation of young voters began long before the campaign, and was not restricted to hitting those hot-button issues. The leader has spent years consulting students in schools and universities, revitalizing the once-publicly funded Katimavik youth program, and crafting a social media strategy that has tremendous appeal for first-time voters.

'1st Gen-X prime minister'

All of that appears to have paid off in the campaign. Although a detailed breakdown of voter turnout by age is not yet available from Elections Canada, higher turnout on campuses, and at polling stations in general, probably means a greater number of young people voted this time.

"Justin Trudeau is our first Gen-X prime minister. He is representative of an entirely new era in Canadian politics that, frankly, none of the other leaders would have been capable of ushering in," said Ian Capstick, a partner at the Ottawa public relations firm MediaStyle.

Capstick, a former NDP staffer whose firm helped market and communicate Elections Canada's advance-poll project on university campuses this year, says it drew 72,000 students to campus ballot boxes.

"So I think for younger Canadians they are going to look to [Trudeau] and have a considerable amount of hope. But the flip side is of course that hope may turn into disappointment if all of the promises and expectations that Mr. Trudeau has lined up through the election aren't fully met."

To retain the respect of younger voters, Capstick says Trudeau must deliver on two key promises.

"[He must deliver on] changing the way we vote because every young person is fundamentally disenfranchised, and they know it and they're frustrated by it," he said. "And then second: marijuana. If he doesn't legalize marijuana and bring in a regulated tax regime, he will be an absolute failure in the eyes of young people, period."

Capstick likens the marijuana issue to Pierre Trudeau's earlier decision to decriminalize homosexuality, with his now-famous phrase, "there's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation." That issue, along with the legalization of contraception, played well to the younger generation of voters in the elder Trudeau's day.

Don't forget seniors

Other issues that matter to youth, Capstick says, include:

  • Overall societal fairness, as it pertains to the job market.
  • Tuition fees.
  • Social justice for native people, as represented by young people's embrace of the call for an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women. An inquiry is another of Trudeau's promises.
Observers caution that as prime minister, Justin Trudeau can't focus exclusively on the concerns of young people - and in fact, seniors seem to have voted in large numbers for the Liberal leader. (Reuters)

But even with all these expectations stacked up among young voters, Duffy argues it would be a mistake for Trudeau or his strategists to believe young people alone were responsible for his surprising majority win.

"What we do know is that almost every poll had the Liberals leading, by the end of [the campaign] in every demographic category, including seniors. In fact a lot of the shift in the final week was among seniors," he said. "This was across the board: a mass migration, not a children's crusade. While I think the effect is to bring a new generation of political faces to power, that's not the cause. The cause is the entire country moving for change."

The same could be said of Pierre Trudeau's election victory in 1968, Duffy said, and the ascendance of Bill Clinton in the U.S. in the 1990s. While young voters made up a significant part of the elder Trudeau's support, so did older and rural voters, particularly in Quebec, he notes.

Still, to remain relevant over time, Justin Trudeau can't afford to lose touch with what is perhaps his most passionately engaged demographic.

That won't be easy, particularly on the issue of youth unemployment, says Patrick Gossage, who served as an aide to Pierre Trudeau in the 1970s and is a longtime partner at the Toronto public relations firm Media Profile.

"Young people will be watching for some approach to the insoluble problem of jobs for young people. Pretty hard to deliver on that.... That's not something the federal government has a lot to do with."

Style counts

The legalization of marijuana will also be tough to implement.

"Marijuana will be extremely difficult, and if he doesn't come up with a solution to that in the first year, that will be very hard for him to get over," he added. "Young people will be watching for that very closely."

But, like his father before him, Gossage says Justin Trudeau's ultimate appeal among youth won't just depend on policy, but style. 

He recalls how the charismatic appeal of Trudeau helped him maintain support among youth through some difficult times in the 1970s.

VAULT Trudeaumania

7 years ago
Duration 1:07
Tonight was a great night for the Liberals and we're looking back at another Liberal win. Here's a toast to 1968 when Trudeau Sr. captured the attention of Canadians - young and old alike.

"I think it was more his image, and his physicality, and his unpredictability that appealed to young people, and that's certainly a trait he shares with Justin," he said. He recalled Trudeau — who was then not a young man but rather in his late 50s and early 60s — still playing frisbee with reporters on the plane.

In fact, Duffy argues it's not youthfulness that helps leaders like Trudeau senior and junior to bring in a more contemporary approach to politics. Rather, it's their status as relative newcomers to politics.

"When you come in fresh like Justin Trudeau has or like his father did, you can be really up to date. What's really awkward is when someone who's been around for a long time starts trying to sound up to date," he said.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair found himself in that position sometimes, Duffy said, "trying to sound like he's hip with the thing on the internet... but that didn't help with his overall presentation."


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