How Justin Trudeau grew from poster boy to leader-in-waiting

Justin Trudeau, the first-born of a famous and charismatic prime minister, seemed a highly unlikely candidate to follow in his father's footsteps. But the public perception of him as a good-looking slacker changed to that of potential political leader through a series of events.

The celebrity son was an unlikely candidate until events intervened.

Leadership candidate Justin Trudeau walks towards the stage with his wife Sophie Gregoire during the Liberal Party of Canada leadership candidate national showcase in Toronto on April 6, 2013. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Despite being the first-born of a famous and charismatic prime minister, Justin Trudeau, for most of his 20s, seemed a highly unlikely candidate to follow in his father's footsteps.

He moved to Vancouver, became a high school teacher, did a lot of skiing and, according to one of his friends, partied a lot.

But certain events in his life coalesced into a narrative that changed the view of him from the good-looking slackerish celebrity son to possible prime ministerial material.

First, there was his brother Michel’s death in an avalanche. Justin was too grief-stricken to pay much attention to the public, and photographs from the funeral show him red-eyed, his face crumpled. 

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But his brother's death brought about his first foray into the public spotlight when he and his family founded the Kokanee Glacier Alpine Campaign for winter sports safety

It would be the next funeral, his father's, that turned many in the public to thinking of him as an heir apparent.

His eulogy to his father was delivered by a master public speaker with a knack of letting the listeners in to what seemed to be profoundly intimate moments. 

'We're just waiting for Justin'

John Duffy, a long-time Liberal and Trudeau supporter, said in an interview, "I've been hearing ordinary people, particularly in ethno-cultural communities, say, ‘We're just waiting for Justin’ for at least 10 years. "

The next event in Trudeau's life was several years later when he introduced former Ontario cabinet minister and leadership candidate Gerard Kennedy at the 2006 leadership convention in Montreal.

For Liberal insiders, Trudeau's speech was éclatant (dazzling), said Duffy. "It was a smashing debut. Everyone in the room was saying, 'OK, when are we running him?' It was kind of just a matter of time at that point because he was so young and so good."

Two years later, Trudeau ran in the 2008 election, in the riding of Papineau, a working-class district in Montreal, and managed the feat of ousting a popular Bloc Québécois MP.

Ironically, the seemingly safe riding he first wanted, Outremont, had been promised to someone else, who lost.

"Lucky for you that you didn't get what you'd asked for. Think of fate, there is a fate thing here," said former MP Paul Szabo, a Trudeau supporter.

Trudeau not only won Papineau again in 2011, but he tripled his majority in the midst of an NDP surge at a time when many Liberals were losing what had always been safe seats.

But, as an MP, Trudeau didn't make many waves, except for the odd gaffe here and there, and he kept indicating he wasn't very interested in leading the Liberals any time soon. He was rumoured to be thinking of quitting after the Liberals' disastrous showing in the 2011 election.

Political punches

Again, a couple of events intervened.

First, there was a charity boxing match, and his propulsion back into the public eye. 

Trudeau, an English major and former drama teacher, said in a interview with the CBC that he didn't conceive of the match as a narrative or a piece of theatre. But he admits he was looking for an archetype in the ring.  First, Conservative MP Rob Anders, whom he called "the local bad boy," turned him down, and then Defence Minister Peter MacKay, whom he described as "the physical athletic jock scion on their side," bowed out.

Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau was perfect, Trudeau said. The senator with the black belt in martial arts and biceps like Popeye's, was "the person who was expected to make short work of me." 

John Duffy won't speculate about whether Trudeau would now be the leadership frontrunner if he'd ended up knocked-out and bleeding. Instead, in an upset, Trudeau demolished Brazeau.

"The main thing is, the guy wins. And that's important. And he's carefully cultivated the image and a record of winning," Duffy said.

The second thing that happened was that the Liberals needed Trudeau in a way they would not have if they were still a dominant political party.

In other words, says Duffy, the Liberals needed a Jack Layton.

Layton, who died of cancer last summer, was a vote-getting machine, who led the NDP to Official Opposition status for the first time in its history. 

"He [Trudeau] is the political heir to Jack Layton", Duffy said. " The reason I think he's like Layton is the same reason I think he's like Obama. He appears to be an electorate-expanding political figure — he gets people who ain't been voting to vote.

Justin Trudeau with Sophie Gregoire, April 6, 2013.Liberal showcase in Toronto. (Adam Scotti)

Just before Trudeau spoke at the last campaign event in Toronto on April 6, he was photographed doing an impromptu dance with wife Sophie Grégoire as he waited to go onstage for what was to be one of his most important speeches yet.

The two of them channelling Pulp Fiction is not a defining moment, but it's a telling one, because it's impossible to imagine any other party leader doing the same thing, except, perhaps, the late Jack Layton and his wife, MP Olivia Chow.