The hacking of tall poppy Sophie Grégoire Trudeau: Neil Macdonald

Tall poppies stick out because they’re really smart, or really rich, or talented and famous, or, as Derek Zoolander would put it, “really really really good looking." Americans love them, but Canadians ... not so much, Neil Macdonald writes.

She’s amazingly popular and that’s something many Canadians can’t stand

Sophie Grégoire Trudeau takes criticism for wanting help

6 years ago
Duration 5:37
'Unfortunately we have come to look at everything, including pro bono work for charity for heaven's sake, as a partisan issue,' argues CBC senior correspondent Neil Macdonald

A common theme in all the carping and snarking about Sophie Grégoire Trudeau is that she has NO official role, and NO official duties — that she's a "stay-at-home mom," and therefore she should pay for her help the way everybody else has to.

Well, first of all, she hasn't asked for any more help to take care of her kids.

As for her not having any official duties, yes, that's technically true; there is actually only one government spouse in Ottawa with official duties, and that's the Governor General's wife, who gets to call herself Her Excellency, and act as consort to the representative of Canada's head of state, cutting ribbons and greeting important guests and so forth.

Now, quick: Name the Governor General's wife.

The reason you probably can't is that Sharon Johnston, while no doubt a lovely, public-spirited woman, is not a tall poppy.

Sophie Grégoire Trudeau is. And a lot of Canadians just can't stand a tall poppy.

Tall poppies stick out because they're really smart, or really rich, or talented and famous, or, as Derek Zoolander would put it, "really really really good looking."

In the United States, people love tall poppies. The average American looks at a tall poppy and says: "I want to be like that."

In Canada, we look at tall poppies and cluck and disapprove and fervently hope somebody takes them down a peg or two. Who do they think they are, anyway?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau were featured in the January issue of Vogue. (Norman Jean Roy/Vogue)

After Grégoire Trudeau told a Quebec newspaper she needs more than the one staffer she has to cope with her new workload, Conservative MP Candice Bergen called it "hypocrisy," and managed to blame the prime minister.

The NDP called it a "troubling pattern" of using the public dime for support ordinary Canadians aren't provided.

Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, sniffed her critics, is just out of touch with the common Canadian.

Well, please.

I don't pay much attention to Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, but I know she's amazingly popular, and I understand why.

She puts her hand over her heart, and she empathizes, and she's very pretty, and open about her own shortcomings, and seems determined to help young girls navigate a fragile time of life and grow into mature, accomplished women.

Her cause is women's empowerment, with a corollary of bulimia and eating disorders, something she herself once overcame.

She talks about her personal problems, and she breaks into song in public, and appears in Vogue doing that forehead-touching thing with her husband.

This drives conservatives nuts, but it made her a sensation in America. First lady Michelle Obama pronounced her a "soulmate." (Being a sensation in America is also frowned on by a segment of Canadians.)

Michelle Obama called Sophie Grégoire Trudeau a 'soulmate.' (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

It's also made her a super-hot ticket for charities here at home.

The Prime Minister's Office says she gets 50 to 60 requests a week to appear at some worthy event or other: speak at our commencement, act as our patron, speak at our fundraiser, use your blazing fame to help us….please.

And she does. She tries to answer all the invitations with a yes or a no, because it is simply not possible to accept them all.

She tries to make speeches that don't mail it in, and if you've ever made a speech, you know the time and effort that takes.

Her work requires flying around, which can be exhausting, and staying in hotels, which gets old really fast.

Sophie Grégoire Trudeau sings a song she wrote at a City of Ottawa event to mark Martin Luther King Day. (CBC)

But here's the thing: She does it for free. She could just as easily say, "Yeah, OK, listen, no. I'm off to teach a yoga class and play with my kids."

She could, as Aline Chrétien did and Olive Diefenbaker before that, remain quietly in the background. It'd sure be a lot less work.

But she doesn't, and all she's asking is for an extra staffer or two to cope with the sheer volume of supplicants – who, let's not forget, are Canadian taxpayers with expectations.

The last prime ministerial spouse as famous and as in-demand as Sophie Grégoire Trudeau was Mila Mulroney, who put her brains, beauty and glamour to much the same use. Her cause was cystic fibrosis, particularly in children.

Her husband gave her an office, and three staff, which also caused a big uproar (except from Conservatives, who seemed to think it was a good idea).

Mila Mulroney put her brains, beauty and glamour to much the same use as Sophie Grégoire Trudeau. Her cause was cystic fibrosis, particularly in children. (Ron Poling/Canadian Press)

"It was almost like being in a cabinet minister's office, in terms of workload and requests from the public," says Bonnie Brownlee, who for years was Mila Mulroney's majordomo and now works for the CBC.

"I can't think of an ethnic festival we didn't attend. Graduating classes, lots of medical stuff, 4-H clubs, women's associations, just everything you can imagine. The amount of correspondence alone was incredible."

And, like Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, Mila Mulroney never made a cent from it: "It's kind of a public mission," says Brownlee, who, incidentally, thinks Grégoire Trudeau is doing a crackerjack job and wishes her well.

Brownlee thinks Grégoire Trudeau has a remarkable opportunity to make a difference: "It's contribution to public service. It's volunteerism."

And she's doing it. Good for her. If she needs a few more staff, fine. It's at least as good a use for public money as, say, the business of the Senate.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?