The Current

Longtime friends reflect on how Justin Trudeau originally wanted 'nothing to do with politics'

In the lead-up to Monday's vote, The Current spoke to longtime friends of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau about pivotal moments in his political career and life.

The Current spoke to people who know Trudeau well about his career, and controversies along the way

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau at an event in Brampton, Ont., on Sept. 5, 2019. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)
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As election day nears, the federal leaders are criss-crossing the country, meeting Canadians and trying to win their vote.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is looking to earn a second term as prime minister.

In the lead-up to Monday's vote, The Current spoke to longtime friends of Trudeau about pivotal moments in his political career and life. 

Foray into politics 

When former prime minister Pierre Trudeau died, Justin Trudeau wrote his eulogy at Terry DiMonte's kitchen table.

Montreal DJ Terry DiMonte in his studio. He has known Trudeau since the politician was a teenager. (Alison Masemann/CBC)

"He was saying goodbye to his dad, but he knew the nation was going to be watching," said DiMonte, a Montreal DJ who has known Trudeau since he was a teenager in the late 1980s.

"It's something I'll never forget," he told The Current.

At the time, Trudeau was a drama and English teacher in Vancouver, but the eulogy delivered at Notre Dame Basilica in Montreal prompted speculation among some that he was destined for politics. It wasn't universally admired, however. A National Post piece criticized it as being a "treacly, over-acted embarrassment."

Justin Trudeau speaks to mourners at his father's funeral in Montreal. 2:28

When his brother, Michel, died in an avalanche in 1998, Trudeau became an advocate for safety measures — one of his earliest forays into public life. 

But in his memoir, Common Ground, Trudeau writes that he caught the politics bug working on Gerard Kennedy's Liberal leadership campaign in 2006. He would become MP for Papineau, Que., in 2008, the leader of the Liberal party in 2013, and prime minister in 2015.

DiMonte remembers that when he first met Trudeau, "he wanted nothing to do with politics," over fears he couldn't live up to his father's political legacy. 

"But as he got older and thought about it more ... he really became enthralled with public service," said DiMonte.

The Trudeau children in 1979: Michel, front left, Alexandre (Sacha), front right, and Justin, at the back. (Canadian Press)

Blackface, brownface scandal

On the day that photographs of Trudeau in brownface became public, he put in a call to his old boxing coach, Ali Nestor.

"He told me that he regretted this gesture he did in the past. He apologized," said Nestor, who runs a boxing gym in Papineau, Que.

Nestor has known Trudeau for nine years, ever since the then-MP started coming to his gym, rekindling a childhood interest in boxing. He trained Trudeau for his 2012 match against Sen. Patrick Brazeau

On that phone call, he asked Trudeau for an explanation, and "wanted to make sure that I had never been mistaken about him."

"He simply reassured me," Nestor said.

Ali Nestor at his boxing gym in Papineau, Que. He has known Trudeau for almost a decade. (Alison Masemann/CBC)

"And I told him plainly that he still has my friendship, and he still has my support." 

Trudeau made a public apology, but Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said that "wearing brownface is an act of open mockery and racism." 

"It was just as racist in 2001 as it is in 2019," he said.

Nestor argued that the release of the pictures was politically motivated, to "create a scandal."

"This is a situation that does not involve the black community. It's a matter of white politicians seeking to use the cause of blacks to succeed," he said.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau pictured at Le collège Jean-de-Brébeuf in the school talent show singing Day-O in blackface makeup. (CBC)

A Christmas tradition

Analysts have argued that part of the challenge facing Trudeau in this election is convincing Canadians that's he's the leader he promised to be in 2015 — but DiMonte has no doubt that he is.

Around the time of his father's death, Trudeau started to join the DJ for a Christmas edition of his CHOM-FM show in Montreal.

"He told stories about his father taking him to the North Pole, and Christmas morning on Sussex Drive," DiMonte said. "He opened the curtain just a little bit about what it was like to be the son of the iconic Pierre Trudeau at Christmas."

Trudeau during one of his guest appearances on Terry DiMonte's radio show, which happens every Christmas. (Submitted by Terry Dimonte )

When Trudeau won the federal election in 2015, DiMonte assumed that was the end of the Christmas tradition. But in November that year, Trudeau sent a text asking when he should come in.

"I was like: 'Wait a minute, aren't you running the country?'"

DiMonte remembers that on the night before the show, Trudeau was in Vancouver, and his team said he would join the show by telephone. 

But the next day, "there was a text from Justin saying: 'Disregard that note, I'm coming in.'" 

In the fours years since, Trudeau and DiMonte have kept the tradition alive — and he expects it to continue this Christmas.


Written by Padraig Moran, with files from CBC News. The documentary, A Very Public Life, was produced by Alison Masemann and Joan Webber.

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