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The long shadow of Pierre Trudeau

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  |  Posted: Saturday, Mar 30, 2013 06:00 am

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While I really don’t mind the media shots of Justin Trudeau’s wavy hair or his Twitter-sized nuggets of wisdom, I am curious how this young 42-year-old man came to be the virtual shoe-in for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada. MP status notwithstanding, critics have questioned his ability to lead the party out of the political wilderness in spite of his near rock-star status.

With a B.A. from McGill and a Bachelor of Education from UBC, he was chair of the Katimavik national youth program from 2002 to 2006. Since winning his MP seat in 2008, he has held the position of Liberal party critic for Youth, Post-Secondary Education, Amateur Sports, Multiculturalism, and Citizenship and Immigration. He was also a member of the Parliamentary committees on Citizenship and Immigration as well as Environment and Sustainable Development. It’s quite an impressive CV for someone born after the FLQ crisis, but to put this in perspective, consider another Trudeau from another era.

After graduating from high school, Pierre Elliott Trudeau served time in 1942 as a conscripted student in the Canadian Officers Training Corps and graduated with a law degree from the Université de Montréal in 1943. He immediately enrolled in a master’s degree at Harvard and went on to study political science and economics in Paris and London. Following the Second World War he travelled through Eastern Europe, the Orient and the Middle East, where he was arrested on suspicion of being a Jewish spy. Returning to Canada in 1949, he became involved in the asbestos strike in Quebec before taking a role as economic advisor to the Privy Council under prime minister Louis St. Laurent. In the 1950s, he was widely involved in the Quiet Revolution in Quebec before taking a position of associate professor of law at the Université de Montréal in the early 1960s. Pierre was now 42 years old.

In 1965 he became MP for the Mount Royal constituency. From there his political career accelerated. In 1966 he was member of the standing committees on Broadcasting, Films and Assistance to the Arts, External Affairs, National Defence, Justice and Legal Affairs, as well as a Special Joint Committee on Divorce. He also fulfilled roles as parliamentary secretary to the Prime Minister, Minister of Justice and Attorney General, and Acting President of the Privy Council. In April 1968, at the age of 48, he won the Liberal leadership, then the federal election shortly afterwards, making him prime minister.

Pierre Trudeau was the Forrest Gump of Canadian postwar history. He was everywhere, as were his sideburns and comb-over. Comparisons to his son leave a bit of a hollow halo on our current young candidate. Justin is popular, loved and a competent leader in his own right. His likely ascension to leadership, however, may not be based on his own merit. If the Liberals need an icon to build party recognition, they have it in Justin. But does his youth leadership and short-term federal experience build sufficient foundation for national leadership? I don’t think so.

Despite your political views, Pierre’s charisma and political presence were undeniable and are still felt today. As much as Justin Trudeau shows promise for leading the Liberal Party – one day – it’s not his qualifications, charisma or great hair that Liberals will be voting for. His successful bid for leadership will be a vote for his father. The shadow of Pierre Elliot Trudeau can still be seen today, and right now it’s called Justin.


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