Justin Trudeau’s Spectacular Self-Destruction
Canada’s prime minister was once seen as messianic. Now he’s become just another conventional politician fighting for reelection while plagued by scandals and blamed for unfulfilled promises.
On Oct. 3, 2000, Justin Trudeau delivered a eulogy for his father, Pierre Trudeau, a former Canadian prime minister, at Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica. Suppressing tears, a boyish Trudeau finished with three words—“Je t’aime, papa”—and a million hearts melted.
It was not just in living rooms across Canada that he made an impression. In Ottawa, political operatives saw a star rising. Chief among them was the Liberal Party strategist Gerald Butts, a former classmate of Trudeau’s at McGill University and the man credited with helping to guide Trudeau from political son to prime minister and international sensation.
Trudeau’s performance in Canada’s 2015 election was unprecedented. He took the Liberal Party from a distant third to a handsome majority, gaining 148 seats nationwide. With powerful statements on gender equality, the climate, and refugees—not to mention uncommonly good looks—he drew admirers from far and wide.
But in Trudeau, Canadians were not voting so much for a leader or a party but a new political brand. “After four years in power, that image does not fit with reality anymore,” said Stéphanie Chouinard, an assistant professor of politics at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.
Today, the Canadian prime minister’s approval ratings have fallen below Donald Trump’s. With three pictures of him wearing black- or brownface—at a high school talent show in his teens, while working as a river guide a couple of years later, and at the elite Vancouver private school where he taught in his late 20s—roiling an already tight election campaign, one of the world’s most recognizable leaders is in danger of being turfed out of office after a single term on Oct. 21.
The collapse of Trudeau’s popularity might surprise international audiences, particularly those forced to contend with Trump or British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. What they miss is the gap between Trudeau’s words and his deeds. In the minds of many Canadians, that gap has widened considerably over the past year. “The promises were so huge that I wonder if they didn’t set themselves up for failure,” said Chouinard of Trudeau’s team. “The reality of governing hit them quite hard.”
In 2010, Canada failed to win a nonpermanent seat on the United Nations Security Council for the first time. Although Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper was reelected shortly afterward, pundits blamed his anti-environment and anti-Muslim rhetoric for the defeat. For the first time in national memory, Canada was the target of protests overseas—for instance, when anti-oil demonstrators berated Harper before he addressed the U.K. Parliament in 2013—and it did not sit well with Canadians.
Quietly, a scion of the Trudeau family was rising through the ranks of the Liberal Party, having won the working-class Montreal constituency of Papineau in 2008. Entertaining and apparently worldly, Trudeau earned about $1 million in public speaking fees between 2006 and 2012—which is legal but drew scorn from other elected officials.
In 2013, he won the Liberal Party’s leadership race in a landslide, collecting 79 percent of members’ votes. His nearest rival, the environmentally conscious Vancouver politician Joyce Murray, picked up just 12 percent. And two years later, he fought his first federal election. It was then that the Trudeau brand delivered. Canadians wanted change. At home, that looked like a new, more compassionate genre of politics. Internationally, it looked like “Canada’s back.” Compared with Harper—famously photographed sending his son off to school with a handshake—Trudeau was electrifying.
“He ignited the imagination of first-time voters, occasional voters, and young voters,” said Shachi Kurl, the executive director of the Angus Reid Institute, a nonprofit polling organization. Young and empathetic, Trudeau made bold promises, from legalizing marijuana (which he delivered on) to electoral reform (which he did not). Raised by a sitting prime minister, he had significant name recognition. He was a social media savant and images of the photogenic Trudeau with animals and sports equipment littered the feeds of his bulging Instagram following.
In Trudeau, Canadians saw a “desire to do politics differently, to reach across the aisle,” said Kate Harrison, a conservative strategist and vice president at the political consultancy Summa Strategies. After his election, Trudeau appeared in the pages of Vogue and on the cover of Rolling Stone. Appearing to idolize Barack Obama, Trudeau amplified his “bromance” with the U.S. president.
With the election of Trump in 2016, the battle for progress became life and death. Trudeau’s relative inexperience as a statesman was no match for his willfully uninformed U.S. counterpart. But just as international adoration for Trudeau was reaching fever pitch, Canadians were beginning to lose faith. To them, it seemed Trudeau was burying himself under the standards he had set for himself.
Legalizing cannabis had excited millennials, but that same constituency saw his decision to ditch plans for a more proportional electoral system as a betrayal. His purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline from Kinder Morgan for about $3.4 billion—to carry oil from Alberta to British Colombia and from there to international markets—enraged environmentalists and indigenous communities whose reservations dot the pipeline’s route. Although Trudeau pledged in 2015 that he would not act without consent from indigenous communities, the Federal Court of Appeal has accepted multiple appeals from First Nations groups on the grounds that they were not adequately consulted about the pipeline. To date, six petitions are outstanding.
Today, even pro-oil Albertans are annoyed because the pipeline is yet to be properly used as the federal government and indigenous groups slug it out in the courts. Last year, Trudeau provoked mockery on a visit to India, where he walked around in traditional garments, holding his hands together in prayer. What was billed as a vital bilateral exchange descended into a piece of sitcom-worthy political theater.
It spoke to a propensity toward style over substance, driven by Trudeau’s outspoken foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, a former journalist. While she drew fans by denouncing Saudi Arabia’s human rights record last August, Ottawa continued to sell armored vehicles to Riyadh behind the scenes. Even after the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, Trudeau did not cancel the $11.3 billion deal. Freeland said Canada is reviewing the agreement in the wake of Khashoggi’s violent death, but she has not moved to suspend any existing export permits, despite frequent calls to do so by fellow legislators and human rights groups.
“When Trudeau came into office, he had a credit card loaded with political capital,” Kurl said. “And he was out there on a spending spree.” Then, in February, a major scandal emerged: Former Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould accused members of Trudeau’s team of pressuring her to drop a criminal probe into the engineering firm SNC-Lavalin, which employs thousands of people in Quebec, where Trudeau’s family comes from and where his electoral district lies.
The firm was accused of paying bribes worth $36 million to Libyan officials in exchange for lucrative construction contracts, as well as defrauding the Libyan government of property and money worth $98 million. In 2008, SNC-Lavalin reportedly spent nearly $1.5 million bringing Muammar al-Qaddafi’s son Saadi to Canada for a visit, even blowing $22,600 on sex workers for the princeling, according to Quebec’s La Presse newspaper.
When the SNC-Lavalin scandal struck, Trudeau had no political capital left to fight it. Although Trudeau insisted he was protecting jobs, his handling of the affair disappointed many who had voted for a different kind of politics in 2015. Wilson-Raybould and another cabinet minister, Jane Philpott, were booted from the Liberal caucus. Trudeau’s oldest and closest advisor, Butts, was forced to step down.
In August, the independent ethics commissioner Mario Dion said the prime minister had violated ethics laws, while the Globe and Mail newspaper reported in September that Trudeau has blocked a police investigation into possible obstruction of justice by refusing to lift cabinet confidentiality for witnesses.
Trudeau insists that only the Privy Council clerk, Ian Shugart, can lift the waiver, which would allow Wilson-Raybould and others to speak freely with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. So far, Shugart—who reports to Trudeau—has offered only a limited waiver. However, consensus among legal experts is that the prime minister also has the power to waive it himself. His behavior hasn’t helped according to polls.
Suddenly, just 31 percent of Canadians approved of Trudeau’s leadership, down from more than 60 percent in 2016. Having vowed to be the most transparent leader in decades, Canadians started to see him as dishonest.
With Trudeau unpopular—and Conservative leader Andrew Scheer equally so—the parties embarked on an ugly campaign in early September. With the Greens and the poorly funded New Democratic Party far behind, this election is a two-horse race.
Sensing an opportunity, the Liberals started to turn the screw on Scheer, digging up an old video of him denouncing same-sex marriage in 2005. They discovered shady connections between Conservative candidates and members of the far-right. They would convince Canadians that the nation was under threat from a Conservative Party intent on rolling back the progress made.
And then, one unassuming Wednesday night, Time magazine published a photograph of Trudeau wearing brownface at an Arabian Nights-themed gala at the expensive Vancouver private school where he taught in 2001. Within hours, the world was treated to two more blackface incidents—Trudeau performing Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O” at a high school talent show and a dress-up day at a whitewater rafting facility where he worked in his early 20s.
The prime minister begged for forgiveness, particularly from those who face discrimination. He acknowledged that his actions had been racist and that he had hurt those who thought he was an ally. “I am still an ally,” he reassured them.
When I spoke to voters in Toronto in the immediate aftermath, few thought he was racist. Some didn’t care. Many said he had lost their vote long ago anyway. The overwhelming sensation was resignation. For Canadians, this was the latest incongruity in Trudeau’s tenure. “The newness, freshness, shininess of the Trudeau brand is broken,” Kurl said. “And he broke it himself.”
While Canada is resource-rich G-7 member, with affordable, high-quality health care and education, many Canadians are struggling. Rising real estate costs have left a lot of people stranded, not just in Toronto and Vancouver but in smaller cities such as St. John’s, in Newfoundland and Labrador, as well. Gun violence is on the rise, while as of Sept. 3, 56 indigenous communities lacked reliable access to clean water. Most are forced to boil water before drinking, cooking, or brushing their teeth and are advised against bathing infants in tap water on reservations. Many others who voted for Trudeau are still waiting for the better outcomes they were promised.
Undoubtedly, governing is harder than campaigning, and Trudeau has matured since his youth. In office, he has by all accounts been committed, well-briefed, and progressive. For minority Canadians, Scheer seems far more dangerous. Meanwhile, Trudeau’s successful renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement this year, with a protectionist Trump, was a victory. Canada is now home to more than 50,000 extra refugees, most of them Syrian, while Britain squabbles over one-fifth of that number and the U.S. government detains unaccompanied minors at its southern border.
That is why millions of Canadians still see Trudeau as their best hope, in a weak field, and why Scheer has failed to really capitalize on Trudeau’s mistakes. But today, Trudeau finds himself lagging in polls and fighting for his future as an unpopular, conventional politician—and a flawed individual.
Canada’s love affair with Justin Trudeau is over. Having overpromised and underdelivered, he has only himself to blame.