The last time a Canadian prime minister got this much attention, his last name was Trudeau.
It was the late 1960s, and Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the hip 48-year-old law professor-turned-Liberal Party leader, ignited a fervid, fast-moving era of Canadian history known as “Trudeaumania.” Throngs of adoring teenagers chased the fashionably dressed then-bachelor through the streets of Ottawa. His swinging personal life, including his longtime relationship with Barbra Streisand, was tabloid fodder. John Lennon, fresh off his Montreal “bed-in” with Yoko Ono, declared, “If all politicians were like Mr. Trudeau, there would be world peace.”
It would have been easy to dismiss Trudeau’s rise as a passing fad. But even as Trudeaumania waned, Trudeau the leader stayed, presiding over a controversial 15-year reign during which he carved out a spot for himself on the metaphorical Canadian Mount Rushmore. At home, he established Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms (the nation’s equivalent of the Bill of Rights) and codified bilingualism, recognizing the importance of French Canada even as he worked to obliterate Quebec’s violent guerrilla separatists. Pierre Trudeau put himself—and Canada—on the world stage as an independent nation of its own, rather than simply a British Commonwealth country.
But the attention Trudeau inspired was an exception. “By and large, we don’t get the time of day,” says Bob Reid, a Canadian political commentator and public relations consultant. Since Trudeau left office in 1984, no Canadian politician has enjoyed anything close to the same level of recognition—at least not until recently.
In 2015, when Pierre Trudeau’s eldest son, Justin, led the Liberals to victory and ousted the Conservative government, Canada again erupted in a bout of Trudeaumania. The newly elected prime minister was dashing, and his Disney prince looks and movie-star charisma inspired fawning fandom online, reminiscent of his father’s pre-internet virality.
Though most Americans don’t give a passing thought to Canadian politics, U.S. politics looms large north of the border. The United States is Canada’s only neighbor by land, its top trading partner by a significant margin and its most important ally. For Canadians, it’s impossible to ignore the U.S., even if you wanted to. “Living next to you is, in some ways, like sleeping next to an elephant,” the elder Trudeau told the Washington Press Club in 1969. “No matter how friendly or even-tempered is the beast, … one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”
Now, as Trudeaumania’s second wave crests in Canada, Justin Trudeau is proving he’s no passing fad, either. Thanks to one of those proverbial elephant twitches, he has found himself in that most unlikely of roles for a Canadian prime minister: global leader. And where his father inhabited that position through sheer force of exertion, the junior Trudeau has assumed the role thanks in large part to the political turmoil south of Canada’s border. Before November, Ottawa’s young Prince Charming was headed for trouble. Now, it’s no exaggeration to say that Donald Trump is saving Justin Trudeau’s Canadian bacon.
The early rap on Trudeau was that he lacked substance. “Prior to being elected as a member of parliament, his résumé was quite thin,” explains Reid, noting that the then-43-year-old Trudeau had worked as a substitute drama teacher, white-water rafting instructor and camp counselor prior to his first run for parliament in 2008. It was hard to deny allegations of nepotism—nobody with a different last name but the same lightweight background would have been taken seriously as a candidate.
Charismatic as he was, perhaps the young Trudeau was in over his head—or so the critiques went. Occasionally, the public even saw glimpses that seemed to hint that this depiction of Trudeau was accurate—perhaps most notably in a May 2016 episode when the prime minister manhandled an opposition MP (and unintentionally jabbed an elbow at a second MP in the process) on the floor of the House, grabbing him by the arm and pulling him back to his seat. “These are the insults that Trudeau’s critics have long used against him,” opined the normally friendly Toronto Star editorial page. “That he was too immature to muster the gravitas required of a world leader. … [I]n the glow of his honeymoon, he has recently given new energy to these ideas.”
During his first year as PM, Trudeau’s major accomplishments were mostly of the incremental sort. There was his gender-balanced Cabinet, Canada’s first; a new child tax credit that the government projected would lift 300,000 kids out of poverty; investments in infrastructure; a nationwide carbon-pricing system; and a more progressive tax structure. Regardless of how one measures those achievements, they lacked a central tentpole. They were facets of a coherent do-gooder approach to government but could feel small or overly technocratic. They weren’t the stuff of global political stardom.
Then, one month into Trudeau’s second year in office, Trump was elected president of the United States. Worries that Trudeau was “too immature” to be a world leader soon melted away. Suddenly a public persona that at times seemed too polished or well-rehearsed was now a comfort, while policies that might otherwise appear small-ball or too abstract became reassurances of the government’s core competence.
Having Trump as a foil accentuates Trudeau’s assets, says Colin MacDonald, a senior consultant for Navigator, a Canadian public affairs firm. It “gives him an opportunity to showcase elements of his personality, his approach to governing and his approach to diplomacy that maybe wouldn’t have been so visible if the president was a more natural ally.”
In Trump, Trudeau has the most unnatural of confederates: a man whose policies he must oppose and whose professional partnership he requires. No matter how philosophically different they may be, Trump must be approached gingerly because of Canada’s place in the world and dependence on its economic relationship with the U.S. Perhaps that is why at times Trudeau seems to go out of his way not to irk the tempestuous elephant next door.
On January 27, Trump signed an executive order curbing visas from several majority-Muslim countries and barring entry from Syrian refugees. The next day, Trudeau subtweeted him: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.”
Slightly more than two weeks later, Trudeau visited Trump at the White House, where a reporter asked him about Trump’s controversial executive order. Trudeau was diplomatic in his response, and much more circumspect than his tweet had been. “The last thing Canadians expect is for me to come down and lecture another country on how they choose they govern themselves,” he said. “My role, my responsibility is to continue to govern in such a way that reflects Canadians’ approach and be a positive example in the world.” As Trump proceeded to use the news conference to parade his own “very, very large electoral victory” and to promise to rid the country of “criminals, drug lords and gang members,” Trudeau played the part of the deadpan guest at the dinner party, aghast at what his host is saying yet confined to silence by the standards of etiquette.
In the months since, that approach has faced something of a stress test, as Trump has occasionally turned his sights on Canada—as he did most publicly on April 25.
That morning, Trump tweeted, “Canada has made business for our dairy farmers in Wisconsin and other border states very difficult. We will not stand for this. Watch!” Hours later, his administration took an axe to Canada’s softwood lumber trade—an industry that accounts for roughly 2 percent of the nation’s GDP—announcing that the U.S. would levy substantial new duties on the import. That afternoon, at an unrelated agricultural roundtable, Trump seethed, unprompted: “People don’t realize: Canada’s been very rough on the United States.”
The respective U.S. and Canadian readouts of that day’s phone call between Trump and Trudeau revealed further strain. The Trump administration’s release was terse, all of three sentences. Trudeau’s couched sharp criticism among reassurances: “The Prime Minister and the President reaffirmed the importance of the mutually-beneficial Canada-U.S. trade relationship. On the issue of softwood lumber, the Prime Minister refuted the baseless allegations by the U.S. Department of Commerce and the decision to impose unfair duties. The Prime Minister stressed that the Government of Canada will vigorously defend the interests of the Canadian softwood lumber industry. … The two leaders agreed on the importance of reaching a negotiated agreement, recognizing the integrated nature of the industry between Canada and the United States.” The carefully worded Canadian statement credited Trump for his commitment to the U.S.-Canada partnership, blaming his administration’s actions and “baseless allegations” on the Department of Commerce rather than the White House, as if the two were altogether disconnected.
Such calculated responses seem aimed to ensure that the Trump White House never sees Trudeau as an opponent, even as he opposes its policies. The prime minister has even gone so far as to spend time with Trump’s daughter, Ivanka; in March, he took her to a Canadian-made Broadway musical in an effort to improve his relationship with the Trump family and, by proxy, the administration. And in a recent interview with the New York Times, Trudeau seemingly bent over backward to compliment his American counterpart, saying of Trump, “He actually does listen.”
Insofar as Trudeau’s influence in the White House goes, his strategy seems to be working. In May, Canada’s National Post revealed that members of Trump’s own administration had called Trudeau in April to ask him to personally lobby Trump not to cancel the North American Free Trade Agreement, as he had been threatening to do. “The unconventional diplomatic manoeuvre—approaching the head of a foreign government to influence your own boss—proved decisive,” the newspaper reported, “as Trump thereafter abandoned his threat to pull out of NAFTA unilaterally, citing the arguments made by Trudeau … as pivotal.”
Even with Trudeau’s efforts, the yawning gaps between the two leaders’ policies—on everything from climate change to refugees to gender equality to foreign aid—could drive a wedge between Canada and its most important ally and trading partner, though Trudeau’s government is quick to deny this will happen. “Canada and the United States enjoy one of the closest, most peaceful and mutually beneficial relationships of any two countries in the world, supporting millions of middle-class jobs on both sides of the border,” the prime minister’s press secretary, Andrée-Lyne Hallé, said in a written statement to POLITICO Magazine. “The prime minister takes positions on the issues based on Canadians’ long-held values and the interests of Canada.”
But that’s not quite how Canadians see things. When Trump was sworn in, Canadians were initially split over how they wanted their leaders to approach the U.S. moving forward. At the time, a survey by EKOS Research, an Ottawa-based polling firm, showed that 47 percent of Canadians wanted their leaders to “be careful and accent areas of harmony and shared interest,” while 49 percent wanted the government to “stand up for policies such as trade and immigration” in opposition of the Trump administration. Seeing the Trump administration in action has since soured Canadians’ opinions. A March 2017 Globe and Mail/Nanos poll found that 77 percent of Canadians would find it either unacceptable or somewhat unacceptable if the government were to change its policies to better align with Trump’s plans. An April 2017 study by the Environics Institute also showed that Canadians have never had a lower opinion of the United States.
The widespread Canadian revulsion at the American president has, at least for the time being, inspired urgent bipartisanship north of the border. Trudeau has sent diplomats from the Conservative Party, including longtime political opponents, to lobby the U.S. government on behalf of Canadian interests. Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who is Trump’s longtime friend as well as an advocate for free trade, was called upon to serve as an unofficial adviser to Ottawa on all things Trump and as a de facto ambassador to Washington (or at least Mar-a-Lago) to advocate on behalf of his home country. Rona Ambrose, who was the leader of the official opposition from November 2015 until late May, met with U.S. Commerce Secretary (and NAFTA point man) Wilbur Ross shortly before her departure from politics in an effort to ease trade tensions between the two governments. Before Trump, the Liberal and Conservative parties rarely cooperated on anything. Now that they’re uniting against Trump, Trudeau is emerging as the great unifier who won’t hesitate to reach across the aisle for help.
None of this cooperation, however, is improving Canadians’ opinion of Trump. On June 25, EKOS Research released a new survey showing just 18 percent of Canadians approve of the job Trump is doing, while 78 percent disapproved. (For comparison, in November 2016, those numbers were 30 and 64, respectively.)
And therein waits the potential risk to Trudeau: What if, in his quest to be a good partner, Canadians don’t see him as sufficiently opposed to Trump? And what if, in spite of his efforts to forge a better relationship, Trump has another unpredictable outburst attacking Canadian interests? If Trudeau’s response to the next challenge makes him appear weak, might Canadians again question the need for a tougher, more experienced prime minister?
For the time being, Trudeau is able to lie next to the elephant. But in his uneasy role as both Trump’s detractor and ally—partner and potential target—the beast likely isn’t affording him much rest.