Picture courtesy cbc.ca

Trudeau mania is back, albeit another kind at this different time.  Now it is Justin Trudeau, son of Pierre Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada from 1968-79 and again 1980-84.  Pierre was an icon, a real colourful personality and great mind and I venture to say, held the dominion of Canada together through a tumultuous time of the Quebec separatist movement and provincial discord. For us growing up in Sri Lanka, he was a champion of the developing world and I remember in 1971, as a Boy Scout, lining up with Canadian flags to pay tribute to his visit as he passed by our school in Kandy.

Though we had family here, I know our parent’s decision to immigrate to Canada in 1973 was even more inspired by the fact that Trudeau was the leader of this larger than life nation; a nation which I realized had only 20 million people when I arrived.  For a middle power in the world, it certainly did big things in the world in areas of development and peace.  Much of that got diminished in the Harper years, as he lived up to his promise to leave behind a Canada that is changed forever.

Not so fast Harper, as the Liberal Party government was sworn in at Rideau Hall, the Governor General’s residence in Ottawa, to an open public ceremony, Justin Trudeau lived up to his policy for inclusion and openness.  When asked about his father’s legacy he turned it around to his own legacy of what he wants to leave behind for his children, all the other children and theirs.  In keeping with his style he appointed a very different and a diverse cabinet consisting of 50% women and also aboriginal and others to reflect the multicultural and plural Canada.

This is a stark contrast to Harper, a smart political tactician and strategist, who ruled the country close to his chest, trying to control everything – not a bad thing in a socially networked complex world – yet not at the cost of paralysing his own ministers and a world class civil service.  I often saw the folly of government representatives at public conferences make their censored presentations and then actually look foolish as they could not candidly respond to questions in panel discussions or question time.  This became the public image of the government too.

All seemed to be driven by fear of a leader who was not a man of the world – his neo-liberal ideology calling for less government, free markets and more individualism.  When one is fearful, one can be a fear monger too and Canada had enough of that.   Even the good things he did to steer the country well during the global financial meltdown in 2008 and initiatives like establishing the Global Centre for Pluralism with the Aga Khan Foundation of Canada, got overshadowed.

So refreshing is Justin Trudeau, as his principled fearlessness led him to take a stand on the niqab (the face covering worn as a part of the hijab), which the Harper government was bent on banning for the Canadian citizenship ceremony to begin with.  At a time when the polls showed the Harper conservatives leading, when the security issues were front and centre driven by extreme Islam of a few and ISIS, Trudeau did what was right in stating that the government had no right to legislate a dress code and that it was un-Canadian to do so.   Trudeau was bold enough to say the following, even if it risked losing support of the average Canadian for his fledgling Liberal party at the time;

“You can dislike the niqab. You can hold it up as a symbol of oppression. You can try to convince your fellow citizens that it is a choice they ought not to make. This is a free country. Those are your rights……But those who would use the state’s power to restrict women’s religious freedom and freedom of expression indulge the very same repressive impulse that they profess to condemn. It is a cruel joke to claim you are liberating people from oppression by dictating in law what they can and cannot wear.”

Then he went onto say;

“But what’s even worse than what they’re saying is what they really mean. We all know what is going on here. It is nothing less than an attempt to play on people’s fears and foster prejudice, directly toward the Muslim faith,”

This brought Harper’s extreme Christian religious beliefs, even showing a Social Darwinistic approach of manifest destiny and superiority into the equation, and the dangerous edge he brought the country towards racial divisiveness.  Canadians were more astute and Trudeau’s emphatic response actually put the Harper government on the back foot.

Finding Common Ground

I was not surprised Trudeau did this, after all he stood for what is right.   At a time when the conservative government continued to say, Trudeau is not ready – alluding to his age and inexperience – being at the Ottawa Writer’s Festival book launch on October 21st, 2014 of his memoir, Common Ground – listening to him, I realized that this young man has substance and was getting more than ready.

The book is about his childhood and growing up, and the values that were instilled by his parents, even though he suffered through a difficult family separation and the death of his little brother Michel in a skiing accident, which he chronicles in his heartfelt style.  He voices his devotion to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which his father established in 1982, but does not get anymore into politics and policy.   Instead the book highlights the old-fashioned sense of noblesse oblige – sense of honour that was instilled in him, so it is not surprising that he stood up for the niqab with all its risks and rewards.

He was consistent with his response much earlier, as former provincial Premier of Quebec, Pauline Marois unveiled her government’s plan to legislate cultural and religious symbols. The Charter of Quebec Values was designed to ban the turban, hijab, head scarf or wearing the cross in the Quebec public sector. Trudeau kept to his values and spoke out in public against it, despite much criticism.

On September 12, 2013 Trudeau wrote an article called “I have faith in Quebec. So should you” in the Globe & Mail newspaper where he said;

The PQ government’s plan is divisive, negative and emotional. It is designed to be that way. Quebeckers will reject it.

Quebeckers rose to the occasion to oust Marois’s 18 month old provincial government to even unseat her own riding of Charlevoix-Côte-de-Beaupré.

The Hard Yards and Paying his Dues

Justin also had some hard yards to cover and pay his dues in his rise to power.

It was around the time he was heading Katimavik Youth Organization (2002 to 2006), when the Liberal Party was in disarray that the idea of him getting into politics arose.

When he finally decided to run for politics in 2007, his designs on running in Outremont, a suburb of Montreal was blocked.  He then tried for the neighbouring Papineau riding and even that was not a smooth sail.  The Liberal party hierarchy did not want this upstart with the old name to come up so easy, so he had to compete for the nomination.  He virtually stood on street corners canvassing for party memberships and winning the hearts and minds of people.  He won their support to beat the two much more experienced and well known candidates for the riding.  Then he went onto beating a popular incumbent MP from the National Democratic Party, again through his determination, hard work and a commitment to follow through.

Fighting Spirit

Within a year of us moving back to Canada, in March 2012, I was intrigued when Justin challenged Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau to a boxing fight for charity to settle a different of opinion. When I thought it would be a play fight, it turned out to be an all out bout with a bloodied nose for Brazeau who seemed a brawler, but did not have the endurance Trudeau had. That staying power in the ring is symbolic of his endurance in the political race, like the boxing fight, he was thought to be the under-dog.

The Power of Balance

What impressed me most was his humanity when I saw him at the protest in front of the parliament for Missing Aboriginal Women in October 2013.  He showed solidarity with the First People’s of Canada who are looking for acceptance as partners not wards of Canada, not to be assimilated but to be accepted as a distinct people.  His wife Sophie and his children including the new born were there with him and when Sophie spoke, I witnessed a powerhouse behind this man.  As Justin stood on the steps, as much as he was a part of this important event, he also could not take his eyes off his children – I was touched.

I realized something new was brewing for Canada.  I call that the Power of Balance and I realized that Trudeau embodied it.  I consider this power of balance as the yin and the yang of leadership, what business guru Tom Collins calls – The Level 5 Leadership – Building enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will.   I interpret this as being humble, yet tough; being open and flexible to listen and learn, yet be strategic and pragmatic, make hard decisions and execute; and to realize the uncertainty and impermanence of everything yet to find anchor be grounded on a set of Values such as respect and integrity.

Canada rose to the occasion and spoke in spades on October 19th.   However, the hard political realities loom in front of this young and optimistic leader. The stumbles are inevitable, faux pas natural as they find their way as a team through the storming process fraught with inevitable conflict.  They should not forget anyone on this journey towards norming and performing – especially the conservative voter base, what Harper may have alluded to as the old stock Canadians – western Canada, the rural people and the wealthy who want to protect their money.

Here, there are so many parallels with the transformation in Sri Lanka and many lessons to be learned on how the new coalition is meeting or not of expectations.

As with Sri Lanka, for us, the civil society in Canada too, must not let go of our responsibility of holding them to account at every stage, as there is a real opportunity to bring the proverbial gap between political and social rights closer.  Yet we have be aware and sensitive to the fact that it will take time and patience (like economist Joseph Stiglitz said, “change has to be sequenced and paced” in his book Globalization and its Discontents) to rebuild Canada to its old glories and new – a Canada that can again be the voice of reason to lead the way as one of the best examples of multicultural and plural harmony – and one look at the diverse cabinet, gives us that confidence that things will be ok for – O Canada.

  • Shehara de silva

    Stimulating piece Lalith. Is there any indication of what Trudeau might do to reverse some of the damage of Harpers regressive policies on science Education and environment..? I recall Christopher Majdka “The Harper Government has presided over what is certainly the most systematic, concerted, and extensive attack on science ever seen in Canada, indeed probably in the developed world. He recalls the Parliament Hill protest where some 3000 scientists gathered in protest of the actions of the Harper Government in what was called the Death of Evidence rally. The hallmark of the protest was the slogan “No Science, No Evidence, No Truth, No Democracy”..
    I see another parallel here in Sri Lanka that our new Govt will need to focus on making Progressive Education reforms a priority.I am referring to problem solving , critical thinking, experiential learning, enterprenuership, social responsibility, democracy, collaborative learning…