OTTAWA: Justin Trudeau’s golden-boy image was blotted by ethics lapses and scandals going into Monday’s Canadian elections, but he managed to secure a second term to build on his past achievements – albeit with a weakened minority government.
The first-born son of late prime minister Pierre Trudeau had swept to power in a landslide in 2015 with a mop of dark curly hair and confident swagger, jumping into crowds to take selfies with adoring young fans.
Four years later, at 47, he faced a barrage of criticism on the campaign trail, and even threats – forcing him to appear at a rally in a bulletproof vest.
As a self-declared feminist, his cabinet was equally split with 15 men and 15 women in his first term, during which he resettled tens of thousands of Syrian migrants. He also legalised cannabis, held a public inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, and passed legislation permitting medically assisted suicide.
“Trudeau’s great strength is his positive message,” University of Montreal researcher Jocelyn Coulon told AFP. “It’s all about openness, tolerance and respect for diversity, at a time when public discourse has become bigoted and xenophobic.”
The world watched with interest, even admiration, as Trudeau proclaimed in 2015: “Canada is back!”
“Why can’t he be our president?” shouted a Rolling Stone magazine cover featuring Trudeau.
This election, former US president Barack Obama endorsed him, calling him an “effective leader who takes on big issues like climate change.”
The Trudeaus, with their political talent and film-star good looks, have often been compared to the Kennedys in the United States.
Pierre Trudeau, who was prime minister from 1968 to 1979 and 1980 to 1984, established the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and preserved national unity against Quebec separatists.
He also decriminalised homosexuality and pushed for the bilingualism and multiculturalism that have become integral parts of Canadian identity.
Justin’s birth on December 25, 1971, made front-page news across Canada. His mother Margaret’s partying with the Rolling Stones and her 1984 divorce from Pierre – a rare sensational scandal in Canada – was also fodder for the tabloids.
Coming late to politics after working as a snowboard instructor, bartender, bouncer and teacher, Justin Trudeau was first elected in 2008 to the House of Commons to represent a gritty, working-class Montreal neighbourhood.
Trudeau’s admission that he had smoked cannabis after becoming an MP raised eyebrows, and his detractors accuse him of being an intellectual lightweight.
Nevertheless, in his first term, his Liberal Party ratified free trade agreements with Europe and Pacific nations, and negotiated a new continental trade pact with the United States and Mexico.
His administration also put Canada back on track to curbing CO2 emissions by introducing a carbon tax. It seemed that the married father-of-three could do no wrong, until his dramatic fall from grace this past year over his firing of Canada’s first indigenous attorney general for accusing him of meddling in the bribery prosecution of engineering giant SNC-Lavalin.
“He promised to do politics differently, but he turned out to be a politician like the others,” Coulon lamented.
Images of Trudeau in blackface makeup that emerged during the campaign also tainted his image. Trudeau apologised for the makeup worn to parties in 2000 and in the early 1990s, and at a high-school talent contest.
University of Ottawa professor Roland Paris said the damage appeared limited. “Canadians have gotten to know him over the years and don’t think he’s a racist,” he said.
But the photographs hurt his personal ratings and, along with other controversies, dragged his Liberals into a neck-and-neck fight with the Conservatives ahead of the October 21 ballot.