The camera comes on and his eyes light up. Standing amid the stacks on the second floor of the parliamentary library, he stares directly into the lens and talks effusively about getting young people to “care” about the political process. He’s been asked to tape a clip for Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister, a game show that asks overly eager young people to revel in their premature delusions of political grandeur. He gets it on the first take—“You’re a pro,” murmurs the producer—but he does his spiel a few more times to be sure, then, after pausing for a moment to translate in his head, does it again en français. The cameraman takes a moment to tell him how he followed his father on a trip to Crete and remembers Justin as a boy. As he’s leaving, a Hill staffer tells him how nice it is to see another Trudeau in Ottawa. Out the library door, there’s a tour group of middle-schoolers who are visibly impressed at coming across him. He stops to shake a few hands, then he’s off, leaving another group to merely gawk from afar. He has to get back to his office. There’s paperwork to finish.
“There’s a real sense of . . . fitting in. Obviously there’s a depth of responsibility, of almost majesty to the place, there’s this weight of, ‘Here you’re doing something that’s huge.’ But I’ve been working so hard for this for the past couple of years,” he says. “I remember seeing interviews with various people who’ve had successes at various points, where they say, ‘Wow, I feel like tomorrow I’m going to wake up and someone’s going to say, “It’s all been a sham, you’re out of here.” ’ And I have to admit I’ve felt like that a few times in my life. Talking about this right now, I realize I have absolutely no fear of that here. And I know myself enough to know I would be feeling that if I was just here on my name, if I was just here on family business. It’s because I know how hard I worked and how much I built with the people in my riding that I’m here for. That, yes, there’s a sense of importance in the solemness of what I’m doing. But this is my place right now. This is my place.”
After all the speculation and supposition and theorizing and celebration and criticism and mockery, Justin Trudeau has arrived in Ottawa. And he, for one, seems quite happy about that. But the central question of his public existence remains the same as it was before he got here: what’s next?
For the record, Justin Trudeau is not an idiot. At least insofar as he knows you might think he is—given how far his stature seems to outstretch the “seriousness” of his background—and few true idiots are so self-aware. “All my life I’ve had people coming at me with certain expectations and certain images of me. And either you build up a wall or you say, you know what, I’m me and take it or leave it,” he explains. “One of two things is going to happen. People will either decide, ‘Wow, Justin’s changed, he’s gotten so much more depth and so much more serious.’ Or they’ll say, ‘Well, maybe we were wrong. Maybe he had it all along.’ Bottom line, I don’t care which one they say because my story is my story.”
The story so far is as follows. The oldest son of Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Margaret Sinclair, he was born on Christmas Day, 1971, and declared the second coming of the father shortly after he finished eulogizing him to a national TV audience in 2000. Seven years of anxious scrutiny ensued. He taught high school students, got married (to TV correspondent Sophie Grégoire), had a son (Xavier James), gave speeches on young people and civic responsibility and the environment, starred in a CBC miniseries about the Second World War, supported Gerard Kennedy for the Liberal leadership and won the party’s nomination in the Montreal riding of Papineau. This fall he beat the Bloc Québécois incumbent to become one of 77 Liberal MPs.
He now has an office at the end of a dark hallway in the Confederation Building. A week after his arrival, the walls were still bare, the bookshelf half-filled with selections from Neal Stephenson, David Foster Wallace, Al Franken, Douglas Coupland, Sun Tzu, Thomas Friedman, Bill Maher, Norman Mailer, Michael Ondaatje, Al Gore and The Onion. An atlas was open on the coffee table. A collection of vintage encyclopedias had just arrived.
On his desk was piled the aforementioned paperwork, letters and memos to be reviewed, edited and signed, most of it ignored—to the frustration of his assistant—as Trudeau talked and talked. “For years I was asked by the media and by anyone, ‘Justin, are you going to go into politics?’ And I always said, ‘I could, I might, but I’m not sure.’ And I really wasn’t. It was far less inevitable than everyone thought it was. Because there are a lot of ways of making a difference. But I realize that this is the right one for me, right now.”
He says it wasn’t until after the last Liberal convention, in Montreal two years ago, that he decided to do what everyone else considered preordained. He was feeling a bit overexposed when it was over, so he decided to withdraw somewhat after Stéphane Dion’s victory. But Dion told him not to disappear too completely—he was going to be needed. “And until he said that I hadn’t taken seriously the idea that I might run. Not at all,” Trudeau says. “There needed to be that trigger.”