Justin Trudeau comes to a federal riding this week where his party finished third in 2011 with just 11 per cent of the vote.
But the 40-year-old's sense that party loyalty isn't what it once was, and his belief that some Conservative Party members have forgotten their roots, combine to suggest that even Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon could one day go Liberal.
"Conservative Party MPs are taking for granted their constituents right across the country and not respecting even many of the old Reform base," Trudeau told the Times in an exclusive telephone interview on Friday.
"Reform was created as a reaction to the Progress Conservative party which was seen as much too top down, much too controlling, much too into patronage and self-promotion. I'm sorry, the Reformers have now become that which they tried to reform against."
Trudeau is the Member of Parliament (MP) for the ethnically-diverse Montreal riding of Papineau. He first won the seat in 2008 from the Bloc and held the seat again in 2011.
He said his experience in Papineau show that no riding is unwinnable.
"I had the dubious honour or running in Papineau, which was considered very much a 'no hope' or a 'little hope' riding for the Liberals," he said.
(The comparison may be a stretch for some since the riding that is now Papineau was Liberal from 1953 until 2006 when the Bloc won it until Trudeau took it back two year later. On the other hand, the riding that is now Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon has been Conservative, Reform, Alliance or Progressive Conservative since Liberal Jerry Pringle held the Fraser Valley East seat from 1968 until 1972.)
Trudeau is coming to Chilliwack Thursday for a public event at the Coast Hotel to pay tribute to long-time Liberal Hal Singleton who is fighting cancer. Trudeau will also attend a fundraiser for the local federal Liberal riding association.
While he said he hasn't spent any time in Chilliwack, nor does he know the man being honoured personally, Trudeau knows the Fraser Valley well and he is looking forward to meeting Singleton.
"The fact that he is choosing to focus this into a very, very positive event for the community, for the Liberal Party, is something that I think goes to what an extraordinary individual he is."
On Oct. 2, Trudeau announced his run for the Liberal leadership, which will be decided in April. When he announced his bid, some pundits predicted his name may scare off potential rivals yet eight others have already stepped forward with former astronaut Marc Garneau expected to enter the race any day.
"There was no doubt in my mind that we are going to have a race," Trudeau told the Times. "I know there will be a lot of rich conversation in the coming year."
But that name. What about the Trudeau name and whether it is a blessing or a curse?
"It is what it is," he said. "To some it's a very positive association and to others it's a very negative association. The one thing I will say is [that] people take a look at me: 'OK, what does young Trudeau have to say.' Perhaps it opens doors of attention but . . . I have to make sure I walk through that door having worked a lot harder than anyone else.
"That's the story of my life."
Trudeau said his leadership focus will be on improving life for the middle class, something that hasn't happened over the last 30 years.
"For the first time in generations, perhaps ever in Canada, a majority of people are seeing it's not automatic that my kids are going to do better than I did," he said.
While his surname opens doors and forces him to work harder, it's hard to see the Liberal Party brand with such optimism.
The decimation in Parliament from 170 seats in the year 2000 to 135 to 100 to 75 to 35 has been a descent of historical proportions.
Trudeau, however, said he sees the sheer depths to which the party has sunk not as a challenge but as an opportunity.
"We have a chance now to redefine, to rebuild, to build and create an entirely new ways of connecting with people, of involving them in politics," he said.
Trudeau clearly aims to position the party under his leadership as the party that unites in the face of what some perceive as a west-hating NDP and an east-hating Conservative Party.
"The easiness with which politicians on the federal level play up identities and tension and wedge issue as a way of getting votes, I think is a big part of what is actually very wrong with our political system and why so many Canadians have turned incredibly cynical about politics," he said.
As for western alienation, Trudeau lived in Vancouver for years and said he is familiar with the concept. On that question, he added that connecting him only to his father Pierre oversimplifies who he is.
"People tend to forget my grandfather Jimmy Sinclair was a Member of Parliament for almost 20 years representing Vancouver North and was Minister of Fisheries," he said. "That's also a very important part of my world view, my political roots and my perception of the country and what is important about it. I'm very sensitive to concerns of the west."
The full Chilliwack Times Nov. 20 telephone interview with Liberal MP Justin Trudeau:
Chilliwack Times - Have you been to Chilliwack before?
Justin Trudeau - I have driven up to Harrison Hot Springs and other places in the interior. Don't know that I have spent much time there. I had some friends from Chilliwack when I was living in Vancouver. I believe I went there as a kid with my dad.
Times - Have you met Hal Singleton?
Trudeau - I don't think I have. But I'm very much looking forward to seeing him on Thursday. Obviously it's a tough time. The fact that he is choosing to focus this into a very, very positive event for the community for the Liberal Party is something that I think goes to what an extraordinary individual he is.
Times - Your run for the Liberal leadership, what is your focus?
Trudeau - My focus is on the fact that over the past 30-or-so years, the middle class hasn't really gotten much of a raise. The economy is great and that is wonderful but the benefits of that growth have accrued mostly to the very top of the socio-economic pyramid. What that means is that people that work day in and day out at good jobs are seeing their costs rise and income stagnate and their personal and household debt explode. The benefits of Canada doing well just isn't ending up in the pockets and in the quality of life of far too many people who work too hard. For me this country is strong when people are able to work hard and do well and plan for retirement and mostly expect that their kids are going to have the opportunity to do even better than they will. And for the first time in generations, perhaps ever in Canada, a majority of people are seeing it's not automatic that my kids are going to do better than I did. That's the the promise, the centre and the heart of this country from the very beginning and that's something that is worrying an awful lot of people including me.
Times - Do you think your relative youth could help increase voting among young people?
Trudeau - I certainly hope to see an increase, with my candidacy, in young people engaged but I do not think it's because I'm a young person. There have always been young people standing for public office at various levels. Just having a young person hasn't been enough to result in sufficiently larger voter turnout among young people.
What motives young people is the idea that politics could actually be done differently, that politics actually matter, that their involvement in it matters. The kinds of conversations we are having are not about which Band-aids we can put on the problem that will hold until the next election cycle. Conversations about what are our structural problems, what are our long-term problems and how are we going to tackle them, not for the next four years but for the next generation.
Times - What's your take on the Liberal brand after the 2011 election?
Trudeau - I think it's fairly clear to see that over the past dozen or so years ... in the year 2000 we had 170 seats and every subsequent election we have dropped from 170 to 135 to 100 to 75 to 35, it's a straight line.
There is no question that the the brand is not what it once was, but for me, I take that not as the major challenge, I take that as the major opportunity.
We have a chance now to redefine, to rebuild, to build and create entirely new ways of connecting with people, of involving them in politics and demonstrating to them that the politics of division, that have been very, very successful, the politics of identity—'oh those people out east don't understand you'—of people saying 'the wealth of the east is something that we have to fight against' ... the easiness with which politicians on the federal level play up identities and tension and wedge issue as a way of getting votes, I think is a big part of what is actually very wrong with our political system and why so many Canadians have turned incredibly cynical about politics
What I think the Liberal Party of Canada has an opportunity to do right now is restore the sense that there is a party out there that is willing to speak for, to and with every corner of the country and not, and not choose to speak for the people that are only likely to vote for us. We are going to stand up and speak for Canada and that's what I'm excited for the Liberal Party to do and I think we do that very well.
Times - Here in Chilliwack the Liberal candidate received 11 per cent of the vote (in May 2011, 17 per cent in 2006 and 18 per cent in 2004). Does the federal party write off certain ridings as unwinnable?
Trudeau - The interesting thing about politics these days is that the loyalty to a party brand isn't the driving force that it used to be. We still need people who say 'I'm a Liberal because my parents were Liberals and I will always be.' I'm certainly not knocking those people, but a lot more people, as you saw with the orange wave in Quebec even to a certain extent in the provincial election in Alberta, more people are a lot more unpredictable in their choices and a lot more informed about what the consequences of their choices could be and I don't think it's realistic to write off anyone as being wrong or being a no-hope riding. I had the dubious honour or running in Papineau, which was considered very much a 'no hope' or a 'little hope' riding for the Liberals and the approach I had which was very much around bring people together, being open and honest about my own values. Even when I said something clearly that a lot of people disagreed with they at least knew exactly where I stand and I think that's what the hunger is for in politics and the level to which Conservative Party MPs are taking for granted their constituents right across the country and not respecting even many of the old Reform base. Reform was created as a reaction to the Progress Conservative party which was seen as much too top down, much too controlling, much too into patronage and self-promotion. I'm sorry, the Reformers have now become that which they tried to reform against.
I know given the opportunity to vote for a party with integrity that does them the respect of listening to them, voters in Chilliwack are going to take a hard look at what the Liberal Party, hopefully under my leadership, will be offering.
Times - You have received a lot of coverage already—some call you the obvious candidate, some criticize you for riding on a name. Those who defend have said things like: "Don't blame him b/c he's popular" and "He's more than a pretty face." What do you make of all that?
Trudeau - I'm really pleased at the kind of reaction I've gotten across the country, which has been very positive but not entirely focused or because of me. I'm not so full of myself that I think I'm really the thing that is triggering this.
What I am seeing is people across the country are extrraordinarily open to politics being done differently by someone who is not in it for himself but driven by a real sense of trying to serve their country and make it a better world and that is something that I'm communicating very authentically.
In terms of taking hard positions, I've heard that a few times and I smile about it because I've taken some very clear and controversial positions recently. I came out in my first days of the campaign very clearly against the Northern Gateway pipeline. Ask Mr. Harper what position he is taking on that and and you won't get a straight answer.
Ask Mr. Mulcair what kind of position he is going to take around language issues in Quebec and I came out very strongly on not cracking down any further on the English language in Quebec to a fair bit of negative reaction. But Mr. Mulcair certainly won't say clearly where he stands on Bill 101, for example.
Even on the issue of decriminalization of marijuana and potential legalization, this week I just announced very strong positions on it.
I have a lot of very strongly held views, however, at the same time, many of the things the Liberal Party has been very good at lately is listening and empowering and mobilizing its grassroots.
If I were to show up [and say] these are the exact policies that I am going to be bringing in, what do I do as leader? Turn around the next three years to a whole bunch of Liberals wanting to have an input on policy and say "No, no, I've already figured everything out. You guys were just along for the ride."?
That's exactly the kind of thinking that got us into the trouble we are in now.
Times - Is your name a blessing or a curse?
Trudeau - It is what it is. To some it's a very positive association and to others it's a very negative association. The one thing I will say is [that] people take a look at me: 'OK, what does young Trudeau have to say.' Perhaps it opens doors of attention but . . . I have to make sure I walk through that door having worked a lot harder than anyone else.
That's been the story of my life. People have been too willing to write me off because they think I take things lightly and instead I have managed to surprise anyone in any challenge I have faced for the past few years.
Times - The name seems to be a good thing if that National Post poll has any value: "The Trudeau Effect" seems to be growing. The poll found if you were leader, 39 per cent support for Liberals vs. 29 per cent Conservative. Is that surprising?
Trudeau - There are going to be an awful lot of polls between now and April. The only one that I am really focused on is April 13 as young Liberals and Liberal supporters, not just members, weigh in on who should be the next Liberal leader.
What I'm very proud of is opening up in way that no other national party would dare to do because we want people to be participating and feeling like they have a stake in who is going to be the next leader of the Liberal Party.
Leading up to 2015 there will be lots of other polls. I just know the work that I am doing on the ground.
Times - This "name" issue came up here as some, including some Conservatives, were critical that the nomination and hence the riding was handed to Mark Strahl by his father. Have you heard any of that in Ottawa?
Trudeau - I knew there was going to be that challenge around me so what I made sure that I did was I fought to have a very challenging nomination contest. The party did me a huge favour when as a whole they were decidedly less than enthusiastic that I was going to be running for them in 2007. There were certain very strong elements in the party actively working against me so the fact that I won a nomination entirely on my own merit gave me the strong base and a place of respect where anyone who says I am just running on my father's name I can genuinely dismiss. They don't know what they are talking about because I got in a very, very difficult race. Absolutely nothing was handed to me so I think it's very unfortunate for Mark, for a lot of people that will question how he got elected. I don't know anything about the process and certainly I'm not judging what happened, but if you tell me there are people still questionin it I think maybe that's something he is going to have to balance for a while. He is certainly not the only second or third generation politician in Ottawa. It becomes all the more important to demonstrate your own substance and that's what I've been able to do to some success.
Times - You must be glad to see a vibrant competition given some said others wouldn't step forward after you did so.
Trudeau - A number of people were saying that. I said from the very beginning they didn't know what they were talking about. There was no doubt in my mind that we are going to have a race and the wide open nature of it with supporters being able to sign up for free right across the country it's going to be very much about idea, very much about who can win over the most number of people with their proposals.
I know there will be a lot of rich conversations in the coming year.
Times - Western alienation. Is that an outdated notion in your opinion, or does it still exist?
Trudeau - I think as long as there are people who choose to draw on it they will but it's not something that I'm entirely unfamiliar with. I lived out in Vancouver for years. I think if my father and his history as a politician, but people tend to forget my grandfather Jimmy Sinclair was a Member of Parliament for almost 20 years representing Vancouver North and was Minister of Fisheries. That's also a very important part of my world view, my political roots and my perception of the country and what is important about it. I'm very sensitive to concerns of the west and I'm glad to be able to demonstrate with my approach of not being like Mr. Mulcair and putting an X over Alberta. I'm not going to say I'm going to pick and choose the regions of the country I write off. I'm going to reach out right across the country and I'm going to earn the support of Canadians from coast to coast to coast.
Times - Have you been in the ring with any Conservatives lately?
Trudeau - Ha, ha! No, I've retired from formally boxing but I still keep in shape with my boxing but balancing out with a fair bit of yoga these days. That's keeping me a little more mellow than I was when I was training three times a week for six months to teach a lesson to a Conservative who was mistaken in his assessment of me.