Just days before he kicked off his campaign to become the next leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, Justin Trudeau was welcomed like a rock star at a 20,000-strong youth rally in Toronto.
While critics will accuse Trudeau of trading on his father’s legacy, the roar of the Air Canada Centre crowd that greeted him at Free The Children’s annual We Day event on Friday suggests the younger Trudeau has much more going for him than just his surname.
“That’s the thing I’m most proud of,” the casually dressed Trudeau said, grabbing a stool in the arena’s labyrinthine backstage. “A lot of people focus on my father’s name and the legacy there, but I do most of my work with young people and new arrivals. There is an awareness and historical baggage, perhaps, but they have no visceral connection to my father. It keeps me aware that it’s what I’m doing now, and the way I’m engaging with young people specifically, that is connecting with them.”
It’s an interesting point that gets ignored by most pundits complaining about a potential coronation. Trudeau is 40 now and, although he famously spent his early years playing hide-and-seek at 24 Sussex Drive, his youthful following really only remember Pierre Trudeau from their textbooks.
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A recent Environics poll, taken before Trudeau’s leadership ambitions became known, found the Liberals low on the totem pole for 18- to-29-year-old voters at 19 per cent support, behind both the NDP’s 40 per cent and the Conservatives’ 24 per cent. This is a dire situation for a party in crisis which desperately needs new young supporters who will shore up the base for decades to come.
An iPolitics analysis of the poll numbers wondered what difference it might make if Trudeau took over.
“With this week’s almost-but-not-quite announcement from Justin Trudeau that he would enter the leadership race, the youth poll numbers are slightly more interesting,” Colin Horgan wrote. “Trudeau has made numerous stops for speaking engagements in the last few years at Canadian universities — he even slept overnight at one — so he would probably be the likely choice to rally the young ’uns, if they were the kind of people who, y’know, actually voted. But could Trudeau get them to? Inconclusive. But something worth keeping in mind.”
A National Post poll taken after the news broke did not break down age groups, but it did show a theoretical Trudeau-led Liberal Party surging from third to first place. One might speculate that young voters helped fuel that jump
“Young people get a reputation for being apathetic, disengaged and cynical about the political process because they can be apathetic, disengaged and cynical about the political process,” Trudeau acknowledged. “But it’s not because they don’t care — it comes from a place of caring so much that they become deeply frustrated that they’re not being given the tools to have the impact that they want to have, that they need to have. That’s why you get young people getting involved in record numbers in events like We Day.
“The fact that young people don’t become involved in politics is not an indictment of young people; it’s an indictment of politics. We’re stuck in a vicious cycle where politicians don’t reach out to young people, so young people don’t see the point in going out and voting, so politicians are even less encouraged to reach out to young people.”
That is something Trudeau hopes to change, and given his Obama-like appeal to young people — albeit somewhat relative to Canada’s predominantly charisma-free political class — he may be singularly situated to do so.
“We have to break that cycle, not just because it would be an important, noble thing to get young people voting at a higher turnout rate. It’s because the kinds of priorities and hopes and vision that young people have are exactly what we need to include in our thinking and our engagement with the world and the way we tackle the big problems. We have to be more long-term. We have to be more creative. We have to not defend the status quo at all costs.”
Trudeau’s popularity among the kids — his 152,000-strong twitter following is second only to the prime minister — has also helped feed the griping over the past week about how young and green he is. Unsurprisingly, Trudeau believes critics complaining about his age are sending the wrong message.
“It says that politics is very much seen still as a game for older people and not for younger people. I learned a long time ago that age is a lot more of a mindset,” he noted, leaving unspoken the fact that Prime Minister Stephen Harper was only 43 when he became the leader of the official opposition in 2002. (Trudeau has also been elected twice, which, as former prime minister Jean Chrétien noted over the weekend, is “one more time than his father when he became the leader.”)
“There are a lot of people in the House younger than me [but] who play the political game a lot older than I choose to,” Trudeau said. “And that is threatening to some people. “
But as much as Trudeau comes off as a new kind of politician, he is still a politician. Despite being both a Quebecer and Liberal critic for youth, sports and post-secondary education, he was evasive when asked his opinion on the recent student protests in his home province.
“Listen, it was interesting to see how many young people were ready to mobilize for a political issue. As a federal politician, I’m not weighing in heavily on those protests. In any case, we have a new government in Quebec right now that has committed to govern for all Quebecers and make the right decisions around the society that it’s serving, and I’m going to give [Premier Pauline Marois] a chance to try and do that. I'm going to take her at her word until she proves otherwise,” Trudeau said.
Of course, those protests may well prove to be the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Young Canadians are increasingly realizing that they are being asked to shoulder a disproportionate burden as more and more Baby Boomers begin to retire and put strain on Canada’s health and pension systems.
Already the eligibility age for Old Age Security is being pushed back to 67, although the change will not take effect until most Boomers will no longer be affected.
“I think one of the things that young people are tremendously worried about is the idea of intergenerational equity. Decisions we are taking today might seem fair for communities right now across the country, but it might not be fair for people 10 years from now or a generation from now,” Trudeau said.
“That level of awareness is something that I think young people are really focused on trying to build, trying to wake up, and they’ll do it all sorts of different ways. The flip side of it is that there is awareness that with the demographic challenges we’re facing, young people have a need to get better jobs, get more successful quicker so that they can continue to grow a strong economy and continue to function well as a society.”
Trudeau said Boomers will have to make bigger sacrifices in order to help the country financially survive their retirement. He remains vague, however, on how to resolve the dilemma, aside from not wanting to antagonize that enormous voting bloc too much.
“It’s not about putting the hammer down on anyone,” he said. “it’s about bringing more people into a more responsible and complex conversation about how we need to make sure that we are caring for all of society and building for the future.”
If anyone can bridge this generation gap, Trudeau seems uniquely qualified to do so, given the Boomers’ familiarity with his father and his own personal popularity with Millennials. That is, of course, if he can actually bring the latter group into the political process.
“I think one of the things that is going to get young people to engage more with politics is for politicians to be more authentic. To be more focused on actually building a better world, because that’s what young people care about — not about scoring points or playing a political game,” Trudeau said.
“I think politicians who do that, and who are authentic, will be able to connect with people. Not just young people, but everyone.”