By Riley Hill
Justin Trudeau is not looking to pay for his father’s sins.
The eldest son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Justin grew up in a family constantly under the scrutiny of the public eye. After dabbling in teaching, engineering, acting and advocacy work, young Trudeau decided to run for public office in 2008, leading to his first election win. Trudeau is now a Liberal MP, beginning a career that is quickly coming to resemble his late father’s.
But Trudeau joined politics at a difficult time. While easily dominating federal elections during the late ’90s, the Liberals lost power in 2006 for the first time in over a decade. And in the 2011 federal election — only Trudeau’s second campaign — the Liberals lost an astounding 43 of their 77 seats. After some inter-party scrambling, Trudeau was chosen by an overwhelming majority in 2013 to become the party’s new leader.
He’s now traveling across Canada, trying to build the party back to its old strength. The Gauntlet recently sat down with Trudeau to ask him about some challenges the Liberals face.
The Gauntlet: How do you plan to improve the image of the Liberals in Alberta, which is traditionally conservative?
Justin Trudeau: One of the things that we’re seeing is that people are no longer locked into voting patterns, particularly younger generations. They want to have actual choices and options and I think there’s a sense that the Conservative Party has really taken Alberta for granted. A lot of people are frustrated that they elected good people from their communities to be their voice in Ottawa and instead all they seem to get back is the Prime Minister’s voice in their communities. That’s just not good enough.
To get back to your question, I think we need to emphasize grassroots engagement and be open and transparent and accessible. This is a really important piece of restoring faith in democracy right across the country.
G: Are you at all worried about a split of the left vote between the NDP and the Liberals in the next federal election?
JT: I don’t think it’s as much of a concern as some people have said. The NDP surge was almost entirely in Quebec, and being a Quebec MP in that election, I certainly saw first hand what it was. It was, first and foremost, a frustration with Stephen Harper. Secondly, a sense that the Liberal Party had not yet learned its lessons of the past years and was still more focused on its own future than the future of Canadians. There was a level of fatigue with the Bloc [Québécois] and on the other hand there was a friendly guy named Jack who came into Quebec and said, “Hey! You can vote for me and participate once again in the national conversation.”
I’ve been very serious about getting the Liberal Party to realize, no, we do have to change. We do have to shift our approach and we have to re-engage with Canadians. And since I got my leadership of the party, we’ve seen an extraordinary response on the ground.
G: What do you think about the heat Harper and the Conservatives have been facing lately?
JT: Mr. Harper is in a situation where he very much has to focus on his own survival and on the survival of the political party that he represents, which means he’s not caring for Canadians’ interests. He’s not focusing on the things he needs to be focusing on.
One of the reasons I came out to Calgary was to talk about the fact that even on the things he’s supposedly good at, like the economy and basic competence, he hasn’t done so well. It’s really important for me to highlight across the country that I intend to be a truly national leader that represents all corners of the country.
G: Many Conservatives accuse you of not being qualified to be Prime Minister. How do you respond to that?
JT: I respond by basically ignoring them. I don’t get defined by what my opponents think of me. I very much focus on bringing forward the kind of focus and attention that people are expecting of their Prime Minister. I certainly am not going to pretend, like Mr. Harper, that I have the answer to every problem that’s assailing us.
G: You don’t think that you have a lack of experience though?
JT: I ran a national organization with Katimavik and Canada’s National Youth Service Program. I’ve taught all across the country. I’ve lived all across the country. And I’ve also concentrated on the type of leadership of bringing extraordinary people around me, whether it’s General Andrew Leslie or Chrystia Freeland from Toronto-Centre.
I’m not going to sit down and proclaim how smart I am. I’ll let people decide for themselves.
G: We know that the Liberals now support the legalization of marijuana. Do you think this is a civil liberties issue? And how will you convince social conservatives that legalization is the right policy?
JT: I think that it’s partially a civil liberties issue — the nanny state imposition of a prohibition that doesn’t work.
I think the public health aspect is a more important one. Even though marijuana has been shown to be not as bad as alcohol or cigarettes, when you look at the developing brain in young people and teenagers, it does have a negative impact. Therefore the public health issue is how do we keep marijuana out of the hands of our kids?
The current system has allowed [Canada] to have the highest rate of marijuana use, among developed countries, in the world. So, it’s not working. Our kids have easier access to pot than they do to alcohol.
The third element has to do with criminality. Under the current approach, [marijuana] is financing gangs and organized crime to the tune of millions, if not billions, per year. This then allows [gangs] to underwrite their more serious criminal activity. To remove that out from under them, I think, is a really strong argument for legalization.
Listen to the full interview on CJSW, Nov.9 at 8 p.m.