In 2012, Justin Trudeau, then a young member of the Canadian Parliament, stepped into a boxing ring at a charity event in Ottawa. His opponent, a heavily tattooed and much beefier senator named Patrick Brazeau, was favored to win by 3-to-1 odds.
Trudeau, wearing red boxing shorts and sporting a large tattoo of the Earth encircled by a raven on his left shoulder, took as many hits from the announcer as he did from his opponent. Conservative broadcaster Ezra Levant mocked Trudeau as “the Shiny Pony,” said his daughter could skip rope better and predicted the fight would last one round.
But the Shiny Pony surprised everyone: Trudeau won in the third round.
That boxing match could very well have been a preview of Canada’s elections last October. Trudeau and his Liberal Party lagged in third place at the start of the short campaign. But once again, his opponents underestimated him. Trudeau won a decisive victory against Conservative incumbent Stephen Harper.
“Have faith in your fellow citizens, my friends,” Trudeau said in his victory speech, delivering his signature “Sunny Ways” message. “They are kind and generous, they are open-minded and optimistic.” At heart, he said, “A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.”
Tall, athletic and with matinee idol looks, Trudeau energized the Canadian elections, normally dull affairs. But his appeal is more than skin-deep, says Althia Raj, Ottawa bureau chief for the Huffington Post.
“I think there’s more to it than looks,” she says. “I think there’s the sense he seems authentic.” Trudeau captured the mood for change, especially among young and cynical Canadians.
“They feel like he’s a little bit like one of them,” she says. “He embraces social media, he’s present, he’s kind of cheeky, he’s a Star Wars nerd. And they feel connected to him.”
Many Canadians also feel a natural connection to Trudeau through his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, twice elected prime minister in the 1970s and 1980s. The elder Trudeau was a charismatic but divisive leader who drove sleek, foreign sports cars, dated celebrities and married a much younger Margaret Sinclair — Justin’s mother — a woman 28 years his junior. He inspired a phenomenon dubbed “Trudeaumania.”
Many Canadians remember this colorful era fondly, Raj says, and have an affinity for Justin Trudeau.
“A lot of people remember the day he was born; they remember him growing up; they remember his father; they remember his parents’ nasty divorce. They have a feeling they know him,” she says. There is a sense, she says, that Trudeau represents “our first dynasty.”
Trudeau is living up to his father’s charismatic image. Vogue has called him “dashing” and ran pictures of him and his wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, in a passionate embrace. In the New York Times, an article suggested the new prime minister has helped make Canada hip.
This has led critics like Stephen Taylor, former director of the National Citizens Coalition, a conservative lobbying group, to say Trudeau is all show and no substance.
“I don’t know if Justin Trudeau would be anywhere today if his name was Justin Jones,” he says. “I think the prime minister risks a bit of overexposure and accusations of being a bit too flashy, because we’re facing serious economic troubles in Canada in the future.”
Trudeau’s immediate test will come March 22, when he presents his government’s first budget. Canada’s deficit is projected to be $18.4 billion for 2016-2017, far more than what Trudeau’s Liberal Party had been forecasting.
Some Canadians are just deeply uncomfortable with Trudeau’s self-promotion and with having a celebrity for a prime minister, says Stephen Marche, a Toronto-based author and Esquire magazine columnist. He says Trudeau is very good at controlling his image and building a brand, which he uses as a foreign policy tool to help shape Canada’s image in the world.
“If we want to spread our values, if we want to have an agenda globally, we’re not going to do it by buying some military planes,” Marche says. “We’re going to do it by being this shining example.”
Marche points to Trudeau’s most visible success so far, his decision to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada within four months of taking office. Trudeau says he will raise his two sons as feminists. Half his Cabinet members are women and his administration is a portrait of diversity, including Muslim and Sikh Cabinet ministers.
L. Ian MacDonald, editor and publisher of Policy, a bimonthly political magazine, notes that many in the Cabinet are rookies, including the finance and environment ministers. He says mistakes are inevitable.
But “Mr. Trudeau has permission slips from the voters to do a lot of things,” he says. And MacDonald is sure that “if he comes up short that they’ll be in a forgiving mood, at least in the beginning.”
But the honeymoon period is limited. MacDonald’s advice to Trudeau: Stop with the selfies already, and start governing.