A steely Pierre Trudeau, still seated, refuses to budge while all around prepare to run as a separatist mob rained rocks and bottles down on him, June 24, 1968 (Photo found on VirtualMuseum.ca).

Memo to Conservatives, New Democrats and others who are crowing about how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appears to have been revealed as a harsher and less cuddly politician than he has been thought to be till now: Be careful what you wish for.

If Mr. Trudeau is revealed as a tough guy who is not particularly nice to his MPs, under a mere veneer of sensitivity, Canadians, who have a history of liking tough leaders like the current PM’s Dear Ole Dad, may like him better.

Justin Trudeau in the selfie period of his leadership, summer, 2014 (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

It’s certainly true that the version of Mr. Trudeau now emerging from the wreckage of the SNC-Lavalin Affair shows him as not quite the warm and fuzzy high school drama teacher we were all so keen on when we were justifiably hell bent on getting rid of Stephen Harper. This is true even if Mr. Trudeau can still summon up a tear when circumstances warrant.

But the fact is, the recent record suggests Canadians don’t mind tough leaders. In fact, they may prefer them. Consider Mr. Harper himself, and Jean Chrétien, two of the more obvious electoral successes in recent Canadian political history.

Nor do Canadians seem to mind politicians switching their narrative from idealistic to tough – consider the old block himself, whence Justin Trudeau was chipped.

The younger Mr. Trudeau on the campaign trail, fall, 2015 (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

As a youth, I heard Pierre Trudeau speak before he had yet won the Liberal leadership. He sounded coolly intellectual and warmly idealistic, but he had not yet revealed the steel at his core. However, if any of us had really been paying attention we might have sensed it there.

What’s more, despite claims to the contrary, Canadian voters apparently don’t mind serial liars, an extreme lack of diplomacy or even an apparent degree of corruption in their politicians, as long as they give the impression of being tough enough. Consider the recent success of Doug Ford in Ontario and the apparent popularity of Jason Kenney here in Alberta, if the latest poll touted by the Calgary Herald, which acts as Mr. Kenney’s personal publicity department, is anything to go by.

As for leaders who are self evidently not so tough – Joe Clark, Kim Campbell and John Turner, the latter’s old-style male jockery notwithstanding, spring to mind – they seem not to have been so successful in the same epoch. (Brian Mulroney? I’m of two minds about him. More conniving than tough, methinks.)

Mr. Trudeau as he may soon appear to us (Photo: Duncan Cameron, Library and Archives Canada).

Consider the late Jim Prentice, premier of Alberta, who, among other things, didn’t appear to be as tough as the NDP’s Rachel Notley as election day neared in May 2015. Andrew Scheer, do you hear the wind whispering your name?

So don’t be too surprised if Canadians don’t mind all that much if Mr. Trudeau lets a new, steelier persona more like his late father’s emerge.

Right now, we are told, Mr. Trudeau’s personal popularity has taken a hit. But if I were a Liberal strategist, I would not panic about that, driven as it is by nearly hysterical Tweeting by Conservative operatives – the inspiration for which Mr. Scheer’s Conservative Party strategic advisors take from their Trumpian Republican mentors south of the imaginary line, and perhaps others.

More than one side can Tweet, after all, and having the National Post and Rebel Media in his corner is probably worth less to Mr. Scheer than he imagines. I guess if things get desperate for him, there’s always the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg.

But if I were the Liberals, I’d wait to see how the public adapts to the emerging new narrative, reasonably confident things would work out just fine for their guy’s electoral chances next fall. If necessary they can remind them what Senator Patrick Brazeau discovered about Mr. Trudeau’s right hook.

So don’t be surprised if we soon hear Mr. Trudeau uttering, as another tough old pol once did: Just watch me!

Join the Conversation


  1. There is a dichotomy in democracies. We say we want leaders who listen and care, but more often than not we vote for the ones who have clear ideas of what they want and come across as strong leaders.

    I remember when Jean Chretien grabbed the protestor who apparently was getting too close to him. The pundits thought the voters would be angry at him, but if anything it boosted his street cred. Of course Justin Trudeau had his own experience with this, they called Elbowgate.

    I think when the dust settles, Lavscam will turn out to be overwrought. Justin does not go around saying “just watch me” like his dad did, his approach is more subtle and understated, but he has at various times been clear about the boundaries of his flexibility. He also plays for the long term, not the short term and I wouldn’t be surprised if he is letting his political opponents exhaust themselves by throwing all their punches now and waiting for the right moment to strike back, just as he did with Senator Brazeau.

    I think Scheer and the Conservatives over played their hand by demanding Trudeau resign. People may not be that happy about Lavscam, but it is an abstract matter that has little to do with the day to day issues that concern most people. In hindsight that moment might turn out to be when Scheer and the Conservatives jumped the shark.

    1. The throat grab certainly boosted Chertien’s credibility with me. Some violent punk slips past the dozing RCMP security and gets right in the face of the Prime Minister, an older man. He’s got a right to defend himself, and any sensible person with a set would do the same. The response was proportionate and appropriate.

  2. I think you’ve got something there. The people that I know who disparage Justin most vehemently seem also to of the cut who are most in awe of guys who try to come across as though they’re tough or something. I’ve often thought of it as a reflex expressed in response to his generally good manners, often characterized by references to the drama-teacher and silver-spoon narratives. “He’s weak; he’s a pansy. Tough guys like me don’t like pansies.” The phony-tough never seem to realize that real tough guys don’t generally make it a habit of trashing the weaker because they know they’re not a threat. But the act is what they’re buying, and bullying and bag-licking are inextricably interwoven in the Canadian male psyche. Maybe the women aren’t any better.

    They’re critical of him for the wrong reasons. Should he decide to adopt a tougher facade and portray the character that a lot of them are seeking in a leader, I expect that many of them will fall for it. And I’ll bet that he knows that too. (Just don’t pick fights with girls. Now he knows that one too.)

  3. The fascist party are of course saying Trudeau should resign over a scandal that is trivial compared to the shit Harper pulled with Mike “Puffy” Duffy. Entitled cons will give themselves millions of taxpayer dollars to buy more luxuries and stock options but if Liberals game the system to try to keep a major firm in their ridings from imploding every Postmedia owned propaganda rag will attack and call for the death of the liberal party.
    Conservatism is fascism. When cons slime their way into office they engage in completely self serving rule breaking and see nothing wrong with it. Wealth and whiteness equal infallibility to the conservative party.

  4. I think you might be right, DJC—and what’s probably depressing JT’s numbers is that he’s looking too conciliatory. If he fired both rogue ministers out the door his numbers’d probably improve. It might seem perverse, but citizens like toughness because it guarantees the next episode will be worth watching (we are in the video age, in its literal sense, and have yet to conquer what we came upon over sixty years ago—visual entertainment in a jiffy); this is especially true during electoral contests (as opposed to parliamentary ones which aren’t so much ‘for-keeps’ and require the artifice of QP to make it the least bit watchable).

    I did see PET in a state of fear, once—I was actually shaking his hand as he stepped out of his limo which was being chased by a mob of tomato-throwing protesters (I was carrying batteries for my news-cameraman father). But most came to know PET as irreverent and feisty—even tough (“just watch me.” I remember that so well—my neighbours and friends in Quebec City just absolutely hated him for that—and he absolutely loved it, I’m sure).

    I disagree that Harper succeeded by way of his tough-guy antics; he was continually knocked about by one tougher Mulcair in parliament’s QP primetime —which sure didn’t help the NDP on Election Day (that difference between parliament and elections, again). Perhaps if Harper had gotten tough against racism he might have avoided his crucial, election fumble, the niqab ploy; but by trying to look tough for his base he seriously undermined his attempt to bore voters to death with one of the longest election campaign periods in modern history. A missed punch saps more energy than a landed one.

    But I saw my MLA and newly-elected leader of the BC NDP be laughed out of contention for a rookie case of stage fright in front of news media, way back. Not tough enough, the Socred-friendly press peppered. Later I saw BC NDP leader Carole James shrink from finishing Premier Gordon Campbell off when his HST lie had him squirming on the floor (figuratively: he actually had a 9% approval rating —lower than the runner-up, Richard Nixon)—and then try to get tough, except against her own caucus members whose constituents were complaining about her passivity during this easy dirking opportunity, and that nearly tore the party apart when it should have been getting its trophy pic taken over the slain dragon.

    Then I saw my guy John Horgan suffer a whisper campaign on the convention floor during the subsequent leadership contest to replace the bounced Ms James: he was said to have an uncontrollable temper (this thinly-veiled prejudice against people of Irish ancestry was enough to make a fellow Gael like me lose my cool and smash some china). He lost to Adrian Dix who went on to prove that, while being reasonably pacific during the parliamentary phase of politics, his “positive politcs” edict that prohibited any of his candidates to say anything negative about our rival was absolutely idiotic during the campaign phase. (My guy was acclaimed after Dix blew a 20-point lead against the bubbleheaded Christy Clark and resigned during his abject concession speech; and since Dix has subsequently made a fine minister of health, all is forgiven—except lack of toughness during campaigns can never be, ever.)

    One more BC example: when then-premier Christy perfunctorily took a pre-campaign swipe at the new NDP leader by accusing his party of hacking her party’s website—something a James or a Dix would not deign to respond to—Horgan had a lawsuit lined up so fast it scared Christy into totally uncharacteristic civility for the remainder of the campaign (she barely won a minority, then lost it in the first vote in the Assembly against the two tough-guys, Horgan and Weaver of the Greens). The lesson was that if you get punched, punch back, and if you punch back you won’t likely get punched anymore.

    This is apropos because we are currently in virtual election campaign mode, just seven months to go. My squeeze lives in Jody’s riding and doesn’t think she could win it as an Independent —but that it’ll probably go Liberal anyway, as it has done for a long time, whomever runs there. JT could fire her and not lose this riding—while most of the other Liberal ridings won in BC last time on promises of reconciliation and environmentalism will be lost to—to—to—uh, somebody (Cons, NDP, Greens?…even Bernier’s People’s Party won 11% in the recent by-election Jagmeet won) mostly because of TMX which voters in the vote-rich Vancouver region absolutely hate.

    I think Scheer is blowing his own advantages by endorsing neo-nazis and ramping his anti-JT rhetoric up to levels generally regarded as lame and ridiculous. We’ve yet to see how tough Jagmeet will be (I hadn’t seen a Kirpan but heard lots of thinly-veiled racist comments about wearing religious signifiers in parliament— which he’s yet to attend, turban and all—but I’m betting he can be tough—if the pacifist ideologues in Dipperland don’t mind, of course). Is Elizabeth May tough? You know it! Bernier? Maybe with la Meute standing behind him, for whatever good that’ll do him—he’s not bright enough to discern.

    So how does JT stack up? I think his quest for gravitas started early with his issuance of permits to accelerate the construction of the Site-C damn in BC, even as Treaty 8 Nations had filed Federal Court papers to seek injunction. I think he was trying to assuage fears that he was cowtowing to First Nations, his reconciliation campaign rhetoric, and all; likewise his TMX push which, as we know, hasn’t bought him much thanks in Alberta, the province which will most bebenfit from this policy—but it was rather a bid for national gravitas, not regional acceptance (although I wonder if he might have been trying to also reconcile Alberta with Ottawa after his father so blithely dismissed the province’s objection to the National Energy Program. Rookie naivety, perhaps? I dunno—sure hasn’t got him much).

    So, all of this notwithstanding, the measure of JT’s toughness will be made, it looks like—if nothing else pops up, upon his handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair. Or, should I say, how he handles the two rogue ministers? It seems there must have been some conspiracy between the two, which is why I think Philpott resigned: to avoid cabinet cross-examination that might prove her culpability, specifically that she egged Jody on to act like a tough-guy. Perhaps JT is prudently awaiting further discoveries in this respect—like, who else might be involved—before bringing the hammer down. He’s the leader, he has to do something.

    And cranking up the tough-guy aspect on this or any issue probably won’t hurt him one bit. I agree: it’s more likely to help.

  5. Be careful what you wish for is right on! I don’t support either Liberals or Conservatives but even though it now appears Trudeau to be much less than advertised, he is still the lesser of two bad choices and I think Canadians prefer him and the Liberal brand to that of the austerity loving Cons.

    Rachel Notley is premier of Alberta not because Albertans suddenly turned to the NDP in 2015. They turned against the austerity that Jim Prentice was going to inflict on them through his proposed 2015 budget instead of looking in the mirror and seeing themselves as the creators of Alberta’s economic problems. Prentice mistake was in telling voters before an election. And they might yet come to realize what’s in store for them after a UCP victory at the polls this year.

  6. Without the NDP both Calgary and Edmonton, would drown in their own bath water! Cancelling the NDP mandated healthcare augmentation of diagnostic results? Catastrophic failure! This is a major mistake of your Kenney! You want wait times? Longer is Kenney? You want poverty and increased crime? Vote Kenney! You want to be governed by people who think the world is flat! Gotta be Kenney, if you have enough votes to tantalize his insatiable need for support! Maybe you’ll get a seat at the end times banquet!

    1. Pogo: of course Albertans want that, and they want it good and hard. They know they have been bad little boys and girlies and fiddled away another, and probably the last oil boom we will ever see. They also know deep in their self-centered little hearts that like big tobacco, big oil will soon be faced with bankruptcy. So bring on the whips and leather, its retribution time for the sinners.

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