October 5, 2012

The rise of Trudeau II in Quebec politics

Peter Black, Canadian Dispatch

---- — There have been several notable father-son acts in Canadian politics. Indeed, the only son of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, was Sir Hugh Macdonald, who served briefly with papa in Parliament before becoming premier of Manitoba.

The provinces have provided several prominent examples of family dynasties — although none continuous. British Columbia’s W.A.C. (Wacky) Bennett was premier for 20 years, ending in 1972. Three years later, son Bill became premier, serving for 11 years.

On the east coast, Joe Ghiz ruled Prince Edward Island for seven years until 1993. His son Robert became premier in 2007, a year after his father died of cancer at 51.

Quebec, though, has the most unusual, if not enduring family legacy. Daniel Johnson led a Union Nationale government for a little more than two years before he died in office in 1968. His son Pierre-Marc Johnson was premier for three months in 1985, as leader of the secessionist Parti Quebecois.

Daniel Sr.’s other son Daniel Jr. was a Liberal premier of Quebec for nine months in 1994. Three Johnsons, three different parties: total time in office, less than three years.

More recently on the federal front, a son did achieve what was denied the father. Sounds like a Romney scenario, but in this Canadian case, Paul Martin Jr. did become prime minister (2003-06), fulfilling the dream of dad, Paul Martin Sr., a senior Liberal minister who ran thrice for the party leadership.

In the aging patriarch’s last kick at the Liberal can, Martin lost, badly, to a dashing Montreal intellectual with the intriguing bilingual name of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. He would lead Canada through two tumultuous terms (1968-1979, 1980-84) that changed the country forever.

The latest father-son political combo to emerge sees Pierre’s eldest son Justin Pierre James Trudeau, 40, seeking the Liberal brass ring. Reaction to this move by Trudeau fils ranges from rapture to ridicule.

Obviously, the son must face and endure comparisons to his father, who, love him or not, is conceded to be one of the most powerful and gifted politicians to ever grace the frozen north.

The Liberal powers-that-be at the time recruited the enigmatic law professor and political commentator as a lethal federalist weapon against the rise of separatism in Quebec. But when he left office in 1984, Quebec was still restless, and the rest of the country was polarized and fearful. The scars in Quebec and in the west remain, and, one suspects, the son will not be allowed to forget that.

But, as Justin’s supporters will rush to say, this handsome, charismatic Trudeau is his own man, possessing the same independent thinking that stood his father well and what a once almighty Liberal party now so desperately needs.

His fans point to his readiness to fight for his convictions, to roll up his sleeves and win — twice — a strongly separatist riding in Montreal’s east end. His father, by contrast, was handed one of the safest Liberal seats in the country and never had to worry about getting dirty in the streets.

Comparisons are, in the end, useless. While it is true that the son will reap whatever positives he can from the old man’s name and reputation, surely he knows he will be facing manifold attacks for the more negative baggage of the father’s legacy.

It’s not a done deal by any means. Trudeau is the first viable candidate to officially declare. Viable is not how the only other declared candidate in the race — ready for this? —Trudeau’s stepsister’s mother, is described. Deborah Coyne, a constitutional lawyer of some renown, bore Pierre’s child when he was 71, and she 36. (The offspring, Sarah, now 21, attends college in the United States.)

The other big name reported ready to launch (sorry) is former astronaut Marc Garneau, 63. He’s been a Liberal MP in Montreal since 2008 and has an impressive resume that includes the equivalent of 28 days in space.

The spaceman versus the superstar. That could be the epic showdown at the Liberal convention come the spring.

Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at