Justin Trudeau is doing his baby trick again, and his communications director is having a minor convulsion. She sucks in her breath just a little as he wraps his fingers around his son Hadrien’s feet and hoists the giggling five-month-old in the air in the palm of his hand. The baby is still months away from being able to stand on his own, and according to the rules of most child development charts, he should be about to topple soft-skull-first onto the paving stones outside the family’s home in Ottawa’s tony Rockcliffe neighbourhood.
But as Hadrien rises, his chubby legs lock; he looms high above, standing stoutly, unbelievably, upright in his father’s hand. The baby flashes a drooling smile. “Oh, tu es fier — très, très fier,” says Trudeau, grinning at his son. He’s done the same thing with other people’s infants at campaign events. It’s an attention-getter that sends parents lunging for their babies while scrambling for their cellphone cameras, but Trudeau insists they shouldn’t worry. He always holds babies close to his chest first, he says, checking that they’re able to lock their knees. If they can, he knows they won’t buckle.
“Okay, let’s head inside,” Trudeau’s aide, Mylène Dupéré, says firmly, leading him toward the house. She’s clearly glad the stunt is over, but she knows the boss has pulled off a show-stopping moment. It’s Baby Kissing 2.0, and it projects a bunch of images that could help Trudeau in the next election: a loving, hands-on parent; a warm, approachable counterpoint to Stephen Harper; and his father’s son — a charismatic leader who understands the value of a well-timed pirouette or a slide down a royal banister.
That’s a lot of potential messaging packed into a five-second party trick. Then again, it’s also possible that the move is simply a spontaneous gesture. It’s hard to tell with Justin Trudeau. While he displays a canny understanding of how things will play in front of an audience (think of his now-famous eulogy to his father, which ended with an emotional “Je t’aime, Papa”), he also feels so at ease under a zoom lens that he’s unafraid to try out fresh material (recently, critics pounded him mercilessly for suggesting that the Canadian government should provide humanitarian support to the anti-ISIS coalition, “rather than trying to whip out our CF-18s and show them how big they are”). The result is a candidate whom some view as smarmily media-savvy and others think of as an untrained puppy.
Many voters aren’t sweating the details: They already like what they see in Trudeau — his storied lineage, his youthful energy, his awesome hair. With a new memoir, Common Ground, out on October 21 and a party platform in the works, he hopes to add depth to what has so far been a superficial public image — and baby trick aside, he’s hell-bent on engaging women in the coming election.
He’s recruited a roster of impressive female candidates and taken a strong, clear stand on women’s reproductive rights. This past spring, he came out as definitively pro-choice in the abortion debate — a position he reiterated last month with a breathtakingly candid tweet: “The days when old men get to decide what a woman does with her body are long gone. Times have changed for the better. #LPC defends rights.” He’s had push-back from a few long-time party members, but some politics watchers say it was a smart move that could bring a lot of female voters onside — and help finally establish a clear Justin Trudeau identity, as a woman-friendly candidate.
Inside the Trudeau house, it’s glorious chaos as the family prepares for a photo shoot. Xavier, Trudeau’s seven-year-old son, is slashing the air with a samurai sword. “A real one,” he pronounces (at a glance, that appears to be true). Ella-Grace, 5, is hauling Hadrien around the room under one arm. Their mother, Sophie Grégoire, is having her makeup done. “Why are your eyes so black, Mama?” Xavier asks. It’s mascara, she explains. He makes a face, and she grimaces back, twisting her hands into claws: “Pas de maquillage, pas de barrettes, pas de vêtements — c’est mieux.” Naked is best, she says. Even with a fresh layer of makeup on, she comes across as unvarnished and unscripted. An earnest, yoga-practising, whole-foods-eating earth mom, Grégoire is the sort of person who talks about growing vegetables in the backyard, then corrects herself and says that she doesn’t really grow them: Mother Nature does. She’s got a sticker on her Odyssey minivan that reads, Love Is the Answer.
But there’s an easy, self-deprecating wittiness to her too. Their stately, ivy-covered two-storey home, hasn’t been staged for visitors or scoured of signs of life. The fridge is covered in photos: Grégoire in the bathtub with a baby; Xavier with Trudeau’s mother, Margaret; Grégoire and Trudeau in his father’s Mercedes-Benz convertible. And then there’s Grégoire’s magnet collection. One reads, “You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you realize they’re all frogs.” Another: “And by charming, I mean hung like a horse.”
Trudeau has disappeared for 20 minutes, but now he returns to the frenzy of the room, holding a wailing Hadrien. He’s been trying to put him down, but the baby won’t sleep. “Fâché, fâché, fâché,” he says ruefully. Someone whisks the baby away.
Tucking her bare feet (mauve-painted toenails) under herself on a couch, Grégoire is calm, happy, unflappable in the midst of the swirling room, though she skips a beat when she hears that Trudeau’s been tossing the baby. She’s fine with the standing-kid stunt, she says, but she hadn’t heard about what he did for an encore: Lowering Hadrien to waist height, he’d flipped the infant on his side and spun him in the air, fast. The baby, gobsmacked, rolled like a crazily time-lapsed rotisserie chicken, executing a flawless 360 in mid-air.
“He did the roll?” she asks, eyebrows rising. “That’s new.” Her voice takes on a tone of faux menace. “Oooooh, Justin . . .” She pronounces his name the French way, accenting the second syllable of his name and letting it drag on with an exasperated sigh. She smiles as she does it. A former TV host, Grégoire also understands the power of the telegenic gesture. And she knows that this is their life now. Over the next year, every move of theirs will be minutely analyzed.
Ella-Grace’s now on top of Xavier, giving him a noogie. The photographer calls the family to the couch, and they sit down dutifully, Grégoire and Xavier at one end, Trudeau and Ella-Grace at the other. Everyone argues over who gets to hold the baby (Trudeau wins). For a moment or two, they maintain their positions. Then Grégoire and Trudeau start vamping for the camera. He crosses his eyes, she gently nips Xavier’s arm. Xavier bites back. They pile on top of each other in a grinning, happy, highly photogenic mess.
Outside on the patio, Trudeau — sockless, cuffs undone, yet still impeccable in khakis and a blue windowpane shirt — talks about why he’s written a memoir. “It’s important that people understand who I am and where I come from,” he says, “and not just have it shaped by purely political discourse.” Growing up, he says, the question he could never get away from was “Are you going to go into politics?” Now that he has, the question he can’t escape is “How similar are you to your father?” In interviews, and in his book, he’s quick to differentiate between himself and the elder Trudeau. He loves the outdoors like his father did, but his strengths are different. Pierre may have been a philosopher king, with a roguish personality that played well in front of an audience, but he wasn’t as “emotionally intuitive” as Justin considers himself to be. “My father found cocktail parties challenging.” Ask whom he most resembles in his family and he goes straight to his mother’s side, citing his grandfather Jimmy Sinclair, a long-time Liberal MP in Vancouver. “Jimmy was very much a ‘man’s man,’ with all the charisma and outsized personality of a true old-school retail politician,” Trudeau writes in his memoir. “It was Jimmy’s door-to-door campaign style, not my dad’s, that I took as my model.”
Dupéré sits with us during the interview, but the answers Trudeau provides feel unrehearsed — or at least, some do. Books that have made a lasting impression on him, for instance? The works of Stephen King. It’s the sort of honest, unpremeditated answer that has earned him a reputation as an intellectual lightweight. (Asked at an event last year to name a foreign government he admired, he made the unfortunate decision to cite China.) But later his political instincts steer him toward a more prime ministerial response, and he slips in a savvy reference to Thomas Piketty, the French economist who’s written a high-profile treatise on income inequality.
The way he handles the book question says a lot: He’s well aware that there are implications to everything he says and does, and he has a sophisticated understanding of political branding. But he chafes at the notion that this sometimes means he shouldn’t be his genuine self. What he’d like to do, he says, is move past the branding and talk about real issues, nudge political dialogue into substantive discussions: “If you can get past that surface level upon which so much is built, then you can have real conversations about what matters.”
He took an early step in that direction this past spring by announcing that candidates vying to represent the Liberals in 2015 are expected to support the party’s pro-choice position. Former Liberal staffer Jordan Owens, now a pollster with Gandalf Group (which polls for the Liberals), says the stand sent a strong signal: “He’s showing that he trusts women, listens to women . . . and that he can trust them to make their own decisions,” she says. Politically, the stand doesn’t constitute a huge risk. Canadian women have grown increasingly pro-choice over the past 10 years: A recent Ekos poll shows 76 percent identify that way. Symbolically, though, the position Trudeau took matters, Owens says. “It takes a huge burden off all of us who feel we need to be fighting for basic rights like access to abortion. Now that we know we don’t have to do that, we can think about other things, like economic issues.”
How Trudeau includes women in debate around some of these other, broader issues will reveal a lot, Owens says. “I’ve always objected to the idea that there are women-only issues.” Packaging up policy statements on childcare or education into their own binder — à la the Liberal Party’s famous “pink book,” a staple of many campaigns — trivializes those issues and reinforces stereotypical gender roles.
Owens thinks Trudeau will be more of a big-tent leader, bringing women out of their binders and into the broader political dialogue. She’s also encouraged that he’s got a roster of strong female candidates with depth and expertise across a broad range of issues, from well-known incumbents like Toronto MPs Chrystia Freeland and Carolyn Bennett to newcomers like Whitby-Oshawa candidate Celina Caesar-Chavannes. These are women with “chops as well as children,” says Siri Agrell, a former aide to Ontario’s Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne and currently a communications strategist with Pilot PMR. And some of his key advisers, including his campaign co-chair Katie Telford, are women.
Telford says the party has worked hard to recruit women for this election, especially those with school-age children. That’s the group that’s rarest among parliamentarians, she says, since working as an MP means spending so much time in Ottawa, away from family life. But it’s a demographic with important insights for a party that’s highlighting the plight of middle-class families as an election issue.
Still, breaking through means first finding potential candidates, and then convincing them to run. A group of young women involved with the party took on the first challenge by launching a digital campaign that invited Canadians to nominate women they believed would make strong candidates. About 500 nominations poured in, and each one received a personal email from Telford inviting them to run. “Research shows that you tend to have to ask women more times than you do with men,” she says, so the campaign followed up repeatedly with about 200 women who expressed at least initial interest. Caesar-Chavannes, an entrepreneur with three children and no previous political experience, was one of them.
About a third of the party’s candidates are now women, and Telford says the party hopes to increase that number as the nomination process continues. (The NDP holds the record: It fielded women in 41 percent of ridings in the 2011 election.) The next challenge is supporting them through the nomination and election process. And to help make political life more palatable, she says the Liberals are also trying to “get creative” in their thinking about what’s required of MPs. “We’re looking at telecommuting, more flexible schedules — the whole changing role of work,” says Telford. “That’s really important to Justin and his family. He’s a father, and he can identify with that work plight.”
He’s also encouraging MPs like Chrystia Freeland to bring children to events, where appropriate, to change the image of public life. “It’s something that Justin does too,” Telford says. So far, the female-friendly approach seems to be working. A late September Ekos poll showed him with the highest level of support among the three big party leaders: 37 percent of women said they favoured Trudeau, compared with 28 percent for Mulcair and 21 percent for Stephen Harper.
Polling shows that female voters feel consistently underrepresented in Ottawa, says Queen’s University politics professor Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant. (The number of women who’ve been elected to Parliament since 1867: 257. The number of male MPs with the first name John in the same period: 302.) Through his roster of women candidates and his perceived openness to women’s perspectives, Trudeau could be a game changer, hauling so-called “women’s issues” into the 21st century.
The photo shoot has moved outside, to the garden. Trudeau dangles Hadrien playfully over the backyard pool. Grégoire doesn’t blink. The photographer shoots the vegetable patch, a gorgeous biodynamic plot that a friend helped Grégoire plant. Then someone suggests that the family jump in the pool. Trudeau laughs it off, then pauses as though he can see it — how it’ll play on the page, how it’ll showcase their sense of fun, project a “Canadian political dynasties are just like you” insouciance. It’s the perfect way to introduce his “famille des fous.”
“Oui! C’est nous!” he says, and he turns to convince Grégoire.
She’s already there. She can see it too, and starts miming how they’ll look in the pool, elbows on the edge, beaming faces peering up at the photographer — just like a Vanity Fair shoot.
They wade in.
EXCLUSIVE: More photos of the Trudeaus at home
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include the fact that Jordan Owens and Siri Agrell have previous professional ties to the Liberal Party.