Ladies’ Man: Inside Justin Trudeau’s home, family life and political playbook

Family, female candidates and a pro-choice stance: Justin Trudeau is making a clear strategic play for women voters. But will they buy it?

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TORONTO, ON - APRIL 5: The editorial board met with Liberal leadership candidate Justin Trudeau on April 5, 2013. Afterwards he posed for a photograph in the Toronto Star studio.
Photo, Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star/Getty Images.

Editor’s note: This profile (which originally ran in October) has been updated and extended. 

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 into 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,” his 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 in front of a zoom lens that he’s unafraid to try out fresh material (critics pounded him relentlessly 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 might compare to 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. Vancouver resident Joanna Ludlow had made up her mind about Trudeau by the time he made an appearance at the city’s Pride Parade in August. She nabbed a selfie with him, screaming out that she loved him, and when a Vancouver Sun reporter pressed her to explain what she loved, she said she agreed with what he stood for. But then she turned to a friend and asked, “Ah, what does he stand for?” For many voters, that’s the question that looms over his campaign to be Canada’s next prime minister. With a new memoir, Common Ground, out in time for the holidays, a party platform in the works and the help of a few interviews like this one, Trudeau hopes to add depth to what has so far been a superficial public image. It’s unclear what it will all amount to, but one thing’s certain: Baby trick aside, he’s hell-bent on engaging women in the coming election.

He’s recruited a roster of impressive female candidates, participated in a controversial “ladies’ night” in Toronto aimed at getting women interested in the current political scene 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 this fall with a strikingly 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 attract a lot of female voters (at a time when only 21 percent say they support the current prime minister) — and help finally establish a clear Justin Trudeau identity, as a woman-friendly candidate.

Grégoire and Trudeau at home in Ottawa’s Rockcliffe neighbourhood with their children (from left) Xavier, 7, Hadrien, now 10 months, and Ella-Grace, 5. Photo, Maude Chauvin.
Grégoire and Trudeau at home in Ottawa’s Rockcliffe neighbourhood with their children (from left) Xavier, 7, Hadrien, now 10 months, and Ella-Grace, 5. Photo, Maude Chauvin.

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 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 intensely scrutinized.

Trudeau hoists his youngest child, Hadrien, high in the air. Photo, Maude Chauvin.
Trudeau hoists his youngest child, Hadrien, high in the air. Photo, Maude Chauvin.

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, they hold 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 the “ladies’ night” 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,” he says, “then you can have real conversations about what matters.”

Trudeau 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 declaration 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.”

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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 child care 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 larger political dialogue about issues like economic growth and transit. She’s also encouraged that he’s got a lineup of strong female candidates with depth and expertise across a broad range of topics, 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 advisors, 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 her 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 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.

And that much-criticized “ladies’ night” event, which some women (and men) said trivialized him as a leader by offering female attendees a chance to “really get to know the future prime minister”? Telford says the event, privately organized in support of a fund that helps advance female Liberal candidates, did what it set out to do: engage women who weren’t typically involved in politics. “Is it how we as a party are branding our leader? Well, no. But on the other hand, uniformity of brands is a tough thing to do. I think sometimes we can be too careful about these things. I’m a big believer that the more women we can engage, the better.”

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. Says Goodyear-Grant, “To the extent that he’s making gender an important part of who he is politically, that spontaneous nature of his is going to help him convince voters that he means what he says.”

Tending to the biodynamic garden. Photo, Maude Chauvin.
Tending to the biodynamic garden. Photo, Maude Chauvin.

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.

Taking a family dip – fully clothed – in the backyard pool. Photo, Maude Chauvin.
Taking a family dip – fully clothed – in the backyard pool. Photo, Maude Chauvin.

 

Stephen Harper, Tom Mulcair, Justin Trudeau

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Where the leaders stand

On abortion

Harper: “As long as I am prime minister, we will not reopen the debate on abortion.”

Mulcair: Did not prevent MP Niki Ashton from reopening the debate — in May, she called for the House to formally affirm a women’s right to choose. The motion hasn’t been tabled.

Trudeau: “Our position as a party is we do not reopen that debate.”

On anti-abortion MPs

Harper: “Ours is a big party where we understand the Canadian people have different, often conflicting views on issues like this . . . and all such views are welcome in the Conservative Party of Canada.”

Mulcair: “No one will be allowed to run for the NDP if they don’t believe that it is a right in our society for women to make their own choices on their reproductive health. Period.”

Trudeau: “Canadians of all views are welcome within the Liberal Party of Canada. But under my leadership, incoming Liberal MPs will always vote in favour of a woman’s fundamental rights.”

On an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women

Harper: Rejected call for inquiry, explaining, “I think we should not view this as a sociological phenomenon. We should view it as crime.”

Mulcair: Promised a full national inquiry in first 100 days if elected.

Trudeau: Promised a full national inquiry if elected.

On child care

Harper: Created the Universal Child Care Benefit (families get $100 a month for every kid under six).

Mulcair: In October, proposed a national $15-a-day child care plan, with Ottawa covering 60 percent of the cost and the provinces chipping in the rest.

Trudeau: Told a Vancouver paper in August he couldn’t yet pledge to reintroduce a national child care plan.

 

Click here to see the original online profile (and the many comments it generated)