Meet The Woman Who Crafts Justin Trudeau’s Image

As communications director in Justin Trudeau’s PMO, Kate Purchase’s job is to make the boss look good. It’s getting tougher.

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Kate Purchase Justin Trudeau's communications director: The two stand talking in the Prime Minister's block office

Prime Minister Trudeau speaks with Kate Purchase in his Centre Block office. (Photo, Adam Scotti/PMO)

At the presidential palace in Mexico City on Oct. 12, 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had just delivered a speech, and Kate Purchase, his communications director, for a moment, was dancing. She bopped her fists together and threw a thumb over her shoulder, weaving through the crowd toward Gerald Butts, Trudeau’s principal secretary.

The team was topping off a successful trip across the continent. A day earlier, they had visited the White House, and their boss was widely praised for how he handled the U.S. president. At the end of the tour, they boarded the Prime Minister’s plane and flew back to the hangar in Ottawa.

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But within four days, Trudeau was standing at a press conference in Stouffville, Ont., next to Finance Minister Bill Morneau, trying to suppress backlash against the government’s proposed small-business tax reforms. Within three weeks, the Liberal Party’s chief fundraiser was attacked for his connections to an offshore account. In December, the ethics commissioner ruled that Trudeau broke conflict-of-interest rules when he accepted a family vacation to the Aga Khan’s private Bahamian island. The Prime Minister then faced ethical questions over his decision to meet with former hostage Joshua Boyle and his family for a photo op. Over the past three months, the Liberal government has faced troubling headlines that it hasn’t been able to shake.

“I’m sure you have lots of pundits who can get into the details of what we could have or should have done differently,” says Purchase in an interview in January, discussing the Morneau controversies specifically, “or what I could have or should have done differently, but I think at the end of the day we had the right outcome, which was a policy that made sense for middle-class Canadians.”

When a Prime Minister drops in the polls, observers are quick to blame the communications director, a job in which nobody has lasted a full four-year mandate since 1999. Stephen Harper went through nine directors, and before him, the role saw rapid turnover as the messengers either burned bridges or burned out.

Purchase is in her third year in the position, and though she is not responsible for Trudeau’s slide, she’s the one who now must reorient Trudeau’s image as he embarks on an ambitious agenda before the next election. She was the prime narrator of Trudeau’s messaging during his 2015 campaign; she’s overseen his attention-grabbing publicity in American magazines; and colleagues say she’s a key ingredient to the “secret sauce” of the familial PMO, as the in-house confidante, and one to remind the boss — when he’s rushing his speeches and starts to punctuate points with “uhs”—to slow down.

Purchase is a trained Shakespearean actress, cancer survivor and 31-year-old with the stamina to travel internationally between ultrasound appointments for the baby she’s due to deliver in March. Weeks before going on maternity leave, she was promoted to become executive director of communications and planning for Trudeau. (About 40 percent of the PMO will now report to her.)

Purchase works for a government that gives ministers latitude for what they say and do, at a time when ministers have been creating headaches for the government, and when the boss himself is triggering ethical controversy. Purchase’s job is to make the Prime Minister look good. The task is notoriously hard, and it just got harder.

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One evening, during a vote in Parliament, a staffer entered Purchase’s office through a sticky door that needs chiselling. Did Purchase see what had just happened? The Prime Minister had rushed across the House aisle, hoping to hasten a vote on assisted dying, and knocked NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau in her chest with his elbow.

Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford was in Toronto with Butts. Purchase phoned Telford to a chain reaction of “What?” then crossed the street to Centre Block to start drafting apologies with Trudeau. They workshopped the apologies with Telford and Butts by phone.

“You do something wrong, you apologize,” Purchase says in an interview in her office in September. “You break the lamp in the living room, you apologize. I don’t actually remember how many apologies there were in the end, but there were multiple. It’s not necessarily more strategic than that.” In this case the apology worked; crisis was averted.

Purchase herself vets every post to the Prime Minister’s website and his accounts on Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, LinkedIn and Quora, and she makes sure the staff who write these posts do not sound pretentious. “If you detach yourself in a sense of ‘your s—t don’t stink,’ then all of a sudden it does,” says Tim Powers, a Conservative strategist and friend of Purchase. “And I think Kate is very good at keeping the turd tarnish off her staff.”

Purchase’s strength is garnering upbeat publicity. Vogue and Rolling Stone each requested interviews, and after several months, she and the Trudeaus agreed. The resulting Rolling Stone cover story asked if Trudeau is “the free world’s greatest hope.” One of Purchase’s colleagues says that during the 2015 election, the team considered running ads on dating sites like Grindr. “We had to fight for every piece of attention we got,” Purchase says of the campaign. That approach changed after coming to power. “Then it was more about how do you surf the wave of attention and not fall off.”

This government has struggled to extinguish negative attention that can’t be easily solved with apologies. After Morneau first proposed small-business tax reforms in June, the bad news cycle extended through the fall as he held 75 days of public consultations before finally announcing the proposal.

Purchase estimates she met two to three times per week with Morneau’s communications director leading up to the Fall Economic Statement — the best opportunity to regain control of a story about small-business tax reforms — but she only advised and did not direct, even after Morneau’s troubles worsened with news that he had failed to disclose a company that held a villa in France.

“What surprises me most about this PMO and this Prime Minister is that they don’t seem to know how to get themselves out of trouble very quickly,” says Andrew MacDougall, a former communications director to Harper. “While noble and probably the right thing to do, [consulting] makes communicating more difficult.” By contrast, take for example the Harper government’s controversial changes to the health funding formula in 2011. MacDougall explains the approach: “This is how it’s going to be, take it or leave it. We’re done. No negotiating.”

Under the current PMO, Purchase’s job is not to be message masseuse for ministers. Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly did not, for instance, need Purchase’s approval to appear on the agenda-setting Quebec talk show Tout le monde en parle, where journalists pilloried her for a deal she had struck with Netflix that didn’t include the taxes and regulations her critics demanded.

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“We wouldn’t say you need to get PMO to sign off to do something,” says Purchase. “That’s not the structure we operate under. It adds a layer of complication to the coordination of things, and it means being in regular contact, but at the end of the day, the Prime Minister has been very clear about trusting the team.”

Briefing Trudeau before question period or speeches, Purchase often debates punctuation with him and Butts to best construct sentences. While Trudeau and Butts were studying English at university in the ’90s, Purchase was a child absorbing political communications at home.

“Kate was born right into a political story,” says family friend Peter Mansbridge. On the day of her birth, Mansbridge called her mother, Nancy Jamieson, at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. “I managed to get through on the phone to wish them well. I could hear Kate in the background, a few hours old.”
Months later, infant Purchase appeared in Chatelaine in a feature article about her mother, who had been the executive legislative assistant to prime minister Joe Clark and had soothsaid his party’s fate in losing the vote that triggered the 1980 election. “My mom was the only one in the room saying they weren’t going to win,” Purchase says. “She’s infamous for that — for being young and pretty and right.”

Purchase’s father is economist Bryne Purchase, but her mother’s remarriage to pollster Bruce Anderson inducted her as a baby into a storied family of political strategists and commentators. Anderson is the chairman of Abacus Data and a past member of the CBC At Issue panel. He left the high-profile At Issue gig citing a conflict of interest when Kate took up her job in the PMO. (Anderson has also been an occasional contributor to Maclean’s.)

Mansbridge’s wife, the actress Cynthia Dale, took the 11-year-old Kate backstage at the Stratford Festival. “I spent most of my life training to be a Shakespearean actress, before I chose the more stable life of politics,” Purchase says. She still today aims to write speeches in language that signals to Trudeau which words to emphasize. “Now I’m going to completely nerd out. Shakespeare telegraphs to you, as you read it, how you should say it.”

Her mother prohibited television. “Somehow she survived without watching Power Rangers,” Jamieson says. Kate was the sort of seventh-grader who would research and deliver a competitive speech on the sinking of the Lusitania. She once chastised a Conservative dinner guest about the Australian occupation of the Republic of Nauru. He had originally asked the opinion of her boyfriend at the table, who knew little about the Micronesian rock island. “Well, I have a strong view,” Purchase told the guest, as Anderson recalls. “She just kind of went after him about the errors of his ways.”

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While Purchase studied theatre at Queen’s University, she was diagnosed with a rare form of endocrinal cancer, at almost the same time that her cousin, Jaimie Anderson, whom she called “twinnie,” was diagnosed with neuroendocrine cancer. Purchase underwent successful chemotherapy and never relapsed. Jaimie died at 23.

Purchase moved to Ottawa and was a staffer to Sen. Lowell Murray, a Conservative, whom her mother had also worked for. Her family’s network has clearly mattered in her career. “Listen, I will not deny, nor have I denied… that where she grew up, who she grew up with and the contacts she made on the way up have not in any way hurt her,” Mansbridge says, “but when it got around to the crunch of having to apply to jobs and be hired, wherever it was, she had to prove she could do it.”

While Purchase was working on the Hill, she met another political staffer, Perry Tsergas, who proposed to her four years later. Mansbridge spoke at the wedding at a rented villa in Tuscany. “I was like, I don’t know, an uncle, an honorary uncle, or honorary third father,” he says.

Purchase’s boss at the time, Bob Rae, became interim Liberal leader, and kept Purchase as communications director, where she developed the less structured style associated with being in opposition. “I don’t go scripted into a lot of events,” says Rae. “She got used to a more free-nilly approach. I think what she’s learned from Mr. Trudeau’s office is a much greater sense of organization and discipline.”

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Purchase worked for Trudeau on the 2015 campaign as director of communications, but he didn’t see her as part of his leadership plan. She went on holiday to Ireland, and Trudeau’s team realized they needed her. “People I knew trusted her immensely, trusted her judgment immensely,” says Telford, who was Trudeau’s national campaign director. “It was just a matter of twisting her arm to get her to stay.”

In her office overlooking Parliament Hill one fall morning, Purchase needs to talk with her media relations officer — “I need Cameron for twoooo seconds,” she says — and when she learns another colleague is still in a meeting: “Son of a bitch!” she says. Her collar is popped. Her shoes are arguably slippers. She has small gaps between her cuticles and nail polish line, as if even the tips of her fingernails have somewhere to be.

“I’m not some dark Machiavellian person who’s thinking, ‘How can we obfuscate this?’ ” she says. She plans to leave in March for up to nine months to have her firstborn son. “People are saying, ‘Aren’t you freaked out about having to go on mat leave?’ ” she says. “Yeah, but I’ll come back.”

The PMO hasn’t yet announced her replacement. When she returns, Purchase will lead communications and tour planning for Trudeau leading up to the 2019 election. She’ll also continue to be responsible for keeping the Prime Minister grounded — an unofficial role performed most acutely the morning after Gord Downie died.

On his way to a caucus meeting, upstairs in Centre Block, Trudeau was crying and needed to prepare for a scrum. Surrounded by senior staff, he was trying to compose himself for the journalists crowding the foyer below.

Purchase is not a hugger, but in this emergency, she lifted a foot to take a step toward her boss, as if she just might embrace him. She stopped herself, but Trudeau had already caught her. “You almost hugged me!” he said. “You almost went and actually did it!” And his face buckled into a smile.