Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is pictured in Ottawa on Nov. 3, 2016. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
“I’m really good at it,” Justin Trudeau responds when asked what surprised him of his past few months as prime minister. It’s June 7. The media are assembled for the annual garden party at 24 Sussex Dr. — the prime minister’s historic residence.
Trudeau doesn’t elaborate too much. He suggests he’s grown into the role nicely and he enjoys it. He likes to ask questions, and now he gets to ask many. Before he can be pressed, someone else grabs his attention and he wanders off into the crowd.
At that point, the Liberal leader has been prime minister for seven months and three days. His favourable rating, according to a Forum telephone survey of 2,271 Canadians conducted that day, is 68 per cent.
The previous month’s “Elbowgate” controversy — when Trudeau accidentally bumped a female NDP MP in the chest after rising from his seat the Commons to grab the Conservative whip by the arm so a vote on Liberal legislation could commence — has not dampened his support. Forum suggests the Liberals would win 230 seats — 46 more than the 184 obtained on Oct. 19, 2015 — if the election were held that June.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau poses for a selfie following a town hall with high school students in Ottawa on Nov. 3, 2016. (Photo: Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Now, a year after Trudeau was sworn-in as Canada’s 29th prime minister, his popular support is still over — well over, according to several polls — 50 per cent.
To mark his first year in office, The Huffington Post Canada spoke to more than a dozen friends, as well as senior aides, and cabinet and caucus colleagues, to get a sense of how those closest to him have perceived the Liberal leader’s first year in office. Within the Prime Minister’s Office, some staff declined to comment, as did Trudeau’s spouse, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, and his mother.
The portrait that emerged is of a man who is as confident, inquisitive, decisive, and tenacious as ever, but also someone who will have to learn to manage an ambitious caucus and public expectations.
“I’m not surprised that he enjoys it,” said Terry DiMonte, a Montreal radio host and the friend at whose home Trudeau sought refuge after his father, former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, died in 2000. “I always thought he was a born leader, and I always thought that he enjoyed leading the orchestra.”
It’s something Trudeau has been thinking about for a very long time, DiMonte added.
Like many of Trudeau’s friends, Thomas Panos said the past year has exceeded his wildest expectations.
“I didn’t think my friend could do as well as he has done in this 12-month period,” Panos said, during a recent interview in Vancouver. “I’m so proud of him. I get goosebumps thinking about this.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calls Liberal party volunteers to thank them for their help during last year's election in Ottawa, on Oct. 19, 2016. (Photo: Chris Wattie/Reuters)
The lowest point of Trudeau’s tenure so far, Panos estimates, was “Elbowgate.”
DiMonte, who has known Trudeau since his late teenage years, said he recognized his friend in the Commons that day. “He was frustrated and he was fed up.
“When I watched what happened on the floor, I thought ‘I’ve seen that look before,’ and I wasn’t completely surprised.”
What did surprise him, DiMonte said, was how deeply regretful and unbelievably apologetic Trudeau was.
Panos agreed: “I saw a lot of humility in him and wanting to take ownership.”
“I think he realized that was something that he never should have done, and that is where I see the change in him,” Panos told HuffPost. “There is no obstinacy in the way that he is acting, for the most part, in public.”
That week, Panos sent Trudeau a text message telling him he was still cheering for him.
The two have been friends since 1996 — pre-politics, pre-children, pre-Sophie. This past year, Panos has seen Trudeau four times. Their families vacationed together in Whistler, B.C., in February, and when the prime minister was in Victoria for the royal visit in September, he and Sophie managed to sneak away for late-night bite with Panos in Vancouver.
Three years ago, before Trudeau won the Liberal leadership, Panos told HuffPost he wasn’t sure his friend was ready to lead the country.
"I don't know how many 40-year-olds are ready to become prime minister of Canada," he said at the time. His hope was that Trudeau would learn a lot over the next several years, that he would grow, and that he would help the party grow too.
But after meeting the core team around Trudeau — advisers Gerald Butts and Katie Telford — Panos said he felt confident his friend could pull it off — although he wasn’t sure exactly how.
Then the election came. Panos found Trudeau got better and better as the campaign went on. He sounded more confident. His speeches improved, Panos said, as did his debate performance. “They didn’t win that by default. They went out and won it. And that to me is the highest possible praise I could give him.”
Justin Trudeau and wife Sophie Gregoire wave to the crowd after his victory speech at Liberal election headquarters in Montreal on Oct. 20, 2015. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
Now, a year into Trudeau’s mandate, Panos said, Canadians are starting to see the man his friends and family know.
“He is more decisive than people think he is. That is one of the qualities people underestimate about him.”
Trudeau is also a very adept and astute politician, Panos said. “He is politically shrewd.”
“He’s always been an extremely quick learner,” said Marc Miller, Trudeau’s friend since Grade 7 and now the MP for the Montreal riding of Ville-Marie–Le Sud-Ouest–Île-des-Soeurs. “He’s always been someone that can digest something and learn it quickly and be able to regurgitate, which is a talent most of us struggle with.”
Panos’ favourite moment of the past year was watching Trudeau define quantum physics during a press conference.
Trudeau was “never a guy who was going to sit down and do a PhD,” Miller said. “You are not going to find him in a library for five years on end. He’s so active, and able to take a decision quickly and act on it.”
“When people were calling him a bobblehead, I tried to tell them that was there,” DiMonte added. “I’ve seen his intelligence close up for many years. But the media narrative became this ‘son-of-a-prime-minister-with-pretty-hair.’
“Nobody would ever describe him as ‘wishy-washy,’” DiMonte said. “He knows what he wants. He knows what he thinks is right, what he believes in, and he’s not afraid to say to room full of people: ‘You’ve all been very helpful, but I’ve decided this is what we’re going to do.’”
DiMonte said he knows it sounds “incredibly cornball,” but he honestly believes the prime minister knows his job isn’t about pleasing people but about rather doing what’s right.
The Trudeau government has recently been panned — and praised — for big spending budgets that created deficits three times larger than advertised during the election. With no current projections for when the country will return to balance, the Liberals have also been criticized for imposing a price on carbon to curb greenhouse gas emissions and for approving the Pacific NorthWest LNG pipeline.
Trudeau has angered some indigenous groups by supporting the pipeline, by allowing the Site C dam in British Columbia to go ahead, and by reversing his stand on adopting the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
He’s also recently back-peddled on a firm commitment he had made to change the electoral system in time for the 2019 election.
But Trudeau has also kept many of the promises he made during the 2015 campaign. He has:
• Welcomed more than 25,000 Syrian refugees
• Lowered taxes on the middle income tax bracket
• Raised them on the upper bracket for wealthier Canadians
• Brought in more generous child care cheques
• Negotiated the expansion of the Canada Pension Plan
• Reinstated the long-form census
• Formed a gender-balanced cabinet
• Unmuzzled government scientists
• Appointed a prime minister’s youth council
• Launched a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls
• Established a committee on electoral reform
• Established two new appointment processes for the Senate and the judiciary, including the Supreme Court.
He has also passed controversial physician-assisted-dying legislation, placed Canadian troops in more danger as they help fight the so-called Islamic State, and announced that he intends to send the Canadian Forces to some likely risky UN peacekeeping missions.
Federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna speaks to the media after meeting with her provincial counterparts on Oct. 3, 2016 in Montreal. (Photo: Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)
The decision to impose a national price on carbon may be Trudeau’s most controversial to date. After several months of negotiations, the provinces remained at odds. Trudeau and his environment minister, Catherine McKenna, publicly stated that the government was willing to impose a minimum price on carbon if an agreement couldn’t be reached.
None was forthcoming.
So Trudeau big-footed an environment ministers meeting in Montreal by announcing, in Ottawa, that he was setting a national carbon price with all tax revenue returned to the province where it was generated.
“People can argue a little bit about how it was done, but, at the end of the day, they are going to be talking about how Canada is leading the charge on this,” said Louis-Alexandre Lanthier, Trudeau’s longtime aide who left the Liberal leader’s office in 2014 after spending seven years at his side and now works as a lobbyist.
“It was very gutsy,” Lanthier said.
Justin Trudeau speaks at a press conference at Rideau Hall after being sworn in as Canada's 23rd prime minister on Nov. 4, 2015. (Photo: Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images)
It wasn’t the first time, of course, that Canadians witnessed Trudeau taking a decisive stand. Two years ago, while opposition leader, he unceremoniously kicked all the Grit senators out of his caucus. The decision came as a shock to many lifelong Liberals — including the leader of the Grits in the upper chamber, James Cowan, the father of Trudeau’s campaign strategist, Suzanne Cowan.
Trudeau isn’t afraid of making tough decisions — even if it means alienating some people along the way, friends and colleagues said.
“I think a lot more people are seeing that now than maybe a handful of us in opposition that were able to see that on a daily basis,” said Kate Purchase, Trudeau’s director of communications and a senior staffer for the past three years.
One of the most difficult decisions the prime minister and the cabinet took was the legislation around physician-assisted dying, Purchase said. The Liberal government was pressed to allow individuals who were not facing imminent death to request assistance in dying, but it chose to take a more restrictive stand that many scholars and MPs felt didn’t meet the Supreme Court’s standard in the Carter decision.
“That is such a personal issue for so many people, it is such a complicated issue for so many people that how to write that legislation and how to ultimately take that decision was not easy for anybody, and certainly not for the prime minister,” Purchase told Huffpost. The PM sought to make a decision that took into account a diversity of opinion, she said.
While noting that the prime minister “looks to build consensus,” Purchase said he’s also ready to make “bold moves” such as the government’s recent decision to set a national price on carbon.
Justin Trudeau delivers a speech in the House of Commons on Oct. 3, 2016. (Photo: Canadian Press)
DiMonte, who recalled arguing with Trudeau about 10 years ago over the acceptability of a carbon tax, said he really believes that when the PM makes a decision — even when politics are involved — he makes a decision that he thinks is right.
This week, the government announced that it’s digging its heels and betting years, possibly decades, of budget deficits on a plan to invest massively in infrastructure — and, hopefully, to attract foreign investment that will spur economic growth.
The Conservatives criticized the plan, saying Trudeau’s $30-billion deficit had already failed to create a single new full-time job or expand the economy, and that Canadian workers, families, and job creators will be stuck paying costly bills for generations to come.
Trudeau won’t suffer from former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin’s perceived handicap of “waffling,” Miller predicted.
The PM is “a risk taker” and someone who “doesn’t have that much fear,” he said.
“I think you’ve got to kind of not give a shit,” Miller told HuffPost. “I think a lot of us worry about being judged and whether you like it or not; he’s been judged constantly for as long as I’ve known him.
“When you tell someone for three decades what they can and can’t do, who their father is and isn’t, who their mother is and isn’t, at some point, [they] kind of tune them out and do [their] own thing, right?”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a town hall with high school students in Ottawa on Nov. 3, 2016. (Photo: Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Trudeau told a group of high school students on Thursday, that having a father who was prime minister helped him develop a strong sense of who he is and what his strengths and weaknesses are, “and to not be influenced by the perceptions or expectations of others.”
“I’m ready to take positions that are very unpopular, if it is a policy that matters to me,” Trudeau said. He gave as an example defending the right of dual nations to retain their Canadian citizenship even after convicted of engaging in terrorist activities.
He didn’t mention that the Liberal party exploited the issue in ethnic communities during the last campaign, by suggesting the Conservatives would strip Canadian citizenship for other crimes.
Protesters turn their backs on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as he addresses the Canadian Labour Congress National Young Workers' Summit in Ottawa on Oct. 25, 2016. (Photos: Fred Chartrand/CP)
Trudeau’s leadership style as PM hasn’t changed since his time in opposition, Lanthier said. “He doesn’t suffer fools lightly, so even as prime minister sometimes that comes out.
“His temperament sometimes can be a bit activist. He will want to take charge of a situation directly, and he will want to solve a situation personally.”
From the mundane — telling his MPs exactly how to line up during a group photo — to directly engaging with his detractors, as he did last week at a national young workers’ summit in Ottawa organized by the Canadian Labour Congress, the PM likes to get involved.
“He didn’t just get up and leave the room, he stayed and argued with them until he had delivered the message he wanted to give,” Lanthier said.
“He is not afraid to walk into the lion’s den.”
While Trudeau told the group he believes in dialogue, he also chastised them for standing in a way that showed him they weren’t listening and weren’t willing to engage.
“I think politics needs to be about having honest, open conversations, and that is exactly what I’m here to do,” the prime minister said.
Then he handed the floor over to a protester, told a man he wouldn’t take his question unless he looked at him, and pledged to come back and meet with the group again next year.
Another prime minister might not have attended, might have left the stage or ignored the demonstrators, Lanthier suggested. “[Trudeau] doesn’t ignore them. He goes into this mode where he welcomes the confrontation.”
DiMonte put it more bluntly: “He is not afraid to walk into the lion’s den.”
From his outreach to the Calgary oil patch as a Liberal with the last name Trudeau, to his faceoff with C-51 demonstrators trying explain why the Grits supported the controversial anti-terror legislation, to his pre-election days door-knocking in Villeray, where sovereigntist screamed and shouted at him, Trudeau has sought to engage his critics.
“He just keeps going. And eventually, things work out,” Lanthier said. “Plus, he hates to lose. He is a very big competitor. He likes the debate, and he likes to win.”
Justin Trudeau and friend Mathieu Walker in the Sahara desert in October 1994.
“When we were growing up, he always wanted to be the boss,” said Mathieu Walker, a close friend from high school and now a cardiologist in Montreal.
“At times we let him, and at times we didn’t, but he often wanted to dictate what we were going to do that night or which club we were going to go to. And he has always been sort of like that. And he knows what he wants.”
Still, Walker noted that Trudeau can also be open, willing to listen to other people’s points of view, and to modulate his opinion based on that feedback.
Lanthier points to the 2012 Liberal convention as an example. Then a backbencher, Trudeau arrived opposed to legalizing marijuana. Then when the motion came to the floor, he spoke in favour.
“It’s the young Liberals who sat with him and argued with him until they convinced him that it was doable,” Lanthier said.
Justin Trudeau and aide Louis-Alexandre Lanthier make their way towards the House of Commons before Question Period at Parliament HIll in April 2013. (Photo: Justin Tang/Canadian Press)
Trudeau’s leadership style is open, inquisitive, trusting and decisive, said Lanthier, opinions affirmed by his caucus mates.
“As much as he can obstinate on a policy that is important to him, as much as he can obstinate about things like the colours on a website or the right shade of red on an invitation … he also trusts you that when you agree and make a plan, he won’t check in on you every two seconds to see where you are at. He is just going to expect you to do it,” Lanthier said.
Trudeau runs his cabinet like a discussion group, staff said.
Trudeau thinks through problems by isolating what he thinks is important and focusing on that. “He usually gets to the heart of an issue quickly. He is very good at separating the wheat from the chaff,” a senior staffer within the PMO said, requesting anonymity.
“And [he] has no time for people he thinks are just motivated by what they think is popular or will play well,” the person added.
“He encourages not just collegiality but he encourages us to have very rigorous discussions and not just be an echo chamber.”
— Liberal MP Omar Alghabra
Trudeau chairs the meeting. Calls it to order. Runs through the agenda and hands off to the committee chairs to report on their items. Then, he runs a discussion on those items, wanting to hear from each cabinet minister. He is quiet. Listens. Probes. Summarizes what he’s heard.
“[Trudeau] is really really good at making people comfortable enough to feel like they can speak their mind. That they can say what they really think and it would [not] be held against them, even when they disagree — with him or anyone else. In fact, it’s usually the opposite…. It bothers him when people don't speak their mind,” the person added.
One of the things DiMonte said he’s always loved about Trudeau is that he can have spirited discussions and there is no personal: “‘Oh, because you disagree with me, I don’t want to hang with you, you piece of shit.’ It was a, ‘Oh, this was fun! Thanks for pushing me.’”
Justin Trudeau listens to International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland at a meeting with EU counterparts in Brussels, Belgium on Oct. 30, 2016. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
Treasury Board President Scott Brison told HuffPost the PM encourages “robust debate.”
“He encourages not just collegiality but he encourages us to have very rigorous discussions and not just be an echo chamber,” Brison said.
Cabinet, on every issue, is expected to decide based on evidence and good analysis, what the best public policy response is, he said.
“His instinct is — absolutely on any given issue — to drill down on what the right thing to do is…and then figure out the politics after.”
When Brison chaired the Liberals’ economic advisory council with MP Chrystia Freeland, he said experts would often come and say this is what the right thing to do is, but the politics are dicey. Trudeau would stop them in their tracks and say: “Respectfully, I’m not interested in your political advice, I would like your expert public policy advice. Once we know what the right thing to do is, we’ll figure out the politics,” Brison recounted.
Trudeau asks lots questions. “He is very demanding of his ministers, in terms of making sure that we are rigorous, but at the same time, entrusting us with our files and enabling us to be real ministers,” Brison added.
The prime minister doesn’t micromanage, he said. “He has provided us with clear mandates, they are public, and he expects us to fulfil them — and making them public is certainly part of that,” he said, with a smile.
Liberal MP Omar Alghabra speaks in the House of Commons on June 3, 2016. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
On Monday, the government announced that Canada will accept only 300,000 immigrants a year — up from 260,000 in 2015 but far lower than had been expected.
The decision came about because Trudeau decided that the country didn't have the capacity to absorb more.
"I was surprised," a source said, "but he made the right call. Nothing in our system gives confidence that it could handle a large, immediate, increase.”
'He's not totally controlling'
Omar Alghabra, the parliamentary secretary for consular affairs, said the PM is an engaged leader who encourages his team to dig deep into their files, challenges their assumptions and asks lots of questions.
“Some questions I would have thought of beforehand, but some ... I would feel embarrassed that I hadn’t thought of…. But you can tell there is a lot of thought put into the questions,” said Alghabra, who declined to offer specifics because of the nature of his files.
“He’s not totally controlling. He sets an example for the rest of us through his work ethic and through his questions,” he added. “He comes at stuff sometimes out of the box. ‘Did you consider doing this?’ Or, ‘what would happen if we did this?’ And it’s something that either myself, or the department, or whatever, had not necessarily considered.
“He really is a very thoughtful and critical thinker,” added Alghabra, who has been part of Trudeau’s team since before the leadership launch in 2012.
Justin Trudeau reacts to a question from high school students in Ottawa on Nov. 3, 2016. (Photo: Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Trudeau told high school students on Thursday that he spends a lot of time “listening, working in a collaborative fashion with others and respecting this beautiful reality that everyone can have good answers … not just the prime minister.”
Still, Purchase noted, that Trudeau often rejects the advice he’s given and does what he thinks is best.
When trying to negotiate former Concordia University professor Homa Hoodfar’s release from prison in Iran, where Canada has no diplomatic presence, Purchase said Trudeau was advised that he absolutely could not personally engage in the case. “But he did, and essentially drove the system to find new ways for him to engage,” she said, declining to offer specifics.
Those avenues, she said, ultimately led to Hoodfar’s release.
Iranian-Canadian professor Homa Hoodfar smiles as she arrives in Montreal on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016. The retired anthropology professor spent nearly four months in prison in Iran. (Photo: Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)
Brison thinks the role of PM comes “far more naturally” to Trudeau than the role of opposition leader did. The Liberals, perhaps consequently, are performing much better as a government than they did as an opposition party, he said.
“Making decisions, having all this responsibility is something that he carries more easily than he did opposition. It’s just so obvious,” Brison told HuffPost. “That is the most fundamental thing I have noted over the last three years working with him.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is flanked by his RCMP security detail while walking to a news conference in Ottawa on June 22, 2016. (Photo: Chris Wattie/Reuters)
To those who know Trudeau best, the past 12 months haven’t changed much, although there are fewer brunch dates and poker games, and organizing get-togethers takes co-ordination with the RCMP.
The topics of conversation have changed somewhat, Walker noted.
“We kind of tread a bit carefully on what we talk about.” For example, they can’t discuss security matters, he said. “Although I have all these political questions to ask, we usually focus on spending some good time and having fun together for the few hours that we have to spend together.”
Trudeau keeps his own cellphone and communicates often with his friends. “We get together and text pictures of us, and he’ll often text back: ‘Oh, wish I could be there with you guys,’ and stuff like that,” said Walker.
“I feel like I can access him. I could ask him a question, and he would reply. I could email him or text him, and he would get back to me. I do feel — not that I have really done that very much but when he does the same to us — we are there for him.”
“He is the same Justin that I know. He’s not different … which is great.”
— Mathieu Walker
Last month, Walker and their group of about seven guys met in Montreal. The lack of spontaneity has taken some getting used to, said Walker, but Trudeau seems comfortable with it. “He grew up with it.”
At Christmas, Trudeau invited his friends and their families to Harrington Lake, the prime minister’s retreat in the Gatineau Hills. He wanted to go snowshoeing, and the RCMP were waiting with their snowshoes — because if Trudeau goes, so does the trail of Mounties who follow him. But Walker and others were struggling to get their gear on.
“He’s like ‘Mat, come here, I’m going to help you.’ So he gets on his knees and he’s putting my snowshoes on,” Walker recounted. “I’m like: ‘Here is the prime minister, he’s putting my snowshoes on. That’s just cool. He hasn’t changed. He doesn’t take himself so seriously.
“He is the same Justin that I know. He’s not different … which is great.”
Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau kiss during the Vancouver Pride Parade on July 31. (Photo: Andrew Chin/Getty Images)
Panos feels the same: “Nothing has changed. When we are alone, him and Sophie are the friends that I have always known. There is one thing that has changed now, when we get out in public. They know that people are around them and they have to comport themselves in the proper respectful manner — not that they weren’t before, but Justin becomes prime minister when he walks outside. There is a difference in that. And when we are not outside, he is exactly who he is. And that’s really nice. It’s great to see.”
“When he is around us, he is not the prime minister,” added Miller. “Unless, he is getting wildly insulted and needs to take his space — he goes: ‘You guys realize I’m the prime minister?’ But that is very much jokingly. He is just very much a regular guy. And that’s kinda cool.”
Justin Trudeau gets ready to sign a vintage poster of his father, former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, during a campaign stop on Oct. 15, 2015 in Ste-Therese, Que. (Photo: Paul Chiasson/AP via CP)
Miller credits Trudeau’s upbringing — having a dad who was prime minister to all and an icon for many — for keeping him “extremely grounded.”
“I have no idea what he is going through. I can see it in small glimpses. But he is a very exposed person, he is someone who is constantly in demand. I can see how that plays on your psyche,” Miller said.
“Being around the group of friends, as I’ve seen over the last year, he is very quiet and takes in the enjoyment of seeing his close friends talk about stupid things, talk about smart things, talk about — you know, there are two doctors, so they start talking shop — or start rehashing idiotic stories from 20 years ago. But it’s an odd combination of therapy and what friendship is at its best.
“He really, really appreciates the time away from scrutiny.”
Being a global media celebrity hasn’t changed him, his friends added. Walker noted with disappointment that Trudeau had not sent any pictures of himself with Bono or U.S. President Barack Obama.
Walker commented on how disciplined Trudeau has been in terms of exercise and balancing his work and family duties.
Justin Trudeau, dressed as a pilot, and his youngest son Hadrien was the little prince from the kids’ book “Le Petit Prince” this past Halloween. (Photo: Sophie Gregoire Trudeau/Facebook)
“What impresses me is that he is like flying all around, he’s got this crazy schedule, and he still manages to look like he is well rested. He rarely looks like he is having an off day.”
Trudeau told a group of Canadian diplomats earlier this year that he sleeps eight hours a day and exercises daily. He often spars with executive assistant Tommy Desfossés. Sometimes, Miller gets in the ring with him.
The Montreal MP said he has no qualms about hitting the PM. “I have to,” Miller said.
If he doesn’t throw punches, Trudeau will. “And, I have a big nose.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spars at Gleason's Boxing Gym in Brooklyn, New York on April 21, 2016. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
All his friends remarked how easily Trudeau has eased into his new role.
“It’s like there was some key that turned when he became PM and some piece fell into place. He’s so focused,” Walker said. “He’s elevated his game.”
Three years ago, Walker also told HuffPost he wasn’t sure Trudeau was ready to lead the country.
“As time goes by, when he is speaking, it is more the Justin that I know and less speech-sort of Justin,” Walker said. “We used to find when he did public speaking that he would adopt a certain voice that was a little bit different than his sort of natural tone and started teasing him about that a long time ago.”
Walker recalled how, during the election, Trudeau told him right after the Grits announced that they were going to run deficits: “‘I’m going to be the next prime minister.’
“I thought he was delusional at the time. He was in third place. And he’s talking about running a deficit? Which doesn’t seem like something you should be really happy about. But clearly he knew what he was doing.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference in Ottawa Nov. 3, 2016. (Photo: Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Trudeau’s first year, was more successful than many in his entourage had hoped.
“How do I feel about the year? It’s been great,” Trudeau said Thursday, appearing to mock himself at a press conference where reporters hadn’t asked him for his end-of-year assessment.
“I’ve done a lot for the middle class and those working hard to join in, and that keeping of the promise is really important to me on this one year’s anniversary,” he said, with a big smile.
Getting the provinces to agree to an expansion of the Canada Pension Plan, announcing a national price on carbon — a promise made during the 2015 campaign — and changing the way the prime minister engages with the public are some key accomplishments noted by Trudeau’s team.
Hunter Tootoo speaks at the Kitsilano Coast Guard facility in Vancouver in December 2015. (Photo: Darryl Dyck/CP)
Low points they mentioned included the departure of Hunter Tootoo from both the cabinet and the Liberal caucus. Tootoo, whom many viewed as an upcoming star in the Liberal cabinet, resigned and later checked himself into an alcohol addiction facility.
It was later revealed that Trudeau asked him to leave after his office was informed of an inappropriate sexual relationship Tootoo was having with his staffer. The minister was also seeing the woman’s mother.
A particular low point, Purchase said, was the beheadings of John Ridsdel and Robert Hall, two Canadians who were held captive by Abu Sayyaf extremists in the Philippines.
“It was definitely the worst thing that I have ever gone through from a career, work perspective,” she told HuffPost.
Robert Hall and John Ridsdel are seen in a screengrab from an undated video released by extremists.
Although Trudeau stated publicly and categorically that Canada would not negotiate ransoms with terrorists, Purchase said the government tried different routes to get the men out and held out hope.
“You know what the consequences could be, but you work your hardest to make sure that outcome doesn’t happen. But sometimes, unfortunately, that is not the way it works.”
As the Liberals enter their second year in office, Purchase said they will have to work hardest on ensuring that the public is engaged and that Canadians feel like they can be a part of what the government is doing.
“It’s making sure that you are out there all the time talking to Canadians … connecting with people and not becoming isolated in Ottawa and not [losing] that touchstone of what people are feeling,” she said.
She laughs when asked what her boss needs to work on.
“Probably he of all people needs to keep challenging himself to be out there and engaging with Canadians, because it is very easy as PM to become isolated,” she said. You get the sense that this isn’t really want she wants to say, but her job is to keep the government on message track.
Recently, the Liberals have found themselves embroiled in controversy over private fundraising activities that were attended by at least one person who reportedly has business dealings with the government. The mounting deficit is creating a clear divergent point with the opposing Conservatives, and Trudeau’s plan to sell off public infrastructure assets may give the struggling NDP more traction.
The government is also facing growing complaints — from young Canadians, indigenous groups, and public servants — that it isn’t living up to its election promises.
Panos, Trudeau’s friend from Vancouver, suggests that growing discontent on a number of issues, such as the likely approval of Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion, will prove particularly challenging in year two.
“The Liberals are going to make a lot of decisions that will make it a lot tougher to win seats in the next election,” Panos predicted. “You have to be prepared to lose the goodwill of many people to be able to run the government the way that you see the country needs to be run…. Hopefully, the Canadians will see that they are doing it for the right reason.”
“You’re the leader of the country, and you have to make decisions that for the most part are going to piss 50 per cent of the people off every time you make them."
— Terry DiMonte, friend
“The winds of political cycles are going to challenge him,” said DiMonte, as will the big files on his desk: namely the economy.
“You’re the leader of the country, and you have to make decisions that for the most part are going to piss 50 per cent of the people off every time you make them,” he said. “But I think he’s up to the challenge.”
DiMonte believes his friend views his responsibility as PM as one that reflects the needs of all Canadians. While Trudeau may personally feel strongly about climate change, the Montreal radio hosts suggests, he knows that as PM, he has to be responsive to the needs of Alberta’s oilpatch as the economic engine of the province and the country.
Purchase acknowledges that decisions to be made won’t make everybody happy.
Internally, Trudeau’s office is consumed with creating economic growth.
Trudeau’s budget plans depend on an economy that performs much better than it currently is and investments that bear fruit. But without a large increase in foreign investment, a large population boost, increased productivity, or a dramatic rise in oil prices, the outlook remains challenging. There are also increasing concerns that the U.S. economy will be heading into a recession and dragging the Canadian economy along with it.
Within the office, there is no obvious griping about Trudeau’s leadership. The Liberals are still riding impressively high in public opinion polls and the Grits just bested the Tories at fundraising.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's chief of staff Katie Telford, left, and principal secretary Gerald Butts attend a town hall with high school students in Ottawa on Nov. 3, 2016. (Photo: Chris Wattie/Reuters)
The few off-the-record whispers appear to be mostly directed at the PMO’s top two staffers, Butts, Trudeau’s principal secretary and close university friend, and Telford, his chief of staff, through whom decisions go. The two were recently involved in a controversy over the high cost of their moving expenses.
Some, outside the PMO circle, complain the pair are too often on the road with the prime minister. But except for Washington D.C. and China, most foreign trips haven’t been attended by both, the office says.
Access and influence often come with a bullseye.
Trudeau relies heavily on Butts for policy and strategic advice, several insiders noted: “Justin relies on Gerry a lot to give him the facts.”
Ottawa is a town filled with people who covet access, said Miller, who noted that he is conscious of not creating “jealousies” within caucus.
“There is this game of access that I don’t comprehend, just because I know him, but people like to have access to the prime minister just for the sake of saying they have access.”
" ... he is a widely popular prime minister, but he is still learning. The important part is he is also still eager to learn."
— Marc Miller
Miller, who is also the chair of the 40-member Quebec caucus, said he has seen Trudeau’s management skills improve over the past year, and he thinks the prime minister is learning to step back a bit.
“As we face a second year where we have to deliver, he now has an all-star team around him, and he has to give people more space,” he said.
“Leading from the front is less of an asset than it is when you are trying to rejuvenate a party,” he said. “Years two, three and four in my mind are years when you have to let your team take over, and you’ve got to kind of manage your caucuses in a … way that is more deferential to the great group of people that you have around you.
“There has been some growth there. I mean he is a widely popular prime minister, but he is still learning. The important part is he is also still eager to learn.”
Justin Trudeau campaigns with Marc Miller in Montreal on Aug. 10, 2015. (Photo: Ryan Remiorz/CP)
Miller suggested that Trudeau has gone from “very much a lead-from-the-front model” that propelled the Liberals to victory to a “more attentive” model where the PM is open to different views from his caucus and holds his cabinet ministers for account for grievances.
A year ago, Miller suggested, Trudeau would have tried to answer all the questions and fix all the problems. Now, he’s more: “I’ll digest, I’ll consult and let my team work on it.’
“And I think that is a very positive development in a year where we have to deliver, and he can’t manifestly deliver personally on extremely complex issues…. He can’t do everything.”
Caucus management might also become increasingly challenging, Miller hypothesized. “My colleagues, their résumés are jaw-dropping. They are not duds, and it is diverse,” he said.
Trudeau could as easily name another 40 from the backbench to form a new cabinet and “they would be just as good [as], if not better than, the ones in front,” he said.
“I haven’t heard any grumblings yet” he said. “[But] there are a lot of smart people examining every private members bill, examining every government bill, and there is a lot of discussion, and it can get heated at times.”
Justin Trudeau embraces Marc Miller during a caucus meeting on Nov. 5, 2015. (Photo: Justin Trudeau Flickr)
Some MPs have quietly expressed their disappointment. The decision to create a gender-balanced cabinet was publicly welcomed by all, but privately, some MPs — men from mostly urban areas — wish the decision had been communicated before the election when people were deciding whether to run for office.
If Miller is disappointed that his good friend didn’t appoint him to cabinet, he isn’t dwelling on it.
“Obviously, I’m ambitious and I want to make a difference, and I think I can make a difference. But there are a lot of people like me who are just as good and deserve to be there,” he told HuffPost. “So I respect that, and I took on the role of chairing the Quebec caucus, and that is a huge challenge.”
Their friendship, he added, hasn’t suffered because their new professional relationship.
“So far, it’s been fine. If you’re very conscious of it, I think you make the right corrections and you move on.”
A group photo of Justin Trudeau and his cabinet ministers at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Nov. 4, 2015. (Photo: Xinhua/Chris Roussakis via Getty Images)
Purchase acknowledged that caucus management is a concern.
“It is something that we need to keep working on and making sure that we are picking the brains of, and tapping and engaging with people.”
The government took steps to engage some of its highly qualified caucus members by charging them with responsibilities over specific tasks, she said, noting the appointment of former police chief Bill Blair to lead the task force on legalizing marijuana.
“There are people who are uniquely qualified for things and have been tapped for specific projects … I think you’ll see more of that,” she said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives on Parliament Hill to deliver a statement before the start of a Liberal caucus meeting on June 1, 2016. (Photo: Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Back in Vancouver, Panos said Trudeau is finding his way through being a prime minister much faster than he expected: “I’ve been thrilled at how few missteps that he has made so far.”
Canadians, Panos suggested, might be willing to give Trudeau and his government “more leniency” if they feel there is a genuineness in their efforts.
“We are forgiving people. What we don’t forgive is character traits that aren’t like that.”
Miller noted his friend, and boss, has an uncanny ability to get the “right answer” based on his reflects and instincts.
“I’ve never seen anyone has a combination of such good sense and luck frankly.”
Walker, speaking from Montreal, said he thinks Trudeau will continue to impress.
“I just feel he’s just getting going.”
Althia Raj is the Ottawa bureau chief for HuffPost Canada.