Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

On Justin Trudeau with Aaron Wherry and John Ivison

Just this week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Governor General Julie Payette to dissolve Parliament, marking the start of the federal election campaign. Monday night’s “On Justin Trudeau” event could hardly have been more timely. Robyn Bresnahan, host of CBC Radio’s “Ottawa Morning,” seized on her guests’ political expertise to ask a series of astute, important questions: is the claim that Justin Trudeau is a merely spokesperson for his advisors is a fair one? How is Justin Trudeau described by those who work closely with him, and how can he address the challenge of long memory and family legacy, particularly in Alberta and Quebec? Should he have spoken out against events or issues with which many Canadians taken issue, such as Bill 21 in Quebec or the treatment of migrant families in the United States?


Aaron Wherry, author of Promise and Peril: Justin Trudeau in Power and senior writer with the CBC’s Parliament Hill bureau and John Ivison, author of Trudeau: The Education of a Prime Minister and political columnist for the National Post provided balanced, considered responses to Bresnahan’s questions. If the evening’s discussion was any indication, the two new biographies are packed with behind-the-scenes information and insightful perspectives, and both books will provide readers with a firm understanding and analysis of the historical, cultural and international forces that have led to today’s political context in Canada. Both Wherry and Ivison shared their views on the criticisms which have been levelled against Trudeau, and where they believe he made mistakes or demonstrated skilled responses. Rather intriguingly, each author also claimed not to have read the other’s book, and both refrained from predicting the outcome of the upcoming election. It was clear that the discussion could have lasted all night; towards the end of the evening, Bresnahan noted that they hadn’t yet broached the India trip, Canada’s relationship with China or the SNC Lavalin scandal.


As a result of further questioning from the audience, the conversation touched upon other important issues for Canadians: the new North American free trade agreement (CUSMA); former Liberal Cabinet Ministers Jane Philpott and Jody Wilson-Raybould and their possible influence on the election; Trudeau’s relationship with President Trump and the G7 tweets; the possible discrepancy between the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and environmental policies; as well as the election campaign. As an audience member who had not yet read Ivison and Wherry’s new biographies, I left the discussion feeling that I perhaps understood Justin Trudeau more as a politician and as a person, with all of the complexities and contradictions inherent in those identities.


Nevertheless, it was arguably the very first question posed by Bresnahan that set the tone of the evening. She had opened by asking how Justin Trudeau would be remembered if the Liberals were not re-elected in the 2019 federal election. Wherry and Ivison agreed on this point: enthusiasm for Justin Trudeau in 2015 has not been maintained, and in many senses this is a disappointment. They both argued that Trudeau had raised the bar so high that any of his accomplishments may seem diminished. That said, Ivison and Wherry confessed that the election is not a referendum on Trudeau’s performance, nor is it a choice between the Trudeau of 2015 and 2019. Instead, it is a choice between Trudeau and the opposition leaders, and we should carefully consider our choices at the polls.