Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Shaking hands and finding ‘Common Ground’ with Justin Trudeau

As a special prelude to Ottawa International Writers Festival the Southminster United Church filled to the brim and became the site of a humour-filled conversation between the host Seamus O’Regan and the man applying for the job of Canada’s next Canadian Prime Minister, Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, Justin Trudeau whose autobiography had appeared on the shelves of bookstores across the country on October 20th.


Not hiding his curiosity of a memoir published at the tender age of 42, Seamus prompted the first-time writer to justify the timing of its release given the approaching federal election of 2015. Choosing laughter to establish rapport with the audience, Trudeau responded by addressing the audience with a series of trivia-like questions about the evening’s host. “Even people well-known to Canadians have stories [we are not familiar with] which allow [us] to trust the judgment of those in the highest representative roles,” said Trudeau. His motivation for filling the blank pages were a few: To share experiences shaping his life, to explain his vision of our country as shaped by meeting Canadians all throughout his life, and to show them that as their representative he understands their issues and concerns.


Trudeau admitted to diligently writing and rewriting each section of the book until a common thread became apparent and the initial choppiness eliminated. Most of the writing took place in the evenings and vacations on his iPad using an external keyboard. It was a “huge endeavour” but the realization that every single word in the publication is his own has been tremendously rewarding. The end goal was not to tell the reader about himself but to findthrough careful reflection on the events and people that have affected his lifethe ‘common ground’ between Canadians as individuals and citizens bound by a unique set of values directing their approach to the world that defines them.


While criticized for being a campaign document and a mere attempt to brand the politician, Common Ground does not center on policy. Instead, it is meant to express Trudeau’s gratitude to the people of Canada for giving him 35 million shoulders to lean on in a time of family tragedy and to tell Canadians about what experiences and encounters have shaped his current approach to policy. The interview served up amusing previews of some of the anecdotes Trudeau shares in his book, including the memory of Ronald Reagan reading him poems, or Princess Diana visiting 24 Sussex. Justin Trudeau’s charisma and willingness to open up enabled easy bonding with the crowd; it is indeed very difficult not to feel affection for someone who admits to having run into a lamppost on the first date with his now wife.


Not surprisingly, the brief question-answer period that had taken place before over 100 attendees lined up to shake hands with the interviewee and to get their books signed reflected an effort by future voters to address the one pressing issue the book does not address: policy. From surveillance and security through unemployment to the economy in general, Justin Trudeau gained a good sense of what people’s concerns and interests are through encounters such as this one.


In a time when cynicism replaces sincerity, and is wielded a classic political tool, finding common ground with the electorate is very challenging. It is most appropriate that I leave the last word on the subject to the man at the centre of Tuesday evening’s attention who believes that “[while it is possible to] get elected through dividing people, [it is impossible to] govern well when you have divided everyone.”