Justin Trudeau shows he can wow a crowd just like dad

Analysis: Opponents scorn him as an intellectual lightweight, but Liberal leader has charisma

Justin Trudeau gave an eye-popping display of showmanship in B.C. last week that political veterans and analysts say they haven’t witnessed since his father captured baby-boomer imaginations in 1968.

Trudeaumania II? Unlikely, given the Age of Aquarius has given way to an era of attack ads and deep political cynicism.

And Trudeau is still far from a polished politician, struggling last week to deal with policy issues such as the new federal requirement for First Nations to publicly disclose their leaders’ remuneration.

But the Liberal leader, who so frequently seems outclassed among his intellectually forceful and more experienced adversaries on Parliament Hill, gave other politicians a clinic on how to connect with ordinary citizens at events like Vancouver’s Aug. 3 Pride parade.

“Oh my God, it’s Justin Trudeau! Justin, I love you!” shouted a startled Joanna Ludlow, 21, when she realized Trudeau, clearly relaxed and basking in the crowd’s affection, was leading a group of flamboyantly-dressed Liberals dancing through Vancouver’s West End in the blazing sunshine.

Trudeau was in a long-sleeve white cotton shirt, blue jeans and alligator shoes, wearing cheap gold and red beads someone put around his neck just before the parade began. He moved easily from one side of the street to the other as the crowds responded to his smile and wave like a magnet.

Ken Bonham, a 57-year-old Revelstoke businessman and usually a Conservative voter, said after posing for a photo with Trudeau that he’d “definitely” consider a Liberal switch.

“He clearly connects with the working man. He’s not uptight like other politicians who you only see in a suit and tie.”

And it wasn’t just the traditionally boisterous enthusiasm at Pride that explains the response.

A Vancouver-based pundit for the arch-conservative Sun News Network, put on air last week to slam the mainstream media’s alleged fawning treatment of Trudeau, sounded as awestruck as a teen at a Justin Bieber concert after attending an event at Douglas Park in Vancouver on Aug. 4.

“He is like a rock star,” J.J. McCullough told a grim-looking interviewer who was clearly hoping for a more cynical assessment for viewers of the unabashedly pro-Harper government network. “I mean, he can barely move five feet without being swarmed by mobs of people wanting to, you know, take selfies with him.

“You do really sort of get the sense that this man is bigger than mere politics, that he is a sort of phenomenon, he is a personality, he is a force of nature.

“And it was really quite remarkable to sort of see that in the flesh.”

Neither Trudeau nor his critics and fans could adequately explain why a man in his early 40s with a relatively thin resumé and few significant career accomplishments can generate such enthusiasm.

After Ludlow shouted “I love you Justin” and secured her selfie, she was asked what attracts her to Trudeau.

“I agree with what he stands for,” the young woman declared confidently.

Challenged, Ludlow looked sheepishly to a friend sitting in the sidewalk beside her: “Ah … what does he stand for?”

The consensus among interview subjects at Pride seemed to be that Trudeau stands for youth, hope, change, and for being profoundly different from Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Trudeau’s traditional answer is similar — that Canadians are enthusiastically responding to him because they are tired of Harper’s negative approach to politics.

But Trudeau doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge that the adoration is linked to his father’s legacy.

“I had to learn a long time ago that there are (people) out there who dislike me for reasons that have nothing to do with who I am and everything to do with history, and I have to disregard them,” he told The Vancouver Sun in an exclusive interview. “But so must I sometimes take with a grain of salt people who totally adore me for historical reasons. And I have to focus on being myself.”

Indeed, several at Pride rushing out to get photographs did so on behalf of older relatives still enamoured with Trudeau’s father.

The historical link is especially profound in certain immigrant communities who felt they benefited from Pierre Trudeau’s policies on immigration and human rights from 1968 to 1984.

One Sikh women at the Douglas Park picnic said the Liberal leader is often referred to by older women in her community who consider him a family member. The so-called “aunties” call him “mera Justin” or “sada Justin” – “my Justin” or “our Justin” in Punjabi, or even “sada put” – “our son,” said Sarbjeet Kaur Sarai, a Liberal activist and baptized Sikh.

The buzz during Trudeau’s three-day Lower Mainland swing was most comparable, say analysts and longtime Liberals, to two political events: Barack Obama’s campaign to become America’s first black president in 2008, and Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s remarkable 1968 campaign, when the shy but flamboyant former Montreal law professor won a sweeping national majority and took 16 of 23 B.C. seats with 42 per cent of the popular vote on the West Coast.

That’s a far cry from two out of 36 B.C. seats and a 13 per cent vote share the Liberals won in the 2011 election under leader Michael Ignatieff.

Justin Trudeau still has a long way to go before the scheduled 2015 election to match the initial euphoria generated by his ascot-wearing, sports car-driving father on the West Coast.

Many skeptics say Trudeau could easily crash and burn, especially in the spotlight of campaign scrutiny and TV debates against Harper and the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair.

Harper and Mulcair are intellectually formidable and experienced politicians who can barely hide their contempt for Trudeau.

“Shine wears off. Substance and experience doesn’t,” says Industry Minister James Moore, Harper’s B.C. lieutenant and the man Harper will rely on convince British Columbians not to buy what Trudeau is selling.

Even some of the people at Pride who wanted their photo taken with Trudeau expressed doubts.

“I don’t think he’s proven himself yet,” said Bill Bone, 65, who typically votes Conservative.

The Liberals are effectively a three-way tie with the Tories and NDP in B.C., all around 30 per cent, according to poll gathering website threehundredeight.com.

One B.C. analyst who was around when Trudeaumania swept the country in 1968 said there are striking similarities between the two charismatic Trudeaus — one an introverted former university professor, the other an outgoing ex-schoolteacher.

“I was struck not only by the warmth shown toward Justin Trudeau but also, for the first time, by the ease with which he handled it all in a way clearly reminiscent of Pierre,” said political scientist Norman Ruff, a University of Victoria professor emeritus. “They seem to share an innate ability to personify an energetic optimism about the future that their opponents struggle to match.”

But the Canada of 2014 is far different from the coming-of-age country of 1968 that was bursting with idealistic young boomers who had just celebrated Canada’s centennial year.

“Pierre Trudeau successfully channelled that into voter enthusiasm for himself and the Liberal party. Justin Trudeau has less fertile ground to cultivate,” Ruff told The Sun.

Pierre Trudeau squandered his goodwill in B.C. despite marrying in 1971 into a prominent West Coast family, wedding Margaret, the 22-year-old daughter of former Liberal fisheries minister Jim Sinclair.

The Liberals steadily lost popularity in B.C. and throughout the West because Trudeau was viewed as being preoccupied with issues important to Central Canada and especially his native Quebec.

The Liberals, after enjoying some reasonable success in B.C. in the 1990s and 2000s under Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, was an afterthought in 2011 as voters turned mostly to Harper’s Conservatives and, in mostly urban areas, the NDP under the late Jack Layton.

University of B.C. political scientist Richard Johnston, a UBC student during the Trudeaumania election, said the son has a more formidable challenge both nationally and in B.C.

For starters, Pierre Trudeau inherited a stronger Liberal organization. The Liberals were dominant in Quebec, while under senior cabinet minister Art Laing the Liberals had made great strides in rebuilding the party on the West Coast.

Meanwhile, Robert Stanfield’s Progressive Conservative party, the predecessor to Harper’s Conservatives, had its weakest support in B.C. and didn’t win a single seat in the province in 1968.

But Johnston said the younger Trudeau has some assets.

“B.C. feels less ‘western’ now than it used to, and Justin Trudeau might be able to exploit wedges (on issues like pipelines) between B.C. and Alberta, for instance. And metro B.C. has become very socially liberal.”

It also helps that Trudeau, a decade ago, was a “minor celebrity” while teaching school in Vancouver and working as a snowboard instructor in Whistler.

“I recall my youngest kid and her friends being very excited at the prospect that he might come to teach at their school. He did not, in the end, but you get the point.”

That experience, and the family connection that allowed Trudeau to speak Tuesday about his childhood experiences in B.C., is an asset not possessed by either Harper or Mulcair.

“I’m a Quebecer who was also very much a child and a grandchild of B.C.,” Trudeau told The Sun.

“I used to come and spend long periods here as a child. And then when I was looking to move out of my father’s house and strike out on my own in my 20s, I chose to come to Vancouver to discover and build on my B.C. roots.

“It’s something that I absolutely feel, that this is home.”

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