Canada’s Prime Minister-elect Justin Trudeau has been saddled with a mandate for change, truthfulness, ambition, accountability—even perfection. Voters want this young husband and father, high school teacher and public servant not just to dream their dreams with them, but to make those dreams real.
He carries with him the legacy of his brilliant, uncompromising father—principal author of Canada’s constitution and this country’s modern political culture. As if that weren’t enough, Justin Trudeau has been called to live up to every legend and myth we Canadians treasure—tales that tell us not who we are really, but who we want to become.
This impossible standard is not used to judge every politician. Only a few politicians—Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia, Lula Da Silva in Brazil, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Barack Obama in the United States—carry the burden of ideals.
Trudeau didn’t come by such high expectations as a result of his intellectual brilliance or moral courage akin to Havel, Mandela and Da Silva, who each in their way danced a dictatorship into democracy. He is only 44 years old and without the help of speechwriters or long preparation, Trudeau has demonstrated a talent for seamlessly stringing together dull clichés in English and French. He has not yet been put to any test of such proportions.
Canada's new prime minister has had these great expectations thrust upon him by its departing prime minister. Stephen Harper has been Canada’s prime minister the last nine years. He has been a glowering, angry, stiff-necked, controlling presence nationally for close to 20.
As prime minister, Harper’s highest ambition was to abandon every manifestation of common cause among Canadians. He did not believe that collectively we could or should do anything except protect ourselves from the world outside. He is an apostle of the religion of small government—the notion that if people are deprived of their primary and most democratic tool of common action, citizens will out of thin air recreate the public square and achieve shared welfare, a commonwealth of the nation, through the mere accretion of spontaneous, individual acts. The Conservative campaign and the Conservative brand was built on the fundamentalist belief that markets are what really matter and the government’s real duty, its only essential task, is to enable markets and encourage capital. Everything else is a frill, a luxury.
Harper also played politics hard. His weapons were endless polling, wedge issues and attack ads. He belittled and taunted political opponents. He had the country divided up into demographic parcels, then picked the ones that could be sacrificed for the sake of just enough votes to get elected. He silenced every critic or suspected critic, even forbidding government scientists to explain to journalists research paid for by citizens.
In the long campaign just ended, Harper stigmatized the incredibly small and powerless minority of Muslim women who wear a niqab (a veil covering the face below the eyes) to stir up his aging, male, white, home-owning base who have mostly never met a Muslim, but fear them. Throughout his tenure, Harper has made it more difficult for refugees to come to a country full of refugees and churches that sponsor them. When the picture of three-year-old Alan Kurdi dead on a Turkish beach hit the front page, people finally noticed how angry, paranoid and ungenerous Canada had become under Harper’s leadership.
Harper’s meanness, his divisiveness created a hunger for unity, kindness and hope.
“You want a government with a vision and an agenda for this country that is positive and ambitious and hopeful. Well my friends, I promise you tonight, I will lead that government,” Trudeau told the victory party and television cameras on election night. “We know in our bones that Canada was built by people from all corners of the world who worship every faith, who belong to every culture, who speak every language. We believe in our hearts that this country’s unique diversity is a blessing… We defeated the idea that Canadians should be satisfied with less, that good enough is good enough and that better just isn’t possible. This is Canada and better is always possible.”
Though Catholic, it is unlikely Trudeau knows this is the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate or that Canadian multiculturalism may be the best political expression we have of the ideal of dialogue distilled in the great council’s declaration. Trudeau’s dictat that no Liberal Member of Parliament may vote to limit free access to abortion is built on a conviction that any restriction on abortion would be an attack on women’s rights. He is as committed to rights—minimum standards, enforceable by law—as his father, the legal scholar, was. But he seems not to have his father’s insight into the limits of legal solutions and the difference between the bare minimum guaranteed by rights and the overflowing bounty of human dignity.
Justin Trudeau’s Jesuit education and the Catholic ethos he inherited from his father—who used to slip off to attend daily Mass when he was Prime Minister—has at least taught him that leadership and politics are really about what we can do together. And that’s what Canadians voted for.
“Building a future of freedom requires love of the common good and co-operation in a spirit of subsidiarity and solidarity,” Pope Francis told Congress in Washington last month. “A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk.”
The pope’s Catholic home truths are precisely what Trudeau shares with his electorate. They are also the standard against which he will be judged.
Michael Swanis Associate Editor of The Catholic Register in Toronto, Canada.