Eurasia Group and GZERO Media President Ian Bremmer interviews Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa. Photo: GZERO Media.
It's been 84 years since a first-term Canadian Prime Minister with a parliamentary majority lost a bid for re-election, but Justin Trudeau was in a position to shatter that record even before those photos hit the Internet. Blackface is a bad look for any candidate, but it's especially unbecoming for an incumbent who has built his political brand on inclusion, immigration, multiculturalism, and a liberal global order.
Trudeau now finds himself defending not just the record of his four years in office but also his personal sincerity, all while fending off a Conservative challenger who is smart, likable, polished, and even younger than he is. How seriously can anyone take his impassioned speeches about diversity now?
“Actions speak louder than words,” Trudeau told me, in a follow-up to an exclusive interview with TIME. “I know that my actions in the past have been hurtful to people, and for that I'm deeply sorry. Our government has acted to fight discrimination and racism consistently over our first term, and if we earn the right to govern Canada again, we'll move forward to fight racism and discrimination in our next term.”
I sat down with Trudeau on 3 September in his parliament office, 15 days before TIME published on its website what would prove to be only the first photograph of the leader of the Liberal Party in brown- or blackface. That one was taken at age 29, at a costume party at the Vancouver private school where he was teaching. Within hours two more images had popped up from high school, and the prime minister was in the midst of a full-on media storm.
Polls taken in the days afterward showed scant change in Canadians' assessment of their prime minister, or at least of the party he leads: the Liberals continue to trail the Conservatives within the margin of error. By the time we spoke again, on 23 September, the world's attention had largely moved on, to the attack on Saudi Arabia's oil infrastructure, and to Donald Trump's phone call to Ukraine. The world's leaders were gathering in New York City for the UN General Assembly, and it seemed at least possible that the essential variable facing Canada's battered premier was, once again, a global order that shows every sign of moving away from him. Trudeau, the unapologetic globalist in a populist world, has work to do.
Four years ago, the firstborn son of Pierre Trudeau—the cosmopolitan leftist who served nearly 16 years as prime minister—burst onto the global stage looking every inch the scion of a resurgent liberalism. Trudeau's party entered the campaign in third place, but when the votes were counted the Liberals had moved in one election from 36 to 184 seats in parliament, the largest surge in Canada's federal history. Barack Obama was the leader of the free world, and Trudeau's first visit to Washington had a glow of a torch being passed. The young children of the prime minister and his wife, the former television host Sophie Gregoire, scampered on the steps of Blair House. In the Rose Garden, the Prime Minister quoted JFK.
When greeting voters, he's still the Sunny Delight candidate, the charismatic political natural born on Christmas Day, 1971. (Not the ideal birthday, he admits.) And as we sat down for our initial interview in Ottawa, Trudeau was smiling and seemed genuinely eager to talk. But it's easy to see that four years in power have taken a toll. He's made his share of mistakes in office, including a political-influence scandal that deeply stained his reputation for openness. An August tracking poll from Angus Reid Institute set his approval rating at 31% and disapproval at 61%.
Trudeau's Conservative opponent, Andrew Scheer, 40, often polls even with or at times better than the incumbent. The conventional wisdom holds that even if the Liberals prevail, it will be with less than the majority they have enjoyed since 2015, and Trudeau will end up governing through a coalition. In the Ottawa interview, Trudeau was upbeat and said his message would be too, come what may. “We know attack ads work,” he said, but “if you get elected through negativity and through division, it's really difficult to then govern responsibly for everyone once you've gone and divided people.” It's clear that optimism remains central to his appeal.
“The fact of the matter is that I've always—and you'll know this—been more enthusiastic about costumes than is sometimes appropriate,” Trudeau told reporters on his campaign plane. The “you'll know this” part took in not the instances of brownface or blackface that had just become known, but scenes like a February state visit to India, where the entire family appeared in Indian garb.
At the time, the frequent costume changes drew quips about showboating, and the line between appreciating a culture and appropriating it. “FYI, we Indians don't dress like this every day sir, not even in Bollywood,” tweeted a Kashmiri politician.
Trudeau's optimism has helped make him one of the few remaining advocates on the world stage for the global world order that seemed so certain until recently. He remains an unapologetic supporter of free trade, immigration, diversity, human rights—all the causes that have been challenged by nationalist populism elsewhere, including south of the world's longest undefended border.
Trump's election was both a challenge and an opportunity for Trudeau. The challenge was obvious: Trump had campaigned against NAFTA, the trade treaty on which Canada had built much of its economy. His first trip abroad was not the traditional jaunt to America's neighbor to the north, but to Saudi Arabia, to wave swords with kings. When Trump cited “national security” to justify tariffs on Canadian steel, an indignant Trudeau cited the casualties Canadians had taken fighting in Afghanistan. And when Canada hosted the G7 in June 2018, Trump ruined the finale by withdrawing from a joint communiqué, after taking offense at Trudeau's description of it at a news conference.
At the same time, Canada under Trudeau assumed the image of a country intent on proclaiming ideals the new US president declined to articulate, much less embrace. While Trump built his campaign on the promise of a border wall with Mexico and sharply reduced the number of refugees allowed into the US, Trudeau went to the airport to welcome asylum seekers. “You are safe at home now,” he told Syrians who had fled the war. US tech giants opened offices in Vancouver, where visas for foreign workers were easier to come by.
“My focus is on how to make sure that Canada does well in the 21st century,” Trudeau says, framing the issue in terms of both compassion and competitiveness. “We need to be bringing in people from around the world. We need immigration and, yes, part of that is accepting refugees.”
The numbers show the commitment. In 2018, Canada, a nation of just 37 million, accepted more refugees than the US, a country of 327 million. But some of this, Trudeau claims, is driven by self-interest. “Understanding that there are 60 or 70 million displaced people around the world right now [who are] global refugees is a reality, and Canada has an opportunity not just to do its part, but to benefit, the way we have over successive generations.” He argues that a welcome mat isn't enough. Government must ensure that immigrants are integrated. “We are investing in the integration and support of new arrivals, so that they can contribute as quick as possible,” he told me.
In proportional terms, Canada is more of an immigrant nation than the US. Nearly 22% of Canadians were born in another country vs. 13.7% in the US. But Trudeau acknowledges the unease created by the impression of a wide-open door. Over the past couple of years, tens of thousands of people have walked across the Canada-US border to make asylum claims that would allow them to live and work in Canada. “There is anxiety around [the immigration policy],” Trudeau admits, but he insists that “we have a strong immigration system, and the rules continue to apply. Security continues to be of concern, and no shortcuts are taken.”
Some in the Conservative Party criticize Trudeau, even as they defend Canada's more open approach to immigration. Jason Kenney, premier of Alberta province and former immigration minister under the Conservative Party government that preceded Trudeau, told me that public opinion against high levels of immigration is rising and that Trudeau's unwillingness to strengthen Canada's border with the US is to blame.
“To preserve broad support for immigration, politicians and the media commentariat need to take seriously growing concerns about breakdowns we've seen in the system,” he told me. “Our elites do the cause of legal immigration a great disservice when they minimize, or even ridicule, real public concerns about illegal and irregular migration.” Recent polling appears to confirm this view. A survey conducted by Leger found that 63% of respondents said Canada's government should prioritize new limits on immigration because the country might not be able to integrate current numbers.
Trudeau's message on trade is no less unapologetically globalist. He's proud that his government has reached important trade deals, including the revised NAFTA agreement known as USMCA, a pact with the European Union, and the updated Trans-Pacific Partnership abandoned by Trump as soon as he took office. In fact, Canada is the only country that has trade deals with all the other G7 countries.
“We managed to negotiate three of the biggest trade deals the world has ever seen at a time where we have significant populism and protectionism,” Trudeau says. And Trump's inner circle took notice. “When it came to negotiating the [USMCA] trade deal,” Jared Kushner told me recently, “Trudeau was tough, fair, smart, and he got the deal done. He knew how to stay focused and get the right deal for his country.”
But Trudeau also acknowledges the downside of globalism—chiefly, income inequality: the rich getting richer. It's the topic that got him leaning forward in his seat. “We put more money in the pockets of the families who need it,” he said proudly, “with a child benefit that has lifted 300,000 kids out of poverty and made a huge difference, hundreds of dollars a month tax-free in the lives of middle-class families.”
“We made a very different choice than the American administration did: they lowered taxes for millionaires and billionaires, we raised taxes on them. We don't think that it is sustainable, the model the United States has. They're increasing debt.”
He's not finished. “Tax breaks to the wealthy, the advantages to big business are, in the medium term, going to be deeply harmful to our global economy. We need businesses to succeed. Yes, we need to be competitive, but if we do not ensure that ordinary citizens feel that their kids have an opportunity to succeed, then we're going to see more and more breakdowns of our political systems. More and more excessive nationalism, extreme populism.”
In some cases, Trudeau has company. In particular, the US is the outlier on climate action. In August, the Trump administration rolled back emissions rules on methane—a chemical more than 80 times as potent as carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the earth's atmosphere—from pipeline wells and storage tanks. “We know reduction of methane emissions is going to be extremely important in the future that our kids and grandkids are going to have,” Trudeau told me. “That becomes a value that, when the US finally does wake up and realize, 'Oh, we need to do those sorts of things.' Well, we will have solutions to share with them.”
A cynic would point out that Canada will benefit in many ways from the warming of temperatures in the country's far north. It will gain access to new resources now buried beneath ice. New shipping lanes will become available. More of Canada's land will be available for farming. But Trudeau insists on a different kind of forecast, and he describes it in terms only an unreconstructed globalist will appreciate. “If Canada can use the benefits we have from having energy and natural resources now, maximize our return on those while the world needs them, and prepare for the next solutions, and use our brilliant energy thinkers, scientists, researchers, and workers to build that future, then we will not just be benefiting Canada, but … the world with those solutions.”
But it's on human rights that his progressive voice becomes most obvious. “We had folks on the right end of the spectrum in Canada saying, 'What are you doing putting in women's rights and environmental rights into [the updated NAFTA] trade deal? It's about business, it's about the economy.' And now, those are the very elements that are increasing the likelihood that the deal gets passed by [US] Democrats who are worried about labor standards and environmental issues. Of course, Democrats have not yet ratified that deal. They may not even put it to a vote until after next year's US election."
As Trudeau's critics fairly point out, while insistence on labor, environmental, and gender-fairness standards may not kill a deal made with Europe or the US, it's put Canada on the back foot with China, a commercial partner that Trudeau acknowledges is crucial for Canada's future. Canada risked the wrath of China by detaining, at the request of US officials, Meng Wanzhou, a senior executive at Chinese tech giant Huawei who lives much of the year in Canada, on fraud charges. China then arrested two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, on charges of espionage.
Trudeau says he doesn't want to escalate this fight—China is Canada's second largest trade partner—but his opinion of China's behavior is clear: “We need to figure out ways to benefit Canadian businesses, Canadian workers, Canadian suppliers, all those sorts of things. But we've also always known that China has a very different political system, value set, approach to the world and to trade than we do. Right now the arbitrary detention of two Canadians for political reasons by the Chinese is something that is the biggest thing that we are focused on in our relationship, and it's put a hold on a lot of other things.”
Trudeau has faced a similar trade-off with Saudi Arabia. In August 2018, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland tweeted her grave concern over Saudi arrests of several social- and women's-rights activists; one of those arrested was the sister of a Saudi dissident married to a Canadian citizen. The Saudi response was swift: Canada needs to fix its big mistake. The Saudis then expelled Canada's ambassador from the kingdom and suspended all new trade with Canada.
Following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Trudeau again went on the offensive in calling Saudi authorities to account. Trudeau and Canada have little to show for these confrontations, and he has also frustrated supporters of his approach by having not yet ended a controversial $11.3 billion Saudi arms deal.
In the end, the election may swing on how a self-proclaimed idealist navigates the exigencies of political office. As Trudeau said, “Actions speak louder than words.” And the scandal that redefined Trudeau unfolded months ago.
SNC-Lavalin is a world-class engineering firm based in the politically crucial province of Quebec. In 2015, Canadian authorities charged the company with attempts to bribe officials in Libya, including member's of Muammar Gaddafi's family, and to defraud Libyan companies of more than $100 million. The Globe and Mail newspaper then published a report that Trudeau had made a “consistent and sustained” effort to convince his former justice minister that taking the company to trial would cost Canadians jobs, and their party votes.
The first scandal led to the resignation of two ministers and Trudeau's most trusted aide. In August, Canada's ethics commissioner said Trudeau had used his office “to circumvent, undermine, and ultimately attempt to discredit” his justice minister. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police says it's examining the case “carefully.”
As are voters. Challenger Scheer “has been underestimated at every point in his career,” says John Baird, Canada's foreign minister under the Conservative government that preceded Trudeau's. “But Trudeau was running in third place before coming back to win four years ago.” The question is whether Canadians are seeing the candidate they saw then.
If he does eke out a victory next month, he'll cut a lonely figure on the international stage for some time to come.
LOUD WORLD. CLEAR SIGNAL. Signal is a newsletter on international affairs produced by GZERO Media three times a week. No jargon, no nonsense, no noise. Signal is a product of GZERO Media, a Eurasia Group company.
Ian Bremmer is the president and founder of Eurasia Group, the leading global political risk research and consulting firm. He is also the president and founder of GZERO Media, a Eurasia Group company dedicated to helping a broad, global audience make sense of today's leaderless world.