Justin Trudeau has spent his short political life trying to prove to skeptics that he’s more than a kid trading on one of the most famous names in Canadian politics. And the place where he first had to prove it is a rough-and-tumble district in north-central Montreal.
Papineau is a federal riding of halal butchers and Haitian grocers, brick triplexes and Quebec designer boutiques, and it is where Mr. Trudeau first landed to face the uphill task of beating the incumbent Bloc Québécois in 2008.
In four years, he won the riding twice and quietly wooed its community stakeholders, turning into a fixture at tree-plantings and volunteer-appreciation nights, along with the unglamorous task of policy round tables.
“He works very hard,” said Denis Sirois, head of a community economic-development non-profit in the riding. “He’s not just showing up at cocktails, he’s at community meetings. He understands the realities of the district and makes concrete proposals.”
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” added Marcelle Bastien, a sovereigntist who heads a popular community recreation centre and is no fan of the federal Liberals. “I couldn’t name you a single MP [for the riding] who came before Justin Trudeau. He’s present. He’s a good MP.”
His groundwork in the riding established a pattern that has turned into a winning formula for the 40-year-old Mr. Trudeau: Keep expectations low, and when no one’s watching, break a sweat. It helped him beat the heavily favoured Senator Patrick Brazeau in a charity boxing match this year. And now, it could serve him in his anticipated bid for the federal Liberal leadership.
The Trudeau name can be both a boon and a burden in Quebec, where the legacy of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau remains highly controversial. But after two terms as an MP, Justin Trudeau has managed to exit from under the formidable shadow of his father, observers say.
“He’s been able to forge his own personality,” Mr. Sirois said. “When people talk about him now, they talk about Justin Trudeau, not his famous father.”
Mr. Trudeau’s two election victories won him the praise on Friday of former party leader Jean Chrétien, who called him a “good candidate” after an Order of Canada ceremony.
“He’s been elected twice so far. It’s one more time than his father when he became the leader,” Mr. Chrétien said.
In fact, key members of Justin Trudeau’s team say that the appropriate lineage to consider in terms of his political chops comes from his mother’s side. Margaret Trudeau’s father was James Sinclair, a Scottish-born politician who represented a B.C. riding for nearly two decades in the House of Commons.
Mr. Sinclair was known for his organizational strength, while Pierre Trudeau entered the House as an intellectual. “His father was handed the safest seat in the country, made attorney-general and became prime minister three years later,” a senior member of Mr. Trudeau’s team said.
On the other hand, Justin Trudeau faced a real battle before he could lay claim to his own Montreal riding.
“Justin’s B.C., Scottish-Canadian, Sinclair roots are clearly demonstrated in his activities as an MP in Papineau, his hard work on the ground, his ability to organize, pull together a team and, frankly, to win and then hold a riding in the most difficult election that the Liberal Party has ever faced,” the organizer said.
Papineau is a key part of Justin Trudeau’s story. When Mr. Trudeau was mulling a jump into federal politics in 2007, at the age of 35, speculation centred around the riding of Outremont, which had been vacated by former transport minister Jean Lapierre. While Outremont is now in the hands of NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, it was seen at the time as a Liberal enclave and a safe seat for Mr. Trudeau. However, then-leader Stéphane Dion refused to appoint Mr. Trudeau as the Liberal candidate in the riding, forcing him to run for the party’s nomination in Papineau, then in the hands of the Bloc Québécois. Mr. Trudeau insisted at the time that the choice was his, that Papineau was a risk that he wanted to take.
“I wanted to fight for it. I’m not the kind of person who enjoys getting handed things, despite what the newspapers like to say,” he said.
The riding is heavily multicultural; nearly half the residents have neither French nor English as their mother tongue, and one-third are visible minorities. Anglophones represent a small fraction of the riding, with francophones making up 46 per cent. Mr. Trudeau’s opponents argue that his grasp of Papineau is fragile, hinging not on francophone voters that make up the majority of ridings in Quebec, but rather on immigrant communities that loved his father.
Hostility toward Pierre Trudeau is very much alive among francophone voters in the district, underscoring the challenge in rebuilding the shattered Liberal Party in Quebec under a Trudeau leadership. Many voters still evoke the senior Trudeau’s unilateral repatriation of the constitution and his firm stand against Quebec nationalism.
“Pierre Trudeau spit on Quebeckers,” hair-cutter Sylvie Tremblay said in a barber shop just a block from Mr. Trudeau’s riding office. She feels the younger Mr. Trudeau has done nothing to prove himself. “He’s cute. He looks good on his campaign posters. But he wants to be prime minister, and he’s never even been a government minister.”
Mr. Trudeau’s experience in life and politics includes much time away from his current bases in Montreal and Ottawa. After graduating from McGill University, he settled in Vancouver, where he was a teacher at West Point Grey Academy. B.C. remains a key element of his political arsenal, a western province where the Liberal Party has room to grow, and the site of the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline that is staunchly opposed by one of his top aides, WWF Canada head Gerald Butts.
Mr. Trudeau is scheduled to formally announce his candidacy in his Quebec riding on Tuesday, but he will quickly start crisscrossing the country. The planned events in Richmond, B.C., on Wednesday and the following day in Mississauga, Ont., are designed to showcase his pan-Canadian appeal and his organizational strength in the country’s three biggest provinces.
Mr. Trudeau is travelling over his first three days in multicultural cities, hoping to regain key constituencies that the Liberals have lost to the Conservatives. There is no doubt that Mr. Trudeau knows how to handle himself in front of the cameras, but Liberals across Canada are waiting to see what he has to say to them.