For years, the Liberal Party of Canada has been searching for another Pierre Trudeau, in no small part as a way to deal with the conundrum of Quebec. Stéphane Dion’s leadership victory signalled the intent to put Quebec in its place, while Michael Ignatieff expressed a doomed desire to bring the “Quebec nation” into the Liberal fold.
Part of this search stems from the romantic yearning for a white knight, a charismatic leader who can build on a passion for Canada to exert the tough love needed to woo and keep Quebeckers. But part of the search also stems from cold, hard numbers: The Liberal Party has not been able to paint Quebec red since the 1980 election, when Pierre Trudeau roared back to power, with a referendum looming, on the promise of a new place for Quebec in Canada.
Still, it could be argued that what happened next – the constitutional saga, Meech Lake, another referendum, the Clarity Act, the sponsorship scandal – put paid to the notion that the Liberal Party could speak for Quebeckers in Ottawa or, indeed, that it could be an effective interlocutor between Quebec and the rest of Canada.
So, from a Quebec perspective, it seems curious that Liberals believe the spectre of Pierre Trudeau could be their salvation, when the long, slow decline of the party can be attributed to the political events he set in motion.
For Justin Trudeau, all this baggage is a double-edged sword. Beyond what the chattering classes have made of him as his father’s son or of his own merits for party leadership, this inheritance is a considerable liability in the context of Quebec politics. While the name recognition means he doesn’t go unnoticed in the media, and his boyish charm and winsome demeanour ensure considerable rubbernecking on the ground, Mr. Trudeau is likely to be judged on his father’s legacy – considerably more negative than positive – than on his own meagre track record.
Mr. Trudeau proved himself in the trenches, winning the Papineau riding in 2008 against a popular Bloc Québécois incumbent, Vivian Barbot, and repeating the coup in 2011, when most of his fellow Liberals went down to defeat. Since then, however, it would be a stretch to suggest that he has emerged as a fresh voice in – or for – Quebec, either within his party or on a wider political scale.
Indeed, judging by the company he keeps, Mr. Trudeau is much closer to the party insiders and Ontario entourage than a force for change in the Liberal Party or as a vehicle to recapture Quebec hearts and minds.
The Liberals need Quebec to rebuild their electoral fortunes, and the next leader must be able to deliver those votes if the party is to survive. It has to come to grips with the pressing challenges of Quebec politics and the dual identity of Quebec nationalism. And yet, so far, Mr. Trudeau seems singularly incapable of doing so: When he speaks out for a strong Canada, he is pilloried as his father’s mouthpiece in Quebec; when he dares to speak his mind on the notion of Quebec autonomy or choice, he is branded a traitor by Liberals in the rest of Canada.
If Mr. Trudeau were prepared to stake out a bold vision for Liberals, and take on the tough job of rebuilding the party from the ground up, then there might be hope for a new – and very different – Trudeau renaissance in Quebec. Otherwise, his contribution to the family legacy may well be to write the final chapter in the party’s history.
Antonia Maioni is an associate professor of political science at McGill University.
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