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federal election 2015

The challenge

He was born at 24 Sussex Drive and wants to return as prime minister. Ian Brown goes in search of the real Justin Trudeau, a man whose pain and progress have played out on the public stage. The question, he discovers, might not be whether Mr. Trudeau is ready for us – but whether we’re ready for him

Photography by John Lehmann

Before getting to Justin Trudeau and what he is actually like, whether he is intelligent and sincere or an empty-headed creation of others, let me remind you, fellow citizen – and I use that phrase with nostalgic fondness – of Henry Adams’s definition of politics. Adams was a historian and the descendant of two U.S. presidents, and he believed politics, “as a practice, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds.” That still seems true. I just wanted to mention that before I tell you about the first night I encountered what I thought was the unvarnished Justin Trudeau.

It was an evening in June. The “Justin Trudeau: Just Not Ready” attack ad had been slipped into rotation a few weeks earlier by the Conservative war room, and an entire weather system of nastiness was moving steadily across the land.

The party leaders

A closer look at the three men with a chance to become the next Prime Minister

Stephen Harper, Conservative Party

Justin Trudeau, Liberal Party

Thomas Mulcair, New Democratic Party

I was sitting in the lobby bar of the downtown Westin Edmonton Hotel. It was the same lobby from which I had watched Mr. Trudeau stand in line for his room key the previous day. It had been surprising, even pitiful, to see a national political leader performing his own hotel check-in. But that’s how it is when you’re the leader of the third party – the once-mighty Liberals, who now limp along with 36 seats in Parliament – and hoping against history to become the next prime minister. Even if you are the first-born son of Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

Justin Trudeau was sipping a beer – I never saw him finish even one while he was campaigning – when he said, apropos of nothing much, “I can’t remember phone numbers.” He has four or five in his head, no more. His wife, Sophie Grégoire, on the other hand, has only numbers programmed into her phone, and no names. When Mr. Trudeau asks her for someone’s number, so he can write it down, she sometimes says, “No, no, Justin, just focus on this number I’m giving you. Say the number,” but then he walks across the room and can’t remember it, so he always writes it down anyway.

I thought it was a modestly daring admission, for a modern politician. Then, to demonstrate that he actually has an excellent memory, Mr. Trudeau recited, verbatim, a poem he had learned as a literature major at McGill and forgotten until, on his honeymoon in Africa with Sophie some 12 years later, in 2005, their guide pointed out a rhinoceros midden. A midden, in the case of a rhinoceros, is a (large) pile of dung.

“There was this phrase that kept coming back to me,” Mr. Trudeau said: “‘Yonder’s the midden whose odours will madden.’ I’m like, fuck, that’s from a W.H. Auden poem. From Five Songs. I’m, like, okay, let’s figure it out. Let’s try and see if I can … reconstitute it from just remembering that word.” It took him two hours, flying in the back seat of a bush plane over the African veld. Mr. Trudeau loves that kind of problem. To this day, travelling, he buys the paperback logic puzzle books you see in drugstores.

Whereupon he recited the fifth song from memory in the clattering bar of the dreary Westin Edmonton:

“O where are you going?” said reader to rider,
“That valley is fatal when furnaces burn,
Yonder’s the midden whose odors will madden,
That gap is the grave where the tall return.”

He remembered all four stanzas. It’s a poem about setting off on a possibly fatal adventure, despite a raft of warnings not to, about defying your minders, whoever they may be. A poem about taking the road no one else is taking.

(Jennifer Roberts for The Globe and Mail)

He sat down on a bench and started to unwrap his hands – red tape, naturally, the Liberal colour; his team never misses an image hit.

High fives, and lots of selfies

What hits you first is his physical confidence. It isn’t just that he’s tall (6-foot-2) and has excellent posture and is knife-slim handsome (yoga, running, lots of sushi): There’s something unflappable in his gait. He has the physical grace of a professional athlete. His head seems to follow his body’s confident lead. Next to Justin Trudeau, Thomas Mulcair and Stephen Harper look like nesting babushka dolls. Mr. Trudeau rises at 6:30 every morning and is in bed by 10. “As long as they feed me and I get seven or eight hours of sleep,” he says, “I’m good.”

He spars once a week with his ever-present aide, Tommy Desfossés, in any boxing gym they can find wherever they are in the country. They do two sessions during the campaign if it’s a debate week. “One of my challenges is, I get too high-energy,” Mr. Trudeau says. “And I like to work a little of it off this way.”

I watched them go at it a few weeks ago in a white-collar boxing gym on Yonge Street in Toronto. It was a steady workout: an hour of skipping, sit-ups, sit-ups with air punching, stretching, bag work, ring work, finishing with 10 minutes of sparring. They hammered each other, high-speed, grunting with the blows. Tommy’s faster and younger and has gorilla strength, but Justin has inches more in reach. Tommy caught the leader in the face with two right crosses and in the body with a left hook. Justin caught Tommy more. “Tommy can take ih,” Mr. Trudeau said through his mouthguard. “He likes tah hih hiss boss.”

Then he climbed out of the ring and said, “Boxing’s not about beating up on the other guy. It’s about sticking to your plan while the other guy takes shots at you.” He seemed to be talking about boxing and the campaign at once. He was still panting. He sat down on a bench beside the ropes and started to unwrap his hands – red tape, naturally, the Liberal colour; his team never misses an image hit.

“What’s your job as leader?” I asked. I’d been trying to figure out if his collaborative style, that of a consensus-builder surrounded by experts, had any substance next to the top-down bossiness and authoritativeness of Mr. Harper and Mr. Mulcair.

“I set the frame,” he said. Pant. “The frame I’ve set is: What helps the Canadian people?”

“How do you know what that is?” I asked.

“I talk to people. And I ask the people and experts I’ve assembled around me to provide ideas as to what the country needs. What it really needs, not what’ll get us elected. That’s their job. And I’ll figure out how to get it across to people.” He paused for a moment. “It’s reality, versus politics.”

For a guy who’d just been punched in the head repeatedly, he was right on message. But Mr. Trudeau has always loved the moment when he has no choice but to step forward and make a move. “There is no experience like stepping into this ring and measuring yourself,” he once told a crowd at a charity boxing match. “Your name, your fortune, your intelligence, your beauty, none of that fucking matters.” Justin Trudeau loves a competition.

As teenagers in their father’s art-deco hillside mansion on Pine Avenue in Montreal, Justin and his younger brothers, Alexandre (known as Sacha) and Michel, were encouraged to work out their differences on exercise mats laid out on the ground floor of the house. (They also practised judo with their father.) The only rule was that you had to wear boxing gloves. “They whaled on each other,” remembers Marc Miller, a childhood friend now running for the Liberals in Ville-Marie – Le-Sud-Ouest – Île-des-Soeurs. “You’d get a headlock in there once in a while.”

Lots of politicians have energy, born from the depths of their longing to be needed. But Mr. Trudeau’s energy is some kind of mutant surge. One morning in the riding of Edmonton Centre I watched him meet 40 people in 10 minutes in a single bakery. He took their hands in his two hands and looked directly into their eyes and smiled and listened, at least for the time he could give them. Of all the people he made contact with that I spoke to afterward, only one claimed to find his attention insincere. He moved through a crowd like someone doing an easy crawl through lake water.

The next morning at the Edmonton Pride parade, Mr. Trudeau ran – literally ran – back and forth across the street for 90 minutes, high-fiving, double-high-fiving, shaking hands, hugging, mugging, dancing, shouting, never stopping. He must have been asked for 500 selfies with the people he met. He snaps them himself, the same picture every time, the same frame of himself and the voter, the same smile, the same number of his teeth showing. (“He always gets the shot, too,” a photographer observed.) He was wearing tan pants and a pink-checked shirt, an intentional choice. His team had planned the back-and-forth pattern the day before to emphasize their boss’s vitality compared to his more rotund opponents. He seemed to be in a trance of pure connection.

Unlike many other politicians, who will not shake hands unless they know the shaker is a fan, he never hesitated, never backed away; everyone was the same to him. People in wheelchairs, people on their feet, the aged, the young, the bearded and the breasted, people carrying the “Jesus Saves Everyone” sign, even a scowling tattooed woman sitting on the curb who gave him the double thumbs down and openly booed. “It’s a happy day, it’s a happy day!” Justin implored her, grabbing her hand anyway. “Happy Pride, Happy Pride!” His talent for face-to-face connection is beyond words and logic, which may be why his opponents, Tutting Tom and Strapped-In Stephen, who can’t manage it as effectively, mock him so viciously in public.

Mr. Trudeau’s father liked people in the abstract. But his grandfather, James Sinclair, a Rhodes Scholar and minister in Louis St. Laurent’s cabinet, was the king of retail politicians. Justin Trudeau gets his greatest gift from Jimmy. He even looks like him.

Last June, Ivan Fecan, the former chief executive officer of the CTV Television Network, held a fundraiser in the garden of his mansion in Toronto’s prosperous Rosedale. He invited a hundred people, and charged $1,500 a ticket: John Irving was there, as were Sylvia Tyson, Peter Munk and Conrad Black. “Justin actually went and talked to every single person,” Mr. Fecan noted, including the parking valets and the waiters. “He worked it. He didn’t waste a second. Not even a glass of water.”

In Montreal a few weeks later, at a fundraiser hosted by millionaire businessman Stephen Bronfman, his main money guy, Mr. Trudeau raised $250,000 in two hours. He has attracted $37-million to the Liberal Party in the past two years.

The Pride parade finally came to rest in a park. “I have two questions,” Jesse Hahn, a local businessman, asked Trudeau. “What’s Canada’s biggest problem at the moment?”

“Sorting out who we are,” Justin said. “And finding that balance between safety and freedom.” He was desperate to explain why the Liberals had defended Bill C-51, a decision the NDP was milking. “And getting over the cynicism of the political system.”

“And our greatest strength?”

“It’s kind of the flip side. Our diversity. That, unlike the United States, we are stronger by being diverse.”

The lads seemed impressed. “Mulcair always takes the fight where he goes. Trudeau takes the high road,” one of Mr. Hahn’s pals said.

Away from the crowd, he’s more introverted, quieter, a reader: “I can be up, and I can be down. But if I’m going to do downtime, I have to do downtime.” He has impeccable manners, and dislikes being rude. The barrage of interruptions he launched during the debate on the economy? He had to work at those. “I’m someone who is, I think, a learned extrovert,” he told me recently. “I’m perfectly happy to be quiet the way my father was. But I do like people, and I’ve gotten over an innate shyness that, you know, has led me to be fairly good at this particular line of work.”

Trudeau image

It comes as a physical shock to discover that, in person, he is a fluidly intelligent, highly articulate, compassionate, principled, thoughtful, curious, idealistic, likeable, non-drooling 43-year-old father of three.

‘Serene’ about Bill C-51

Is he a fool or a rebel? A doofus, or a politician who has tried to position himself outside the status quo? It depends which bias you are trying to confirm. The Conservatives’ “Just Not Ready” spot couldn’t have worked its evil magic if Mr. Trudeau’s unfiltered antics hadn’t made the ad believable.

The highlights – now widely referred to as his “gaffes” – would include calling Environment Minister Peter Kent a “piece of shit” in the House of Commons in 2011, after Mr. Kent blocked NDP critic Megan Leslie from going to the Durban climate conference, and then chided her for not being there; his public admiration for the way the “basic dictatorship” of China had allowed the country to turn its economy around, in 2013; his (until recently) ever-evolving hair-and-mustache styles (remember the Three Musketeers phase?); dropping the F-bomb at a charity boxing match in 2014; his crack the same year about “trying to whip out our CF-18s and show them how big they are” (he was criticizing Stephen Harper for having made “no effort to build a non-partisan case for war,” which is a reasonable point, but the Conservatives accused him of disrespecting the Armed Forces, while Mr. Mulcair called him “childish”); his joke in 2014 (a bad year for gaffes, 2014) about Vladimir Putin invading Ukraine because he was upset that Russia’s hockey team had been eliminated from the medal round of the Sochi Winter Games (delivered on a comedy news program, and contextually distorted by Conservative Jason Kenney and others, but still …).

Let’s not forget “the budget will balance itself,” though that, too, was forcibly distorted by the Conservative anti-Justin messaging machine; or his overzealous welcome of Conservative Eve Adams when she crossed the floor.

But Mr. Trudeau’s support for Bill C-51, the national-security bill, was another order of error.

The Liberal caucus debated the bill behind closed doors after it was given first reading in January, in the panicky aftermath of Michael Zehaf-Bibeau’s deadly rampage through Parliament Hill and the House of Commons the previous October. (That, at least, is how Mr. Trudeau’s team characterizes the emotional atmosphere of the bill’s passing.) The Liberals wanted curbs on the bill’s information-sharing powers – but didn’t want to be weak (or to be depicted by the Conservatives as weak) on security.

They promised to amend the bill if elected, but helped pass it. They had a chance to look as if they were making a stand, and ended up looking as if they were playing politics instead. “It was a caucus-driven position,” one long-time Liberal insider insists. But the optics were awful. The impression, another adds, was that “Justin was not sure-handed on C-51 and the invasion of ISIS.”

Chances to display political courage, the royal jelly of gravitas, come along unpredictably. Pierre Trudeau established himself as a tough guy at the famous 1968 St. Jean Baptiste parade in Montreal, standing up to separatists. Jean Chrétien refused to declare war on Iraq, and throttled a protester. C-51 was Justin Trudeau’s biggest chance so far, and, from a strategic point of view, he misjudged it. But he hasn’t backed away from the decision, and maintains that the Liberal position – protect the country, and amend the spying clauses when elected – was the only principled one. “Politics shouldn’t be about getting everyone to like you,” he told me. “I am very serene and comfortable with the position I took.” If that’s true, he’s as stubborn as some insiders say he is.

People certainly liked him less by the time this past summer rolled around. Mr. Trudeau had dropped from first to third in the polls, and the Liberal chattering class was flinging anti-Justin poo with glee. The chattering class is the extended community of greying, former backroom bagmen from Toronto responsible for bringing you Paul Martin, Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, among captivating others. They accused Gerald Butts, the candidate’s principal adviser, of overthinking the leader’s strategy, and depicted Mr. Trudeau as a dolt.

“It’s very hard to do politics as the son or daughter of someone,” one disgruntled former insider, now cut out of the action, told me last June, “because they don’t learn the job of selling. That’s Al Gore’s problem. Or Jeb Bush’s problem. Because they’ve spent all their lives trying to get people to stay away from them.”

Together, the “Just Not Ready” ad, the sniping of his enemies, and his own rebelliousness have created the widespread notion that Mr. Trudeau is a callow, shallow, brainless flibbertigibbet who won the Liberal leadership because of his last name and his thick hair. This notion was so pervasive by the time the writ was dropped – “He has his father’s personality and his mother’s mind” (a Calgary businessman who has never met him); “He’s not up to it” (wannabe Liberal backroom type rejected as a candidate); “He has the IQ of a VJ” (Toronto newspaper journalist who has never met him); “He reminds me of Sarah Palin. Palin wasn’t stupid. Her problem was that she was pretty. And whenever she found herself in a tight spot, she relied on her good looks” (David Frum, former speechwriter for George W. Bush, buttonholed in a Toronto liquor store) – that it comes as a physical shock to discover that, in person, Justin Trudeau is a fluidly intelligent, highly articulate, compassionate, principled, thoughtful, curious, idealistic, likeable, non-drooling 43-year-old husband, Catholic and father of three.

He looks a full 10 or 15 years younger than he is – a serious liability, in terms of seeming unready – and is handsome (ditto). But he’s actually the same age John F. Kennedy was when he became president, and only three years younger than Stephen Harper was, and arguably more experienced (if you consider how little Mr. Harper had travelled), when the current Prime Minister first won the job.

But Justin as Fool is a profitable and comforting narrative. Googling his name produces 443,000 mentions in the news, compared to 240,000 for Mr. Mulcair and 868,000 for Mr. Harper, who has been prime minister for almost a decade. Even his famous hair, which earns steady ridicule from both Mr. Harper and Mr. Mulcair, turns out to be a mirage of their making: He spends less than two minutes on it every morning, using whatever pomade Sophie has supplied. In other words, he does not spend as much time on his hair as Mr. Harper surely must to maintain his own Playmobil do, or as much time as Mr. Mulcair surely must trimming the eccentric chiaroscuro of his beard. Mr. Trudeau once shared a hairdresser in Ottawa with Mr. Harper. All she would ever say about the Prime Minister’s hair, Mr. Trudeau remembers, was that “‘it was a challenge.’ I don’t even know what that means.”

He reads incessantly and widely (four hardcovers for a week’s vacation, according to his friends; I saw two in his briefcase over a two-day trip to Edmonton) and is implacably confident. “I spent my entire childhood sitting around the dinner table debating with my father on everything from ancient Greek philosophy to World War II to language issues in Quebec,” Mr. Trudeau told me one evening. “And I know I can hold my own in any serious conversation.”

Still, it’s his emotional intelligence that gets noticed more often. Jonathan Kay, the editor of The Walrus, and a self-described David Frum-worshipping conservative, spent months helping Mr. Trudeau write Common Ground, the Liberal leader’s 2014 memoir. “Sometimes,” Mr. Kay told me recently, “it is difficult to get interesting or coherent ideas out of the author. But that was not a problem with Trudeau. He is both a natural communicator, and acutely self-aware. I found him very different from the popular caricature who appears in Tory attack ads. He’s no phoney.”

The Justin as Fool narrative disses Mr. Trudeau for being a mere schoolteacher (at least five U.S. presidents were teachers, including Lyndon Johnson) and harks on his spotty attendance in Parliament.

The Justin as Hero counternarrative, on the other hand, promulgated by his team and supporters, cites repeated examples of his political backbone. He has championed a woman’s right to wear the niqab. He won his seat twice in Papineau, a gritty, working-class Montreal riding, despite the opposition of Mr. Dion and the Quebec Liberal establishment to his seeking the nomination in the first place. He tripled his margin of victory the second time. (A framed photograph of John Kennedy, signed by a well-wisher – “Congratulations, Justin – it’s a new day for Canadians” – graces his riding office in the building he shares with a varicose-vein clinic on Jarry Street East in Papineau, a riding where, as of last week, he was enjoying a narrow lead over the NDP candidate, broadcaster Anne Lagacé Dowson.)

He was the first federal politician to declare his disdain for Quebec’s Charter of Values, while Mr. Harper and Mr. Mulcair dithered and sniffed the political winds – “an act of considerable political courage,” former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna says, “that has probably cost him politically in Quebec.”

He ruthlessly exiled his own senators from caucus. He has also proposed a constitutionally viable alternative to abolishing the Senate.

He suspended two MPs from caucus for alleged sexual harassment; declared that new Liberal MPs will be expected to vote against new restrictions on access to abortion; and has pledged to make half his cabinet appointments women – difficult to do, but an admirable goal.

He backed the $15.1-billion purchase of Nexen by CNOOC Ltd., China’s biggest oil and gas producer, and said yes to the Keystone pipeline to the U.S., but no to Northern Gateway to B.C. – all controversial positions.

The attacks continue, but he shrugs them off. “That’s nothing new for me,” he explains. “I had to learn very early on that I couldn’t let myself get affected negatively by people who hate me because of my father. But I also had to learn to put aside people who came up to me and told me I was the greatest thing since sliced bread because they liked my father. I’ve developed a very strong sense of self-awareness, knowing what I’m good at and what I need to work harder at.”

“He has grown up very much in the public eye,” a close adviser points out. “And everything he does is out there, watched. And he very early on decided he wasn’t going to have a whole bunch of different personalities. It does lead to moments of spontaneity. But you don’t want to tamp that down.” Pause. “He doesn’t have this onstage light that he flicks. Because he lives his whole life onstage.”

Trudeau image

‘He speaks English like a francophone,’ one of his closest advisers says of Mr. Trudeau. ‘He just doesn’t have an accent.’

A fraught childhood and a pivotal friendship

His birth on Dec. 25, 1971, made the front page of every major newspaper in the country. He was 8 before he understood what his father did for a living, after Pierre Trudeau lost the 1979 election and had to move from 24 Sussex Drive to Stornoway. By then, his mother, Margaret, had separated from Pierre and was partying with the Rolling Stones in Toronto and New York, in what amounted to Canada’s first big-time political divorce scandal. British headlines hinted at orgies in hotel rooms – untrue, according to Margaret’s 1979 biography Beyond Reason, where she limits the action to having the band over to “drink, play dice, smoke a little hash.” That didn’t make it any less scandalous.

The year before Margaret finally divorced Pierre in 1984, when Justin was nearly 12, she turned up distraught at his school one morning, demanding that her son be called from class. Her boyfriend had left her. Justin was the person she collapsed on. At the time, Mr. Trudeau says, no one knew she was bipolar.

“He was forced to examine his own personality and ask himself how much of it was owed to mother, how much to father, how much to his life as the son of a famous politician,” Mr. Kay says today. “These are extremely complex questions of self-identity that most of us need never confront. But he did, and at a young age. And I think that many of the personality traits that Conservatives lampoon as being shallow – his gregariousness, his exuberance, his robust youthfulness – are in fact an outgrowth of his dogged effort to escape the shadows that hung over his early childhood.”

When his father took his famous walk in the snow and retired from politics in 1984, the boys moved with him to Montreal. Trudeau père may have given us the Charter of Rights, but he spoke only French to his sons. English was banned on certain floors of the house. “My father once joked that I was banal in English,” Mr. Trudeau told me.

That bilingual education left marks on his speaking style. One afternoon, I watched him rehearse and edit a speech, line by line, for an hour and a half. This was back in June, when he was still parsing every spoken word to avoid their being mined for yet another attack ad. The speech contained a sentence about the role cities play in climate change.

“We can’t afford to wait,” Mr. Trudeau read, making the sentence naturally urgent in English. Then he read it again, re-emphasizing: “We … can’t afford to wait.” He often does this, unconsciously applying French diction to his English delivery, weighting the front end of a sentence, as the French do. When he delivered the speech off a Teleprompter the following day to an audience of a thousand, he reverted to the French rhythm – “We … can’t afford to wait.”

This is the reason why, behind a podium or a Teleprompter, Mr. Trudeau sometimes sounds stilted and insincere, as if he is performing ideas rather than having them. His forte is face-to-face, unscripted. Brian Mulroney had the same problem: brilliant in a room, but a giant locked jaw on TV. “He speaks English like a francophone,” one of his closest advisers says of Mr. Trudeau. “He just doesn’t have an accent.”

A week after he enrolled as a literature major at McGill, Mr. Trudeau met Gerald Butts, soon to become a prominent student debater (national champion, twice). Less than a year apart in age, they got along instantly. They were both on their way to another plane of existence – Mr. Trudeau from the cage of his dramatic and unprecedented upbringing; Mr. Butts from being the youngest of five children of a Glace Bay, N.S., coal miner and nurse – thanks to the middle-class dream of an affordable university education.

The voyage seemed to unite them. They seldom talked about politics back then. “God, no,” Mr. Butts says. “We discussed what 19-year-old boys discuss.” But they still managed to attend Pierre Trudeau’s famous Montreal speech against the Charlottetown accord.

To anti-Justinites today, Gerry Butts is nothing short of the Antichrist – the Svengali behind Justin Trudeau, the puppet master allegedly pulling the strings of the brainless wooden boy. Mr. Butts’s stance on many issues (the Charter, the environment, a strong federal government) are indistinguishable from Mr. Trudeau’s. What joins them is their Liberal roots.

Mr. Trudeau, the idealist, is steeped in the teachings of you-know-who. Mr. Butts was planning a PhD on the philosopher Hegel – the idealist’s idealist – when he got work assembling the papers of Liberal senator Allan MacEachen (a fellow Cape Bretoner, and one of Pierre Trudeau’s closest advisers). By 2000, he had moved on to running focus groups for the polling firm Pollara to pay for his PhD when he heard that Dalton McGuinty, who had been defeated by Mike Harris’s “He’s not up to the job” slogan in the 1999 Ontario election – shades of attack ads to come – wanted to stage a conference to infuse his party with new ideas. Mr. Butts wrote him a letter.

“I became so furious with the Harris government that I got into politics,” Mr. Butts told me. Four months later, he was Mr. McGuinty’s director of policy, and staged the conference. Its findings became Mr. McGuinty’s winning 2003 election platform – one whose environmental concerns and longing to reform government bear some resemblance to Mr. Trudeau’s platform this time around.

But that was all to come. In Justin Trudeau’s second year in university, the country was arguing over the Charlottetown accord. Armed with a copy, Mr. Trudeau made a reputation for himself by speaking on campus against the agreement, because it weakened Canadian federalism. (He also had a reputation, according to several of his college friends, for hardly ever smoking pot. “People made fun of me for it,” Mr. Trudeau remembers.) By the end of the Charlottetown debate, Justin Trudeau had changed Gerry Butts’s mind on Charlottetown.

A son to his father: ‘What do I need to know?’

In the same way that young Stephen Harper wandered from interest to interest, dropping out of university and then re-enrolling, in the same way that Pierre Trudeau dressed like Jesus and travelled the world after law school (he listed his profession as “teacher” when he first ran for the House of Commons), Justin Trudeau spent the next few years of his life trying to figure out ways to live it. His choices are well-known and often derided: traveller, whitewater guide, snowboard instructor, bartender, bouncer, and finally teacher (French, math, drama, creative writing, and law in both private and public Vancouver high schools).

Then everything changed. The death of Michel Trudeau, Justin’s youngest brother, in an avalanche in the interior of B.C. in 1998, sent Pierre Trudeau into a steep decline, shattering his Catholic faith. Justin learned from his brother Sacha that his father, already suffering from Parkinson’s, had prostate cancer. Pierre Trudeau never pressured his sons to go into politics – “Our family has done enough,” he always told them – but in the aftermath of Michel’s death, Justin began to consider it seriously. It was then that he realized he had never spoken to his father about the game of politics.

“I had to fix that,” he told me recently. “So I sat down and said, ‘Dad, it’s possible that one day I might end up in politics. So what do I need to know?’”

“And he sort of looked at me, and he didn’t really know what to answer, and he said, ‘Well, ask me a specific question.’ And I said, ‘Okay, well, suppose you have something that you know is right for the country. But the banks and big business don’t want you to do it. How do you handle that? How do you push back against people whose local interests, or self-interest, or perspective prevents them from seeing what you know is the right thing to do?’ ”

He paused. “We had a 10-minute conversation then about how you have to be true to yourself and true to your principles. But I’ll tell you, in a lifetime of conversation with my father, about everything under the sun, that was probably the most awkward and artificial conversation we could have had. At the time, I never really understood why, but looking back on it, I realize that it’s because everything he taught me about being a good person, and growing up to be a strong man, an adult, and a good dad, all those things he taught me, with his example and his engagement, everything that he did – he’d already taught me. And that was how to be a good politician – to be a good, complete person. And not worry about what you do when you’re down in the polls and you have to react to this or that. That’s all changeable from one generation to the next anyway, and wouldn’t have any value.”

You can call that spin, or idealistic and naïve. But the desire to behave like a decent human being, especially in the face of degraded modern politics such as the latest NDP attack ads, is the steadiest mantra Mr. Trudeau has, the principle he returns to most consistently in conversation.

Trudeau image

Justin Trudeau can be a bit of a drama queen, despite his gift for grasping what matters to people emotionally.

The halting road to the Liberal leadership

He spent the last summer of his father’s life reading the dying man’s favourite plays to him – Shakespeare, Racine, Corneille, writers who saw by the light of the mind. By September, his hero was gone.

On Oct. 3, 2000, at his father’s state funeral, Justin Trudeau gave the eulogy that launched his political career. He wrote the eulogy over a weekend with the help of his brother Sacha and Gerry Butts, among others. He practised it relentlessly. Opinion on the eulogy is mixed to this day – its grandiose nod to Shakespeare and politics (“Friends, Romans, countrymen”), its hammy delivery, its focus on Justin as much as on Pierre, but also its rousing grasp of what the eulogist’s father had done politically. These are still hallmarks of the Justin Trudeau style.

In the same way that Tom Mulcair is sometimes harrumphing and didactic in public, and Stephen Harper can be phlegmatically unyielding, Justin Trudeau can be a bit of a drama queen, despite his gift for grasping what matters to people emotionally. The eulogy’s on YouTube: Justin looks 17, but was actually almost 30. “Mere tolerance is not enough,” Justin said that morning in Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica. “We need genuine and deep respect for each and every human being, notwithstanding their thoughts, their values, their beliefs, their origins. That’s what my father demanded of his sons and that’s what he demanded of his country.” Then he said “Je t’aime, Papa” and cried on the coffin.

Mr. Trudeau was approached to run for the Liberals in the days after the eulogy; certainly that was when people began to recognize him in the street. He was of two minds. “The battle to convince myself and others that I was my own person had challenged me all through high school and university,” he writes in Common Ground. “Why should I negate these efforts by making the one career choice that would guarantee I would be measured according to my father’s achievements?” (“Can you imagine what it’s like to have someone compare you to your father every day of your life?” Mr. Butts says.) But the timing was wrong, regardless.

Justin Trudeau decided to bide his time, as usual upending expectations. He studied engineering; he became an advocate for immigration issues and Katimavik, the youth-service organization. He became a speaker for hire, reportedly earning $462,000 in a single year. By 2008, after campaigning doggedly for more than a year, he’d won a seat in the back row of the House of Commons.

The rest of the time he pretended he wasn’t interested in being the leader of the Liberal Party. He turned the possibility down at least three times – most recently in 2011, after Mr. Ignatieff intellectualized the Liberals to their worst defeat in 144 years and Bob Rae had taken over as interim leader.

Even as late as the following spring, Mr. Trudeau told Mr. Rae over dinner that he wasn’t running. Mr. Rae, then 64, didn’t believe him. “I had a lot of people who wanted me to run,” Mr. Rae told me. “I could have run against Trudeau. But it would have been a beauty contest, and I couldn’t win a beauty contest. I don’t think he entirely knew his own mind. But it was clear to me that he was running.”

Indeed he was. Justin Trudeau called Gerry Butts to discuss the prospect of a leadership bid as soon as the 2012 Liberal policy conference ended in February. Mr. Butts liked Mr. Trudeau’s chances. “Because he has the nation’s ear, and they’re interested in what he has to say, and they’ll give him a fair hearing,” Mr. Butts said not long ago. “Because he knows every end of this country.”

That summer, a dozen of Mr. Trudeau’s closest friends and advisers gathered for a weekend at Quebec’s Mont-Tremblant to outline a possible leadership campaign and election platform. Everything was up for discussion. Was the Liberal Party finished? Should it join forces with the NDP? Was the Trudeau name a liability? Apparently not: The following April, Mr. Trudeau became leader of the Liberal Party with 80 per cent support on the first ballot.

Sophie was at Mont-Tremblant as well. She and Justin had been discussing the decision to run all spring.

Mr. Trudeau has attracted 57,000 volunteers to the current Liberal campaign (about six times as many as ever showed up before). Membership in the party has risen tenfold, to 300,000.

A wife who chooses her battles, and seeks peace ‘from within’

Mr. Trudeau knew Ms. Grégoire as an old friend of his brother Michel when they finally reconnected in 2003 as co-hosts of a Montreal charity ball. At the end of their first date a few months later, he asked if they could skip the boyfriend-girlfriend phase and simply get engaged. Somewhat to his own surprise, he realized he was serious, and set about convincing her. They were married a year and a half later, in May, 2005.

I met her myself a few weeks ago on the dock of the Rockcliffe Marina, on the Ottawa River, about three blocks from the pretty grey cottage-style house they rent in Rockcliffe Park. (Their lease is up at the end of October; they haven’t arranged a new place.) Their first-born, Xavier – Zav – was at tennis camp; Ella-Grace, their daughter, was doing arts and crafts. Their 19-month-old, Haddy – for Hadrien (the man named after an emperor named his own son after an emperor) – was at home with the babysitter. The couple doesn’t keep a nanny, but Ms. Grégoire sees or talks to her mother (“the most precious presence in my life”) every day. She’d driven to the marina in her brand new mint-green convertible Fiat 500, one of the new little ones you see around more and more. With the campaign in full swing, she sometimes sees her husband as little as a few hours a week.

She was wearing mixed-pattern harem pants – albeit elastic-waisted, as she happily pointed out – and a peasant blouse, a moonstone necklace, and a moonstone ring in place of her wedding ring, which she takes off when she plays with her children. She likes the inner light of moonstone. She started out in commerce at McGill, intending to become a stockbroker, but later switched to communications, and worked at an advertising agency before moving to radio and television, where she was Quebec correspondent for eTalk, an entertainment show on CTV.

She also teaches kundalini yoga. It is a tantric meditational yoga whose formal aim – I’m relying on Swami Sivananda Radha for this – is “to cultivate the creative spiritual potential of a human to uphold values, speak truth, and focus on the compassion and consciousness needed to serve and heal others.” In other words, it’s Liberal yoga.

“It’s quite a journey we’re on,” she said. “And I think the stability and emotional stability you create around yourself in your everyday life and through this journey is very important.”

“This journey of life, or of the campaign?” I asked.

“Both. I don’t disassociate them.”

“You’re one of the few who doesn’t.”

“We’ve been preparing for this for years,” Ms. Grégoire said. It was windy, and the wharf was swaying slightly beneath us. “Once Justin decided to go on the political scene, all the spotlights were on him. I think we’ve done pretty well finding a balance and a centre. It’s a very scrutinized life. We see a lot of leaders and people in the public service and the political world reacting with fear, or intimidation, lack of respect for other human beings. I think not only Canada but the world as a whole is called upon to really choose leaders who can generate unity and compassion throughout the world. This is how you find peace, right? I think it starts from within.” All this flowed out of her unprompted.

No one can actually control a campaign, Ms. Grégoire said then: You simply tell the truth and trust the Canadian people, and if they believe you and trust you in turn, you win the election.

I thought to myself, A lot of us would love to believe that.

She paused, and I looked at her. There had been some resistance within the Trudeau camp to my meeting her. She does charity work for bulimia (which she suffered from), for children’s and young women’s causes, for an organization that provides clean water to underdeveloped countries, but she’s not a conventional political wife. In Pierre Trudeau’s time, she would have been a hippie, if she weren’t so hard-headed. She has a bumper sticker on her car at home (a minivan) that reads “Love is the Answer.”

“And Justin has that capacity to swim through crazy waters but keep his vision, keep calm. He doesn’t lose control. His personality stays true to who he is, wherever he is. And I think that’s very reassuring.”

His weakness? “Justin’s real weakness is, he’s very much in his head. He intellectualizes a lot. I’m like, ‘Hello?’” Apparently he can be a bit of a slob. She is astounded by his capacity to focus on one issue and his complete incapacity to focus on something he doesn’t think is important. He sounds like every husband on the planet.

“I organize everything,” she said, matter-of-factly. “The kids’ lunch to the finances to the spending to the house, groceries, everything. He carries the travelling documents. For some reason. And you know, I choose my battles, so he can have that.”

This is the thing about real candour: It’s so rare in politics now that it feels mistaken, even corrupt. She admits they have had their personal troubles, their marriage has not been perfect, that they have seen a marriage counsellor, though she won’t say why. “We’re super open, we don’t have much to keep secret. It’s boring, relationship stuff. We were adjusting to life and to marriage.” This is post-secret politics, from a generation that has grown up revealing the details of its life on Facebook.

“I feel all of this is made to happen,” she said. “And it’s making deep sense. This whole political journey. It’s a pure honour.” Pause. “I think that’s the one thing that Pierre did leave us as an emotional teaching – his love of the country, and his capacity to serve.”

She was getting into her car to leave when something struck me. “Do you think,” I said, “that, having been watched and assessed and judged all his life, having lived so much of his life apart from everyone else, under a public microscope, that maybe that’s why Justin loves being with people, in the crowd, so much? Because it lets him be, somehow, finally – united with the world?”

“Yes,” Sophie said, “exactly! United!”

Trudeau image

Behind a podium or a Teleprompter, Justin Trudeau sometimes sounds stilted and insincere, as if he is performing ideas rather than having them. His forte is face to face, unscripted.

Guardian angels, heavy hitters, and a farewell to caution

Mr. Trudeau’s challenge in the remaining weeks of the never-ending election campaign is to demonstrate that he’s capable of leading a country without ever having done so. “It’s very, very difficult being the leader of the opposition,” Frank McKenna points out. “It’s exponentially more difficult being the leader of the third party. It’s difficult proving you can do the job when you don’t have the job.”

He has all the other parts in place. Policy – help the middle class; reform the political process; finance social and green infrastructure via modest deficits, to list just the main pillars – has been rolling out like acres of sod since the campaign started, after marinating for 18 months in a series of “advisory councils.” The councils were manned by everyone from bank and telecom CEOs to economists and constitutional scholars – an old Butts trick from his McGuinty days.

I spoke to half a dozen of the outside experts: They routinely praised Mr. Trudeau’s deep and wonkish interest in policy, which he prefers they stick to, leaving the politics of a given situation to him.

David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s chief strategist, has been offering similar advice to the Trudeau team in the form of “general encouragement” during the election campaign. He knows Mr. Butts (among others) from Mr. McGuinty’s 2002 campaign. “The thing I learned from David most,” Mr. Butts says, “is that people care about issues, and the political class cares about politics. Stick to the issues and tell people in plain language what you want to do for them in a campaign. Nothing else matters if you can’t do that.”

For defence and political infighting, Mr. Trudeau relies on Mr. Butts, his principal adviser and dragon slayer. An acolyte of the late Jim Coutts, Pierre Trudeau’s former principal secretary (they spoke almost every day), Mr. Butts is seldom far from Justin Trudeau on the campaign trail – or from his Twitter account, performing short-knife work. He reserves a special scorn for Mr. Mulcair’s strategy of debating only in debates that Mr. Harper has agreed to: In Mr. Butts’ view, that let Mr. Harper off the hook, which is resulting in fewer debates, which is making the campaign less democratically transparent (and, let it be said, is not as much to Mr. Trudeau’s advantage).

Mr. Butts is also ruthlessly anti-Harper: If you mention, say, Kory Teneycke, Mr. Harper’s chief spokesman, Mr. Butts will remind you that Mr. Teneycke invented Corn Cob Bob, the surreal, man-sized mascot of the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association. And that’s when he’s being oblique. Mr. Trudeau may long for a less-spun politics, but his team practises that spin whenever “the boss” needs it.

Mr. Butts, in other words, is to Justin Trudeau what Louis Howe was to Franklin Delano Roosevelt – a friend and adviser who stage-managed FDR’s presidencies and policies (including the New Deal). Mr. Butts has been characterized as the focusing nozzle on the spray can of ideas that is Justin Trudeau, which Mr. Butts considers unfair. But he certainly disciplines Mr. Trudeau’s message. He is the guardian angel at the gate: If you want to get to Justin, you go through Gerry. Access is handsomely offered, but carefully controlled. Mr. Butts points out to visiting journalists the harshest and most unforgiving features of the terrain of a currently relevant campaign skirmish (e.g., Mr. Mulcair’s unwillingness to debate, the nastiness of an attack ad); Mr. Trudeau then leads a more affable and uplifting tour of the battleground and the surrounding countryside, pointing out what potential it might have under the care of a more attentive steward. They’re a very effective pair, the Knife Man and the Clean-up Guy.

Meanwhile, Mr. Trudeau travels the country with a team of advisers in full view to allay any concerns about his inexperience – sitting MPs with cabinet experience in financial and business matters, such as John McCallum and Ralph Goodale and Scott Brison, as well as promising up-and-comers Adam Vaughan (Mr. Trudeau’s expert on urban affairs); Bill Morneau (a Bay Street favourite whose public company specializes in pension management); retired Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie (former chief of land staff in Afghanistan); and former Thomson Reuters and Globe and Mail editor and business writer Chrystia Freeland, now trying to retain her seat in a tough battle in the new riding of University-Rosedale.

Ms. Freeland, a Rhodes Scholar who grew up in Peace River, Alta., before going to work in London and New York, has been advising Mr. Trudeau on trade issues – from how governments can stimulate a deflationary economy to why Norway, a huge exporter of oil, is also a global environmental darling. Dinner guests at her house in Toronto can include the likes of Paul Volcker, former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve; and Larry Summers, Bill Clinton’s secretary of the treasury.

That candidates of this calibre have chosen to run for the recently wrung-out Liberals is a testament to Mr. Trudeau’s powers of persuasion. The guy could sell rice to a rice farmer. He and Mr. Butts needed only two days to convince Mr. Vaughan to dump Toronto city council and run for federal office – all for the promise that he can create federal housing policy. Ms. Freeland abandoned a lucrative international writing and speaking career because Mr. Trudeau shared her interest in the middle class, because he was good at building consensus, and because he listened at length and was attentive to her father when he came to visit. “He really is a good person,” she said. She was also approached to run by Mr. Mulcair.

But Mr. Trudeau’s strongest claim to being a leader – one the ordinary voter doesn’t see – is that he has tamed the Liberal Party. To have conquered an entity that has been cannibalizing itself since Mitchell Sharp and Walter Gordon had an argument about economic nationalism in the 1960s is a feat worthy of Mother Teresa.

He has done this the same way he has gotten as far as he has: by listening to people who know more than he does in their areas of expertise. Katie Telford, who co-chairs the national campaign, and Anna Gainey, president of the Liberal Party, have modernized and upgraded the party’s databases, as well as its online canvassing, recruiting and fundraising systems. Canvassers now input data on their smartphones, door by door; meanwhile, the party is advertising and soliciting small contributions in less traditional places such as – according to separate sources in the Liberal machine – the dating/sex-hook-up sites Tinder and Grindr.

Mr. Trudeau has attracted 57,000 volunteers to the current Liberal campaign (about six times as many as ever showed up before). Membership in the party had risen tenfold, to 300,000, between Mr. Ignatieff’s defeat and the end of 2014. Even in the first three months of 2015 – by no means his finest hour, thanks to the C-51 fiasco – Mr. Trudeau attracted $3.8-million in donations. (The Conservatives raised $6.3-million in the same stretch of time.). His enemies in and out of the Liberal Party can complain about him all they like. As Peter Donolo, Mr Chrétien’s former director of communications and a witness to a great deal of Liberal carnage over the years, points out, “Justin’s the guy who has made us contenders again.”

But the big question is the obvious one: Can he win?

“Anyone who claims they know who’s going to win this is smoking something,” a long-time political adviser told me recently. Ms. Telford believes the Liberals began to pull even with their rivals only when Mr. Trudeau stepped out from behind the Teleprompter and delivered actual policies in his most fetching, extemporaneous, face-to-face state. The days of dogged caution – of editing a speech line by line for fear of handing the Conservative war room another free attack ad – are over.

“The truth is, the guy has no filter,” Mr. Butts told me one afternoon. “And I think people found that refreshing, given how scripted and buttoned-down Ottawa is. But at the same time,” he continued, quoting Bono at a U2 concert he once attended, “you have to get tight before you get loose.” Mr. Trudeau was criticized widely after the first three debates for hammering away at a handful of policy points. People made jokes about the bennies kicking in. But his poll numbers have been rising. Maybe he knows what he’s doing.

“If we could introduce him to every Canadian, we’d have this thing in the bag,” Ms. Telford says. By late August, her internal polls suggested that Mr. Trudeau was seen as the most likely individual change agent compared to Mr. Harper and Mr. Mulcair. But the NDP had managed to establish itself as the change brand. Hence the Liberals’ announcement that they would run moderate deficits to pay for infrastructure (a plan that had been in the works for a year, but wasn’t finalized until June). Tactically, it lumped the balanced-budget twins, Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Harper, together as cozy pals, moving Mr. Trudeau into the role of official election opposition. It’s a long shot. But Ms. Telford is playing a long game. Before Mr. Trudeau peaked as the No. 1 choice for prime minister last year, his inner circle thought getting to the Prime Minister’s Office would be a two-election game.

Bob Rae has always warned people not to underestimate Mr. Trudeau. “For Justin, politics is about people and inspiration and motivation and getting people to do things and feel good about things,” Mr. Rae told me recently over a cup of insipid coffee on Toronto’s Bloor Street. “It’s not about policy or even about packaging. It’s a lot about emotion.”

Mr. Rae stopped talking and sipped his vile beverage. “He’s not a rocket scientist. He’s not the smartest guy in the room. But he knows how to reach a room. He likes people, and people like him. And he’s resilient. He has the resiliency of people who are raised to expect their life is worth something.”

The result is “postmodern” performance politics – what another long-time Liberal characterizes as a 21st-century take on the “sunny ways” of another Quebecker, Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Franklin Roosevelt has been faulted for having a second-class mind. But he had a first-class personality that could bring disparate interests together. It was the latter that made him an effective leader. That’s the Liberal bet, too.

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People made jokes about the bennies kicking in. But his poll numbers have been rising. Maybe he knows what he’s doing.

An unready dream? Or, rather, voters not ready for a dreamer?

That morning over bad coffee last April, Mr. Rae told me that a would-be prime minister has to have a vision. He’d just finished editing his new book, What’s Happened to Politics? – highly recommended – and was keen to chat. Pierre Trudeau wanted to create a just society that brought people at its fringes into the encompassing middle. Stephen Harper claimed he wanted to liberate us from the cost of using the federal government to level the economic playing field – although he has done this more in theory than in practice. For his own part, Mr. Rae says he tried to bring the left into the mainstream.

“What does Justin want to do?” Mr. Rae asked then. “I don’t think he knows.” He believes such a vision might evolve, and quickly – back when Mr. Rae spoke to me, Mr. Trudeau had announced none of his major campaign positions. “Leadership is different from narcissism, although they often overlap. Narcissists in the long term don’t make good leaders because they think it’s about them. It has to be about an idea. I think the thing we don’t know enough about Justin is whether his leadership is about more than just him. And I honestly don’t know the answer to that question.”

In fact, despite what Mr. Rae fears, Mr. Trudeau has outlined his own updated vision of the country – “a country that understands the diversity of strength, understands what collaborative leadership is all about, understands the balance between the environment and the economy,” as he put it to me. Or, as he put it at the 2013 Liberal leadership convention, a country that supports “the prosperity of the middle class, a healthy democracy and sustainable economy.”

Does that seem like such an unready dream? Within the narrow range of what any democratic leader can accomplish in a global milieu where economies and political landscapes now change faster than governments and ideologies can react, Justin Trudeau has chosen to be a collaborative leader – not an all-knowing, top-down authority, à la Stephen Harper/Tom Mulcair, but the lead salesman and enthusiast for a team of intelligences. No one knows if it will work, but it is his most radical and distinctive move. It’s a challenge to the way the PMO-centred federal government has been working, and a nod to the various populist movements that have sprung up in the wake of smartphone politics and Edward Snowden.

Pierre Trudeau was a towering mind who had all the answers at a time when that illusion was still possible. His son is a leader who knows what he doesn’t know in a world where it isn’t. That makes some people nervous, maybe more nervous than it needs to. In other words, our mocking wariness toward Mr. Trudeau and his newfangledness – his youthfulness, his occasionally chaotic energy, his neo-pacifism, his enthusiasm for proportional representation and its one-eyed cousins, his dedication to green economics, even his postmodern love of the touchable crowd and the tweetable masses, of emotion over logic as a means of reaching people – may say more about our fear of passing the torch in a cynical age (What if he drops the damn thing, the stoner?) than it says about middle-aged Justin Trudeau. It’s not that he’s not ready; it’s arguably us who may not be ready for him. That’s a different proposition.

When everything is a performance, nothing is a performance: It’s all real.

Cast as a poseur, he claims to be authentic and promises change

I keep thinking back to that evening in Edmonton, when Mr. Trudeau remembered the poem by Auden. It occurred to me, obviously, that his recitation might have been planned – that he may have been spinning a reporter with an act intended to make him look spontaneous and “authentic.” True, he has a long history with spoken poems. Ronald Reagan once decanted The Shooting of Dan McGrew for Justin on an official trip to 24 Sussex Drive, and Mr. Trudeau reportedly declaims quite frequently in the company of Mr. Butts and their pals. He can recite a thousand lines, in French and English. None of that means he wasn’t spinning me as well.

Isn’t that the central problem with this endless election campaign, and with all politics in the digital age? Spin is now so pervasive and instantaneous and sophisticated that it’s impossible to know what or whom to believe, which is what the spinners want. And yet the subsequent evaporation of our faith in politics and parties makes us long even harder for sincerity and candour, for an authentic leader who can make us hope and believe in the future. Which is why Mr. Trudeau and his team are trying to make his authenticity the crowning touch on a truckload of policies dedicated to the middle class. They understand that an election campaign, in the end, is not just a rational process – that’s just the pretense the media sell – but a religious ritual that culminates in an act of faith called a vote. We choose to believe one or another candidate is telling the truth despite all past evidence to the contrary.

And so, in one of the more hilarious paradoxes in Canadian political history (and that’s not a short list), Stephen Harper, a suburbanite from Toronto who pretends to be an Albertan, and Thomas Mulcair, a conservative Liberal from Quebec now claiming to be the ultimate NDPer from Ottawa, are accusing Justin Trudeau of being a poseur who has nothing more to him than good looks and a famous name. Mr. Trudeau, the youngest and least experienced of the three contenders, is fighting back by claiming that with fresh Justin and fresh Justin alone, what we see is what we get. There is a compelling logic to this idea, as his friends point out. Because he has been forced to live his entire life in full view of the public, everything he does becomes a performance. But when everything is a performance, nothing is a performance: It’s all real.

The last time I saw Mr. Trudeau at a public event, he was sitting in a chair in a factory that manufactures systems that atomize garbage – the kind of social infrastructure he intends to help finance with modest deficits. He seemed energized by the campaign, that he was at last out of training and in the ring, a place where the past doesn’t count so much.

I asked him if he had any regrets about the way he had conducted his political career – about the C-51 decision, say, or about his choices of facial-hair patterns in the past – now that he was deep in the election campaign.

“No, not really,” he said, in his slightly nasal baritone. “I think we’re up against a political machine right now that would take almost anything and turn it into an attack. So the only way to completely defend against that would be to be absolutely, totally scripted and controlled and inauthentic, all the time. And fundamentally I think people deserve to know the authentic person that is running to serve them. So the idea of laying it all out there on the table” – he waited, choosing the right word – “is liberating.”

He wants to be genuine, whatever that entails, and wishes being genuine were not a political liability. It is not so much a political philosophy as a political psychology for a new age. Taking the road that no one else is taking could be a fatal decision. But in an election in which at least six out of 10 voters claim they want change, and a neck-and-neck race where, in the opinion of one long-time Liberal PMO insider, “the election will be won by whoever’s ahead five days before the election,” Justin Trudeau’s gamble to be real could also make him prime minister.

Then he stood up and sliced back into the knots of people waiting to meet him, shaking their hands, embracing them, touching their shoulders and their sense of history – back into the crowd, surrounded by his fellow Canadians, where he could more easily be one of them.

With files from Rick Cash and Victor Dwyer

Ian Brown is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.