Skip to main content

Justin Trudeau's shrug suggested he did not know why the question even needed to be asked. But he was ready for it, and ready to respond with what would be the defining words of his first day as Prime Minister: "Because it's 2015."

He had been asked, specifically, about why he insisted on an equal number of men and women in his cabinet. He could also have been talking about the diversity of the newly sworn-in ministers standing behind him – a group that, among others, included turban-wearing Sikhs tasked with defence and economic development, a former Afghan refugee now in charge of democratic reform and an aboriginal Justice Minister. While still not fully representative (black and Chinese Canadians and plenty of other demographics might have a thing to say) it looked, more than any federal cabinet before, like the country Canada is today.

And beyond gender or ethnicity or any other benchmarks, Mr. Trudeau could have been talking about the more intangible sense of possibility that had swept over Ottawa on an unseasonably warm November morning and compelled thousands of Canadians – many barely old enough to have voted 16 days earlier – to line the road to Rideau Hall for half a day to catch a glimpse of history in the making.

For all the day's pomp and ceremony, its most moving moments came after the official program ended. For about 20 minutes, surrounded by a crush of media and police unaccustomed to such things, Mr. Trudeau walked the rope holding back those beaming spectators, shaking hands and posing for photos. Insofar as signalling a shift from the more closed-off style of governance under Stephen Harper, there could scarcely have been a more powerful image.

The temptation, among those who have watched enough new governments enjoy brief honeymoons before losing their lustre when forced to actually govern, is to dismiss all this as easy and inconsequential. But that is only half right: While the hard part for Mr. Trudeau's Liberals is yet to come, it matters a great deal how long they can make this mood last.

As much as it takes credit or blame for the state of the economy or our quality of life, the federal government's capacity to influence most Canadians' day-to-day existence is fairly limited relative to provincial and municipal ones. But more so than a premier or a mayor or just about anyone else, a prime minister is capable of embodying the country's self-image and aspirations. And so too, to some extent, a cabinet such as the new one might signal to kids from a wide array of backgrounds that they might find themselves in that world one day.

The Liberals' stunning election win is owed to an array of clever strategies and tactics and blunders by opponents. But the big, overarching theme was that Mr. Trudeau and his party were promising a cultural shift toward something more ambitious and less cynical than the tired government they were seeking to replace – an opportunity to be something better than we are now, rather than nervously guard the status quo.

There are moments, rarely more than once a generation, when an election seems to offer an opportunity to step forward into a brave new era. A look at the vastly increased voter turnout – including among younger voters barely expected to turn out at all – suggests we just went through one of them.

The catch is that capturing the zeitgeist en route to power (or in the early hours of wielding it) and managing a government are two very different things. As the aspirational shifts to the practical and frequently mundane, expectations suddenly need to be managed rather than raised.

In Mr. Trudeau's case, the vast improvements to middle-class lives suggested by his rhetoric are somewhat at odds with the relatively modest changes to tax policy and infrastructure investment likely in his first budget. Realpolitik will get in the way of promises to improve Canada's environmental record and place on the world stage. At least a couple of the many rookie ministers lauded on Wednesday will prove to be in over their heads, and set fires he has to put out. There will be much less time to go out and press the flesh, and practise the retail politics at which he excels.

Through all that, it will be tempting to give in to the weary cynicism that so often engulfs incumbents – the belief that broken promises and overlooking the odd ethical violation are necessary to advance their agendas. But perhaps Mr. Trudeau has more incentive than most to avoid that trap.

No prime minister in Canada's history entered office with more excitement about generational change than Pierre Trudeau. It took only one term for that promise to be lost to a combination of unforeseen events and Liberal complacency, and despite subsequent election triumphs, it was never recaptured.

Among the questions he was asked after his swearing-in, the one Justin Trudeau brushed off most quickly was about his father. He plainly wants to escape that shadow, still.

There could be no better way to achieve that than by pushing against the bubble about to surround him. He could do a lot worse than reminding himself, at every opportunity and every low point, of the eyes that he looked into during that walk down the road outside Rideau Hall.