Skip to main content

It's minus 13 C on an Ontario Sunday morning, and the Tim Hortons up at Highway 9, handily located between Orangeville and Shelburne, is doing brisk business. A steady stream of folks in SUVs and F-150s make their way to the drive-through window to collect their breakfast sandwiches and double-doubles. Their heavy parkas come from Mark's Work Wearhouse, not Patagonia.

This would be an excellent place for Justin Trudeau to start his listening tour.

Mr. Trudeau's listening tour, hastily announced last week, is damage control for the revelation that he and his family enjoyed a secret winter getaway at the Aga Khan's private island in the Bahamas. I don't know why anybody in the PMO thought they could keep it secret. Their attempts to do so (they cited privacy concerns) simply aroused the slumbering jackals of the media, who sniffed out the story within hours.

Margaret Wente: Trudeau's real problem: Pretending he's above money grubbing

Lawrence Martin: For Trudeau, a sour ending to a year of progress

A winter getaway in the sun is every Canadian's birthright, and no one begrudges the Trudeau family one of their own. But two things strike me as wrong-footed about his decision to accept the hospitality of the Aga Khan and his attempt to keep it off the record. First, his job involves a certain sacrifice of privacy, alas. People want to know where he's going, and they're not wrong to do so. Second, the optics. A villa in St. Kitts is one thing (see Christmas, 2015), but being hosted by a zillionaire with a private island, yachts and helicopters is a bit much – especially when your government has made a habit of donating millions of dollars to one of your host's philanthropic efforts. It looks a bit too chummy, to say nothing of a bit too 0.001 per cent. Barack Obama would never have made that mistake.

Mr. Trudeau may be the most popular prime minister we've had in quite a while, but he doesn't have the populist touch. Why would he? As a trust-fund baby, he was insulated from the ordinary anxieties of middle-class life – how to pay for university, make a living wage, save a down payment for a house, worry about the mortgage, find decent child care, gain name recognition. Instead of an F-150, he drove a classic Mercedes inherited from his dad. He inherited Dad's friends and connections too (which explains his surprisingly emotional encomiums to the late Fidel Castro). Both the Aga Khan and Fidel were honorary pallbearers at his father's funeral. Talk about an odd couple.

For better and for worse, the populist touch is critical to political survival these days. Tectonic plates are shifting because people think their ruling class is out of touch. Chrystia Freeland, one of Mr. Trudeau's more gifted ministers, even wrote a book, Plutocrats, about the problem of global elites who live 30,000 feet in the air as they jet from Davos to Shanghai, increasingly oblivious to the lives of the folks stuck on the ground below. Mr. Trudeau (unlike his predecessor) is utterly at home with those elites. But people stuck on the ground resent being ruled by pointy-heads from Harvard and Yale with their postnational obsessions. They're far more comfortable with a crude entrepreneur like Donald Trump, who, for all his flaws, at least builds stuff.

The concerns that animate Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau are not the concerns that animate the folks at Tim's. Mr. Trudeau is animated by carbon policies, social licence, aboriginal reconciliation, gender equality and peacekeeping missions in African hellholes to restore Canada's cred at the United Nations. Tim's folks are animated by job security, their kids' employment prospects, whether those kids will ever be able to afford a house in Southern Ontario, finding long-term care for Granny, and hydro bills that are exploding because of the provincial government's loony green schemes. They feel they're being nickel-and-dimed to death, with no end in sight. And they're right.

So here's some free advice for Mr. Trudeau on his listening tour. Dress warmly, preferably in something from Mark's. Paste a list of what matters to Canadians on the back of your smartphone. (Hint: Carbon pricing is pretty far down the list.) Next year, stay home and mingle with the 99 per cent as if you mean it. Who knows? You might even learn something.