A couple of months ago, while addressing a large group of public servants about mental-health issues, Justin Trudeau talked candidly about how he has wrestled with such adversity.
His wife, Sophie, he explained, tried to get him interested in yoga to ease the stresses. But that didn't work very well. At the end of some days, he needed more than yoga to rid the angst. He felt the need to hit somebody, he said. Climb into the ring. Let them have it.
The audience, a gathering of the Privy Council in a town-hall format, got a chuckle out of that. But this was a serious talk about mental-health afflictions, how they impact a great number of Canadians (20 per cent, according to some estimates) and how he, the Prime Minister, was no exception. He mentioned how, in the past, he sought counselling on many occasions. He was concerned, he said, that the subject would become a source of contention in his political campaigns. Given how these things can be misinterpreted, he was pleased it didn't.
The audience, a PCO official told me, was struck by Mr. Trudeau's candour. Talking about such a sensitive subject to senior staff is not something prime ministers have had a habit of doing, certainly not Pierre Trudeau, whose emotions were encased. Justin Trudeau's father trained himself rigorously, as is told in biographies on him by Max and Monique Nemni and John English, to be bloodless, hardened against the world.
The father wanted Justin to be that way. He gave him books, one of which, as Justin Trudeau wrote about in his own memoir Common Ground, was about extraordinary steps to be taken to adapt to emotional agonies. "My father's approach, which he encouraged me to practise, had little or nothing to do with emotions. It was exclusively intellectual." But that approach didn't work with Justin. Preoccupying him instead was the psychological turmoil of his mother, Margaret. "My mother's challenge was to deal with her emotions, and I became caught up in that process."
He had to deal with his mother's bipolarity, his parents' high-profile separation, the death of his brother Michel and, in the year 2000, the death of his indestructible father. There was no way he could stay hardened against all that. He sought and received help – from his faith, from his friends, from therapists.
There is still this perception, an image that persists among his detractors, that Justin Trudeau is a superficial politician, that there is little beneath the glamorous exterior. He's always suffered by comparison to the intellectual heft of Pierre Trudeau. Most anyone would. Thus far in office, he has captured high ratings, much of it due to his style, the politics of sizzle. That's fed the stereotype of the critics as well.
In fact, the case could well be made that Justin Trudeau is a more complex individual than his father, deeper in terms of his range of emotions and vulnerabilities, broader in terms of of his interests and relationships. The father tended to limit his reading to non-fiction. Justin, while having studied engineering as well the humanities, was a habitual reader of novels, arguing in his home that "encyclopedias could teach me facts, but only a great story could transport me into the mind of another person."
While the father who lived only in Central Canada loathed the politics of door-knocking, the son who lived on the West Coast for a period revelled in it, developing a closer relationship with and understanding of regular people. The father moved through life into his forties as a boulevardier, generally doing as he pleased, experiencing little in the way of hardship. While benefiting from the security that parental wealth brings, Justin Trudeau has had experiences far more trying.
While the father liked to think of himself as invulnerable, the son talks openly, as he did that day to the Privy Council Office employees, of his vulnerabilities. Gnawing sensitivities developed in him as a result of his mother's mental-health issues. People with such issues are deeper than the rest of us.