Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to a question from counsel at the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions, on April 3 in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was on the first sentence of his first answer at the public inquiry into foreign interference when it became clear that uh oh, he’d summoned That Guy.

You know the guy: Ask him a factual question and the response is a purring, generic values statement so distantly related to the original question they could legally get married.

That Guy. He’s around a lot.

When it was Mr. Trudeau’s turn on Wednesday – he was last up for the first phase of the inquiry – a commission lawyer opened by asking him to paint a picture of the foreign-interference landscape since he became Prime Minister in 2015. It was an interesting question that could have drawn out a fascinating answer: What did the incursion look like from his chair?

Mr. Trudeau and his party have contended all along – reasonably enough, to a point – that foreign-interference attempts are happening constantly in Western countries at the hands of a range of rogue states. So a real answer to that question wasn’t necessarily self-indicting of clueless inaction on Canada’s part; it could have been a for-public-consumption snapshot of what the Prime Minister’s Office heard from the various security service crow’s nests.

But it was That Guy who gallantly swooped in to answer, offering a brisk infomercial about all the astute and effective steps the Trudeau government had taken to deal with what sounded vaguely like a problem for the U.S. and France, but not particularly Canada.

It’s not always That Guy who shows up – usually, but not always. And what makes That Guy so vexing is that he doesn’t have to exist, or at least he doesn’t have to visit so often.

Lots of people enjoy casting Mr. Trudeau intellectually as a replacement-level My Little Pony, but he’s not; he has much more than that available to him. And that makes this worse. That Guy is a choice, a partisan lobotomy cheerfully self-administered with a circular saw just before stepping up to the lectern at each press conference.

But the last time Mr. Trudeau took the witness chair at a public inquiry, during the Public Order Emergency Commission in 2022, everyone got a load of The Other Guy. He walked through his thinking in detail, he acknowledged doubt and trade-offs, he explained complicated situations in a way that made it clear why the Prime Minister has a reputation as a keen study.

The Other Guy is both more impressive – that is, probably more politically useful – and more straightforward. It’s a shame he doesn’t get out much.

You can always tell when Mr. Trudeau is in a defensive crouch when he uses the phrase “continue to” as a fly swatter, shooing away the notion that any problem exists about which inadequate action has been taken. At one point in his testimony on Wednesday before commissioner Marie-Josée Hogue, he said “We’ve continued to continue to do more” of the measures against foreign interference that, it seems manifestly obvious, have at least some weaknesses, or why was everyone gathered in that building on Wellington Street for the inquiry?

At another point, Mr. Trudeau explained that the reliability of a piece of information is conveyed as “part and parcel” of the information itself. You can’t give a Prime Minister erroneous information and then send them out to speak publicly about it, he explained, but when he received initial reports that Iran had shot down a plane with dozens of Canadians aboard in early 2020, for example, the uncertainty and evolving nature of that information was part of the debrief itself.

“There is a certain degree of – I would not say skepticism – but of critical thought that must be applied to any information collected by our security and intelligence services,” he said.

And That Guy took the wheel again with an existential meditation about the broader landscape.

“Democracy only works when people are confident in its ability to keep them safe, but also be the articulation of what they want for their community and their country,” Mr. Trudeau said, as though that was an agreed-upon pre-existing condition and not one of the diagnoses the commission was trying to work toward.

This is the main problem with That Guy: He talks about good things as though they were always thus, and bad things as though they exist in some parallel universe someone else is in charge of.

Near the end of the Prime Minister’s testimony, there was a particularly vivid example of this, when the commission lawyer read a quote from Kenny Chiu, a defeated Conservative MP who’d been the target of a misinformation campaign that circulated among Chinese Canadians. “It’s almost like I was drowning, and they were watching it, and the best they could do is to let me know that I’m drowning,” Mr. Chiu said. “I didn’t need their notification. I needed their help.”

That Guy was ready to respond.

“The idea that we need to do more, I agree,” Mr. Trudeau said, with that slow and earnest tone he often takes when the sentiment of a situation is more comfortable than the facts. Foreign interference wasn’t on the radar when he took office in 2015, he said, and “it hadn’t been something that the previous government or any previous government had done much on at all. So we started from a standing start.”

Then he again listed all the things his government had done to address the issue. But Mr. Chiu wasn’t talking about some gauzy back-then; he was talking about the 2021 election, six years past the point when the whole machine was this prime minister’s responsibility.

Mr. Trudeau, his political advisers and partisan teammates obviously think That Guy serves a useful purpose or they wouldn’t keep wheeling him out on a dolly. Maybe The Other Guy can step in at some point and explain their mistake.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to a commission lawyer as a government lawyer. This version has been updated.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe