Justin Trudeau says he came out of the bruising 2019 election wondering what his government could do to be more connected to Canadians.
The answer arrived in an unwelcome form a few months later — a global pandemic.
“You know, we are suddenly in a position where the federal government has really, really mattered in a tangible and direct way to Canadians,” Trudeau said in an interview this week.
The prime minister has spent much of the past year fielding questions about how his government is managing the crisis that is COVID-19: lockdowns, vaccines, travel restrictions and economic relief.
What Trudeau hasn’t discussed as much is how the pandemic has changed the nature of running a country.
So, in a 40-minute phone interview with the prime minister this week, I asked how much his job has changed since he won his second term in office in late 2019 — and what was he thinking, exactly, immediately after the voters had brought him down a peg or two, from majority to minority.
He acknowledged that he saw the results as a reproach — a very clear directive to do better.
“We did so many really big and fundamental things to put Canada on a better track over the course of that first mandate,” Trudeau said, rattling off the Canada Child Benefit, and all the good intentions he was constantly talking about — on everything from climate change to Indigenous reconciliation.
“But we didn’t always bring Canadians along with it, the way we could have and should have,” Trudeau said. “For everything we did, there was something we missed on making sure that Canadians not just knew about it, but really felt it as well.”
While he obviously wouldn’t have chosen to have a pandemic descend on Canada and the planet, Trudeau said it has presented him and his government with a chance to prove their relevance to the lives of citizens. Essentially, he said, it’s been a crash course in fixing the connections he failed to make in his first term in office.
This issue of relevance — or lack of it — is what has been fuelling populism around the planet, he said — a phenomenon that has been preoccupying the prime minister ever since Donald Trump won the 2016 election in the United States.
In the early aftermath of Trump’s victory, Trudeau was talking a lot in speeches about the need for governments to work harder at addressing economic inequality and keeping politicians connected to the grassroots.
Now, in 2021, with Trump gone but populism still a force, Trudeau sees that brand of politics in starker terms: “simple answers…the government is good for nothing, our institutions don’t work well, burn them all down and start from scratch.”
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Had the pandemic not come along, Trudeau and his team might well have treated that strain of politics as a simple communications challenge.
“But it’s not just about better communication strategy,” the prime minister said. “”I’m sure we communicate better what we’re doing but it’s also about bringing Canadians along, involving them as active, engaged citizens on the work we’re doing.”
Trudeau thinks it’s too soon to assess whether the pandemic has permanently changed the nature of some relationships in the federation. Fifteen months ago, his biggest problem was the array of provincial premiers that threatened to be the “resistance,” as that memorable Maclean’s magazine cover dubbed them.
National unity was supposed to be the number-one headache of 2020. Instead, Trudeau has convened more first ministers’ meetings (most virtual) than any prime minister in recent memory.
I asked him whether he and Ontario Premier Doug Ford really had become allies of sorts, as it seems.
“He’s someone who wears his heart on his sleeve and is authentic,” Trudeau said. “Listen. We don’t always agree obviously on the way he goes about it or his approaches on everything but we’ve been able to work together.”
Trudeau says he is convinced that this is something that Ford’s supporters and Trudeau’s supporters — who aren’t all the same people — want to see in a pandemic.
I also asked what Trudeau had learned about himself in all this — pandemics, we keep being told, have given people a window into their own character. Warning — the prime minister’s description of himself would not align with those of his critics, or even those who have seen him primarily as a lifelong public performer.
“I always understood that I’m an introvert who learned how to be an extrovert to succeed in politics,” Trudeau said. “My introverted nature has thrived a little bit in the pandemic — sometimes to the detriment of my family.”
What he means by this, he says, is that working at home means that he works alone in a crowded house.
“If I’m locked into my office working and making phone calls and sort of absorbed by my work in a really focused way, I do have to remember to take a moment to ask my family: ‘How is your day?’” Trudeau said. (As he was saying this, his son, Xavier, popped into the office to get some geography school work off the printer; a moment that the PM’s photographer posted to social media.)
Fundamentally, Trudeau said, “I think we’re all different because of the pandemic. I think it has reminded us of the things that really matter in life and given us an ability to really shrug off things that don’t matter nearly as much.”
Or, in some cases, it’s changed what matters so much. Fifteen months ago, Trudeau was thinking a lot about what Canadians wanted from his government. Now his main worry is what they need.
Susan Delacourt is an Ottawa-based columnist covering national politics for the Star. Reach her via email: [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @susandelacourt
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