Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Common GroundCommon Ground by Justin Trudeau
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Someone recently compared Justin Trudeau's mind to a teenager's bedroom. This autobiography shows he's been busy lately cleaning it up. Almost believable in its persistent tone of sincerity, it made me forget for a while that the Trudeau era was a time of massive deception.

First there was Trudeau-mania. After It subsided came a wave of national depression and cynicism. In its aftermath, COMMON GROUND – which Trudeau ends with a long, boring blast of Liberal feel-good rhetoric -- left me depressed, cynical and in need of a good stiff drink or dose of lithium.

Definitely the boy, or his publicist, can tell a story. There's no denying Justin's life has been marked by tragedy: his parents' very public divorce, his mother's descent into mental illness, the death of his younger brother in an avalanche. These candid moments are genuinely moving and the book's greatest strength. Justin has lived through many of the challenges of his generation and his team understands he can draw on the youth vote in the next election if he can just get them off their cell phones and drugs.

Judging by how many people seem to like it, Team Trudeau has scored a coup with this book, remaking Justin's image from pampered Golden Boy into a roll-up-your-sleeves, school-of-hard-knocks underdog, ready to bare his chest and rebound from every overhand punch in the televised charity bout of Canadian politics.

Maybe that’s why in this pre-election scrum, the son treats his late father with kid gloves, never implying Pierre was anything but a kind, involved parent. It's the best we can expect but it does make me wonder how much the writer has repressed.

The opening lines to his eulogy at Pierre Trudeau's funeral were more ambivalent and ironic: "Friends, Romans, Countrymen --" and a pause just long enough for the audience to fill in the unspoken: "I have come to bury Caesar, not to praise him." Canadians have got used to saying that Justin is "not Pierre" or even a close second. In COMMON GROUND, he almost manages to turn this lifelong failure into an asset. Throughout, he never stops praising the father he could never please when he was alive.

Notwithstanding the roses, pirouettes and wide-ranging sexual appetite, Pierre was deeply committed to bringing up his three sons. Still, many found him distant, cold, and detached from the lives of ordinary people -- whereas Justin, an average student, supposedly has the popular touch. Closer to his jet-setting mother, he occasionally flirted with politics. At McGill, he loyally campaigned against the Meech Lake Accord and, perhaps more tellingly, volunteered with the Sexual Assault Centre. Gravitating to youth work, he kept a low profile as a teacher in British Columbia, rooming for a while with a now-convicted pedophile and also sitting on the board of the Katimavik Centre founded by his father's friend Senator Jacques Hebert.

His eulogy at Pierre's funeral in September 2000 catapulted him into the public eye at 30. The Trudeaus are used to displaying emotion in public, from "Just watch me" during the October Crisis to the one-finger salute in Salmon Arm, but even by their standards Justin's performance by his father's coffin was an embarrassing cliff-hanger: a rambling 9-minute speech that began, almost surreally, with a trip to the North Pole and ended with "Papa, je t'aime" and a handkerchief moment.

There is a lot in the family history to suggest their charisma is rehearsed in secret to distract from those old rumours that Pierre and Margaret came together in the 1960s under the auspices of the Air Force and programmed with LSD at a farm out in BC. During her recent breakdown, Margaret was hospitalized at McGill's notorious Allan Memorial Institute under the care of Dr. Dimitri Pivnicky, father of Mila Mulroney.

Canada's elite is so small, perhaps it was inevitable that Justin would end up as Liberal leader. This book goes far in dispelling any notions that his ascent was automatic or effortless. On the way up, Justin spent time pounding the pavement of his Papineau riding, the poorest in Canada, standing around grocery store parking lots handing out leaflets and introducing himself to locals, many of whom were still hostile to the memory of Pierre. Justin -- or his staff of writers -- would have us believe that he sweated his way up slowly up from the bottom of the political heap to become our Future Prime Minister, the only leader capable of coaxing alienated and apathetic youth back to the ballot boxes and bring in a whole new era of tolerance, prosperity and national unity.

I was touched and impressed to read of Justin's struggles in a down-and-out Montreal neighbourhood I know well, until I realized his handlers have found a perfect way to repackage his image. Much as the Katimavik kids he once mentored spend time in community service en route to high-paying careers elsewhere, Justin emerged from his short season in Hell to grab the leadership, champion pipelines and more Draconian surveillance laws. Pierre, who gave us the War Measures Act, would be proud to welcome his prodigal son back to the club.

Maybe Justin plans to harness the energies of his own generation that has lived through lots of divorce, psychiatry, drugs, and sexual experimentation. Maybe the secret violence that marked Pierre’s career has kept Justin out of politics until now.

So what draws him into the political mainstream at this time? Could it be a sense of civic responsibility? The obligations in which children of the elite so often find themselves entangled? The Trudeau family curse?

The strong undertow of tragedy makes COMMON GROUND a compelling read. The younger Trudeau navigates dark waters with some of the same aplomb his dad displayed shooting the Canadian rapids, while lesser men opted to portage.

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