Canada's Liberals place hopes on son of former prime minister

Justin Trudeau is a political neophyte, but also a focus of hope for a party that suffered a crushing defeat in elections this week.

Christinne Muschi/Reuters
Hopeful: Justin Trudeau won a seat in Canada's Parliament, but won't say if he has plans to vie for prime minister, a position once held by his father.

Radio Canada TV ran Justin Trudeau's win and election to Parliament on its ticker bar at the bottom of the screen while Liberal Party leader Stephane Dion made his televised concession speech Oct. 14.

For Liberal supporters in the constituency campaign office, Mr. Trudeau's win was the bright spot in a national parliamentary election that they call an "epic disaster" for the party, which lost 29 seats.

The Liberals went into elections knowing they wouldn't come to power, but not expecting a crushing defeat. Liberals only took 77 seats, dropping from the 106 they managed to capture in the 2006 elections that they lost. It's the lowest Liberal tally since their 1984 defeat. In terms of overall votes, at 26.2 percent, they're at their lowest since 1867.

Part of the reason for the defeat, say political analysts, was Mr. Dion's inability to unite the party. Dion never fully promoted the Liberal agenda, some say. Choosing Dion to lead "was a desperate gamble that a man who was a quiet intellectual could be transformed into an aggressive political animal," said Canadian journalist John Gray postelection analysis for CBC news. Dion didn't "reinforce the party identification of those who were declared and committed Liberals ... [or] attract those who were not committed already."

Even the Green Party, which had hoped to capture one seat, suffered defeat. It won 7 percent ov the vote, up from 4.5 percent in the last election. According to Andre Blais, a political scientist at the University of Montreal, the single-vote system disadvantages parties like the Greens that don't have a regional concentration. "There were also some concerns about the politics they were advocating," he says, adding the party's newness may be a factor.

Searching for light in a dark Liberal tunnel, some party supporters are pinning their hopes on Justin Trudeau, a political neophyte with a last name that resonates with Canadians.

"A star is born," said Orlando Panetta, a longtime Liberal supporter, as Justin Trudeau appeared in the campaign office. "If he is patient, if he's willing to learn, if the people around him are patient, he has the tools to be prime minister one day," he says.

Justin Trudeau is the eldest son of the late Canadian political icon and former prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, and Margaret Sinclair, He's been a schoolteacher, activist, public speaker, and actor in a miniseries on the country's war heroes. And now he's a member of the House of Commons, 40 years after his father became prime minister and gained rock-star status in the normally staid Canadian political firmament. 

Justin Trudeau says he entered politics to change lives, but won't discuss if he'll vie for Canada's top job.

"That type of talk is for those in politics as a goal," he says. "I'm in it now to learn, first by being an MP, a back-bencher, then perhaps a minister."

For a much-divided Liberal Party, the Trudeau name brings back memories of Canadian Camelot. It has a cementing force, even if Justin Trudeau has far to go before he becomes party-leader material. The elder Trudeau is remembered for significant actions: He quashed a referendum promoting Quebec's independence, promoted the Constitutional Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and officially implemented bilingualism.

"[Justin Trudeau]'s a good guy, but a very average person," says an independent Quebec politician, Jean-Claude Rivest, who took a university class taught by Pierre Trudeau.

Liberals agree that Dion has the intellect but not the charisma or political instinct needed to lead the party back to power. Lack of a unifying leader has been a problem dogging the Liberals since their 2006 defeat. The last Liberal leadership race had 11 contenders. Most dropped out, leaving odds-on favorites Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff to fight it out, but Dion, the interloper, ended up clinching it.

The Liberals eventually rallied behind Dion, but the former university professor's inability to reach out to the average voter and his flawed English became liabilities. He also clung to a carbon-tax proposal despite its unpopularity. A bill making Quebec's separation difficult made him anathema to large sections of French-speaking voters. 

Even with his surname, Justin Trudeau faced a down-to-the-wire fight in Papineau, the Montreal constituency he won. He wrested back the constituency, once a Liberal stronghold, by a margin of just 1,000 votes.

Apart from the name, Justin Trudeau has also inherited his father's adversaries. Before the elections, he faced opposition from a small group of young Quebec nationalists called "Les Jeunes Patriotes."

Justin Trudeau says he's been working hard to emphasize the "Justin" whenever he's weighed against his father. "I think he'd be pleased that I did it my way and not anyone else's," he says of his victory.

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