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Justin Trudeau: Canada's agent for change?

Supporters pin their hopes on Trudeau's inclusive approach following his election as the Liberal Party leader.

Last Modified: 16 Apr 2013 06:44
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Justin Trudeau is the eldest son of former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau [AP]

At 41 years old, Justin Trudeau is young, charming and charismatic - a marked contrast from the typical face of Canadian leadership.

Trudeau, the eldest son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau and a former high school French teacher, easily won the Liberal Party's leadership race on Sunday, receiving 80 percent support from the 82 percent of party members eligible to vote.

“Canadians want better leadership and a better government," he told his supporters in Ottawa after the results were announced. "Canadians want to be led, not ruled. They are tired of the negative, divisive politics of [Canadian Prime Minister] Mr Harper’s Conservatives."

Omar Alghabra, a long-time personal friend of Trudeau who was at the convention, was thrilled. "The results were overwhelmingly joyful," he said. "It was really incredible to see the results of the hard work come to an end." 

It's an achievement the Syrian-Canadian can take some credit for. As Trudeau's Volunteer Engagement Director, Alghabra helped recruit more than 12,000 volunteers across the country to work for Trudeau's campaign. "I believe that he represents and carries with him the values that are not only in sync with my values, but the fresh energy and new ideas that Canadians are looking for," Alghabra says.

This is a sentiment echoed by many of Trudeau's supporters. "His values seem to embody the values of Canada from the 1960s," says Ibrahim Daniel, a board member of the Canadian Muslim Lawyers Association who has engaged with Trudeau at several public events. "Being humble, open to new ideas, welcoming people from around the world, a more positive perspective - rather than the Conservatives where it seems that every person fends for himself, is suspicious of change, or of new Canadians. Trudeau is the opposite of [Canadian Prime Minister] Harper in so many ways."

A famous last name

Overcoming the public's perception that he would use his famous credentials to get ahead in the race has been one of Trudeau's constant challenges since announcing his decision to run for leadership of the Liberal Party last summer. Images of Pierre and Margaret Trudeau's three sons, with Justin clinging to his father's leg, are a familiar memory for most Canadians.

His father, who died in 2000, led Canada from 1968-79 and again from 1980-84, and was arguably one of Canada's most popular prime ministers.

Pierre Trudeau's legacy is especially deep-rooted among Canadian immigrants because his government became the first in the world to open the doors to immigrants from developing countries. The fact that immigrants to Canada tend to integrate quickly and effectively, and that their children have better educational outcomes than immigrants to other Western countries, is in part a testimony to Trudeau’s contribution.

Trudeau's victory also comes at a pivotal time for Canadians disillusioned with the current Conservative government's position on the international stage. Since Prime Minister Stephen Harper came to power on a minority vote in 2006, critics have accused him of constructing a foreign policy that "mimics and in some cases betters that of the US". From lobbying on tar sands and corporate mining to being a best friend to the Israeli right, Harper's stance has resulted in what many believe to be an unprecedented international backlash against Canadian policy.

But not many expect a dramatic shift in Canada's foreign policy towards Israel and Palestine should a Liberal government be elected under Trudeau, saying that the fundamental principles would remain the same.

Conservative scepticism

Critics say Trudeau is too inexperienced to serve as prime minister. "Justin Trudeau may have a famous last name, but in a time of global economic uncertainty, he doesn’t have the judgment or experience to be prime minister," the Conservative Party said in a statement after the election results.

But Alghabra refutes charges that Trudeau is a lightweight on policy. "On the issue of Iran, Trudeau has clearly stated that he is for engagement. He's also criticised Harper's government policy as being unhelpful in the Middle East and said that it ceases to be useful," he says. But the international community can look forward to Canada coming back to its role as a facilitator, and "not being someone who is an antagonistic voice to the United Nations", he adds.

Back home, Justin Trudeau has experienced his share of suspicion from the Canadian Jewish community. Last December, he brushed off criticism about his participation at an Islamic convention in Toronto, saying he was proud to be participating in the event, even after critics raised concerns about the views of some of the conference sponsors and their alleged affiliation with Hamas - the Palestinian group in control of the Gaza Strip.

He also came under heat for a recent documentary made by his younger brother, Alexandre (also known as Sacha) which, according to The Jewish Tribune newspaper, portrayed Israel as an aggressor and downplayed the threat of a nuclear Iran. Alexandre Trudeau later joined Justin's leadership campaign as a senior adviser.

But in Daniel's opinion, Justin Trudeau represents a warmth and sincerity that hasn't been seen in a Canadian prime minister since the 1960s. "I was quite sceptical of Trudeau at first," he says. "I wondered if he had substance, or was just a millionaire playboy type. But he was down-to-earth and seemed to care about all Canadians reaching their full potential, whether they were well-off or not."

As for his foreign policies, Daniel bases his hope and expectation for change on Trudeau's open approach. "He seems to be much more about reaching out to build a grassroots community within his riding and then across the country - and I would think that would extend to the international sphere as well."

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Al Jazeera
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