Will Canada’s Next Prime Minister be a Paddler?

Updated: Election results are in, Justin Trudeau to become prime minister

Justin Trudeau - 1 THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward (Source)
Justin Trudeau paddling on Alberta’s Bow River – THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Update 10/20/15: Canadian election results show 184 of 338 parliament seats going to the Liberal Party, making Justin Trudeau the country’s next prime minister (BBC).

On the morning of September 17, while his opponents were preparing scripts and coiffing their hair for an evening debate on the state of Canada’s economy, Liberal party leader Justin Trudeau launched a canoe into the glacier-fed water of Calgary, Alberta’s Bow River. The 43-year-old Trudeau, who has been a Canadian member of parliament since 2008, heeled the red Esquif Prospecteur to the gunwale and cruised effortlessly downriver.

With Canadians set to cast ballots on Monday, Trudeau’s Liberals hold a slim lead in most polls over Conservative Stephen Harper, the country’s prime minister for nearly a decade. Trudeau’s campaign focuses on change: He’s promised to raise taxes on the wealthy and to make significant investments in infrastructure and government services, including national parks. His views have struck a chord with many Canadians who dislike Harper’s deep cuts to scientific research, environmental assessments and public broadcasting, as well as the Conservatives’ focus on developing Alberta’s oilsands, lack of action on climate change, and seeming disregard for Canada’s indigenous people. But for many Canadians, Trudeau’s pedigree—which has strong ties to canoeing—is his greatest asset.

Pierre Trudeau
The late Pierre Trudeau. Photo: THE CANADIAN PRESS

“What sets a canoeing expedition apart is that it purifies you more rapidly and inescapably than any other,” wrote the late Pierre Trudeau, Justin’s father, who served four mandates as Canada’s prime minister spanning over 15 years between 1968 and 1984. “Travel a thousand miles by train and you are a brute; pedal five hundred on a bicycle and you remain basically a bourgeois; paddle a hundred in a canoe and you are already a child of nature.”

The elder Trudeau was supremely intelligent, with a cocksure swagger few politicians could match. In the height of “Trudeaumania,” Pierre embodied the line, “True north strong and free,” from Canada’s national anthem. He was also a wilderness buff and close friends with canoeing icon Bill Mason. On Pierre’s watch, Canada launched a wild river survey that morphed into the Canadian Heritage Rivers System. Shortly after the prime minister paddled it, the Northwest Territories’ South Nahanni River was designated a national park reserve in 1976.

Pierre canoeing with his son Justin Trudeau.
Pierre canoeing with his son Justin Trudeau. (Macleans.ca)

Justin Trudeau grew up in a family where canoes mattered. “My dad had a little cedar-strip-and-canvas canoe that he’d owned for years,” wrote Trudeau in an essay for Cottage Life magazine in 2012. “It was the same one that he used, when he was much younger, to paddle from Montreal to James Bay. We had a Prospector as well, which we used on some little rapids. We even had a birchbark canoe, which we’ve since donated to the Canadian Canoe Museum.”

Trudeau “most indelible canoe memory” relates to a family “rite of passage”:

When we hit five or six years old, our dad would put us into the canoe and we’d shoot the rapids on the stream that went down into Meech Lake. There’s a little dam there, and in the spring they’d open the dam, and there would be a huge V and a standing wave. With much trepidation, we’d sit in the front and go down the drop. I look back on it now and laugh, because my father was sterning, and there was nothing I could do from the bow to aim it right—but it was very, very important for us to do it right. To get into the bow of a canoe with my father for the first time, to be the bowman for the first time, and to go down this big, scary rapid.

Now, it’s clear that Trudeau is beyond his days as bowman. On election day, Canadians will decide whether or not he has the acumen to steer the world’s largest democratic nation by land mass in tumultuous economic, environmental and geopolitical times.

— Justin Trudeau proving his canoe country cred: