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The hopes and reservations surrounding Justin Trudeau

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Photo: Jean-Marc Carisse/Trudeau pour Papineau/Flickr

Justin Trudeau was first elected to Parliament in 2008. When his first leader, Stéphane Dion, chose his shadow cabinet, Justin's name was MIA. (It does seem unnatural to call him anything but "Justin," doesn't it?) If you search back, you can find the MPs he named to be critics of finance, environment, foreign affairs, defence, treasury board, fisheries -- the entire kit and caboodle. But even the most complete list of critics that Google turns up finds no listing for Justin.

When Justin's second leader, Michael Ignatieff, named his shadow cabinet, he first made Justin critic for youth and multiculturalism, later elevating him to Citizenship and Immigration. If Justin proved a formidable critic to Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, I've had trouble finding any evidence of it.

Justin's final leader, Bob Rae, made him critic for post-secondary education, youth and amateur sport.

Is it unfair to conclude that this record indicates a fairly serious vote of non-confidence in Justin by his leaders over four years? Do they know something the rest of Canada needs to know?

Of course I am biased. I come to Justin with some pretty strong reservations, based first on his father. No doubt that's completely unfair but it's surely unavoidable. I've never forgiven Papa Pierre for the imposition of the draconian War Measures Act against a non-existent insurrectionary threat, one of the most egregious violations of civil liberties in Canadian history.

And I can't seem to forget that while Pierre Trudeau was Prime Minister for 15 years, virtually his entire legacy was forged in his final few years in office, which he came perilously close to not having. Let's not forget that the mighty Trudeau was defeated in 1979 by Joe Clark -- Joe Who, for heaven's sake! If anyone in Mr. Clark's minority government knew Grade 3 arithmetic, they wouldn't have blown a non-confidence vote, Mr. Clark would have remained PM and Mr. Trudeau would have been gone forever. The patriation of the Canadian constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms came after his resurrection. What thin gruel would the legacy have been if his tenure had ended five years earlier?

Okay, none of this is his son's responsibility. But since much of his reputation depends on being Pierre's son, he must wear the burdens as well as the magic. And of course there will be passionate disagreements even about Justin's ostensible assets. I happen not to be among those who swooned at his eulogy for his father, really his big public debut, in a way comparable to Barack Obama's landmark speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. It made Mr. Obama a national figure to conjure with, just as Justin's eulogy made him the heir apparent to his father. Eulogies aren't easy, especially when they're deeply personal. But I was among many who found his to be maudlin and sappy, contrived, almost embarrassing, the opposite of those who felt it soared to the heavens.

And while I'm at it, let me add that I found last March's boxing match between Justin and a Conservative Senator to have been an embarrassing descent into adolescent machismo. There are no doubt worse ways to raise money for fighting cancer than having two apparently grown men beating the hell out of each other, but I'm not sure what they are.

Nothing riles Liberals more than the accusation that Justin's nothing more than an empty suit -- or whatever you call his often curious attire. Then you wait for them to explain why the statement is grossly inaccurate. Sometimes you wait forever. Sometimes they point to something truly miraculous, like the fact that he won a tough seat in Montreal. Imagine that! But it's surely fair to say that, unlike his father even before Pierre entered politics, Justin has made no mark whatever for any policies or ideas or accomplishments that he's associated with. Is it possible to believe he'd be treated like the Second Coming if he had a different surname?

So the question to be determined is whether he's running because he couldn't resist the relentless pressure -- and the awesome ego satisfaction it surely brought -- or because he has something important to say to his fellow citizens.

Maybe he does. I can hardly keep track of the Liberal loyalists who have assured me that there's far more to Justin than meets the public eye, and who am I to begrudge this dying breed their faint hopes and fantasies? But I don't mean to be wholly snarky here. I actually hope his admirers are right. Canada needs all the thoughtful liberal politicians it can get and if Justin comes to the country with new, exciting progressive approaches for a more just society, that would be a major plus for Canadian democracy, a very fragile flower after six years of the Harper government. I suppose by the April convention -- yes, only six-and-a-half electrifying months to go -- we'll have some idea.

This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.

Photo: Jean-Marc Carisse/Trudeau pour Papineau/Flickr

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