MONTREAL — It’s time to put away childish things, Justin Trudeau declared Tuesday as the telegenic, raven-haired son of a former prime minister launched his bid to lead the federal Liberals and convince Canadians he’s more than just a pretty face.
Hundreds of supporters, crammed into a community centre in his riding of Papineau, cheered wildly as the 40-year-old Montreal MP confirmed his leadership ambitions, easily among the worst-kept political secrets in Canada.
“I am running because I believe this country wants and needs new leadership, a vision for Canada’s future grounded not in the politics of envy or mistrust,” Trudeau told a crowd peppered with Liberal party luminaries.
“One that understands, despite all the blessings beneath our feet, that our greatest strength is above ground, in our people. All Canadians, pulling together, determined to build a better life, a better Canada.”
A screen behind the podium displayed a simple campaign logo that featured his first name much more prominently than the lineage for which the son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau is so famous.
Trudeau said he wants to reconnect the Liberal party with the ordinary people who gave it life. And he singled out restoring the economic health of the Canadian middle class as a principal goal.
“A thriving middle class provides realistic hope and a ladder of opportunity for the less fortunate — a robust market for our businesses, and a sense of common interest for all,” he said.
But as the middle class in China, India, South Korea and Brazil enjoys increasing prosperity, Canadians are experiencing the opposite, he continued — stalled income levels, escalating costs and ballooning personal debt.
“What’s the response from the NDP? To sow regional resentment and blame the successful. The Conservative answer? Privilege one sector over others and promise that wealth will trickle down, eventually,” he said.
“Both are tidy ideological answers to complex and difficult questions. The only thing they have in common is that they are both, equally, wrong.”
A school teacher before jumping into politics in 2008, Trudeau has long been seen by his critics — many of them fellow Liberals — as a man of more flash than substance. Tuesday’s speech was designed to showcase a more cerebral, thoughtful side.
“It is time for us, for this generation of Canadians, to put away childish things,” he said. “More, it is time for all of us to come together and get down to the very serious, very adult business of building a better country.”
He said he chose to make his announcement on Tuesday because it would have been the 37th birthday of his late brother Michel, a skier who was killed in an avalanche in 1998.
“Every day, I think about him and I remember not to take anything for granted,” Trudeau said in French. “To live my life fully. And to always be faithful to myself.”
He reached out to Quebecers, promising a party that “promotes and cherishes the francophone reality of this country.”
The challenge that province could pose was evident in the fact that while English news networks carried Trudeau’s speech live, the two Montreal-based, French-language networks opted instead to air highlights from Quebec’s corruption inquiry.
“I want the Liberal party to be once again the vehicle for Quebecers to contribute to the future of Canada,” Trudeau said.
On Wednesday, Trudeau embarks on a cross-Canada tour designed in part to prove he’s more than just his famous father’s telegenic offspring.
He’ll kick things off in Calgary, a Liberal wasteland since his father’s hated National Energy Program, and Richmond, B.C., before attending a rally Thursday in Mississauga, Ont.
On Friday, he’ll visit the New Brunswick riding of Beausejour, where Liberal MP and longtime friend Dominic LeBlanc, himself long considered a leadership contender, is expected to offer his endorsement of Trudeau’s bid.
Trudeau has been in the public eye since he was born on Christmas Day, 1971. As a child, he travelled the country and the world with his famous father, then prime minister.
He eschewed offers to run in Montreal’s Outremont riding — then considered a safe Liberal seat, now held by NDP Leader Tom Mulcair — choosing instead to fight a contested nomination in Papineau, once a Bloc Quebecois stronghold and among the poorest ridings in the country.
He defeated a star Bloquiste in 2008 and bucked the NDP tide that swept Quebec in 2011, increasing his margin of victory.
In Liberal circles, he is an undisputed rock star, the party’s biggest draw at fundraisers. He boasts more than 150,000 Twitter followers. His already sky-high stock soared last spring when he won a charity boxing match against Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau.
For all that, Trudeau remains an unknown quantity in many respects. In his various shadow cabinet posts — youth, amateur sport, immigration — he’s had little to say about the big issues of the day, virtually nothing about the economy.
When he’s ventured occasionally into meatier issues, he’s invariably created controversy — criticizing the government’s use of the word “barbaric” to describe female genital mutilation, suggesting he’d support Quebec secession if he thought Canadians shared Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s values.
His choice of campaign team suggests Trudeau is well aware he needs to demonstrate more depth and substance.
Among his key supporters is Gerald Butts, longtime friend and former head of policy for Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, and a raft of key organizers from policy-wonkish Gerard Kennedy’s 2006 leadership bid, including campaign director Katie Telford, Bains and Alghabra.
Kennedy himself is still pondering whether he’ll take a second run at becoming federal Liberal leader. He insisted Monday he won’t be deterred by the fact that his old team seems to have moved, almost en masse, to Trudeau, who endorsed Kennedy in 2006.
“I think Justin has a lot to offer the country,” Kennedy said.
But he added: “There’ve been prohibitive favourites before. Sometimes they’ve won and sometimes they haven’t.”
Toronto-based constitutional lawyer Deborah Coyne, the mother of Trudeau’s half-sister, has already announced her candidacy, as has Manitoba paramedic Shane Geschiere.
A host of others are considering taking the plunge but may yet be scared off by Trudeau’s presumed edge.
Among them are Montreal MP Marc Garneau, Canada’s first astronaut, Vancouver MP Joyce Murray, former cabinet minister Martin Cauchon, former MP and leadership candidate Martha Hall Findlay, Ontario government economist Jonathan Mousley, former Ottawa candidate David Bertschi, Toronto lawyer George Takach, and David Merner, former president of the party’s B.C. wing.
Ottawa MP David McGuinty is also said to be mulling his chances but is not considered likely to take the plunge. Veteran Montreal MP Denis Coderre is pondering whether to run for the Liberal leadership or mayor of Montreal and is thought to be leaning toward the latter.
The contest doesn’t officially begin until Nov. 14 and culminates on April 14.