The prime minister of Canada is a hugger.
Justin Trudeau and I had just wrapped up an hourlong interview in a high-ceiling sitting room across the street from Parliament. I thanked him for his time and was about to start collecting my stuff to walk out, when the PM took a step toward me, and offered an embrace. It was part bro-hug, part "the pleasure was all mine" gesture. I later learned that Trudeau does this a lot -- with friends, constituents, and yes, even reporters. It's endearing, it catches you a bit off guard, and it sticks with you.
All of which would be pretty apt descriptions for the prime minister himself. Spend some time with him, and you start to understand the Ivanka Trump memes. The guy knows how to charm.
How much of that charm comes from the heart and how much comes from intensive coaching by consultants, and lots of practice, is tough to discern. Trudeau's answers during our conversation were thoughtful and nuanced. But he also delivered them in an unusually soft-spoken tone, a kind meant to put the questioner at ease and to build trust among listeners. A kind that can take a lot of work to master.
Still, there's no mistaking Trudeau's origins. He's quintessentially Canadian.
You could see it in his attire. The grey jeans, Doc Martens-style boots, and the rolled-up shirt sleeves revealing cupping marks catch your eye. But all of those pale compared to his socks. They're fluffy and grey, with a white border and red stripe at the top. Every Canadian boy grew up with a dozen pairs just like those. You stuffed them in your duffel on the way to sleep-away camp. You wore them on the way to 5 a.m. hockey practice. We all did.
His sports allegiances likewise bubbled to the surface. To break the ice, I brought a signed copy of Tim Raines' new book, Rock Solid, and a Montreal Expos hat. Trudeau beamed at both.
After the conversation (and hug) ended, the PM's face took on a look of concern. What did I think of the former Expos mascot Youppi! wearing a Montreal Canadiens jersey these days, he asked of the guy who rocks an Expos-clad Youppi! as his Twitter background photo. I'd never seriously pondered that question -- again, he'd caught me off guard. I gave a vaguely diplomatic answer. A few minutes later, as I walked out into the Ottawa sunshine and past Parliament, I wished I'd said what I really felt: The team that traded away P.K. Subban for no good reason (and will probably lose all-time great goalie Carey Price next summer) will likely find a way to trade Youppi! for a wad of orange-dyed dryer sheets.
I talked to Trudeau about sports, our common origins growing up in Montreal in the 1980s and '90s, and a wide range of topics including immigration, jobs, the environment, the future of journalism, and much more. You can listen to the whole conversation on this. In the meantime, here are a few excerpts from that chat.
On growing up a sports fan in Montreal ...
JONAH KERI: So last night I did an event in Toronto with Tim Raines. We sat on a stage in front of a good-sized theater. And I've been keeping this conversation under wraps a little bit, but he said, "Oh, where are you off to?" I said, "I'm actually going to drive to Ottawa right after." He said, "Wow, what are you going to do?" I said, "I'm going to interview the Prime Minister." And he said, "Okay! I'm going to sign a book for the Prime Minister." It's great. And the inscription cracks me up. It was the most informal inscription of all time.
PM JUSTIN TRUDEAU: Haha! "To Justin: All the best. One of my #1 fans. Tim Raines."
JONAH KERI: I like the fact that you are one of his number one fans. I appreciated that.
PM JUSTIN TRUDEAU: You know what? I have such great memories.
JONAH KERI: Oh, and this too.
PM JUSTIN TRUDEAU: Aw, an Expos cap, absolutely.
JONAH KERI: I took a shot at your head size.
PM JUSTIN TRUDEAU: I see these. I see these all the time, well not all the time, in crowds, like people come out, they're wearing them. I see you've got the Expos socks. It just, it's something that always, I mean it's nice to see the Habs jersey, or the Alouettes, but seeing the Expos cap, is, you know, people keeping hope alive.
JONAH KERI: And how big was that for you as far as sports fandom. You moved to Montreal as a teenager, right? And we're almost exactly the same age. [Tim] Raines, [Andre] Dawson, [Gary] Carter, those are my formative guys. How was it for you?
PM JUSTIN TRUDEAU: It was, you know ... It's funny because my father was never a big sports fan. There's famous stories about how my father would bring us to the Grey Cup and Premier Bill Davis was the one who had to explain to us what football was as 5-year-olds because my father was not a big sports fan, with the exception of baseball. For him, baseball was his sport and it was really important for him to bring us to games because as a kid it was one of those things that he had bonded with his dad over. He was affected all his life because his dad actually died when he was only 15 years old and it left a huge gap in my father's life, for his entire life. But baseball was really important to my grandfather because he was one of the part-owners of the Montreal Royals, where Jackie Robinson got his start. And it was all sort of part of family lore for us. So for my father, it was really important. We'd go out to the Big O and watch games there. And Andre Dawson, Gary Carter, Tim Raines were my sports heroes at that point because we didn't have a lot of sports heroes but those were the three that really popped for me.
JONAH KERI: And I also tend to brag on my hometown a lot. I think everybody does that, wherever we're from. And I'm born and raised in Montreal, I didn't move to the States until I was graduated from Concordia, and in your case as we said, you moved there as a teenager. What was that like? For people trying to kind of visualize, what's life in Montreal like? Growing up in the '80s/'90s? What are those formative experiences for you? What did you take away from it?
PM JUSTIN TRUDEAU: It was mid- to late-'80s high school and into university early '90s, they were years of ... Montreal was, the Montreal Canadiens were still winning Stanley Cups every few years or so it seemed.
JONAH KERI: That was fun, when Canadian teams used to win the Cup.
PM JUSTIN TRUDEAU: Exactly! I remember the '86 parade because we were in school and ... it was great.
On getting involved in government ...
JONAH KERI: Richard Nixon, of all people, pegged you as, "Oh, well this is going to be the guy." And you specifically said that you stayed away from politics for a long time. And you hear stories about call to service. Whether it's call to the military, call to government, what have you. And it was all around you. I mean, you could have had a call to service at any time. And it didn't happen right away. What was it that made you flip and say, "Oh yeah, you know what? This is something I need to pursue."
PM JUSTIN TRUDEAU: First of all, Richard Nixon made a toast to me as a future Prime Minister of Canada when I was 4 months old, sitting as a centerpiece in the middle of a table as my father had plonked me down there. It was more about politeness than any great vision. I think Nixon was probably looking for something polite and positive to say, and he didn't always get along with my dad, and it seemed a safe thing to say that whether or not it would happen or not, he would not be around to submit to the fulfillment or not of his prediction. What I was raised with in terms of a call to service was just a sense that I was lucky. I mean, I grew up the son of the Prime Minister, I went to great schools, got to travel around the world, I've been to like 55 different countries before I was 13, I've now been to close to 100, mostly through traveling in my 20s and early 30s, backpacking. A lot of different experiences that I was really lucky to get that I might not have gotten had I not had the opportunities, as randomly ended up the son of a sitting Prime Minister.
But the way our father and my mum also, especially, raised us to make sense of this was to say, "Okay, you're luckier than your friends. It doesn't make you better than any of your friends. And it comes with a responsibility to do right by what you have received." So that idea that I needed to figure out how to make a positive difference in the world, with the life, the learning, the opportunities I'd had, was what drove me. And that's what actually drove me into teaching. I became a high school teacher for many years because it was a very tangible, concrete way where I could make a difference, and quite frankly, the kids didn't care who my father had been, because it was late '90s, none of them were around or remembered my father. Their parents sometimes got a little, "Oh my gosh, you should tell your teacher about this!" And they're like, "Whatever, Mom."
But that was a good way for me to feel that I was making a real difference according to my own name and my own identity, and not my name so much. But politics was always there, but I was always so worried that I would end up being used by the structures and the powers in place, because I wouldn't fully control my identity, that I'd always said, "No, no, if politics ever happens, it'll be much later in life." And it wasn't until I realized that there was a path towards me working really hard and proving myself against a party system that was sort of pushing back at me, or trying to make it more difficult for me, that I could develop my own identity and my own strength and I was able to do that.
On immigration, and the global refugee crisis ...
JONAH KERI: We're in one of the biggest refugee crises in centuries. It is heartbreaking watching images from abroad. And you mentioned moral arguments, and we can count them to the sky. There's a lot of them. But by the same token, there are, you're running a country, the party is running a country, you're attempting to come up with policies that work for everybody. How does one construct a policy of immigration that is going to allow for the kind of backstop, the kind of help that you want, while also ... I mean, unlimited quotas are probably not going to work. The numbers are probably not going to work in a country the size of Canada. How do you make it all work?
PM JUSTIN TRUDEAU: One of the reasons why Canadians are generally positively inclined towards immigration is we've seen over decades, over generations, that it works. And confidence in the fact that we have a system that works is deeply reassuring. So when we can point to the fact that we are bringing people in and we're giving them opportunities and they're able to turn around and start small businesses and get employment and get jobs and raise their families and their kids become integrated and happy and successful, that is deeply reassuring to Canadians. And yes we can always do more, but there's always that balance of how many can we bring in and give the language training to, the support to, during those first years where they are so dependent on the society because they arrive with next to nothing in many cases, as refugees arrive with next to nothing? But even immigrants, there's a certain adjustment period when they arrive, even though they've applied to come for years and they're coming on a points-based system where their skills in succeeding in Canada helps them come to Canada. There is a sense that we don't have an infinite capacity for that.
So being able to take in as many as we can absorb and lead to success will leverage our ability to continue to do that. Because if you suddenly let in a whole bunch of people who don't end up getting the support they need to succeed, suddenly you see support for immigration decline and problems created, and then you've gotten yourself into a situation that there's no easy path out of. So protecting the integrity and the confidence in our system is really important for me and for any Canadian government. Whereas at the same time, we know that the more we can do here at home and show an example to the world of ways of making it work, of openness, of pluralism, of multiculturalism, of respect, the more other countries can do.
But we're talking about 60 million, 65 million displaced people and refugees around the world right now. No country is going to be able to absorb them all. We have to start looking at making sure we're creating the situations where they're able to return home and that's where getting a political solution to the situation in Syria, the civil war that's raged for six years too long already. And other places, making sure that we're mitigating the impacts of climate change that is going to cause refugees. And helping the developing world succeed so that people don't feel that the only path to give a future to their kids is to swim across the Straits of Gibraltar or to cross up from the Americas or wherever it is.
For much more from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, including U.S.-Canada relations, jobs vs. climate change, health care, equality, and the future of journalism, listen to the podcast below. Subscribe to The Jonah Keri Podcast on iTunes.