‘A parent is what I am… everything else is secondary’

The Liberal MP for Montréal and charismatic newsmaker Justin Trudeau talks to Jessica Hinds about his loving family, the work-life balance, and how his famous parents have shaped his parenting

As the eldest son of the late Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Margaret Trudeau Kemper, Justin Trudeau knows well what it’s like to grow up with a busy politician as a parent.

Now that he’s married, with a family of his own, and trying to balance the role of father with a high-profile career as the member of parliament for the Montréal riding of Papineau, he also knows how difficult it can be to reconcile work duties with the needs of family.

Trudeau, 40, recalled a tender moment during one of his routine goodbyes to his family before leaving for work in Ottawa.

Though Trudeau’s mind was occupied by the tasks ahead, he could see that this goodbye was particularly difficult for his four-year-old son, Xavier.

“He felt that I was already sort of half gone,” he said. “I could see it in his face and I had to totally stop and pick him up in my arms and tell him: ‘No, no, I’m going once again but I’m going to come back just tomorrow and it’s not bad,’ and I just had to take a moment to totally focus on them.”

Trudeau’s take on fatherhood is humble. He said he has learned valuable lessons from his parents, as well as his children, but admitted that as a father he is flawed, and growing.

“I pay attention more to little things. I’m very much more sensitive in the moment, where I am,” explained Trudeau. “I’m better at being very much in the moment.”

Trudeau and his wife Sophie Grégoire raise their two children — Xavier, 4, who shares his birthday with his famous grandfather, and three-year-old Ella-Grace — in Montréal.

It is only fitting that the grandchildren of the prime minister credited with making Canada officially bilingual, speak English with a francophone accent. “Very cute,” laughed Trudeau.

Dividing his time between home and the Hill creates a challenging schedule. It has also inspired Trudeau to make sure his work is worth the sacrifice of being away from his family three nights a week.

“It helps me to think about: am I doing things to get ahead or to score points, or am I doing things to try to make a better world for my kids that are going to justify me being away from them?”

Trudeau serves as the critic for Youth, Post-Secondary Education and Amateur Sport, and worked as a teacher before beginning his career in politics.

Having children has brought new insight to his work on youth issues, he said. Instead of looking back on his own experiences, he imagines what the world will be like for his children as they grow up.

And for insight on raising his children, as well as marriage, Trudeau said he looks to his parents.

One of his best memories of growing up, he said, was accompanying his father on official head of government trips. The elder Trudeau would only take one son on a trip at a time, which allowed each of the brothers to spend rare one-on-one time with their father. Trudeau admired his father’s ability to focus solely on his family when he was with them.

“My father was really, really good at compartmentalizing,” he said. “When he was with us he wasn’t thinking about the distractions, he wasn’t thinking about work, he wasn’t focused on taking calls. He was very, very much with us.”

Trudeau said his father’s commitment to separate his work life from his family life also improved his ability to focus on his political roles.

It was also from his parents that Trudeau learned about the downside

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“I certainly grew up with it,” he said. “I grew up with the media attacking my father from time to time and certainly my mother, and you learn very quickly what matters and you learn to be strong within yourself and yeah, it hurts, so you learn

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to take what other people say with a certain grain of salt.”

“One of the things I have to be thankful for is, yes, I carry around with me a big last name and a certain legacy, but my mom and dad spent a lot of time giving me the capacity — and my brothers — to deal with the expectations and the legacy and the public eye.

“I had pretty broad shoulders, and I’m raising my kids to have the same.”

Watching the breakdown of his parents’ marriage taught Justin the value of an equal partnership. “It was very much my father doing his thing and my mom, you know, trying to come along on his thing,” he said.

Sophie Grégoire is known for her career as a Québec correspondent for CTV’s eTalk but now focuses on charity work, and is training to become a yoga teacher.

Grégoire is also an advocate for the Shield of Athena, an organization that offers support to victims of family violence, and has been outspoken about her personal struggle with eating disorders. “It’s something I’m very, very proud of,” Trudeau said of his wife’s advocacy work.

His pride is also evident when he talks about the work his mother, Margaret Kemper, has done to advance the issue of mental health.

“All my life I was extremely lucky that people would come up to me and say, ‘you know your father did amazing things for my family, for my country’ …

“I’m always touched and affected by that, but for the past three or four years, I get more and more people coming up and telling me how much my mom has had an impact on them. That has been really moving for me.”

A recent string of youth suicides linked to depression and bullying have pushed the issue to the forefront for Trudeau, who recalled a Free the Children “Me to We” conference he recently attended in Montréal.

When asked how many of the attendees knew someone who had thought about suicide, “way too many kids put up their hands,” said Trudeau.

“First of all, that’s horrifying that there’d be that many young kids who knew people who were thinking about suicide. But to a certain point, it’s reassuring that they could see that these are ideas that people have and there is an openness about talking about this, an openness about needing to deal with this.”

Trudeau has supported the “It Gets Better” campaign video, a curriculum that brings mental health education to Ontario high schools, and the work his mother does with the Royal Ottawa Hospital Foundation. “There’s a great level of awareness that is a good first step, but there’s still so much work to do.”

While his children may be too young to completely understand the political responsibilities of their father, Trudeau said he will continue to ensure they have a strong sense that both of their parents are trying to improve their community, and “trying to serve, trying to build, trying to make a better world with everything we do.”

Lofty goals are often synonymous with politicians, but Trudeau insisted he is a dad first. “Politician is just what I happen to do right now. A parent is what I am. And everything else is secondary to being a great dad.”


Photo: Courtesy of Justin Trudeau