David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

Reflecting on Trudeau, Leadership and Wisdom

Brandon Sun, November 8, 2021 – David McConkey

Since the federal election and the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, I have been reflecting on Justin Trudeau. On Trudeau as a person and as a leader – in general and during Canadians’ current search for reconciliation. And whether we should expect wisdom in our leaders.

I start my reflection on the nature of celebrity. Let’s face it, Trudeau is a political celebrity. With celebrities, we think we know more than we do. They seem so familiar! And this is especially true for Trudeau: he has been in the public eye his entire life. Reality, any reality, is complicated. But that is not going to hold me back from throwing out some thoughts on Trudeau and on the nature of leadership.

To start: one common criticism of Trudeau strikes me as missing the mark. That criticism is that Trudeau is shallow, ill-suited for prime minister because he is just a drama teacher who succeeded because of his last name. But that is not accurate.

For one thing, since when is being a drama teacher a trivial occupation? Aren’t the arts – like literature and drama – windows into better understandings of the human condition? Aren’t teachers challenging young people to engage with those understandings? Sounds like an excellent background to me!

For another thing, Trudeau did not have an easy route into politics. He had to fight for the Liberal nomination in his riding in Montreal. Then he had to defeat a sitting Bloc M.P. in the 2008 federal election to enter Parliament.

Trudeau may be a shallow person. But that shallowness does not come from his resumé.

But is Trudeau shallow? Someone with a perspective on this question is Canadian writer Jonathan Kay. Kay worked as a ghostwriter on Trudeau’s 2014 memoir, Common Ground.

When his ghostly role was “outed” by another writer, Kay became free to share his own impressions of Trudeau. Kay observed that Trudeau was “a lot smarter and more interesting” than his public image would suggest. In a magazine article before Trudeau became prime minister, Kay concluded that depth was hidden by Trudeau’s “boyish, eager-to-please personality.”

Kay reported working in Trudeau’s home study, surrounded by thousands of books. “Trudeau probably reads more than any other politician I know.”

What about Trudeau’s leading us on a path of reconciliation among Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians? Of course, this project is too early to assess, but two things stand out for me right now. And those things are warnings that Trudeau should dial back his role as leader in this area.

The first is Trudeau’s surfing holiday on the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. I know he has apologized, but I think this error is an indication of bigger issues, even beyond the hypocrisy. For example, maybe this day should not be a “holiday” at all, but instead marked during the week and on the weekend? (I think we should ask the same question about Remembrance Day, by the way.) Perhaps a prime minister should not take the lead on these kinds of issues, delegate this instead to the governor-general or someone else? What about a place in Canada for a national sage?

The second is Trudeau’s directive to fly the Canadian flag at half-mast. This has been the case since the summer reports of unmarked graves at former Indian residential school sites. This strikes me as an attempt to influence our culture by shaming us on an on-going basis. To me this is also an error: long-lasting shame fades and also does not inspire us to nurture our best selves.

When I was writing this column last week, there were reports that Trudeau might fix the flag situation in time for Remembrance Day. But this would seem like a rushed and unsatisfying solution. We need meaningful ways to remember, to learn, to move forward. Again, I like the idea of a national sage!

I recently heard historian Yuval Harari make an interesting observation about political leaders. Harari noted that heads of government have failed to come up with anything important about how to live a good life. Leaders have been successful at gaining and wielding power, but they have been bereft of ideas of how we might live flourishing lives. Yet they lead us!

Harari wondered if an exception might have been Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius. So, OK, one wise leader in two thousand years. Generally speaking, political leaders are not wise.

Leaders will lead. Trudeau will be Trudeau. Maybe someday we can have a national sage. In any event, a role for us citizens is to reflect and contribute a needed larger perspective.
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See also: 

Reflections on the "Big Shrug"

Reflecting on Big Questions

Time to Awaken Our Inner Patriot

2019 Election Put Race, Religion in Spotlight

Here's an Idea: Raise Our Taxes

Our Leaders Must Tell Us the Truth About the Pandemic



David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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Extraordinary Canadians:
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