Early in his political career, people called Justin Trudeau “his mother’s son.” They meant it as an insult: Margaret Trudeau, a Canadian actress and photographer, struggled with depression and bipolarity.
“It was a way of dismissing me,” the Canadian prime minister said on Thursday at the Women in the World Summit in New York. “I used to say, ‘Yes, thank you, I’m so proud of that.’” His mother—now a popular speaker and the author of a memoir, Changing My Mind—fights to change the stigma against mental illness. “Her strength, her sense of justice, and her brilliance have shone through her as a mother all her life. I’m incredibly proud to be her son.”
In a wide-ranging and very personal discussion with Women in the World founder Tina Brown, Trudeau described how his worldview has been shaped by the events of his past. A former schoolteacher who entered politics in 2007, he recalled traveling as a child with his father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau. “I was incredibly fortunate to have been dragged around to every corner of the country the first 13 years of my life,” he said. From those travels, he learned that leadership comes in “moments where you stand up and say something difficult or controversial, and it pushes back against people who might otherwise support you. It demonstrates your capacity to stand for what you believe in, not just what’s popular. That’s what all of us are looking for: Is someone going to stand up for what they truly believe in?”
Trudeau lost his brother in a skiing accident during an avalanche in 1998, a tragedy that made him think about his responsibility in life. “Everyone goes through difficult times in their lives,” he said. “I also had extraordinary advantages.” He felt a need to give back, he said, to show that “the universe was right in randomly investing a little more” in him.
Turning to the crisis in Syria, he said the international community needs to do more to condemn the violence, push for stability, and “welcome refugees”—which drew a round of applause from the audience. “Millions and millions of Canadians got together and decided we want to sponsor, to support these refugees,” he said, describing an initiative in which Canadian families had adopted thousands of refugees, taking them into their homes. “It’s a testament to everyone wanting to do more.”
As for working with the Trump administration, Trudeau said, “You never know what’s going to happen in a given campaign. I took a reasonable path in saying I will work with whoever the United States elects. We need to have a constructive working relationship with whoever’s in place. Our focus is very much on creating opportunities, creating good jobs. We need to work constructively with the United States to create good jobs on both sides of the border.”
Despite what some Americans may think, Trudeau emphasized that Canada is not “a magical place that’s some sort of unicorn. We had a very divisive campaign in the last election…extremely divisive narratives and ruthless brutal personal attack ads that resonated. Millions of dollars were spent on these campaign tools because it seemed to work.” Like Americans, Canadians face economic uncertainty. “People are worried about their future, about their kids’ future,” he said. “People are facing for the first time that perhaps the next generation won’t have the kinds of opportunities that the last generation did.”
He said his country had been able to “pull together” because people recognized the need to help each other succeed. “We know we have to lean on the success of each other if we’re going to be successful.” Communicating with people effectively as a leader, he said, is “not actually about knowing the media or knowing social media, it’s about understanding people. It’s about how we tell and share our stories … connecting with people on that level.”
Trudeau, whose cabinet is 50 percent female, stressed the importance of including women in positions of power. “It isn’t just the nice thing to do, it’s the smartest thing to do,” he said, noting that companies with a balanced board are more successful, with higher revenues. He said men and women alike need to work toward this goal. “We can’t just talk about how women need to be empowered without talking to the people who unfairly still have more power—the men. The men have to be part of the solution.” In Canada, a balanced cabinet has led to “a level of depth of conversation and approach to solving problems that leads you to a much better place,” he said.
Women need to be encouraged to run for office, he said. “You ask a man, do you want to run for office, his first question is, ‘When do I start?’ You ask a woman, she says, ‘Really? Why me? Do you think I’m good enough?’ ”
Reproductive rights are a key part of the equation, he added: “If you empower women to make choices around how to live their life, you’re empowering them. It’s fundamentally a question of rights. If you’re not promoting choice for women, you’re limiting [their] rights.”
Additional reporting by Yasmeen Qureshi.