Justin Trudeau: On health, home life, and helping to save the planet
By Carol Crenna
Justin Trudeau, eldest son of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, knew his passions and his purpose at an early age. Elected in 2008 as Liberal Member of Parliament, Trudeau champions the causes dear to his heart – the environment, youth empowerment and global justice. He has worked with numerous environmental and youth organizations and been an activist for much of his life. I spoke to Trudeau, who turns 41 on Christmas Day, about ecology, making a difference, and family life.
CAROL: How did Pierre Trudeau influence your life?
JUSTIN TRUDEAU: His influence was one based on a core set of values by which I choose to live my life. It was far from directly influencing me politically – 30 years ago the issues were very different than they are today – but the principles of openness, respect, compassion and justice are non-negotiables that my father shared. They help me determine the choices that I have to make on a daily basis.
CAROL: Did he spend much time with you?
JUSTIN TRUDEAU: Yes. He retired when I was 13; from then until his death in my late 20s we spent a lot of time together. He saw us off to school every morning, was there when we got home every afternoon and on weekends. Even when he was Prime Minister, the hours from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. were sacrosanct; he was simply unavailable for meetings, and was instead at home and putting us to bed.
CAROL: How did you become interested in the environment?
JUSTIN TRUDEAU: My father needed to get out to the Canadian wilderness regularly, away from his job as Prime Minister and from the bustle of the city, to balance life. We spent many holidays hiking in mountains and canoeing – I was one and a half years old on my first canoe trip – and it became a lifelong love which has driven me to become involved in protecting and preserving it.
Later, a highlight of being a high school teacher was organizing overnight wilderness trips with students. I took two and a half years of university environmental biology to acquire an academic foundation for my advocacy work.
My graduate studies focused on how humans organize themselves into societies that are dependent on a natural world but that increasingly take it for granted and are out of balance with it. I studied work by Herman Daly, Albert Schweitzer and Aldo Leopold.
CAROL: You’ve worked with environmental groups including Nature Conservancy of Canada and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.
JUSTIN TRUDEAU: I traveled and lectured for them to raise awareness about specific areas in need of protection, and the importance of environmental awareness.
CAROL: How do you inspire change?
JUSTIN TRUDEAU: People become overwhelmed by the challenges. I bring the topic down to those specific things that touch them personally, considering the way they look at the world, and their capacity to understand and have access to information about what is going on around them.
It helps to create a shift toward a different mindset, not just considering one’s own impact on the environment but about long-term consequences, to change behaviour in concrete ways. This includes purchasing local products; considering organic alternatives; reducing the amount of meat you eat; and being smarter about the waste you create which are not in themselves solutions but instill habits that create change.
CAROL: Will those little changes affect major challenges?
JUSTIN TRUDEAU: Someone who chooses organic broccoli is more likely to make better choices generally as consumers, employees and electors. As they put pressure from the bottom up on our corporate and political systems these, too, will change.
Of course, more change would happen if we also had top-down pressure – if we had a government that chose to lead on environmental issues – but we don’t. This is why I decided to become a member of parliament, no longer only focusing on getting citizens to make better choices but trying to ensure that the top-down piece of the puzzle is addressed.
CAROL: Does it feel like an uphill battle now that you’re there?
JUSTIN TRUDEAU: It very much does. We’ve been extremely frustrated in the past year that I have been on the environment committee because the government has failed to bring forward a concrete plan regarding climate change, which is the defining issue of our time.
CAROL: How can we help to raise the eco-awareness of Canadian youth?
JUSTIN TRUDEAU: I don’t need to tell youth anything to inspire them. They’re the ones telling me the importance of the environment. It’s the children who become great spokespeople, directly influencing their parents. I spend time listening to youth, giving them avenues to voice their concerns, and tools to encourage them to become more active in getting the message out.
CAROL: It’s interesting that though today’s youth are more detached from the natural world than their parents’ generation, with most growing up in cities and not spending as much time in nature, that they would feel more compelled to preserve it.
JUSTIN TRUDEAU: They recognize that the kind of planet that will be here in 50 years will affect them more. Young people have the ability to imagine a better world and see society as something completely different than just an extension of today, more than parents stuck in mortgage payments, career paths and retirement savings who tend to think linearly about the future.
They’re more informed and involved than we were at that age; I’m constantly put to shame by the level of engagement that young activists have in of all types of NGOs and community organizations.
CAROL: What will be the major environmental concern our country will face in the next decade?
JUSTIN TRUDEAU: Water is going to be the new oil in coming decades. What we take for granted we may lose, particularly since Canada has the largest per capita usage of water and we think we have unlimited resources.
Whether discussing the Athabasca River Basin oil sands impact, Great Lakes fresh water issues, drought problems in the Southern Prairies, or receding glaciers in the Rockies, Canada needs to be a lot smarter in creating a national strategy.
CAROL: You’re involved with the Canadian Avalanche Foundation, promoting safety awareness (after the death of brother, Michel, in an avalanche). There’s a fine line between taking the risks involved in being deep in wilderness and staying safe.
JUSTIN TRUDEAU: It’s about being well informed and well prepared. It’s important to have the knowledge to first know that you are taking risks and then to manage those risks – with the equipment to keep yourself from getting into a problem or get yourself out of one.
The risks are worth the rewards; getting into the wilderness, connecting with the land, means being fully Canadian. It’s a tremendous way to get one’s priorities right and appreciate the quality of life (and environment) that we strive for.
CAROL: How often to do get there?
JUSTIN TRUDEAU: As much as I can. I take a camping or canoeing trip every summer and a couple of backcountry skiing trips every winter. I’ll pull on snowshoes or cross country skis to go into the Laurentians north of Montreal. My son who is four will be on skis this winter.
CAROL: What other type of physical activity do you do?
JUSTIN TRUDEAU: I run, and boxing has been my primary form of exercise for 15 years. It’s a great workout and I really enjoy the intellectual discipline that it involves.
CAROL: Do you eat healthily?
JUSTIN TRUDEAU: I try to, but tend to eat large quantities, taking second and third helpings of the main course rather than eating dessert. I cut down on red meat to be more environmentally responsible.
CAROL: You have two young children. How has that changed your outlook?
JUSTIN TRUDEAU: Everything has become more important and less important at the same time. I’m in Ottawa four days a week. When I return to them in Montreal and I take them in my arms and see all of their changes, things they have learned that I wasn’t there to witness in the past week, I ask myself, “Was it really worth it for me to miss this? Is the job that I’m doing justified by this very real, very personal cost?”
So far, I have been able to say, yes, the work I’m doing matters and is part of a solution that is going to make a better world for my children. I have to keep that focus in mind. My kids provide a tremendous amount of balance and perspective in a life that could otherwise get wrapped up in self-importance and ego.
Article by Carol Crenna originally featured in VISTA Magazine