The Cipher Brief

Like Father, Like Son

Former Senior Fellow
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa on October 20, 2015. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa on October 20, 2015. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Following his election on October 19, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has rekindled the spirit—in Canada and abroad—of Canadian optimism and goodwill in global affairs that was characteristic of his father Pierre’s governments (1968-1979, 1980-1984).

The November 14 attacks by Islamic terrorists in Paris, France revealed the other, less-often remembered commonality between father and son: a resolute toughness in response to acts of terrorism.

In October 1974, the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ), a violent offshoot of the Quebec independence movement, escalated a series of attacks across the province that began with mailbox bombings and the kidnapping of British diplomat James Cross and Quebec provincial Labor Minister Pierre Laporte. Then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau declared martial law in Montreal, and sent in the Army to hunt down the FLQ.

As events in Montreal unfolded, Trudeau was interviewed by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reporter Tim Ralfe, who asked whether the federal government might be overreacting, noting the polls showed Canadians to be ambivalent about this dramatic action. Trudeau responded, "Well, there are a lot of bleeding hearts around who just don't like to see people with helmets and guns. All I can say is, go on and bleed, but it is more important to keep law and order in the society than to be worried about weak-kneed people." Ralfe then asked how far Trudeau would go to deal with terrorists, and Trudeau replied, "Well, just watch me."

There is an echo, albeit sotto voce, of the elder Trudeau’s steeliness in the response Justin Trudeau gave to protesters in Edmonton upset at the Conservative government, led by Stephen Harper, for bringing in tough anti-terror legislation, vastly expanding surveillance and counterterrorism powers of Canadian security services. The new Prime Minister voted for Harper’s Bill C-51, despite some reservations over its civil liberties protections. Note that Trudeau’s remarks here came in June, before the Canadian election call, but during a period when most expected a Fall election, and while polls showed that the Canadian New Democratic Party, a rival to Trudeau’s Liberals, would have the best chance of ousting the Conservatives; Trudeau had every reason to pander, but did not.

During the election campaign, Trudeau also pledged to sustain the planned increases in defense spending announced by the Harper government, noting that this might be a contributor to annual fiscal deficits of up to C$10 billion that Liberals warned could be necessary even as they pledged tax increases.

After the Paris attacks, Trudeau’s debut on the international stage at the G-20 Summit in Antalya, Turkey showcased Trudeau’s balanced approach on security. Trudeau pledged to withdraw Canada’s six aging F-18 fighter jets from Kuwait, from where they had been participating in coalition air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. At the same time, Trudeau announced that he would increase Canada’s special forces training activity with Kurdish troops in northern Iraq, a much more crucial and difficult to replace commitment for the coalition.

If there is one lingering concern about Trudeau’s security policies, it is his decision to cancel Canadian orders for the F-35 fighter jet, and plans to seek a different replacement for the current F-18s. Canadian military procurement has been criticized for its lassitude, and defense specialists have noted that, because the Liberal Chrétien government cancelled its predecessors’ purchase of helicopters after a similar election promise, no replacement helicopter has been chosen to date, more than 20 years later.

This suggests only that the younger Trudeau’s toughness on security will need to be backed by managerial competence and follow-through. How solid will the Trudeau government be on security issues generally? Well, just watch him.