The essential’ work-life balance of a prime minister and dad

by Paul Wells

“One more,” Justin Trudeau’s communications director said.

She was letting me know my interview with the prime minister, in his office on the third floor of Parliament’s Centre Block, was about to end.

I had already asked Trudeau about medically assisted dying, electoral reform, federal-provincial co-ordination on infrastructure and climate change, and the delicate balance between human rights and commerce in international relations.

In such circumstances, with detailed answers on headline topics safely tucked away, the last question is often a bit of a flyer. Change the subject radically. If it doesn’t work, no harm done.

“I want to ask about your day off in Tokyo,” I said.

On May 25 the prime minister, in Japan for a G7 leaders’ summit, took a day off to celebrate his 11th wedding anniversary with his wife, Sophie GrÈgoire Trudeau. They paid for the inn they stayed at. It wasn’t their anniversary precisely – that day fell when Trudeau was back in Canada, at the Liberal convention in Winnipeg – but at the time he defended the day off as “the kind of work-life balance that I’ve often talked about as being essential in order to be able to be in service of the country.”

I’ve wondered since that day what, precisely, Trudeau had in mind. John English’s 2009 biography of Pierre Trudeau, Just Watch Me, written with assistance from the Trudeau family, details the way the former prime minister’s preoccupation with work eventually ended his marriage.

Justin Trudeau himself referred to the burden of work on a political family in a 2012 interview, when I asked him whether he was considering running for the Liberal leadership.

“Nobody knows better than I do what the pressures of party leadership can do to a young family,” he said then. “It tore mine apart.”

So now I put the question to him again. A failure to strike a good work-life balance blew up Pierre Trudeau’s family. Is that the sort of thing Justin Trudeau thinks about?

In time-honoured Liberal fashion, he rejected the premise of my question.

“You know, when I think about my father’s work-life balance, I actually think of it in the other direction,” he said, not hesitating at all in the face of this very personal question from a guy – me – who generally prefers not to ask them.

“I think of it in terms of how he brought us with him on so many world trips. And I know that feeling like he was a good dad – and being active and present, having one-on-one time with you – was important for him as a person, as a dad. But I also know that having us along with him for those trips kept him balanced and made him a better leader.”

Trudeau’s family life is part of his political life for – well, you could say for a growing number of reasons. At the Montreal Liberal convention in 2014, he interrupted his opening speech to visit, by video link, with Sophie, who was at home and very pregnant with their third child, Hadrien. The children travelled with the Trudeaus to Washington, and Barack Obama’s Oval Office, in March.

And the use of public funds to pay for nannies has been an enduring controversy, which led to the announcement this week that one of the two nannies will be fired from the public payroll and paid by the Trudeaus personally.

Just about any member of Parliament who’s a parent has family on the brain while trying to do the public’s business. Trudeau said he’s never been an exception. Before he became prime minister, “on my drive back to Montreal after three days in Ottawa, I’d look back and say, ëOK, did the work I do in Ottawa as a simple backbencher MP contribute to a world that is better enough to compensate for the fact that I wasn’t there to put my kids to bed for three nights in a row?’ ”

I snuck in one more question. How do the kids – Xavier, 8; Ella-Grace, 7; and 2-year-old Hadrien – travel?

“Reasonably well. Reasonably well. Certainly, in terms of adjusting to jet lag, I think I’ve had a lifetime of experience that leaves me better off than they are. But in terms of being excited about new places and trying new things and tasting new food, they’ve been great.”

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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