If you hit the jackpot as prime minister – if you really match up to the squeaky-clean, genuine and youthful image of a new deal liberal politician taking over from a rather secretive and divisive Conservative – you better have a tough wife.
Justin Trudeau, Canada’s poster-boy premier, probably guessed as much when a faint ripple of disapproval greeted his front cover cling-onto-each-other appearance with Sophie Gregoire Trudeau on the front of Vogue magazine last December.
Who did they think they were? Jack and Jackie? Barack and Michelle? And when the Trudeaus did turn up at the White House, and Sophie pretty much outshone the First Lady of the United States (Canada’s First Lady is actually the wife of the Governor General, whose name few Canadians know: Sharon Johnston, the Viceregal Consort), there was much huffing and puffing by the fusty ladies of Ottawa that she was getting above her station.
Justin Trudeau is getting the usual six-months-in flak. He made a lacklustre demand that governments must not pay ransoms to “terrorists” after the murder by Islamists of John Ridsdel, an Anglo-Canadian hostage in the Philippines – though he well knows that European nations (France and Spain come to mind) have no such scruples. And he received wearying, predictable condemnation from critics who said that his appearance at Fort McMurray two weeks after the fires broke out, driving 80,000 Canadians from their homes, came far too late.
Trudeau’s reply – that firefighters and civil defence teams had first call on the scene – was as sensible as it was clearly self-defeating. If you’re going to get slagged off for being a publicity-hungry prime minister with a beautiful wife on the front cover of Vogue, you sure as hell aren’t going to be praised for avoiding the obvious photo-op at the scene of a catastrophe.
But therein lies the problem. With a Dad who married an attractive and much younger wife, and whose marriage was something of a disaster, Trudeau must have known that his own spouse was going to have to be a silent Stepford Wife if she was to avoid the clucking (Conservative) tongues of the most boring capital city in the world. And so it turned out.
No sooner had poor Sophie given a rather dull interview to the French-language newspaper, Le Soleil, in which she said that she needed more than one assistant to help her with her workload – which involves countless charitable visits and speeches, and which leaves her, a mother of three, a bit “overwhelmed” – than the shellfire started landing close to home.
Canadian women didn’t have taxpayers’ money to help them rear their children and keep house and home together, she was told. She has no official role or duties.
Neil Macdonald of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation – whose bold-as-brass truth-telling on the Middle East won him that most prestigious prize of all journalists in the region: the false accusation of being called “anti-Israeli” – launched into a vigorous defence of Madame Gregoire Trudeau, which was as tough as his reporting from Jerusalem and Beirut.
Sophie, he wrote, was “a tall poppy” – and Canadians don’t like ‘tall poppies’ because they are “really smart, or really rich, or talented and famous”.
Justin met his wife when she was a smart, talented ‘tall poppy’ television presenter. Her cause, as Macdonald pointed out, is “women’s empowerment with a corollary of bulimia and eating disorders, something she herself overcame” – which is why she gets 50 or 60 invitations a week to appear or speak at fundraising events. And she gives all her time, naturally, free of charge.
Now two things have become obvious. The first – typical of the political party whose leader, Stephen Harper, was beginning to turn Canada into a third-class snoopers’ state – was the absolute and total failure of the Conservatives ever to criticise another prime minister’s wife.
Mila Mulroney spent much time speaking and pleading for children who suffered from cystic fibrosis, but employing a staff of three plus an office (far more than Sophie is seeking). But husband Brian Mulroney was, of course, a Conservative and thus above criticism, unlike Mrs Gregoire Trudeau, who was accused of “hypocrisy” by Conservative MP Candice Bergen.
And thus we come to the second problem. The knives are out for Sophie but, as Toronto Star columnist Heather Mallick wrote last week, “sadly, many blades belong to other women”.
One high-profile feminist, MP Niki Ashton, whose National Democratic Party (NDP) flopped in last autumn’s elections, quoth thus: “If we’re going... to talk about women feeling overwhelmed, let’s talk about everyday Canadian women feeling overwhelmed.”
You can see the red flag here: Sophie is not an ‘everyday’ Canadian woman. She has the misfortune to be the wife of a very popular and comparatively newly elected prime minister. And a prime minister, no less, who ensured that his cabinet – for the first time in Canadian history – was 50 per cent female.
Now Justin’s no Jesus. He flunked the Saudi test when he declined to interfere in the sale of armoured vehicles to Riyadh, a contract originally agreed between Harper’s Conservatives and the head-chopping Gulf Kingdom whose democracy and human rights fall a bit short of Canadian standards.
He has so far not had to fight the oil barons of Alberta. And, as one Canadian Trudeau admirer put it to me (alas, an NDP voter at the last election), Justin will make mistakes “because everyone does”.
He’s wisely made no comment about the campaign to belittle his wife. But columnist Mallick is under no such restraint. “I oppose cruelty to women,” she wrote, “including by other women. This goes undiscussed, but it is another frontier in a battle for women’s rights.”
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