IN THE past three weeks, the news of Canadian prime minister Justine Trudeau and Sophie Gregoire Trudeau’s split has generated headlines worldwide as Trudeau becomes the second prime minister to go through a separation while still in office and at a relatively young age. The story led news sites from the VOA, BBC, France Radio to the Times of Oman and well beyond.
To quote from the coverage of India.com, ‘the sharply-dressed couple quickly captured the attention of the world media.’ The Canadian ‘first couple’, as referred to by the Russian state media, has a celebrity factor internationally that is often and noticeably lacked in Canadian politics. News media also reports that in the past few days since the news broke out, ‘Justine Trudeau’ was the top search item in Google search in the western world, followed by the rest of the world. That trend continued until last Thursday.
There are anecdotal stories covering Justin Trudeau’s love episode. A friend of his is on the record saying that he was present when Trudeau met Sophie at a Grand Prix event in 2003. To quote him: ‘She changed him. Justine was such a guy before, you know? But it was different with her.’ A close friend of Sophie is on the record saying: ‘Sophie is very strong, and possibly more politically savvy than her husband.’ They began dating in 2004, when she was a television host and he had yet to enter politics from his teaching career.
Fluently bilingual, Sophie studied commerce at McGill University and did her BA in communications. Her father was a stock broker and mother, a nurse. Sophie had a promising career in television and radio. Justine’s father was none other than Pierre Trudeau, the internationally renowned prime minster of Canada in the early 1970s. In their 18 years of marriage, the Trudeaus are blessed with three children together.
And now, 18 years after shouting to the crowd at her 2005 wedding, ‘I am the luckiest woman in the world’, Sophie at 48 and Justine at 51, are separating. In a post to Instagram, in 2022, celebrating the couple’s 17th wedding anniversary, Sophie wrote about the challenges of long-term relationships and the pair navigating ‘through sunny days, heavy storms, and everything in between and it ain’t over.’
Each new prime ministerial spouse adds a new take on the high office, albeit an unofficial one, a personal perspective on the role that tells what future occupants can do. While Lauren Harper, wife of Stephen Harper, said that the prime minister’s wife ‘can have a big role, a mall role, whatever’. Mila Mulroney, however, showed the job’s potentials for glamour. Sophie Trudeau changed the political image of the prime minister’s spouse and set the future tone of the unofficial office no less than the others in contemporary period.
However, before Sophie ever became notable for a couple of public goofs, there had been an air of glamour around the Trudeau couple. For example, the New York Post, speaking to her power as a political spouse, called her the ‘hottest first lady in the world.’ In March 2016, Michelle Obama called her ‘my soulmate’. Sophie quickly became a major figure in the political wing of international celebrity, cutting a fashionable figure alongside her husband in the years following the comparatively low-key Harper years. Many among the media and political circle, who closely followed the celebrity couple over years, observed that Gregoire was uniquely suited to the high-profile role.
She had experience working on-air in television. Following Canadian tradition, most prime ministerial spouses have put their role to charitable use, sponsoring good causes and appearing in public events. On the Liberal Party web site, she was portrayed as an avid campaigner for women’s rights and was Canada’s ambassador for the ‘Because I am a girl’ campaign of Plan International, which ran during 2012–2018, promoting education for girls worldwide. She is also a ‘passionate yogi’, which reflects her intrinsic curiosity and willingness to explore spirituality. About her role as a spouse to the prime minister, Justine Trudeau once said, ‘I am very proud of everything she has done throughout the country.’
One interesting episode aptly defines the character, mindset and ambition of Sophie Trudeau. On the day Justin proposed to Sophie, October 18, 2004 would have been Justin’s father’s 85th birthday. She had never met him but wished and visited his grave that day. In an interview with MacLean’s magazine she said: ‘an image of Papa Pierre came in to my head and I said to him, “One day I will carry your name. Rest assured that I will carry it with pride, dignity and respect.”’
Throughout their 18 years of conjugal life, the Trudeau couple gave every indication of a strong partnership. Before he beat up Patrick Brazeau in a 2012 promotional boxing match, a key moment in the rise of his political fortunes, Justine had been caught on camera reassuring Sophie: ‘I was put on this planet to do this. I fight and win. That’s what I am good at.’ It is history now that his comments were proven in the electoral successes that followed. It is in context to site that the Trudeau couple was fondly called as ‘Canadian Kennedys.’
In fulfilling her official role as the first lady of Canada, Sophie took part in many official events, sometimes also finding occasional controversy that dogged her husband’s political life. In 2012, for example, she was reportedly paid $1400 for an appearance at an NGO named WE charity event, after deducting her speaking agency’s 20 per cent commission. As a result, this came back to haunt the family as WE collapsed in 2020 amidst a scandal that cost Justine his finance minister, Bill Morneau.
To turn to their married life, both Justine and Sophie have spoken publicly about the hardships in married life and their commitment to each other despite those challenges. ‘I am almost kind of proud of the fact we have had hardship, yes, because we want authenticity.’ Sophie told Global News, ‘We want truth. We want to grow closer as individuals through our lifetime and we are both dreamers, and we want to be together for as long as we can.’
Looking back to this statement, it transpires that they were mindful of the unknowns, the uncertainties and the unpredictability of human relationships.
In her interview talk with Megan Markle, wife of Prince Harry, she said: ‘Women across this planet are still nucleus of the family, they carry most of the load for household work, contributing to the family’s well-being and most decisions concerning the kids’ and then she said, ‘We are all that lioness [and] we all long to be free in who we are.’
Now, on August 2, 2023, with the announcement made in public, she chose to take that freedom at heart. And unlike any prominent couple’s separation, the Trudeaus have said that the children will primarily stay with their father at the Rideau Cottage, the official residence of the prime minister and their mother will live separately but with return to the matrimonial home to parent the kids. The couple intends to co-parent.
The premise is that, instead of uprooting the chicks from their homes, parents fly in and out of the nest, caring for the fledglings that remain safe and secure. What is more interesting is that the Trudeaus will go to vacation together with the children. In fact, they have just concluded a week-long family vacation together. We all have to admit that even in a sad time involving a separation of marriage, the concept of co-parenting of the children make us feel refreshing and heartening.
Will there be any political consequences of this separation? It is almost impossible to know what, if anything, this will mean for Justine politically. But there is one indicator that tells us something about the implications, if not the consequences of the separation. Experts say that Trudeau’s international profile and popularity likely contributed to the news garnering national and global interest.
At this time, not much is being said about the consequences of this separation of the prime minister on either the Canadian political discourse or in social life context. One comment worth noting is: ‘A separation might not have seemed the future for Justin Trudeau and Sophie Gregoire Trudeau when they seemed a power couple joined at the hip as he kicked off a successful political career in 2007, but Trudeau’s marriage been far less integral to his brand in recent years. For now, the impact of the separation might be limited for Trudeau and even garner some sympathy for him”.
Humayun Kabir is a former senior official of the United Nations headquarters.