Justin Trudeau

Justin Trudeau

April 29, 2013

After winning the Liberal leadership with 80 per cent of the vote, Justin Trudeau could potentially woo some disaffected Catholics back to the Liberal fold, say observers.

"It's certainly an opportunity for Liberals to recapture their traditional stronghold," said University of Ottawa political science professor André Blais.

Blais said the reasons Catholics were one of the chief pillars of support for the Liberal Party during the Chretien years remain a mystery and so do the reasons for their defection after 2005.

Though Liberal support for same-sex marriage and abortion may have been factors, the Quebec sponsorship scandal also played a role, he said.

The scandal was the biggest reason, Blais said, but "it didn't explain the large decline among Catholics."

Blais was among the authors of a study, Anatomy of a Liberal Defeat, published in 2009 that showed Catholic support had plummeted "a massive 24 per cent," according to the lead author, McGill University political scientist Elisabeth Gidengil.

But Blais does not believe Catholics who care strongly about issues like abortion will return to the Liberals. They "will be a bit disappointed by the Conservatives but still feel much more at ease with the Conservatives than the Liberals."

The Liberals are more likely to regain support from "those who are more progressive on social issues or on economic issues," said Blais.


Though Blais admitted there is little data to go on, his impression of Trudeau's attractiveness, not only to fellow Liberals but to Canadians in general, is his personal charisma.

He gives the impression that he is pragmatic, while he tries to present both Prime Minister Harper and NDP Leader Mulcair as ideological, said Blais. This makes people feel at ease.

Campaign Life Coalition Parliament Hill lobbyist Johanne Brownrigg says the Tories should not underestimate the new Liberal leader.

"I think he is a politician of our time," she said. He can be extremely attractive to average voters who do not pay much attention to politics as well as to Catholics who are not well catechized.

"Not this election but the one after, it could very well be a cakewalk," Brownrigg said.


Trudeau has been a frequent speaker in Catholic schools, much to the consternation of pro-life Catholics who have protested his appearances to local school boards. Brownrigg believes his talks in the schools are an astute political move that could pay off in the future.

"He's brought in; he revs these kids up, gets them to care about bullying or the environment," she said. "I have to admire his patience because the kids he's addressing are future voters."

What's problematic and confusing for Catholic school kids is, while he may stay on non-controversial issues inside the classrooms, they hear him speak against Catholic teaching on life and marriage outside that venue, she said.

Trudeau objected vehemently when a Conservative MP accused him of not being a good Catholic because he advocated for same-sex marriage and abortion. But Brownrigg said his attitude is like that "of so many Catholics" who see no conflict with their faith or conscience when they support these issues.

On the social justice front, Trudeau made a good impression on Citizens for Public Justice executive director Joe Gunn. "I remember that the first press conference Justin Trudeau did after being elected to the House was when he joined us in presenting a report card on child poverty in Canada."


"He spoke convincingly, and from the heart at that time," Gunn said. "I would hope that, with all the pressures of his new office, he can continue to prioritize concern for the poor and youth - whose unemployment rate in Canada now stands at double what the rest of us face."

Richard Bastien, an economist and the Catholic Civil Rights League's representative for the National Capital Region said Trudeau's victory will not "make the slightest difference on the Catholic presence in the Liberal Party."

"Catholics who take their faith seriously left the party quite some time ago and are now either supporting the Conservative Party or abstaining from any political involvement," he said.

"So-called 'progressive Catholics' – a polite term for dissenting Catholics who support contraception, abortion and gay marriage – have never left the party, but they have in effect left the Church. "