Justin Trudeau's Canada: How Trudeaus made Canada one of the world's most intriguing countries

When one of his best customers rose to prominence on Canada's national political scene, Stephane Begue, at his Le Moulin De Provence patisserie in the capital Ottawa, devised an unusual way to show his support.

He began baking biscuits, or cookies as they call them in Canada, with the customer's famously and boyishly handsome visage emblazoned on them. The biscuits were a hit and so too, as it eventuated, was the customer, Justin Trudeau, who, a few years later in 2015, went from leader of the opposition centrist Liberal Party to the prime ministership.

Then, last year, Begue expanded his line to include Barack Obama cookies after the former US president made a private, post-presidency visit, charming Canadians coast to coast by dining with Trudeau, by then a few years into his leadership, both with jackets off and shirt sleeves rolled up.It became known in Canada as the "Liverpool House Summit", in honour of the name of the restaurant, one of Montreal's hottest eateries. The previous year, in a kind of cross-border liberal love-in, Obama had also praised the nation to the north by declaring that "the world needs more Canada".

Nowadays Begue says American tourists regularly come bounding into the bakery, located in the heart of the historic Byward Market district of Ottawa, wanting to know when Le Moulin De Provence will produce a line of Trump cookies.

"I tell them we have no plans," he says in his pronounced French-Canadian accent, smiling. "Even if we did start making Trump cookies, I'd have to bake them orange."

I'm in Canada for just under a week to somehow try to experience the country, commemorative cookies and all, through the eyes of the Trudeaus, the nation's surprising first family and political dynasty.

I want to gain a better understanding of the country – beyond its cliche mountains, Mounties, maple leaves and syrups – that in many respects resembles Australia more than any other. My visit to Canada coincides with the Group of Seven summit of the leaders of the world's largest economies made infamous by the tableau-like photograph of an intransigent and seated Trump being looked down upon by other leaders, including a stern-faced Angela Merkel.

The G7 is being held just across the provincial border from here in Ottawa, Ontario, in idyllic Charlevoix, a region on the northern shores of the Saint Lawrence River, in Francophone Quebec.

Trump, in typical style, arrives and leaves prematurely from the summit with all of the grace and goodwill of a flatulent passenger in a crowded elevator. Clearly, unlike Obama, Trump needs less Canada, not more Canada. This snub is felt particularly after Trump posts a petulant tweet from his Air Force One jet following comments by Trudeau over draconian cross-border tariffs imposed by the US.

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After Trump undiplomatically publicly condemns the youthful Canadian Prime Minister, relations between Canada and the US sink to an all-time low. At the same time, Trump manages to elevate Trudeau's own domestic popularity, which, before the G7, had been a little like a stale cookie approaching its use-by-date after less than three years in office.

Whatever Trump may tweet about them, the truth is the Trudeaus are where Canada got interesting. Yet "Trudeaumania" came to Canada long before Justin became prime minister. The charismatic, outspoken and intellectual Pierre Trudeau, who died in 2000, dominated and divided Canadian politics during his two prime ministerial tenures from 1968 to 1979 and 1980 to 1984.

Unlike most Canadian leaders, he also became a fixture on the global stage, particularly after he scandalously married the free-spirited Margaret Sinclair, mother of Justin, and a woman almost three decades his junior. They would eventually divorce.

Margaret, after separating from Pierre, went on to deliver her husband many more – mostly unwanted – headlines, including an ill-judged assignation in 1977 with Mick Jagger in Toronto during a Rolling Stones' Canadian tour.

Justin isn't the only Canadian prime minister to have antagonised a US president. Canada ruffled relations after declining, unlike Australia, to commit troops in support of its neighbour during the Vietnam War.

During the Watergate era, Richard Nixon was heard to refer to Trudeau as a "son of a bitch" in one of his infamous White House tapes after tough trade negotiations with the intellectually nimble Canadian.

Trudeau, when he learned of Nixon's slur, replied that he'd had "worse things said about him by better people".

CANADIAN GOTHIC AN OTTAWA ODYSSEY

Canadians tend to view their capital, Ottawa, with the same suspicion and disdain as Australians look upon Canberra. The population of Ottawa is about three times that of Canberra, and it is a much older city, having been established almost a century earlier. It is also similarly composed of a largely civil servant population who are perceived to lead a blessed existence.

But here on a sunny, warm, midsummer day, seated at a pop-up bar in a verdantly grassed park overlooking the distant gothic revival Parliament Buildings and the broad and blue Ottawa River, the capital feels more delight than dullsville. Over a gourmet hot dog and a craft beer, the mint-green copper rooftops of the Parliamentary Buildings seem improbably grandiose and almost impossibly British – Canada even has a House of Commons. And this in a nation of almost 37 million with 7.2 million citizens listing French as their mother tongue.

The Parliamentary Centre Block, perched on Parliament Hill, was the scene of a dramatic incident in 2014. A terrorist was killed in a shootout inside the building with a Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman and, sensationally, the house's well-titled Sergeant-at-Arms, who was ultimately rewarded with the Canadian ambassadorship to Ireland.

Despite the incident, Canadians and foreign visitors can still enjoy remarkable levels of access to the precinct where construction of its buildings began in 1859, two years after Queen Victoria herself chose Ottawa as the capital of Canada.

One the most dominant features of the Parliamentary Buildings is the almost 100-metre-high Peace Tower, which was added to the Parliamentary Centre Block Building in honour of the fallen in World War I.

On Pierre Trudeau's last day as prime minister he asked his three sons, including Justin, what they wanted to do to mark the occasion with him. They said they wanted to go with him to the top of the Peace Tower, one of Canada's most famous structures.

On Justin Trudeau's first day as prime minister, in a possibly symbolic act, he took his own three children to the Peace Tower lookout where there are uninterrupted panoramas of the city and surrounding waterways and countryside, including Quebec, across the Ottawa River.

I've managed to get one of the last glimpses inside the Parliament Buildings, including the Peace Tower, before they're closed next month for what's expected to be an extraordinary decade-long restoration process during which the political inhabitants of both houses will move to a specially renovated conference centre not far from Parliament Hill.

There's a moving moment when my tour group files through a darkened corridor passing the official portrait of Pierre Trudeau, which son Justin must have himself also passed on many occasions.

Unlike all of the other more formal portraits of prime ministers in suits, the one of Pierre has him wearing a loden cape draped over his shoulder and with a red rose in his lapel. It's a wholly unconventional portrait of a wholly unconventional world leader.

A WALK IN THE PARK AT HOME WITH THE TRUDEAUS

There's a famed photograph in Canada that has become even more renown since Justin Trudeau followed his father into the prime ministership. It shows a determined, yet somewhat amused, Pierre with a miscreant, 18-month old Justin under one arm, as he passes a saluting Denis Ling, a member of his Royal Canadian Mounted Police security detail.

The photo was taken by Rod Macivor and won Canada's National Newspaper Award in 1973 for best feature photo of the year. It was shot on the leafy grounds of Rideau Hall, Canada's Government House, a 10-minute or so drive from downtown Ottawa.

Unlike Government House, Yarralumla, the home of Australia's governor-general, the public can stroll without inhibition around the beautiful extensive gardens and grounds of Rideau Hall. But the right to access the vice-regal grounds was only gained after a fierce and determined protest campaign by Ottawans.

I'm one of the beneficiaries of that successful movement as I wander the Rideau Hall grounds, which feel more like a botanic gardens and even include that rare North American facility, a cricket ground.

Nearby is Justin Trudeau's childhood home, 24 Sussex Drive, the Canadian prime ministerial equivalent of The Lodge in Canberra. The ever forthright Margaret once described 24 Sussex Drive "as the crown jewel of the federal penitentiary system [in that it] felt it was like a prison". It was only when she established her own space, which she called "the Freedom room", that she felt less burdened by living in such formal and secured surroundings.

That said, for Justin there were the benefits of a privileged upbringing with Princess Diana once even dropping in for a dip in the residence's pool.

However, Justin Trudeau and his family have been spared another term at 24 Sussex Drive because the house is undergoing major renovations with the stand-in prime minister's residence securely tucked away somewhere in the forests of Rideau Hall. The first mother, Margaret, now 69, meanwhile, now lives in retirement in more cosmopolitan Montreal.

THE MONT ROYAL FAMILY ONWARDS TO QUEBEC

If the Trudeaus are the family who made Canada interesting, for many visitors Quebec is the place where Canada gets interesting, and no more so than Francophone Montreal, Canada's second biggest city.

Fewer than 15 per cent of Montreal's 3.6 million population claim English as their first language, making it the second largest French-speaking city in the Western world.

Papineau, Justin's seat, is located here, as is Mont Royal, Pierre Trudeau's former electorate, or "riding" as they're called in Canada. It was named after the hill above the city from which it took its name.

I'm taking a comfortable cross-border commuter train between Ottawa and Montreal. Not long after leaving the capital, French-language signage outside begins to dominate as silver-topped church steeples of Catholic Quebec begin to peek above each and every town and village. I've passed from not just one province to another but a part of Canada with a wholly different psyche.

Nowhere in North America is the phrase "vive la difference" more apt. All of the announcements at the railway station and aboard the train are in English and French, a product of Pierre Trudeau's commitment to bilingualism during his prime ministerships.

One of the first things you notice when arriving in Montreal is that there are fewer red-and-white-maple-leafed flags fluttering above public buildings and outside public places than elsewhere in Canada. Instead there is the ubiquitous blue and white of the provincial Quebec ensign.

The other noticeable characteristic is attitude. Indeed my first day in Montreal I'm reminded of a line from Vertical Limits, an otherwise forgettable action-adventure film from 2000, in reference to one of the female characters. "Don't mind her. She's French-Canadian. Can be quite pleasant. Today she's obviously French."

One afternoon I'm crossing a street near a square when an American tourist walks in front of a turning vehicle and the driver duly gives her what's commonly known as "le bird".

Later, in a cafe a French-Canadian customer chides the English-speaking barista for the quality of his French to the point that he visibly blushes. In 1995, a referendum that would have seen Quebec secede from Canada was defeated.

Pierre Trudeau had fought long and hard against the nation being split in two. His opponents always relished pointing out his Anglophone middle name, Elliott, claiming that it was symbolic of his nakedly divided loyalties between French and English Canada.

Is it just a coincidence that Montreal's main airport, Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, also bears his Anglo middle name, a permanent reminder of the former leader's unwavering commitment to a unified Canada?

The movement towards a separate Quebec has lost momentum in recent years, partly, as one young Montrealer, an avowed secessionist with a surprisingly faltering command of English, theorises to me. She attributes the decline in support of the demographic changes to the multicultural composition of Montreal, with immigrants favouring a united Canada.

THE GALL OF DE GAULLE A BALCONY SCENE

One of Montreal's most handsome buildings, in a city full of them, especially in its well-preserved Old Town, is Hotel de Ville, or City Hall. It was here in 1967, on an official state visit for the 1967 Expo memorably hosted by Montreal, that French President Charles de Gaulle, then aged 76, caused an uproar, igniting an international diplomatic feud with Pierre Trudeau, Canada's then Minister of Justice.

During a provocative address from the balcony of Hotel de Ville to thousands of Quebecois assembled in the streets below, de Gaulle shouted "Vive le Quebec – Vive le Quebec Libre", which in English translates as "Long live Quebec – Long Live Free Quebec".

In the book Trudeaumania, author Robert Wright writes that de Gaulle's speech "shook Canada to its foundations". Trudeau, in a preview of his outspoken prime ministership, compared the president's outburst to a Canadian prime minister shouting "Brittany to the Bretons".

Indeed, so significant was this moment in the history of Quebec for the Quebecois that during the 50th anniversary of de Gaulle's divisive speech, special year-long pilgrimages to the City Hall balcony attracted thousands of members of the public.

De Gaulle, who would die three years later, remarked "[France] has not one concession, nor even any courtesy, to extend to Mr Trudeau, who is the enemy of the 'French fact in Canada"'. That "French fact" in 1970, the same year as de Gaulle's death, would take a dramatic and tragic turn when Pierre Trudeau controversially, and in one of Canada's darkest periods, enacted the War Measures Act with the army mobilised in the streets of Montreal. The decision followed the Front du Liberation du Quebec's (FLQ's) kidnapping of the province's deputy premier, Pierre Laporte, and a British diplomat, James Cross.

Although the Briton was eventually released, Laporte was murdered by his FLQ captors.

BARACK AND JUSTIN, A FINE BROMANCE

On my last night in Canada I make a reservation for one at Liverpool House, a restaurant in Little Burgundy, one of Montreal's hip, up-and-coming inner-city neighbourhoods. Liverpool House is a spin-off of Joe Beef, one of Canada's leading and most-lauded restaurants owned by chef David McMillan. It's also one of Justin Trudeau's favourite restaurants, having become famous in Canada not just for its food but for that event mentioned previously as the "Liverpool House Summit".

Before tucking into their meals, Obama was reported to have given Trudeau one of his "bro hugs" that he traditionally reserves for friends and allies. The pair ate salad, asparagus, oysters, mussels, halibut, steak and the house specialty, lobster spaghetti, accompanied by Canadian chardonnay.

Me? I've settled for a couple of dishes of robustly flavoured Quebec seafood, also a house speciality.

It's hard to see Donald Trump, a notoriously poor and fussy eater who enjoys having fast food delivered to the presidential plane, being able to stomach anything on the menu here, let alone the company of those two liberal poster boys.

FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN OTTAWA

GO FOR A CRUISE ON RIDEAU CANAL

The UNESCO World Heritage-listed Rideau Canal, dating to 1832 and 202 kilometres in length, becomes one of the world's longest ice-skating rinks in Ottawa's frigid winter. In summer it's a popular spot for guided pleasure cruises. See www.pc.gc.ca, www.whc.unesco.org

TAKE HIGH TEA AT CHATEAU LAURIER

One of Ottawa's most beautiful buildings is the castle-like Fairmont Chateau Laurier Hotel. It opened in 1912 and is located close to Parliament Hill. English-style afternoon teas are served daily in the newly renovated Zoe's lounge and bar. See www.fairmont.com/chateau-laurier/ottawa

DINE AT NORTH & NAVY

One of Justin's Trudeau's favourite restaurants in Ottawa, which he visits with his Royal Mounties security detail in tow, is North & Navy, a northern Italian restaurant set in old stand-alone two-storey home in inner-city Centretown on the edge of the capital's downtown area. See www.northandnavy.com

VISIT THE MUSEUMS

Unsurprisingly due to its capital status, Ottawa is home to many of Canada's national museums and galleries. These include the Canadian Museum of Nature, the Canadian War Museum and the landmark glass and granite National Gallery of Canada that was designed by Moshe Safdie, one of Canada's most celebrated architects. See www.nature.ca; www.warmuseum.ca; www.gallery.ca

SEE THE TERRY FOX STATUE

A genuine Canadian hero who attracted global fame and admiration, Terry Fox lost a leg to cancer when he was 18. It inspired him to complete an epic 143-day transnational Canada run for charity. A statue of Fox is located just opposite Parliament Hill. See www.terryfox.org

FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN MONTREAL

EXPLORE THE STREETS OF OLD MONTREAL

Founded by the French in 1642, Montreal is one of North America's oldest cities and its history is best experienced in the streets of its old town. Although Vieux-Montreal is touristy in parts, it's home to some of the city's most important buildings such as Hotel de Ville (City Hall) and Notre-Dame de Montreal (Montreal Cathedral). See www.vieux.montreal.qc.ca

VISIT PARC DU MONT ROYAL

Justin Trudeau has been spotted jogging in Montreal's principal green lung, designed by the same landscape architect as New York's Central Park. Located at 233 metres at its highest point above the city, the park delivers fine views of Montreal's downtown. See www.lemontroyal.qc.ca

VISIT BASILLIQUE NOTRE-DAME DE MONTREAL

One of North America's most beautiful cathedrals, Notre Dame was originally built in the 17th century with the existing version dating to the early 19th century. The church's spectacularly ornate 3000-seat interior has hosted everything from Celine Dion's wedding to Pierre Trudeau's state funeral. See www.basiliquenotredame.ca/en

EXPLORE LE PLATEAU-MONT ROYAL

A sure way to gain a sense of how Montrealers live is to venture beyond downtown to the gritty inner-city Plateau and Mont Royal neighbourhoods. You'll find streets lined with old row or townhouses with external staircase entrances and streets lined with cafes, restaurants, bars and shops. See www.localfoodtours.com/montreal

SEE THE VINTAGE PARIS METRO SIGN

One of Montreal's most novel sights is the gently curved art nouveau Paris Metropolitan sign (above) designed by Hector Guimard. Standing above an entrance to the Square-Victoria Station (Saint-Antoine entrance) in the heart of Montreal, it was donated to Montreal in 1967 by the Paris transit authority. See www.metrodemontreal.com

Anthony Dennis visited Canada as a guest of Collette and with the assistance of Air Canada.

TRIP NOTES

TOUR

The North American tour specialist Collette offers a large variety of fully escorted journeys from Australia to Canada. See www.gocollette.com

STAY

In Ottawa, the Westin Ottawa is an easy walk to the Parliamentary Buildings.

In Montreal, Hotel Omni Mont-Royal is located close to the major downtown attractions. Both can be included as part of a Collette package tour. See www.gocollette.com, www.omnihotels.com, www.thewestinottawa.com

FLY

Air Canada operates regular direct flights from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Vancouver, where you can connect domestically with the airline to Ottawa and Montreal as well as other Canadian cities. See www.aircanada.com

TRAIN

If you don't have a car the two-hour train trip between Ottawa and Montreal is the best and easiest way to travel between the two cities. See www.viarail.ca

MORE

traveller.com.au/canada

moulindeprovencekd.ca

ville.montreal.qc.ca

joebeef.ca

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