Justin Trudeau's hard fight

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National Post, Friday, September 26, 2008

In Pierre Elliott's time, separatist demonstrators chanted Trudeau au poteau! Trudeau to the gallows. In the son's era, a ragtag assembly of a few dozen protestors stood outside Justin Trudeau's Liberal campaign headquarters on Wednesday night chanting "No Trudeau in Papineau!"

Well, at least they can still shout in rhyme, from one generation to the next.

The point of Les Jeunes Patriotes du Quebec was that it was outrageous for a Trudeau to seek office in a riding named for Louis-Joseph Papineau, leader of the 1837 uprising against British colonial rule in Quebec.

Across a human barricade of police, a handful of young Trudeau supporters replied by singing OCanada, which provoked loud boos from the demonstrators, who probably weren't aware that Canada's national anthem was commissioned by the St. Jean Baptiste Society, and first performed on June 24, 1880, on the Plains of Abraham, of all places.

"We want to disturb his campaign launch," explained group spokesman Francois Gendron. "Justin Trudeau has the same ideology as his father."

Well, certainly the same name, which is a mixed legacy for Trudeau. Papineau is a mixed francophone and multicultural riding in east-central Montreal. In the western half of the riding are voters from ethnic communities representing the full diversity of the Trudeauesque vision of Canada. In the eastern half are white francophones, for whom the Trudeau name represents a thorn in the side.

For Justin Trudeau, the former is a gift, the other a burden.

Papineau was a Liberal fortress for 40 years, held by Andre Ouellet for three decades, and Pierre Pettigrew for another, before Pettigrew got taken out by the Bloc Quebecois in 2006 in the blowback from the sponsorship scandal. The Bloc incumbent, Vivian

Barbot, is a member of Montreal's important Haitian community and a former president of the Federation des Femmes du Quebec.

She works the riding trap line as well as anyone. But Trudeau has also worked the riding, with its many community and cultural groups, in the year since he courageously won a competitive nomination race. And he's genuinely liked by all sides in the political class, not only because he's so personable, but because he's never asked for a free ride.

He won't get one, either.

Justin Trudeau could have won any seat on the western half of Montreal Island, where the Liberals are unassailable, and where his family name is revered. He could have spent most of the campaign in Ontario, where the Trudeau name is a huge asset for the Liberals. But Stephane Dion wasn't having any of that, and Trudeau had to win a nomination on his own. In doing so, he won a lot of respect. As a candidate, he has visibly improved in the last year.

But now for the hard part.

Barbot is very competitive among ethnic voters. Among francophone voters, Trudeau is facing the same challenges as other Liberals -- the party brand is in disfavour, partly because of his father's legacy, and partly because of Dion's.

He needs Liberal support across Quebec to grow a few points --it was at 18% in the latest Nanos tracking poll. And he needs the Bloc to fall back from the momentum surge it has enjoyed in Quebec this week at the expense of the Conservatives (the Bloc was at 37% yesterday, the Conservatives at 22% in the Nanos province-wide numbers).

There were about 200 people crowded into his committee room the other night, including party wheelhorses, ethnic community leaders, and his friends. He will need them all. If he's successful, in what looks like a very bad year for the Liberals in Quebec, it may be to some extent in spite of, rather than because of, the family name.

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