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Mired In Scandal, Canada's Trudeau Is Locked In A Close Reelection Bid


Canada's prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has less than two weeks to persuade voters to keep him in power. His election four years ago made him a global celebrity. He spoke up for openness and inclusion as other countries went another way. Now, in his reelection campaign, Trudeau faces scandals and also polls that show him in a dead heat with the opposition Conservative Party. David McGuffin reports from Toronto.




DAVID MCGUFFIN, BYLINE: Justin Trudeau greets an enthusiastic standing-room-only crowd of several hundred at a student town hall in suburban Toronto, a key battleground region in this month's election. This event is taking place just days after pictures surfaced of Trudeau wearing black and brownface while in his teens and 20s.


TRUDEAU: The blackface photos - I take responsibility for having hurt many people who face discrimination every single day in their daily lives...

MCGUFFIN: What is quickly apparent here as Trudeau takes questions is that this crowd of mostly South Asian Canadians has moved on.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Let me say here first that I know you're not a racist, sir. I - and I think your apology was sincere, from the heart.


MCGUFFIN: That applause speaks to the support for Trudeau in this crowd.

KARUSH MIRSHAHI: Initially, it did affect how I did think of him.

MCGUFFIN: Twenty-four-year-old Karush Mirshahi has also decided to stick with Trudeau.

MIRSHAHI: Knowing what he stands for and what he has pushed for in terms of policy, I've reasoned it. And I've moved on. He accepted responsibility.

MCGUFFIN: Trudeau's Liberal Party actually rose in the polls after the scandal. But he's still far from the popular numbers that gave him a majority government in the Canadian parliament four years ago. That in part is because he's had a tough last couple of years. He swept to power in 2015 on a progressive agenda, introducing Canada's first-ever gender-balanced Cabinet.


TRUDEAU: It's an incredible pleasure for me to be here today before you to present to Canada a Cabinet that looks like Canada.

MCGUFFIN: He also worked on reconciliation with Canada's indigenous communities and, perhaps most famously, welcomed thousands of Syrian refugees into Canada at a time when Donald Trump was running on a campaign of building walls and banning Muslims.


TRUDEAU: This is a wonderful night where we get to show not just a planeload of new Canadians what Canada's all about, but we get to show the world...

MCGUFFIN: But since then, there have been scandals - an alleged groping incident of a female journalist 20 years ago, which he apparently apologized for at the time but which surfaced again in 2018.


TRUDEAU: I was fairly confident - I was very confident that I hadn't acted in a way that I felt was in any way inappropriate.

MCGUFFIN: Also controversial was the decision to build an oil pipeline through the Rocky Mountains despite promising a greener environmental agenda. And he was twice found guilty of violating Canadian ethics laws. The last time, earlier this year, involved an attempt to get his attorney general to interfere in the fraud and bribery trial of a large engineering firm linked to the Liberal Party. Two senior Cabinet ministers and his chief of staff left the government over that scandal. The opposition Conservatives began running ads comparing his leadership style to Donald Trump.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: His administration continues to be rocked by chaos and controversy. The fallout continues over the firing of his attorney general and the resignations of his top advisers. He's engaging in a cover-up after he shut down two separate investigations into his scandals...

MCGUFFIN: But none of that has been decisive in knocking Trudeau out of this election.

SCOTT REID: He's created to be in front of a crowd.

MCGUFFIN: Longtime Liberal Party strategist Scott Reid says Trudeau's resilience stems from an outsized public persona.

REID: There is an intensity and celebrity about his public image that's atypical for a politician, certainly atypical for a Canadian politician. He exists in the realm of Prince Harry and Prince William, not President Clinton or Obama, even. And that, I think, creates a double standard. I think he can get away with things that perhaps other people couldn't, is what I'm fundamentally saying. And it appears that that's the case as we look at the polls in this campaign.

MCGUFFIN: In an election where both main parties are focusing on middle-class economic issues, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer's campaign hasn't been helped by a growing economy, says former Conservative Cabinet Minister Chris Alexander.

CHRIS ALEXANDER: Times are pretty good in Canada. Employment is strong. There have been some wage gains. And so it's hard for Andrew Scheer to argue that things would be much better if you had me instead of Trudeau.

MCGUFFIN: In the Canadian electoral system, the Liberals have an advantage because their support base is concentrated in the vote-rich provinces of Ontario and Quebec.


TRUDEAU: (Speaking French). Thank you, Mississauga. What a pleasure to be here today.


MCGUFFIN: And with Trudeau apparently immune to the effects of scandals, he may be down in the polls, but most observers here believe, with two weeks still to go, it's too early to count him out. For NPR News, I'm David McGuffin in Toronto.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ACORN'S "PALM SPRINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David McGuffin
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