How Justin Trudeau’s time outside shaped him as politician, educator and father.
My conversation with Justin Trudeau started in the unlikeliest of places.
I had recently finished running across Canada and was fortunate enough to be granted an interview with our future prime minister. In early 2012, he was a local MP, splitting his time between Ottawa and Montreal while I had settled into Victoria after spending the previous 9 months running westward from Newfoundland. Our interview would be by phone, and not being particularly tech savvy (even after doing some research), the best solution for recording the conversation was to put the phone on speaker, hold it up close to my laptop to be recorded, and hope that the audio would turn out well enough to be shared. I lived on a ground level suite in a very quiet neighbourhood, but on the morning of the interview, Murphy’s Law took full effect. Just minutes before Mr. Trudeau was to call me, I was alarmed by a weed wacker being turned on by a gardener who managed the property – right outside my window. My place was small and open and there was no escaping the high pitched sound of this trimmer. It felt pretentious to go outside and ask him to stop while I talked to Justin Trudeau, so the only other option as time was running out before my phone would ring, was to lock myself in the bathroom – the one room in my place that escaped most of this noise. I slammed the door and realized the only place to sit was on the toilet. As the phone rang and Mr. Trudeau introduced himself, I debated telling him about my precarious position. Wanting to sound professional got the better of me however, so I settled in and quietly wondered to myself who else might claim to have chatted with a would–be prime minister while sitting on a porcelain throne.
The following interview is a transcription of our conversation that in part, tells the story of how Mr. Trudeau’s time spent outside shaped who he has become. His perspective is an interesting one for obvious reasons, but his insights are shared not only as a politician, but as an educator and a parent as well.
Colin Harris: Mr. Trudeau, I appreciate you taking the time to chat. The hope today in talking is for you to share a few stories and see how that time spent outdoors has affected you through the years.
Justin Trudeau: For me, obviously, I was raised by a father very connected to the outdoors. I got to learn how his relationship to it kept him grounded and balanced. No matter what he was involved with – cerebral, intellectual, busy political life with people – getting away in a canoe, for a long walk in the woods, climbing a mountain – whatever it was he could do to totally get away from all the trappings that surround us and get back to a pure “man in nature” mode was extremely important for him and gave him a sense of balance. It’s become very, very much the same way for me: how I manage to stay sane in the world I have and to make sure that I take my kids outside as often as I can; take them out in the woods, go paddling with my friends and family or go camping. I challenge myself against the back country on skis or a snowboard, I go rock climbing, white water canoeing – whatever it is to appreciate and to embrace the great outdoors we have is something fundamentally I need.
CH: As I ran across the country I heard lots of different stories. People would ask why I was doing what I was doing. Once I told them, it didn’t take much prompting for them to launch into their own stories of spending time outside when they were young. Consistently they’d talk about when school ended, they were outside, their parents had to drag them in for dinner, and then after dinner until the street…
JT: (interjects) – Come in when the street lights came on…
CH: Does your experience growing up in Ottawa and Montreal – can you resonate with that a little bit?
JT: Absolutely. On the weekends or in the country at the cottage, we’d be out till dark every day. But even in the city my mom lived in a small neighbourhood not too far from 24 Sussex. We used to play outside behind her house in the back lane with the other kids who lived in the neighbourhood. We’d just be outside all day and yes – outside in the city – but outside. Yes, in a lane, but there were infinite things to do. The idea of video games or too much TV was something we were simply not exposed to. Yeah, we watched TV like other kids but not a lot. We were much busier with games outdoors than we were playing inside.
CH: Of all those outdoor experiences you had growing up, how has that time in nature affected who you are today? Have they shaped who you’ve become?
JT: Those experiences have shaped me in such a deep way I have a hard time answering the question. I don’t know what part of the ‘core me’ isn’t related to those kinds of experiences with my brothers and my friends playing outside, challenging myself. Those adventures, not Huck Finn style but almost – where really you learn your own confidence, your own capacities, your own independence. When you’re outside and your parents are inside, out of sight, you’re in situations where you’re making your own decisions and taking chances – can I jump over that log, or climb that tree? Or can we really dig a pit that can hide us from our friends’/enemies in the game we’re playing? These kind of achievements – real achievements, not virtual achievements of killing monsters or stealing cars, building levels or whatever video game realities that people get wrapped up with now – were extremely defining for me and my sense of confidence and independence as a person.
CH: Do you see a shift happening recently in the amount of time that kids spend outside?
JT: Certainly studies have demonstrated that quite clearly. When I was a high school teacher, I worked for a while in an inner city school. I was pleased to be at a school where the principal strongly believed in outdoor education and he took the whole school on a 3-4 day canoe trip. That was rare and it was spectacular to see the impact that doing this thing could have for too many kids who had never had the opportunity to go out camping or learn that sort of self-reliance and capacity to get by, by your own means.
CH: You talk about your time as a teacher and the support for outdoor education which is great. I think our education system has predominantly revolved around students learning at a desk, enclosed by 4 walls – your stereotypical classroom. Yet all the research that’s coming out shows so many benefits for students spending time outdoors, be it increased academic performance or social skills, improved character traits. Do you think our education system can play a more significant role in extending the learning environment beyond the traditional classroom?
JT: I think there’s a natural tendency toward that right now, of saying ‘ Look we have all this technology. But we have to recognize that all students learn differently.’ It’s wonderful that we’re bringing more computers and virtual learning into the classroom and tweaking the way we do things because there’s a lot of positive to be done with that. But I think it’s also an opportunity since we’re doing that to not miss the chance to counter-balance that by saying – ‘ok, if we’re going to bring in more technology we also have to get them to come outside more often.’ If we properly start getting them away from the desk – partially to the computer screen and partially to the woods, we’re going to be able to be much more effective in how we raise young Canadians.
CH: At the teachers’ college level, are there opportunities in training future teachers to not only bring that technology into the classroom but to have more of an emphasis on that experiential learning?
JT: I would hope so. I studied education at UBC (University of British Columbia) and the perspective then was that outdoor education was a niche for those who already did it. It wasn’t really considered an integral part of a mainstream. I can imagine that there are a number of faculties of education across the country that do have an emphasis on outdoor education but that they would be the specialized area and not the mainstream. What will we be able to do to awaken people to not only environmental awareness but also to the idea of an individual as a steward of the world they’re part of and a community that’s bigger than us? I would like to see it much more included in our educational expectations for teachers but it takes resources, it takes commitment, it takes time – things that unfortunately are not always easy to get. So we have to start making an emphasis and agreeing that this is a priority, that we make sure that our kids learn to play outside.
CH: You mentioned about people being stewards. There’s a notion that Canada has one of the best backyards in the world. With more and more people moving to urban centres, how important is it to be stewards of that backyard and promote a meaningful connection to it?
JT: Because over 80% of us are living in urban centres now, it becomes all the more important that we realize that Canada is not shaped by its cities nearly as much as it’s shaped by the places in between and beyond those cities. Understanding that and having a visceral connection with the fact that water doesn’t come from a tap but it comes from a drainage basin and an ecosystem. That food doesn’t come from the supermarket, but from the land, from the farms. That the fresh air we breathe is generated from the Boreal Forest. So much of what we accept as under our control within the narrow confines of the city are actually totally dependent on natural services provided for us by the ecosystems out there. And the more people are mindful of that, the more they are going to be empowered to make smart decisions that lead us to be healthier, not just as a community but as a country.
CH: I didn’t want to ask too many questions that were political in nature. But what role could the Canadian government play to deal with the increasing rates of obesity, diabetes and poor general health in younger Canadians?
JT: One of the things that the government needs to realize or have a potential role in is education and awareness, and facilitating the awareness of keeping people healthy rather than treating them when they’re sick. It’s a lot less expensive to encourage people to change their dietary habits than it is to provide insulin to them for the rest of their life. There are huge challenges around the fact that we wait too long, we’re not nearly proactive enough. I think all levels of government, particularly the national level which has an overview mandate, can go a long way towards setting the tone that we are a society that considers health as a goal and not just something to be treated.
CH: Young people across Canada are spending a huge amount of time in front of screens – teenagers just shy of 8 hours a day. But they don’t have great role models with us adults who seem to be connected most of our waking hours. Are you still conscious of that time you spend in front of screens?
JT: I am. But it becomes all the more important for me therefore to put aside the Blackberry or computer and make sure that I go outside and take the kids to the park, get out and breathe some fresh air. My wife is wonderful for that, she’s a huge “child of nature” and she will react strongly, even if I’m just sitting on the couch reading a book, she’ll get me on my feet and out there.
CH: Your kids are still pretty young, correct?
JT: Yes, but they’re already really used to walking in the woods – well, half walking and half being carried. You know, they love it and it’s something that’s very important to me.
CH: They’re probably not surfing the internet yet or texting on cell phones, but do you find yourself having conversations with your wife about that approach down the road with dealing with the amount of time they spend in front of screens?
JT: Well, we are having conversations about that right now because maybe they’re not surfing the Internet but boy oh boy can they ever work the iPad. My youngest actually showed me how to do something on the iPad that I didn’t know how to do. It was very impressive that she knew something intuitively on it that I didn’t. Technology is everywhere and I want them to be smart users of technology but I don’t want them to be slaves to it. I mean, I think that’s the really important part.
CH: Are your kids at the age yet where you’ve started to share stories with them about the outdoors and your family growing up?
JT: A little bit, but not too much yet. We’ll wait until they’re a little older. I already have a list in my mind: the first time they get to shoot rapids, sit in the bow of the boat, the first time they get to figure out where the house is when we’re “lost” in the woods and they have to guide us home. All those things my father did for us when we were kids, I’m looking forward to doing with our kids.
CH: I appreciate your time. It’s been great speaking with you.
JT: Thank you Colin.
There are certainly aspects of what Justin Trudeau speaks about that are policy driven – decisions that play an important role in government. But what seems abundantly clear is that the time we spend outside shapes the very core of who we are, not only as Canadians, but also as individuals. There are numerous perspectives to come at this from, be they governmental, environmental, educational, parental, the list goes on. We are extremely fortunate to be stewards of this landscape that spans coast to coast to coast. Not only does this land give us life, quite literally, it provides us with a vast playground that is rich, diverse, beautiful and often, not too far from our front door.