In the woods

The backcountry Justin Trudeau

In early 2007, one night at the Calgary Airport, I met Justin Trudeau for an interview at Montana’s. He was on the board of the Canadian Avalanche Foundation, which he had joined after his youngest brother, Michel, died in an avalanche in November, 1998. I was a national correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Calgary and focused mostly on the business of oil and natural gas, but on the side I wrote about mountains. At the time, I was writing a story about a new avalanche assessment tool that Trudeau, who was on his way to Kicking Horse Mountain Resort three hours west in British Columbia, was helping promote. Trudeau also was poised to run for the Liberal Party nomination in the Montreal riding of Papineau, which he of course eventually won and thereafter won a seat in Parliament in 2008.

The interview informed a part of this feature story, which appeared in the paper’s weekend Focus section. The Globe, earlier this month, published an excellent, extensive feature on Trudeau, written by Ian Brown.

Reading the transcript and listening to the tape from January, 2007, Trudeau’s thoughtful appreciation of the backcountry feels sincere. The backcountry, to me, is a principal definition of our country, the vast wilderness, whether it’s mountains, or tundra, or the Canadian Shield. To savour, respect and explore the land is a chief value instilled in me and my brothers by our father, as it was instilled in Trudeau and his brothers by their father.

The picture of Pierre Trudeau in a canoe on the Nahanni River — politics and ideology aside — is a long-lingering image in my memory. I googled a bit to find it but instead stumbled upon this which, again, politics and ideology aside, makes me smile. A father and a son.

At the airport, it was obvious, too, Trudeau was on the cusp of politics: it was an interview but he spoke like an orator, punching italics, a cadence that ebbed and flowed, pauses for emphasis, octaves up and down in tone.

Nine years later, two stories jump out. Two memories of Trudeau’s, one of a backcountry day with his wife, Sophie, and one of his brother, Michel.

1:

My wife had never really done any backcountry skiing and we went into the Gaspé and we hiked up. It was a standard hike, about 2 ½ hours up, on skins for the most part, with a very steep and gnarly stretch of bootpacking, which was really scary. She’s brave as all heck but this was a little bit, you know, gripping with your fingertips as well as your boot tips into this really steep thing.

To see her discover just how extraordinary it is to have hiked up 2 ½ hours for 15 minutes of the best turns you’ll ever have in your life. And that balance right there, that sense that you have earned every turn, every foot of vertical back down, is really something. Quite magical. We’re tremendously spoiled by technology and by these ski lifts that get us to the top of the mountain in eight minutes.

One of the things I’ve always found, the balance that is so necessary in life can be found. We sit in our cities. We have everything controlled around us. We lose that perspective, that balance, where we actually fit in, how small we are in the scope — particularly of the Canadian wilderness. To get a sense of proportion and perspective is something that I think a lot of us have lost. For me, whether it’s getting out into the backcountry with a pair of skis and skins, or on a splitboard, or getting out into a canoe on a four-day trip down a river in the Arctic, for me, those are the places where you remind yourself of what is important.

2:

Trudeau, when he was 15, in 1987, mailed away to a small company in Vermont called Burton Snowboards. He bought a Burton Elite 140. The only way to set up the bindings was back foot at 0 degrees and front foot at 45. He was among the early snowboarders at Mont Tremblant and he later taught snowboarding at Whistler. But it was Michel who pushed deeper into the mountains.

I was very much an on-piste sort of guy and Michel was the backcountry. He really just loved it, to get out there in the wilderness. That was something we were raised with, backcountry, canoeing, hiking, just getting out to where there were no roads. There’s a level of self-reliance that was built into us but Miche really took it into the mountains, playing in the backcountry.

Michel’s goal, Trudeau said, was to become a backcountry guide. I asked about how Michel’s death changed Trudeau’s consideration of risk.

The last time they spoke, four days before Michel’s death, Michel told Justin he was going up to the mountains for some early season skiing. Justin said that was cool but Michel noted there was an element of risk. “I didn’t know if it was pretty risky,” Trudeau told me. “I had no knowledge.” Trudeau took the role of the older brother, telling Michel: “Well, you know, it is pretty risky, you be careful.”

Miche had a few of the best days of skiing ever.

Afterwards in Montreal, talking to a friend of Sacha’s at the time, who had been at the house when Miche was watching a documentary on Indian burial rights, and other traditions in India and Asia, Miche’s comment was: “When I go, just leave me in the woods where I die.” It’s one of those little throwaway comments — who knows how often we all make them — but he made it at that point and that was something that we remembered and hold to. He died doing something he absolutely loved and that he was trained and prepared to do.

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