In celebration of Sophie Grégoire Trudeau’s 45th birthday, we’re taking a look back at our 2017 cover shoot with Canada’s first lady.
“If you were a yoga pose, which one would you be?” I ask Sophie Grégoire Trudeau. We’re midway into our second interview for this feature, and she has just finished describing the thrill of barefooting—which is waterskiing without skis. “You have to be at high speeds, and when you fall, it’s like falling on cement,” she says. “It’s rough, but the sensation is amazing when you’re on your feet.” She tells me that her other athletic pursuits venture from fairly calm (cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and tennis) to borderline extreme (skydiving, ice climbing and underwater diving with her husband, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau). Her less extreme adventures include yoga and pranayama (controlling the breath). So, back to the pose that best describes this certified hatha yoga instructor’s character. “That’s a funny question!” she says, laughing. “It’s tempting to say the wheel with one leg up [Eka Pada Chakrasana] because it’s just so heart opening, but I think the Baddha Konasana, or sitting pose, is the most challenging one for me because I have to be seated, calm, relaxed and focused.”
I’m not sure whether asanas, or poses, reveal one’s character, but it’s not surprising to me that Grégoire Trudeau would excel at the one-legged wheel pose. I imagine there’s a certain extroverted rush from mastering that move, and I’m getting the sense that Grégoire Trudeau embraces her extroversion like metal shavings to a magnet.
“I’m an only child,” she explains. “I was taught to go toward other people because I felt lonely. My father would tell me to go up to someone and say ‘Hello, my name is Sophie. Would you like to play with me?’ I swear to you sometimes even at 41 I’m like, ‘Hi, I’m Sophie. You look fun. Do you want to play with me?’ I’m curious.”
During our photo shoot at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa two days earlier, Grégoire Trudeau told me that she considers her curiosity, courage and capacity for love to be her best qualities. A lack of patience, however, is one of the imperfections she’s working on. “Patience for me is a big thing,” she said. “Patience with others. Patience with the way the world is evolving. I have a sense of urgency because I want to help out so much.”
When you’re in her presence, you feel that charismatic urgency. She speaks quickly, enunciating her words with authority and energy. Her face is animated, her cheeks are slightly flushed and her eye contact is intense but not intimidating. When she’s not talking, she leans in to listen, often reaching out her hand to touch whomever she’s engaged with. And tears are not uncommon. On set, her eyes teared up when she saw the cover images and later when she spoke of her love for her husband (“I partnered with a man who also strives for authenticity and connection”), her children, Xavier, Ella-Grace and Hadrien (“I feel so blessed and happy [to have them]”), and her mother, Estelle Blais (“[for] her energy of purity and goodness”).
Anyone who spends a moment in Grégoire Trudeau’s grounded but ethereal orbit can’t help but be charmed by the way she expresses the most earnest-sounding dreams. Case in point: When I ask her who has inspired her the most over the past year, you’d think that Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton or Michelle Obama might top the list. Instead, she tells me she doesn’t believe in celebrity, even though, she concedes, much of our culture and media are based on it. She says that she and Obama had a great connection when they met during a state visit last March in Washington but adds that she’s drawn to anyone who wants to shape the world and is ready to listen. “People who are open-hearted and open-minded touch me deeply,” says Grégoire Trudeau. “I feel that we have a common goal. Even if you look at the planet, and you think it’s easy to be distraught and depressed, common goodness—human goodness—is very much alive, and it needs to thrive even more amid the chaos. We’re being called to rise up and raise our level of consciousness and connect with other human beings. The level of opportunity that we’re sitting on right now as a country and a generation is immense.”
It’s a cynicism-free manifesto that you typically don’t expect from a 41-year-old mother of three. It’s also not based on the naive reflections of a woman who hasn’t endured her own struggles. In her late teens and into her 20s, Grégoire Trudeau suffered from bulimia. She has spoken about this often and has done advocacy work for agencies, such as the Clinique des troubles alimentaires BACA and the Bulimia Anorexia Nervosa Association (BANA), both of which offer support to people suffering from eating disorders.
“The level of opportunity that we’re sitting on right now as a country and a generation is immense.”
In her own case she says that yoga, therapy and time healed her from what she describes as an incentive/reward-driven addiction. “My awareness of what I was suffering was major, but I just didn’t know how to get out of it,” she recalls. “I kept thinking ‘Why me? I have everything. Why am I suffering from this?’ The stigma is less and less, because we talk about it more. When I was suffering, it was much more taboo. Today there is treatment, but there are not enough beds and not enough tools to help those who are suffering.” Grégoire Trudeau explains that fear and anxiety are at the core of the disorder; the sufferers don’t know who they are and where they stand in the world.
The former cultural reporter later talks about being troubled by our culture’s emphasis on youth and the fact that as a society we are asking mature or aging women to disappear. She suggests that this speaks to a lack of depth in our spirituality and a lack of self-love. As national ambassador for Plan Canada’s Because I Am a Girl initiative, Grégoire Trudeau spends time speaking with girls and says that they are very much aware of our culture’s obsession with youth.
“They feel the fakeness—from fake nails to fake hair to fake breasts,” she says. “We tell girls to be themselves, but then they have role models—sometimes too many role models—in popular culture who incarnate that kind of disconnectedness from oneself. We are taught to self-hate; we are taught to doubt. Our culture doesn’t help us recognize ourselves as amazing beings without changing ourselves.”
As for her achieving her own self-love—and eventual recovery—Grégoire Trudeau says she can recall at least one key turning point. She was in her late teens and living in Montreal with her family. One night, while she was alone in her bedroom, she called out to her mom (who—as if on cue—has just entered the room where Grégoire Trudeau is chatting with me on the phone). “I said, ‘Mom, I’m sick and I’m suffering and I need help.’ We bawled and bawled and bawled.” She says that having bulimia was a kind of blessing as it allowed her to rise above it and find out who she really was.
It’s a subject—and a time in their lives—that still brings tears to them both. Earlier I had asked Grégoire Trudeau who was the one woman who shaped her most; with tear-filled eyes she answered, “My mom.” She says she now tries to bring the same unconditional love to her own children. “I see how my kids receive it. It’s clear when we look at each other or when I’m breastfeeding or playing with them, or when we’re in the bath together. Even when we have arguments—I mean, they drive me crazy sometimes; don’t get me wrong!”
Grégoire Trudeau credits her stockbroker father, Jean Grégoire, with influencing her early understanding of what it means to be a feminist. She says he instilled in her a confidence in her body’s physical strength and stamina. The pair, along with her uncle, spent a great deal of time in the woods hiking and camping. “I was one of the boys, and I think that I had to take my place and my space as a young girl.”
She says that those early years spending time outdoors with her father and uncle were also responsible for positively shaping the relationships she has with men.
“I have amazing, beautiful friendships with my girlfriends, but I also get along well with boys and men now,” she says. “I think that having that balance between the two allowed me to see the reality of the interactions and how dynamics can be a little bit different.”
Grégoire Trudeau has one of the purest and most pointed descriptions of feminism I’ve ever encountered. For her, feminism is about one thing: knowing the facts and wanting to do something about it. “The fact is that half of the world’s population is still suffering and not being allowed their most basic rights to fully participate in society,” she says. “Economists and behavioural psychologists will tell you that this is to the detriment of women but also to men, because men are wonderful creatures and we are undermining their spirit when women are not part of the equation.”
We are taught to self-hate. We are taught to doubt. Our culture doesn’t help us recognize ourselves as amazing beings without changing ourselves.
Earlier this year, we posted an online “State of the Sisterhood” survey and asked readers to share their thoughts on feminism and what they think are the most pressing issues for women in Canada. Seventy-one per cent of the more than 1,100 respondents said that feminism is more relevant now than it was before Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. Grégoire Trudeau diplomatically avoids commenting on this statistic, saying that she has been feeling a sense of urgency for 30 years and that progress—at least in Canada—is being made.
When I relay some of the feedback on her husband’s performance, she is surprised; for a fleeting moment, I spot that protective fire that hides just below the surface of her sunny demeanour. Twenty-three per cent of our respondents felt he is definitely doing enough to support feminism, 42 per cent thought he is doing somewhat enough, 15 per cent said not really enough, 5 per cent said not at all and 15 per cent weren’t sure. Their praise for Trudeau’s 50/50 gender parity in the cabinet was surprisingly muted. Only 19 per cent thought it definitely brought about a significant change in advancing feminist issues. That generates a “Wow!” from Grégoire Trudeau. Another 40 per cent thought it was somewhat significant, 23 per cent said not really, 8 per cent said not at all and 10 per cent weren’t sure. “Give us ideas!” she responds. Of note, 67 per cent of respondents said they would never go into politics. She concedes that that’s a problem, adding that the government is trying to make it easier for female politicians to balance their need to be with their families.
Grégoire Trudeau agrees with the respondents who felt that wage inequality, unaffordable daycare and the crisis around missing Indigenous women and girls are the most pressing issues. The latter is of particular interest to Grégoire Trudeau. She recalls reading a newspaper story about a young Indigenous woman who had been raped.
“I couldn’t take it,” she says. “I screamed. I let all my emotions out. I was so angry. I said to my husband, ‘Where do we start? What do we do?’ And he said, ‘Oh, we’re going to do something about this. We’re starting with the Truth and Reconciliation [Commission].’” (The Government of Canada also launched a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.)
In addition to her volunteer work at Plan Canada and Fillactive (an organization that encourages young women’s healthy self-esteem through a balanced lifestyle), Grégoire Trudeau has been working with the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health in Ottawa. “I’ve been trying to learn more about native culture,” she says. “When you meet the leaders of the different communities, it’s tough because you want to bring change now, but change doesn’t happen like this, so we have to be patient.”
But, as we now know, patience is the one thing that this intelligent, spirited woman struggles with. Sophie, please don’t get too comfortable in your Baddha Konasana pose. We need you—and your fiery impatience and optimism—to help create a better world.