Now it begins: Justin Trudeau elected new leader of Liberal Party of Canada

Matthew Coutts
Canada Politics

Justin Trudeau has been declared the new leader of the Liberal Party of Canada after an intensive campaign that saw more than 100,000 party supporters cast votes that will set the direction of the party for years to come.

Trudeau was named the winner of a months-long leadership contest on Sunday during a rousing convention in downtown Ottawa. Thousands of supporters cheered when his name was called.

The 41-year-old representative of Quebec’s Papineau riding campaigned on the motto of “hope and hard work,” and has promised to lead the party by listening to the its members, not dictating from above.

Trudeau has been dismissed by rivals as a lightweight, derided as nothing more than a handsome face and rejected as a serious political force. And now he will have the chance to prove them wrong.

His first step as Liberal leader will be to open the party up and sweep away the cobwebs. The Canadian Press reports that Trudeau has prepared a five-point plan on how to improve the connection between the public and politicians.

That plan includes ensuring an open nomination process in every riding, meaning no star Liberal candidates being acclaimed as party representatives. It also includes improving parliamentary oversight, reforming the electoral system and addressing national unity.

[ Related: Justin Trudeau offers key glimpses of next Liberal platform ]

Trudeau, of course, grew up at 24 Sussex Drive, born to father Pierre and mother Margaret in 1971, while his father was sitting as prime minister. He and his two brothers were raised in the public eye, rubbing shoulders with visiting dignitaries and under the watchful gaze of an RCMP security detachment.

He remained a high-profile figure, specifically in Quebec, and recaptured the nation’s attention when he gave a stirring eulogy for his father in 2000. But he wouldn’t become involved in politics until years later.

By the time Trudeau entered federal politics, the once-mighty Liberal party had been left in shambles. They lost power in 2006 to the Stephen Harper-led Conservatives and, over the following decade, wilted and withered in consecutive elections, under the watch of turnstile leadership.

From Paul Martin’s minority government in 2004, which held 135 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons, the party dropped to 103 seats in their 2006 loss. Under leader Stephane Dion in 2008, they dropped again to 77 seats. In the 2011 election, leader Michael Ignatieff lost his own riding and watched the party fall to 35 seats – falling behind the NDP and becoming the third-ranked party for the first time in the Liberal’s modern history.

While the Liberals were trending down, however, Trudeau was headed in the other direction. He threw his hat into the ring in 2008, challenging and defeating Bloc Quebecois incumbent Vivian Barbot in Papineau. The following election, as his Liberal party was dispatched by NDP candidates across the province, Trudeau held his seat against fierce opposition.

He announced last October that he would run for party leadership and watched as a heavy list of rivals stood up to oppose him. MP and former astronaut Marc Garneau took shots at his inexperience, before stepping out of the race and supporting him. And former MP Martha Hall Findlay attacked his position of wealth, claiming he had no right to speak for the middle class. Trudeau survived each blow and focused on uniting the party to offer a "positive alternative" to the Conservative government.

The Toronto Star's Susan Delacourt wrote in her ebook “Justin Trudeau: Can He Bring the Liberal Party Back to Life?” that Trudeau inherits damaged party. His father, who simultaneously became party leader and prime minister in 1968, assumed control of a strong brand and vibrant base of support.

[ Political Points: Eight things you may not know about Justin Trudeau ]

Justin fought for his seat, fought again to hold it on his own accord, and fought to take leadership of the party. His father may not have exactly been handed the keys. But he was certainly shown where they were.

What matters now is what type of leader Trudeau will be. He is 41-years-old and has been an MP for just five years. With the next federal election scheduled for 2015, he should have two years to refocus the party before going to the polls.

“Canadians don’t just want a different government. They want a better government,” he said at party showcase last weekend. Now, the Liberals have given him a chance to offer that option. What he does with it is up to him.