Justin Trudeau's African – and Finnish – adventures

Justin Trudeau kuorma-auton kyydissä Afrikassa, taustalla sininen meri.
Young Justin Trudeau spent his gap year from studies backpacking in Africa in 1994. Image: Vilho Sakari Leino

Long before Justin Trudeau became Prime Minister of Canada, he made a road trip through Africa in Finnish company – and celebrated his 23rd birthday in Helsinki. After losing contact over the years, the Finn and the charming Canadian premier reconnected via Facebook.

A group of girls and boys in their twenties are glancing at each other at a car park in the harbour of Ramsgate, a coastal town in Britain. It is late September, 1994.

They don't know each other yet, but what they all have in common is the fact that they all have time, some money and a desire to go on an adventure. They are about to load the group of 20 or so people in the modified truck and drive it to Southern Europe.

This is the start of a slow journey going on for months, taking them through Africa, all the way to Cape Town in the south. Trips like these are called "overlanding" which means travelling to distant places with the attitude that the journey is more important than the destination.

Vilho Sakari Leino, a Finn from Helsinki, has flown to Britain on his own. He's no rookie traveller; even at 27 he has already travelled all around the world. The idea of driving through Africa started to brew in his mind on his last trip to Zimbabwe with his brother.

Justin Trudeau has come to Ramsgate from Canada with three friends of his. The 22-year-old Trudeau has just graduated with a bachelor’s degree from McGill University in Montreal and is planning to continue his studies to become a teacher.

Before that, he's decided to take a gap year and travel. During that year, one of the places he ends up in is a studio flat in the Finnish capital Helsinki. But we'll get back to that a little later.

Afrikan-matkaan varustettu kuorma-auto parkissa Etelä-Euroopassa.
The most important equipment on the truck heading for Africa included spare tyres and shovels that were used to dig the truck up from the sand. Image: Vilho Sakari Leino

The motley crew is in a hurry to get out of Europe. They drive through France and Spain in a few days and camp behind highway rest stops during the night.

They make their last phone calls home from Gibraltar and board a ferry to Morocco, as Justin Trudeau reminisces in his book Common Ground, published in 2014.

It is not long until the others find out that one of the travellers comes from a famous family. Justin Trudeau's charismatic father Pierre led Canada from the '60s to the '80s and also had his son in the public eye from a young age. In the countries of the British Commonwealth, in particular, the last name Trudeau is well remembered.

Leino says he thinks the Brits are the ones to first realise who Justin is.

"First it was whispered about and then finally, it had to be said out loud," Leino recalls.

Trudeau himself does not flaunt his background. He wants to travel anonymously, as one of the guys, and does not volunteer much about himself.

But Leino is chatty and eager to ask. Trudeau's friends try to tone it down a bit and warn him not to try to discuss the Trudeau family affairs, such as his parents' divorce.

The stories he gets out of Justin little by little attest to the fact that the everyday perspective of a Prime Minister's son is quite different from that of the others.

"Justin said that when he was a boy, they would have visitors like [performers] Neil Young or Leonard Cohen over for coffee in the morning. That is just what their life was like," Leino recalls.

Justin's father used to take him on his trips to meet global movers and shakers. Leino gets the impression that back home in Canada there were strict rules about what a prime minister's children were allowed to do.

Britannian pääministeri Margaret Thatcher juttelee 8-vuotiaalle Justinille Lontoossa mustavalkoisessa kuvassa vuodelta 1980.
Pierre Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, took his firstborn with him on trips abroad. Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister of Britain, was chatting to the 8-year-old Justin in London in 1980. Image: Ted Blackbrow / AOP

"In my opinion, he's a very level-headed guy considering the kind of life he's lived," Leino says.

Leino is the only non-native English speaker on the trip to Africa and hits it off especially well with the Canadians. He thinks it partially stems from a similar kind of society in both countries.

"I didn't really have to explain to them that much what kind of a place I was from. They also knew about the cold winters and the four seasons. We talked quite a lot about ice hockey," says Leino, a fan of Helsinki team Jokerit.

Politics are not discussed in the truck. In addition to sports, the topics include travelling, beer, and girls. The days go by playing cards, listening to music and admiring the view. Lunch consists of dry food and dinner is local produce that they all cook together.

Trudeau himself writes in his memoir that in those days, he was struggling with a shyness that prevented him from making friends easily. But after sitting in the same truck for weeks and sleeping in tents, the group becomes tight-knit. And in the end, you make friends.

Justin Trudeau hymyilee kameralle taustallaan leirijakkaroita, joilla istuu kaksi ihmistä.
Travel companion Leino recalls that Justin Trudeau was a real perpetual motion machine when he was younger. Image: Vilho Sakari Leino

The Canadian boys prove valuable for the group. Since they are practically bilingual, they help sort out many tangles on borders and with the police in French-speaking African countries.

"For example, if the police stop a taxi returning to the campsite from town with seven foreign passengers and another three in the boot, you need someone who speaks the language. One of the Canadians was there to interpret and explain everything away," Leino says with a chuckle.

The group spends some time with customs officials in Mauritania, when the officers find beers that one of the travellers has accidentally left out in the open. Again, Trudeau and his friends take care of the talking and everybody chips in to pay the fine.

In the Saharan countries, the truck often gets stuck in sand dunes and has to be helped forward by pushing and shovelling. Trudeau gets sick with food poisoning but nobody suffers anything worse than that. One of the Canadians is robbed in Mali but luckily, he only loses a few dollars.

At some point, the comrades decide to shave their hair off. Trudeau’s dark curls fall into the Saharan sand, as do Leino's long locks.

Mathieu Walker, who travelled with them, remembers in Althia Raj's 2013 book The Contender that a couple of days later, Trudeau also manages to break his glasses. The premier's son has to temporarily go around with a shaved head and taped-together glasses.

Kaksi nuorta miestä leikkaa nuorelta Justin Trudeaulta hiuksia ulkoilmassa, taustalla näkyy rinnettä ja metsää.
The travel companions decided to shave each other’s heads, and Justin Trudeau also lost his curls. Image: Vilho Sakari Leino

In December, a tour of the coastal countries on the Gulf of Guinea in Western Africa reaches Benin which is also the Canadians' final destination. They want to change their means of transportation as well as the scenery and buy tickets for the Trans-Siberian Express.

Leino now gets a chance to offer his hospitality.

Leino will continue to travel with the truck in Africa but suggests that Trudeau and his friends fly from Cotonou to the Finnish capital Helsinki where they can stay with his family and relax while they wait for visas for the trip to Siberia.

In no time, the boys are at the Helsinki airport, calling Leino's sister from a payphone.

"They said: 'Hello, we're a group of Canadians. Your brother says you have an apartment for us.' My sister was like, 'What?' They said they had a letter as proof and that she would recognise her brother's handwriting," Leino recalls with a laugh.

Unfazed, Leino's sister tells the guys to get a taxi to the Töölö neighbourhood in central Helsinki. Which is why the future Prime Minister of Canada spends most of December and Christmas 1994 sleeping in a studio apartment on Minna Canth Street.

Trudeau and his friends explore the city and enjoy dinners. Leino's brother remembers that the Canadians spend a lot of time in the Töölö library, possibly researching their route because after the steppes of Russia, they are planning to go on to China, Thailand and Vietnam.

The young men may well have attended an ice hockey match in Helsinki, too. Leino has seen a blurry photo of Trudeau's friends posing in the street wearing Jokerit beanies and scarves.

Leino's sister serves the Canadians a traditional Finnish holiday feast on Christmas Day – Justin Trudeau's 23rd birthday.

Tummaan pukuun pukeutunut Justin Trudeau koukistaa polveaan jooga-asentoon, vierellä kaksi voimisteluasuista naista tekee samaa.
Justin Trudeau did a yoga pose in front of the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa in June 2013. Image: Alec L. Boucher / AOP

In his memoir, Justin Trudeau writes that he returned from that journey different from the guy who left.

"Like most Canadians who have been fortunate enough to travel abroad, I came back with a heightened appreciation for our country's unique mix of blessings. Wherever I went, there were locals. A clear majority. A mainstream. And any minorities were always 'others', an exception to the rule, to the national identity," Trudeau writes.

"Our modern Canadian identity is no longer based on ethnic, religious, historical, or geographic grounds. Canadians are of every possible colour, culture, and creed," Trudeau writes, referring to the heritage of bilingualism and multiculturalism his father endorsed. According to him, Canada is the only place on earth that is strong not in spite of the differences but because of them.

This is the message Trudeau has been repeating ever since becoming prime minister.

Leino also believes the trip changed Trudeau.

"Being away from home for a longer period of time does affect us all, and he was quite a young guy at the time. Justin had probably been all around the world with his father, but maybe he had not travelled like that before, without his parents. And not in Africa," Leino says.

After the trip, Trudeau returns to Canada and later goes west to continue his studies in British Columbia. He works as a snowboarding instructor and a bouncer at a nightclub among other things, and finally as a math and French teacher. Later on, he tries his luck as a radio journalist and an actor in a historical television miniseries.

As Leino recalls, Trudeau was already quite a "perpetual motion machine" when he was younger.

"In those terms, there is nothing false about his current image," Leino says. "Even as a young guy, Justin was a fast mover and concentrated on a lot of things. His public image is quite genuine. The same kind of hustle and bustle is described in my travel journal."

He shows us a black notebook where Trudeau has written a page-long message.

In the message, Trudeau says he considers Leino a true friend and promises he can stay at his place in Canada whenever he wants. He also writes that at first, he was afraid of Leino and still is a bit. Why on earth?

Leino is amused.

"Probably because I was a big guy, had long hair and was, most of all, a straight-talking Finn," he says.

In Leino's opinion, it is easy hindsight to consider whether it could already be seen back then that Trudeau was destined to be a statesman.

"He didn't say anything of the sort, of course, but it did ooze out of him. He has impressive charisma."

Tummaan asuun pukeutunut Vilho Sakari Leino nojaa valkoiseen taksiautoon.
Vilho Sakari Leino has been a taxi driver for 15 years. Image: Tiina Jutila / Yle

After his trip to Africa, Leino takes the Canadians up on their promise and visits Montreal a couple of times in the late 1990s.

Leino and his brother are treated like distinguished guests. They get busy tailored travel itineraries and are taken to the boys' family summer homes.

The two Leino brothers also visit the Trudeau family's summer villa, an impressive structure, and their Art Deco residence on Pine Avenue, Montreal, built in the 1930s. They are not invited to stay there, which the Finns understand. It's clearly a very different world. Justin's father Pierre Trudeau, who's approaching 80 at the time, is still alive but Leino never gets to meet him.

Leino and his brother also join Justin to go white-water rafting in the mountains since he has a summer job as a guide. They also go to see baseball and have hotdogs. At the time, Trudeau is not active in politics.

Later on, they do not stay in touch much in the turmoil of everyday life but thanks to Facebook they reconnect. Leino says he would always send Justin a quick message and he would reply.

Justin Trudeau, vaimo Sophie Grégoire Trudeau ja kolme lasta vilkuttavat yleisölle liberaalipuolueen vaalitilaisuudessa.
The second-generation Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with his wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau and their three children in October 2015. Image: Arindam Shivaani / AOP

The other guys from the trip to Africa keep in touch through messages but Leino doesn't hear from Justin after he starts campaigning to be the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. His election is confirmed in 2013, and after the victory in the general election in October 2015, Trudeau is appointed Prime Minister.

Justin Trudeau ja Barack Obama kävelevät selin kameraan Valkoisen talon kuistille suurten Yhdysvaltain ja Kanadan lippujen välistä.
Trudeau's popularity has been compared to the Obamamania of the early days. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited President Barack Obama in the White House in March 2016. Image: A. Wilding / AOP

Meanwhile in Finland, Leino now lives in Vantaa, just north of Helsinki, and has been a taxi driver for about 15 years.

If the Prime Minister who has charmed half of the world now came to Finland, for some reason, would he make time to see his old buddy?

"I hope so, maybe just for 15 minutes or so," says Leino.

After all, Justin is one of those people with whom it's easy to pick up where you left off.

Kolme naista halaa Justin Trudeauta, taustalla ihmiset ottavat tilanteesta kuvia.
Fans hugging Justin Trudeau during Vancouver Pride in August 2015. Image: R. Jeanette Martin / AOP

Translated from Finnish by Katja Juutistenaho