In late September, Justin Trudeau addressed the One Young World gathering, specifically held in Ottawa the better to bask in the glow of the Canadian premier lauded by his own foreign minister as “the most prominent and popular political figure on the planet”. The conference for some 1,300 young leaders exposed them to the wisdom of such luminaries as the former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, former Irish president Mary Robinson and the formerly celebrated Cher, singer and actress. Trudeau let the past tend to itself while he met one-on-one with the British actress Emma Watson of Harry Potter fame.

A year after his majority election victory in October 2015, is Trudeau fils a superficial celebrity master of social media, or the transformative leader of a new generation? Or both?

Catholics with a moderately good memory might have been amused at the sight of Trudeau, now prime minister, playing the role of a leader exhorting the young to change the world. Fifteen years ago, Church officials chose the 29-year-old to speak at an event to begin the one-year countdown to World Youth Day in Toronto. Having recounted his struggles with the “strict” tenets of Catholicism, he urged the young people to reject “old men with old ideas”. That caused some embarrassment. Was he speaking about Pope John Paul II?

A minor celebrity after delivering a melodramatic eulogy at the funeral of his father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, in 2000, the younger Trudeau, a quondam drama teacher and snowboard instructor, may have foreshadowed the course he would follow 12 years later when he became leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. The self-identified Catholic leads a government that very self-consciously understands itself as rejecting the old men and the old ideas.

Since his election victory a year ago, Trudeau has led an administration heavy on symbolism and self-congratulation. “Canada is back”, he says, with “sunny ways” after the apparently dark years of Stephen Harper, the Conservative he defeated. He began the 2015 election campaign at Vancouver’s gay pride parade, swore in a gender-equal cabinet, and signed United Nations accords on climate change and the rights of indigenous peoples.

Never mind that Trudeau has not changed much of substance. The first nine months of his premiership saw 10 bills passed through Parliament, the lowest in decades. While he was in opposition, Trudeau criticised Harper’s approach to the environment, terrorism and health care. Now a year in office, Trudeau’s ministers announce that “real change” actually means keeping the previous government’s carbon emission targets, anti-terrorism laws and health-care spending.

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