Marc Garneau’s career trajectory has shifted significantly over the years. Garneau got his start as a military engineer, then went on to become the first Canadian astronaut launched into space. After coming back down to earth, he discovered a whole new world: politics, which he also conquered, as evidenced by his appointment as federal Transport minister. Garneau has lived an ever-evolving life of achievement in the past 68 years. He recently led P&I on a reflection of career highlights, challenges, and dreams.
Garneau reminisces that his earliest dream was to join the navy, an aspiration that was planted and nourished by the opportunity he was given to cross the ocean on a passenger fleet with his family at the young age of seven, and again at age 12. Later, he fulfilled his dream when he became a combat systems engineer onboard the HMCS Algonquin for the Royal Canadian Navy. He mostly saw it “as an adventure,” he recalls. “I really bought into the romantic notion that if you join the Navy you would see the world, you would do exciting things, you would go out into the high seas.” He adds: “That to me seemed much more interesting than a desk job…that really was the first love in life, and I was going to do it my whole life, until I saw the ad looking for astronauts.”
Garneau told P&I that he saw an advertisement calling for astronauts in the newspaper, and applied for the position without giving it too much thought—except that if he didn’t apply, he would regret it. When he was chosen as one of six Canadian astronauts in 1983, he knew his life was about to change.
Garneau recalls being stretched back in his seat inside the Challenger spaceship, and thinking: “It was a great honour, but I also felt a great weight on my shoulders, because I was very aware…that a lot of Canadians were watching and I felt this sort of responsibility of performing.”
He adds, “When the first Canadian astronaut goes into space, Canadians are hoping that the person does a good job and makes the country proud.” He also notes that he felt some serious “personal emotions” as he readied for liftoff, “because it’s not without danger and I was thinking about my family as well.” Between 1983 and 2000, Garneau participated in three spaceflights and logged 677 hours in space before retiring as an active astronaut.
“The last night I was in space was a very special night for me, because I knew that there would not be the opportunity to return, and it’s such an extraordinary experience that I tried to as much as I could to savour it,” he recalls.
After settling back into life on Earth—and more specifically, at home in Canada—Garneau was appointed executive vice president of the Canadian Space Agency in 2001. “I was very happy there,” he says, adding that once again, he figured he would work at that job until his retirement. Later that year, he was promoted to the position of President of the CSA, which he held until 2005.
“I received an invitation from the Liberal government to be a candidate in the 2005-2006 election,” he recalls. “I made that leap because I had always been interested in politics, but to receive an invitation to be a candidate was pretty special.” Garneau was 56-years-old at the time, and had no political experience, but said he believed that if he were successful, he would have the “chance to shape the future of the country.”
After losing the first race in 2006, Garneau tried again in 2008 with much better results—winning the riding of Westmount—Ville-Marie, Que. He notes that his goal as a politician was to “help shape science policy for the country, because I came from a background where science and engineering were very important, and there aren’t many people who are engineers or scientists who are attracted to politics.”
Garneau describes the first three years of his political career as “just learning how to be a Member of Parliament.” It was during this term that he served as the Liberal critic for Industry, Science and Technology, and the Leader’s representative in Québec. He was re-elected in 2011, and became the Liberal House Leader, as well as the party’s Foreign Affairs critic.
In 2012, he became the Natural Resources critic, while at the same time announcing his bid for the leadership of the Liberal Party, which he ultimately bowed out of when he says he realized that Justin Trudeau was the clear choice.
Garneau tells P&I he was very “surprised” when the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked him to become the federal Transport minister after the 2015 general election. “I hadn’t thought about it,” Garneau says, although admitting that his background lends itself well to the file.
“But I can tell you that in the last year I have gotten to know my portfolio and I just love being in Transport Canada.” Garneau was voted as the top-performing cabinet minister in 2016 by The Hill Times’ 20th annual All Politics Poll survey, where respondents said he is genuine, an excellent communicator, and a hard-worker who has dedicated himself to learning his file inside and out.
One senior official in Transport Canada, who has worked closely with Garneau, said that the minister is “an exceptional communicator, is perfectly bilingual, and understands the importance of speaking plainly and directly.” The official also said that Garneau is “up for anything,” and has been enthusiastic and open to the ideas of using new platforms and mediums, like Facebook Live events. “He reads everything. He understands his portfolio really well,” said the official, adding that he’s gracious and appreciative of his colleagues and staff.