Justin Trudeau may be Canada’s golden boy on the international stage, but over the past six months, he’s experienced a bit of a fall from popularity within Canada after a number of scandals reminded us that he’s still a politician, no matter what movie characters are on his socks. In an effort to regain his status as the PM who wants to hear from YOU, he’s scheduled a number of town halls at high schools and universities across the country.
Fast on his feet and able to throw out lines like “I’ll keep saying I’m a feminist until it’s met with a shrug” and “Because it’s 2015,” the town hall has been a format that works for Trudeau in most cases. He gets to take off his jacket, roll up his sleeves and casually address the crowd like the hip young leader he is. There’s no doubt he looks cool doing it and you better believe he’s selling out venues, but this time, Canadians are pushing back. Hard. It would seem the scandals of the past few months make it harder for us to assume his intentions with these events are pure. His sudden desire to hear what Canadians have to say is a little bit too convenient seeing as being out of touch is exactly what he’s been accused of recently. On the other hand, it looks like he’s listening now.
Before he kicked off the tour, Trudeau admitted that it’s easy to get stuck in an “Ottawa bubble” and these conversations are meant to break him out of it.
“Sometimes in the bubble in Ottawa, we get wrapped up in things that aren’t resonating and aren’t really top of mind for a lot of Canadians,” he said, “That’s why … staying active and connected with folks in their communities is one of the most important things we can do.” He added that the interactions he has at town halls help him inform policy in a way that is reflective of real Canadian concerns.
While Canadians have asked important questions over the three appearances he’s made so far in Halifax, Hamilton and London, the two most dramatic moments came when protesters asked about the ethics violations that came out in December and the government settlement with Omar Khadr last July.
About that little ethics investigation…
In December, ethics commissioner Mary Dawson completed her investigation and published her report on Trudeau’s 2016 Bahamas trip to the Aga Khan’s private island. She found that the trip constituted a conflict of interest under the federal act and resolved that Trudeau was in breach of the law. In Nova Scotia, the first stop on the tour, a woman questioned Trudeau for his violation of the law.
“I was just curious as to how you feel about being the first prime minister being found guilty of a federal crime,” the woman said. Keeping his cool, Trudeau joked that they had clearly “thourougly vetted the questions before coming out” and asked for clarification.
The woman explained that she was referring to the ethics violation and added that she didn’t buy his defense that the Aga Khan was a family friend. Trudeau pointed out that the fact that he was found guilty proves the system is working and then promised again to be more conscious about trips in the future.
“Every single one of my vacations will be cleared in advance with the ethics commissioner because it’s really, really important to me, to highlight that we follow the rules,” he said, “If I had to do it all again, I would have worked with the ethics commissioner from the outset, even though this was a friend, and we would have followed the recommendations that the ethics commissioner gave on this, whatever they were.”
For clarification: technically, Trudeau is guilty of breaking the law, not committing a federal crime.
Trudeau isn’t happy about the Khadr settlement either
The $10.5 million payed by the Canadian government to Omar Khadr in the settlement of his civil case claiming his rights were violated when the government allowed his detainment in Guantanamo Bay for ten years has been a point of contention for the Liberals since July.
Trudeau has spoken on the issue a number of times, always making the case that the settlement is about the violation of rights, not the actions of Khadr who was convicted of terrorism and pleaded guilty to murdering an American soldier in Afghanistan. When a heckler shouted her accusations at the PM for the settlement, it was a dramatic moment, but Trudeau handled it with grace. He said that while, as a teacher, he didn’t want to reward bad behaviour, he would address the question.
“The anger that some people feel — that a lot of people feel — about the payment that the government made to Omar Khadr is real and, quite frankly this might surprise you, I share that anger and frustration,” he told the audience, “That is money that we could have put towards any number of good programs … but instead we had to settle a court case.
“That settlement had nothing to do with what Omar Khadr might have or might not have done. It had to do with what the Canadian government did or did not do. When a Canadian government willfully turns its back on defending a Canadian’s rights and allows a Canadian to be tortured and mistreated, we all end up paying. That is the lesson.
“I want you to continue to be angry. I want all of you to continue to be angry and frustrated that a Canadian government has had to make that settlement and take it as a lesson that in the future no Canadian government should ever think it’s okay to allow a Canadian — no matter how unpopular they may be — to be tortured. That is not how we do things in Canada.”
The PM received a standing ovation for that one (we said this was his forte, didn’t we).
So while Canadians seemed to have more tests for Trudeau at these town halls than they’ve given him previously, he seems to be mostly able to handle them. What’s important now is that he means what he says.
As nice as it is to have a Prime Minister who genuinely seems to want to listen to the people (we can’t imagine Donald Trump doing anything more intimate than a rally), we have some remaining questions that only time will answer. Will Trudeau take this input and actually make policy with it? Has he learned his lesson with the “Ottawa bubble” and will he put more effort into listening to concerns of Canadians outside of the capital and outside of Ontario?