Along with millions of fellow Canadians, I tuned in on Sunday night to watch CBC’s hosting of face-to-face interviews featuring Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and ten Canadians from across the country.
PM Trudeau must be credited for exposing himself in such a risky fashion. After all, despite his decisive election victory this past October and his promises of sunny ways ahead for Canadians, the future looks anything but certain at present.
The oil patch juggernaut that kept the country afloat for so many years has ground to a virtual standstill, and with the downturn tens of thousands of previously well-paid workers have either been cast out of work entirely, or are scraping by on reduced hours and wages. Workers like Danny Strilchuk, who had some hard questions for the PM about what he would do if he found himself in similar circumstances.
Others like Nikki Fraser, a young Indigenous mother from Kamloops, brought the tangible fear she had for the future of her own daughter. In light of the ongoing tragedy of missing or murdered Indigenous women, and admissions of racist elements within the agencies that investigate their disappearance, what would Trudeau do to prevent her own daughter from sharing a similar fate? As she showed photos of her aunt (missing in Kamloops) and her cousin (disappeared from the streets of Vancouver’s East Side), Trudeau looked crest-fallen and humbled.
As the hour long programme proceeded, I was struck by the enormity of the many issues that we face as a country. Topics addressed included everything from increased taxes for wealthy Canadians and retirement concerns for those without pensions, to concerns over childcare, student debt-loads and the government’s response to terrorist threats from abroad and increasing radicalization from within Canada.
The televised interviews demonstrated several things for this viewer.
For starters, particular personal concerns are nearly impossible to resolve on an individual basis by a sitting prime minister. No government has the ability to control the price of oil; no government can guarantee smooth transitions into new jobs to workers cast out of work by forces beyond their control; no government can immediately right the wrongs that accrue from centuries of colonial occupation.
Democracy is a careful balancing act, requiring a government to take into account not only the immediate concerns of competing constituencies, but also the way that it fits into a global economy that is experiencing the paroxysms of growing pains. It’s a very tough gig that a prime minister has; and Justin Trudeau has inherited a world of woe it would seem.
But I find it encouraging that Trudeau stressed throughout the interviews the interdependence of Canadians; the fact that governing isn’t about a mandarin calling the shots from above but rather a process of consulting with provincial governments and affected citizens to build consensus around the way to move forward on the many issues that affect all Canadians.
It’s a message that was stressed during the campaign and it is a message that was resoundingly approved by a healthy majority of voters.
I suspect that not many of the Canadians casting their concerns before Trudeau were fully satisfied with his responses. How could they? But what emerged was a man willing to be present to the real fears and concerns of all-too-human Canadians sitting amidst the genteel oak panelling of the prime minister’s office.
What emerged was a man who could be seen to empathize with ordinary folk. And I do not think that it was an act.
To Nikki from Kamloops he could admit: “This office, this place, this parliament, has failed Indigenous people in this country for a long, long time.” But he could also emphasize that “Indigenous people matter,” and by extension, so too do all Canadians.
It’s a message and a style of engagement with Canadians that we have not seen in a long, long time. Gone, it seems, are the days of tightly scripted appearances by a prime minister who thought too highly of his own thinking and so little of the rest of the country. Gone is a leader who held journalists and non-party loyalists in contempt.
When times are fraught with uncertainty and the immediate future looks bleak, it is good to take the long view. Things will not always be as they are, and with the intellectual capital that exists in government and within the private sector we can expect improvement over time. But time it will take, and a whole lot of consultation before things turn around again. In the meantime, I look forward to seeing and hearing our leaders communicate face-to-face with the rest of us.
— Jeffrey Loewen is a Kelowna-based writer who plays music by day and politics by night