Justin Trudeau heard plenty from Canadians as he crisscrossed the country on a national town hall tour this month, with voters turning out in droves to profess their admiration for the prime minister but also to air grievances about the direction his government is heading on a number of top files.
The events drew large crowds, and venues were routinely moved from smaller rooms suitable for a smattering of people to university gymnasiums with seats for thousands.
The prime minister fielded 135 questions at 10 town halls in seven provinces. According the Prime Minister’s Office, at least 10,000 people attended the events.
The questions varied greatly from region to region. Attendees in Ontario asked about the price of hydro (a hot political issue in the province). Atlantic Canadians were concerned about benefits for veterans, while participants in the West were concerned about the slumping economy in an era of stagnant oil prices. Only nine questions were asked in French.
In some cases the regional divisions were stark: the Phoenix payroll fiasco, which has resulted in problems for thousands of public servants for the better part of a year, was a sore subject for two people in Kingston, Ont., home to several of the country’s penitentiaries, and another in Fredericton, N.B. But Phoenix went unmentioned in other parts of the country where the concentration of public servants is smaller.
Some issues, regardless of locale, were consistently top of mind for questioners: relations with Indigenous people; pipeline approvals and climate change; and the health-care system. Immigration was a popular topic, but most of the questions related to personal case files about which the prime minister was unable to offer substantive answers.
In all, the five most frequently asked questions directed at Trudeau were, in order: the economy, Indigenous issues, personal questions about Trudeau (including what it’s like to be prime minister), immigration and the environment or climate change.
The crowds were more raucous in Calgary and Winnipeg, while, perhaps mirroring the Liberal Party’s poll numbers, events in Atlantic Canada were more subdued, with questioners largely deferential to the prime minister.
In Calgary Trudeau was angrily challenged to clarify remarks he made about “phasing out” the oilsands — words he later admitted were inappropriate — which had clearly been a source of anger for many Albertans.
“You cannot come to this province and attack the single-biggest employer,” a man said of Trudeau’s remarks, which he had made at an earlier stop in Peterborough, Ont. “You are either a liar or you’re confused, and I’m beginning to think it’s both.”
In Winnipeg, Trudeau also faced moments of vitriol, but this time it came with accusations of being too cozy with Canada’s oil and gas industry.
He was asked to justify his decision to approve the Trans Mountain and Line 3 pipelines and a handful of chanting protesters cut him off mid-answer, shouting “Climate leaders don’t build pipelines.”
Guests not vetted or screened
Trudeau, clearly prepared for opposition at events where guests were not vetted or screened, seemed to relish the chance to take on his opponents, scolding hecklers and calling for quiet while others talked — drawing on skills developed during his days as a school teacher.
“We need to be able to have responsible conversations in this country. We need to listen to each other respectfully, and we are going to disagree from time to time. That happens. That’s why we have elections. That’s why we have opportunities to debate. That’s why I’m having town halls to make sure that I’m hearing from a broad range of voices,” Trudeau said to the Winnipeg protesters who remained standing for most of the town hall, with signs held high.
Later, an Indigenous elder urged for calm. “I’m asking that you people that are making statements, please respect everybody, please respect our territory,” he said.
“I try not to reward bad behaviour by giving them too much attention,” Trudeau said of those who interrupted the events in Calgary.
In other cases, Trudeau was able to win over some of his critics, including a woman who was grief-stricken over her hydro rates and worried the prime minister’s demand for a national carbon tax could make her situation even worse. After the event, she hugged Trudeau and said she was happy just to be heard.
No mention of Aga Khan visit
People at the town halls seemed unconcerned about two recent controversies involving the prime minister, namely accusations around cash-for-access fundraisers and his Christmas vacation to the Aga Khan’s private island in the Bahamas.
Only one question, from a woman in London, Ont., touched on the subject of ethics.
“When you came into power I thought there was some fresh air … he’s going to have outstanding integrity, he’s going to be above reproach, and yet here we are with this conflict-of-interest stuff,” the woman said of the fundraisers. “I really invite you as you go forward, really, not get involved in anything that will touch you in that way. You can raise higher than that.”
Few questions related to foreign affairs, other than general unease about U.S. President Donald Trump, including one from a fearful young grade schooler in Winnipeg who asked Trudeau if he would “save Canada” from the businessman-turned-politician.
Many of the questions were coloured by some of the recent actions of Trump, namely his promise to renegotiate NAFTA and his presidential memorandum clearing a path for the Keystone XL pipeline.
Only two questions were raised about issues overseas: one on the Israel-Palestinian conflict and another on peacekeeping.