Politics, Passion & Pipelines An Interview with Justin Trudeau
Back in early April, Liberal Party of Canada leader Justin Trudeau spent some time in Fort McMurray. I had a chance to sit down with him and ask a few questions. Here goes…
Q: You spent a couple of days touring around Fort McMurray. This is a significant amount of time to invest in your schedule. Why did you think that was so important?
A: This is part of what I’ve been doing over the past year. This may seem exceptional to you, but for me this is the way I’ve been engaging with the country. When I go somewhere, I try and meet as many people as possible, and I try to see as many different organizations, understand different facets of the community. My job as a leader is to understand the challenges that are being faced by Canadians and the solutions that are being developed within the communities in many senses. So you can’t get that from a stop-over, quick rally where you deliver a speech and escape out the back. So for me, this is the nice thing about this trip as opposed to last trips. My last trip was with the environment committee and it was very much focused on industry, meeting various industry partners and seeing the scope of the oil sands operation. And that was very useful. But this was much more about the people and the community here, and that’s really exciting.
Q: Did you learn anything new about our region or did anything surprise you?
A: I had no idea until I got here, just how incredibly diverse Fort McMurray has become. I assumed that the diversity was, well, you’ve got Albertans here, and you’ve got Atlantic Canadians here. That was sort of what I had always heard about Fort McMurray. But you’ve got people from every corner of the country. Obviously a huge contingent of proud Atlantic Canadians, but a really strong Muslim community, a really strong multi-cultural community in general, a really great core francophone community as well, which is always fun for me to discover. So I’m really excited to see the extent to which the country has converged on Fort McMurray and the opportunity it provides.
Q: Was it your father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, that got you interested in politics in the beginning, or was it a deep-seeded desire in you?
A: What I got from my father was a sense that the responsibility we have as individual citizens is to find our way of shaping the world around us. I got to see through my father that he was able to make a real impact in the world with his job. And I knew that that was something that I wanted to do but I also knew that politics wasn’t necessarily the only way to do it. It could have been, and it was for me, through teaching first, as a high school teacher, and then as an environmental activist. As a youth advocate, I was involved in all sorts of different good causes in community organizations and then I came to politics very differently than my father did. My father came with a mindset of specific things that he wanted to accomplish that he had thought deeply in an academic fashion, and written about. He had a set of solutions around multiculturalism, bilingualism, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the constitution that he wanted to achieve. For me? It’s very much more about the process - the process of engaging Canadians, about working the ground, about earning the right to be a voice that represents Canada.
Q: Take us back to Justin pre-leader and politics. The Justin then was just as fun-loving and easy-going, but I feel like you’ve really matured a lot since then. You’ve really grown a lot as a politician. Take us on the journey to today.
A: My role as an MP when I was here in 2009 with the environment committee was very much about learning how to be a good voice for the people of Papineau, and be one of the team, very much learning how to be a hard-working, backbench opposition MP. And there was a lot less responsibility but also a lot less opportunity to engage with the big issues the way I’ve been able to since then. I’m able to follow my intellectual curiosity in every possible direction. Today on the Suncor tour I was grilling the mechanics on what kind of maintenance schedule they need for the wheels and then I was grilling the folks in charge at Suncor about how they were going through the process of upgrading and the difference between synthetic crude and diluted bitumen and what that impact on pipeline transfers are. And then I got to talk about wetlands and reclamation with the environmental experts in the reclaimed tailings ponds. For me to be able to be so widely interested in so many different things is something that I can do as leader because my job is to have a vision of how the country and all the different moving parts within it come together. And for me, I’m constantly stimulated and challenged by the intellectual opportunities around me.
Q: As someone who constantly puts himself behind different causes, which ones are you especially passionate about right now?
A: Right now I have to say that the one that I spend just about all of my time on is that of restoring a sense of hope and optimism to the Canadian political system. The way I’m choosing to rebuild the Liberal party is very much linked to the way I think democracy should operate. This means getting away from the negativity, the cynicism, the attacks, the politics of division, and that means being more authentic, more open, more engaging, listening as much as I’m speaking, and learning as much as I’m telling. It’s a completely different approach to politics. I understood that the only way the next government is going to actually be able to solve some of the challenges we’re facing with this current government is if we make sure that we’re not busy dividing people and fostering cynicism and creating negative impressions and cynicism around politics. So I truly believe in a form of active engaged citizenship that is positive and filled with critical thinking and intellectual rigor. And we’re not there right now. And that’s really what I’m working on. But at the same time I’m involved in supporting all sorts of different causes that have come forward from cancer organizations to mental illness, to helping the Red Cross in disaster relief. The big one that I’m involved in these days is I’m busy writing a book that is going to have all profits go to the Canadian operations of the Red Cross because having lived through High River and Lac-Mégantic last year, I’m incredibly inspired by what the amazing volunteers with the Red Cross do.
Q: Last night I was having a conversation with a really big community booster in Fort McMurray, and I asked him, “What would you ask Justin Trudeau?” And he said, “Find out this: I’ve heard recently that of Americans, 1 out of 100 can recognize Stephen Harper as Prime Minister, but more and more people are associating Canada with Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. Why do you think you could be the one that could change the Canadian brand and image, not just for Americans, but abroad, and how do you think you’re going to be able to do that?” Is it some of that legacy piece, or is it kind of what you’re already doing now?
A: I think Canada has a role to play on the World’s stage, greater than the role that we’re playing now. There is a tradition of Canadians being diplomats and peacekeepers and it is important that even as a middle power we punch above our weights, as we have historically. We’ve proven that from the trenches of WWI to the beaches of WWII, to being a buffer and a voice for nuclear disarmament during the Cold War, our stepping forward on responsibility to respect, our landmine treaties. The world does look at Canada as a kind of leadership that I think we’re not necessarily providing right now. And I think there’s a moment right now where the world is faced with the proximity to differences that globalization and global supply chains and economic integration are bringing. There is a need for a country that demonstrates how diversity can be strength and not a weakness, and I think people are ready to listen to solutions that work. I think Canada is positioned to play an amazing role on the world’s stage. That role is in multilateralism, in international relations, but also as a place where people look to invest and to grow. When you look at our geographic situation, access to the US market, East back to Europe, West across the Pacific, when you look at our political stability in this country, our incredible natural resources, our greatest resource being our human resources, Canada has every advantage going for it in the 21 century. I know the Canadians are just waiting for an opportunity to step up and be a part of that and that’s how I see this country with the core of my being and I’m certainly hoping to be able to point out that there is another kind of politician than Rob Ford in Canada.
Q: You’ve said Fort McMurray has been neglected in Ottawa and we need to stand up for ourselves and not take it anymore. You seem to really get that perception and that kind of feeling and sentiment in Fort McMurray. What do you think you can do as a Liberal Party Leader, and through Kyle Harrietha the local candidate? What can we do to change that role in Ottawa and to get ourselves a stronger voice on the critical infrastructure we need and the truth that we’re the arguably the economic engine of the economy?
A: I think there’s something deeply out of balance because as you’ve said, as we know, this community, Fort McMurray gives an awful lot to the economy of the entire country. There is an incredible amount of hard work that people do here. But at the same time, I think that’s a little bit taken for granted. People sometimes sort of shrug at the challenges of this region. Talking to Mayor Blake yesterday, she was telling me how much of a challenge it is to get the kinds of infrastructure investments from the federal government that we feel that people here need. On April 1, this government slashed 87% of the funding for the building Canada infrastructure fund. And that’s funds that help communities that are feeling pressured to establish infrastructure that they need. And for me, Fort McMurray is a particularly clear example of where we need that kind of investment. However, if you were to ask Conservatives in Ottawa where their safest seat is, they’d say Northern Alberta, the oil sands, we have that brand and we don’t have to worry about it. Well, you know what? I’m glad to say that people are looking with a very critical eye and the fact that the voice they send to Ottawa ends up just being Mr. Harper’s voice back in their communities spewing talking points instead of being a strong and real voice for them. And I think that there is an opportunity with this by-election to send such a clear message to Ottawa that Fort McMurray will not be taken for granted.
Q: Pipelines, Gateway, Keystone. I know that you’re spoken in support of more access for Canada’s oil sands exports. Do you want to tell me more and this and how you plan to develop them?
A: I am in support of getting our resources to market. I think it’s one of the most important roles that the Canadian Prime Minister has traditionally had. Through 150 years of our existence, and even before that when we weren’t a full country, getting resources to market from fur, the forests to grain to now fossil fuels is an extremely important responsibility that the Canadian government has. So I am supportive of pipelines that are done right and done in the right place. And done in such a way that they have social license from the communities that they pass through from the First Nations communities that are affected by and that are mindful about our responsibility towards the environment, towards the land, the ecosystems, the waterways.
However, it’s not just about the environment anymore. It has become a challenge around market access. The Keystone XL pipeline is not being approved right now, or has been delayed in its approval process because this government has not demonstrated to its allies or even to its citizens, that it is serious about developing it in a responsible way. And that’s why I am in favour of infrastructure projects that will export our energy that are done the right way. I am in favour of the Keystone Excel, I am very much in favour of the west/east pipeline, I am in favour of the Line 9 reversal. I have actually come down against the Northern Gateway Pipeline because I don’t feel that a pipeline through the Great Bear rainforest, putting large tankers passage to Kitimat has been properly thought through or has got the right kind of social license to do it.
But I know how important it is to get our landlocked oil resources to market, particularly to market at the Pacific. So I truly hope that as proposals come forward, there is going to be a complete effort to get the social and community and environmental license that is going to be needed because bottom line...and this is what this government doesn’t understand: Government grant permits but only communities can grant permission. Only Canadians can grant permission. And that is where we’ve lost a lot of time and a lot of energy on trying to take shortcuts that are going to leave us further from market access than where we were before...than where we should be right now.
Q: You have said that a good citizen needs to step up and serve when you think you can make a positive difference. What does that mean for the average Canadian?
A: Look at what the average Canadian is involved in. Even though people are stressed out, their jobs, their mortgages, their kids, school or orthodontists bills or their parents’ health care or retirement. Even still, Canadians are still extremely involved as volunteers, as people who are active in coaching little league, soccer or hockey. They are present in their communities as mentors, volunteers at charitable events, helping out in community organizations, taking a stand on big issues. Canadians are already plugged in and aware of the community they’re a part of. A great example are the firefighters who are doing the rooftop campout this weekend here in Fort McMurray to raise awareness and money for local organizations and the number of people who are going to come out to support them and encourage them. We are incredibly community-minded as Canadians, and that’s what it is to be a citizen and to highlight that, and to reinforce that, and to get people to understand the politics at its best as an extension of that and that is one of my goals and visions for politics.
Q: Fort McMurray has the lowest voter turnout at all levels of government - provincially, federally, and municipally. What do you think you can do to help drive that participation within this region specifically?
A: I can give people a real choice. Just the fact that there’s actually going to be a contested by-election that nobody can take anybody’s voice for granted in this upcoming byelection is something that I think is going to give people a real motivation to say, “My vote, my voice matters.”
It’s always great when federal leaders come to visit our region. If you know of any others who would like the opportunity to be featured in our publication, and to chat about our awesome part of the world as well as our issues, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.