As world politics grow increasingly polarized, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is making a case for a more progressive and inclusive world.
Young, energetic and charismatic, Prime Minister (PM) Justin Trudeau’s rise to the top of Canadian politics has been nothing short of remarkable. The 47-year-old is the eldest son of the late Pierre Trudeau, who served as the country’s premier from 1968 to 1984 and was one of Canada’s most influential political figures. But despite growing up in the public eye, the younger Trudeau’s early career seemed to suggest that he was destined for a life outside politics. His path towards parliament was unconventional at best – having previously been a ski instructor and a high school teacher.
It was only in 2000 that he rose to prominence after delivering a nationally televised eulogy at his father’s funeral. That moving speech sparked speculation that Trudeau would follow in his father’s footsteps, but he still showed no interest in politics and returned to his teaching job.
Several years later, something changed. In 2007, Trudeau won the Liberal Party nomination in the electoral district of Papineau, and went on to assume the role of the Canadian premier at just 43-years-old, becoming the second youngest person to ever hold the post.
Today, PM Trudeau stands as a political inspiration. Speaking out in support of various causes including feminism, environmental protection, human rights and immigration, he has distinguished himself as one of the loudest voices of social reform on the world stage. On a visit to Singapore in November 2018 for the 33rd ASEAN Summit, PM Trudeau took part in a dialogue session titled “Canada and Asia in a Changing World” held at the National University of Singapore (NUS), where he shared his views on multi-culturalism, globalization, free trade and more.
A picture from 1982 shows 10-year-old Trudeau walking alongside his father Pierre Trudeau, former Prime Minister of Canada, while on a visit to a museum in Lille, France.
With a warm smile and a twinkle in his eye, PM Trudeau kicked off the dialogue session by revealing an interesting connection to Singapore. His great-great-great-great grandmother was Esther Farquhar Bernard, daughter of Major-General William Farquhar, the first British Resident and Commandant of Singapore. Alongside Sir Stamford Raffles, Farquhar is considered one of the founding figures of Singapore, having led the development of the country in its early days.
Considering the distance between Canada and Singapore, PM Trudeau’s ability to trace his roots all the way back to the Lion City is astounding. Speaking of his ancestral history, he commented, “I would not exist if it was not for multi-culturalism.”
It is perhaps PM Trudeau’s personal family history that inspired his deep understanding of the ties that bind humanity together regardless of geographical and cultural differences – an understanding that has influenced his vision for Canada and the world. Referencing his election campaign during the dialogue session, PM Trudeau remarked, “In 2015, we offered a positive, more inclusive view of what the future could be.”
Since his election into office, PM Trudeau has often repeated the slogan that ‘diversity is Canada’s strength’. At a time when the neighbouring US is shutting its borders, Canada is adopting a comparatively more open immigration policy. Under his administration, immigrants form 1% of the country’s total population with top talents able to receive working visas within just two weeks.
“Bringing in strong immigrants to build our communities and future is what has made Canada great over the past generations and will continue to build our success,” says PM Trudeau.
PM Trudeau’s diversity, inclusiveness and openness are refreshing, especially at a time when nationalist sentiments are reshaping the political landscapes of Western democracies. He offers his thoughts on why nationalist sentiments have taken root in today’s society, citing a rapidly changing world as the cause. “People are anxious. People are worried about their jobs, their kids and their place in the global economy.”
But while the world worries, PM Trudeau remains unfazed. Embracing the change, he believes, is the way to move forward. “As a political leader, you have two choices. You can either reflect that anxiety back to people and amplify it to a certain extent; or you can do what we have chosen to do. You can say yes, this is a challenge, but it is a challenge we can overcome together,” he says.
Canada’s answer to keeping up with the changing world is to invest heavily in education, research, science and new industries like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and FinTech, in order to give citizens the confidence to tackle the future. Canada has its eyes set on becoming one of the global leaders in the AI field, having invested millions of dollars into the industry.
“I think it is much better to say, okay, there are changes coming, let us choose to be a part of the change. Let us figure out the tools we have to give to our citizens to start shaping the way this new society is going to look like,” PM Trudeau shares. “That is very much what Canada is choosing to do. We are deciding that we are going to shape the future and we want to be a part of it with the whole world.”
But with the rise of nationalist leaders in countries like Brazil, Austria and the US, one cannot help but wonder if PM Trudeau is one of the last standing bastions of social progressivism. Speaking on the direction in which the world is going, he says, “I trust citizens and the next generation of voters; I trust political activists to understand where the world is going and to reject some of the easy answers that are out there. It is always easier to divide in politics than to bring people together.”
Alluding to his past as a teacher, he continues, “If you have low expectations for your class, they are going to deliver on those low expectations. If you have high expectations, they will deliver on those high expectations. And I find that if you deal with citizens as thoughtful, rational, intelligent actors of society, they will rise to meet you at that level.”
PM Trudeau and wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau (first from left) pictured with Barack and Michelle Obama, former President and First Lady of the US.
A Case For Global Trade
Being the leader of a country with a global superpower as its neighbour may be intimidating for some. Still, PM Trudeau holds his own, standing up against one of world’s biggest economic giants. Immigration is just one area where Canada disagrees with the US. Trade is another source of contention in light of the US’ new protectionist trade policies and tariffs that could undermine global trade. “Canada will always have an independent foreign policy from any other country, including the US,” PM Trudeau asserts. “The big thing we disagree with on the US right now is trade. We do not think that raising tariffs and protectionism is good for our citizens and our industries.”
While the US has pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Canada has signed on to the renegotiated Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CTTPP). Canada is the only Group of Seven (G7) country to have a free trade agreement with every other G7 country. It also entered into the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with the European Union and with a steady hand, renegotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico and an unwilling USA.
“Canada is a country that understands trade and the world, and is ready to make a case for trade that helps everyone succeed,” PM Trudeau shares. “That means making sure that we protect the interests of the labour force, the environment, and the small and medium sized businesses that we know are going to benefit from those deals.”
During the dialogue session at NUS, PM Trudeau shared his thoughts on multi-culturalism, free trade, globalization and more.
A Balancing Act
Every world leader has his or her fair share of critics, and PM Trudeau himself is not immune to criticism. Critics have called him out for always saying the right thing, but never acting on them. For one, PM Trudeau is walking a political tightrope with his plans to build the Trans Mountain Pipeline to export Canada’s oil resources, while portraying himself to be a champion of environmental protection.
Addressing the pipeline issue at the session, PM Trudeau spoke about the importance of rational politics, where leaders strike a middle ground to ensure that the needs of both sides are well addressed. “The people that are concerned with economic progress think it is horrible that we want to set a price on pollution. And the people who just want to protect the environment think that it is horrible that we are building a pipeline to get our resources out. But my confidence is not in the loud voices at the end of each spectrum. My confidence is in ordinary Canadian citizens who get it – that you have to get the balance right. They might disagree with me on exactly where I place the balance, but understand that doing both of those together is how we are going to have to govern.”
The People’s Politician
To strike this middle ground, PM Trudeau is known for his willingness to actively engage the public. He describes organizing annual town halls for the purpose of “answering the public’s questions on any subject they have to bring up”. As a politician in this digital era, PM Trudeau is an active user of social media, which he believes is “another means of connection and communication.”
While social media has been blamed for exacerbating the political polarization we are witnessing in the world today, PM Trudeau believes that citizens have a responsibility to hear each other out. “Being open to what someone has to say is the only way of guaranteeing that they will be open to what you have to say. Maybe you will come out of the conversation having one convinced the other, or maybe you will both come to a more nuanced understanding of each other. That is what politics and public discourse is supposed to be about.”
The Prime Minister concluded the session in true Trudeau fashion, making a call for more people to embrace diversity and exercise greater tolerance in our pursuit for a peaceful world. “The more we talk to each other, learn from each other; trade with each other, respect each other; and understand that our differences are actually the source of our greatest strength and resilience as communities and as a world, the better off we will all be in the lives we are building together.”
The Canadian Prime Minister poses for a selfie with NUS students.
This article was first printed in MillionaireAsia Issue 50 - Dec 2018