Describing it as one of those hinge moments in history that prompts fundamental change around the world, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the pandemic will irrevocably alter Canada as well.
“The last big one was the Second World War,” Mr. Trudeau said. “I think we all sense we’re in that time again, building up to a huge pivot point, a moment of interruption but also reflection.”
But it’s not just the pandemic that is creating powerful forces of change in Canada, he said. Record heat waves and a forest fire that razed the town of Lytton, B.C., a week ago, will have an impact on the government’s environmental agenda, said the Prime Minister. And the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves situated near former residential schools has horrified the country and brought calls for the government to be far more aggressive with its reconciliation agenda.
And it will, the Prime Minister vowed.
“It’s an extraordinary time in the country’s history,” Mr. Trudeau said here Friday, in his first interview with The Globe and Mail since the past election. “It comes with big challenges but equally big opportunities.”
The Prime Minister wrapped up a week-long, campaign-style tour, that started in Northern Ontario and took him through Western Canada. Along the way, he made the type of multibillion-dollar funding announcements that often presage an election.
At every stop, however, Mr. Trudeau dismissed speculation that Canadians will soon be heading to the polls amid opinion surveys that show his Liberal Party in a strong position to win a majority. The Prime Minister said he’s simply taking advantage of low COVID-19 numbers to finally get out and travel and make announcements on issues the government has been working on.
The trip was punctuated by two political announcements of very different sorts, although each served as reminders of the Prime Minister’s vulnerabilities as a leader.
His decision to name Mary Simon – an Inuk and first Indigenous person to assume the role – as governor-general-designate was universally applauded. But it served to draw attention to the poor judgment the Prime Minister exhibited in previously choosing former astronaut Julie Payette for the role, which she resigned from early amid scandal and controversy.
On Thursday, former Liberal cabinet minister Jody Wilson-Raybould announced in a letter to constituents that she would not be seeking re-election. In it she said Parliament had become “more and more toxic and ineffective while simultaneously marginalizing individuals from certain backgrounds.”
Named by Mr. Trudeau in 2015 as the country’s first Indigenous justice minister, the pair had a falling out over the SNC-Lavalin imbroglio. She was eventually demoted to a lesser portfolio before quitting cabinet altogether. She was kicked out of the Liberal caucus in 2018.
In his first comments on Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s decision, the Prime Minister said he was proud of the work he and his former cabinet colleague had accomplished when she was justice minister. “We all know how difficult politics is,” Mr. Trudeau said. “I know how frustrating and toxic it can be, particularly in an era of polarization and social media.”
Asked if he felt he played a role in her decision to leave federal politics, the Prime Minister said: “There is going to be lots of reflections on who did what, on the personalities, but I’m not going to weigh in on that. I genuinely wish her the best.”
Mr. Trudeau was more animated talking about change that the pandemic has wrought, much of it for good. In B.C., the Prime Minister took part in a child-care announcement, linked to Ottawa’s desire to see $10 a day child care across the country. He said child care is a prime example of a program for which the pandemic is largely responsible.
“It took the pandemic for the business community to understand it’s not just a social program, it’s an economic program, it’s about getting people into the work force,” he said. “It took people working from home to realize what it’s like to try and get work done when kids aren’t going to school, when you don’t have that support.”
The pandemic, he said, has also forced Canadians to look at the systemic racism that exists in our institutions, and are impacting the most vulnerable. He said the federal government is examining how it can rectify this.
“How can we tackle systemic racism in not just our justice and police systems but also in our hospitals and our postsecondary institutions?” Mr. Trudeau said. “How do we address it in our military and within our political system and government? This is a situation that has persisted for far too long and I believe there is finally a willingness to address it in a meaningful way.”
On other matters, the Prime Minister said the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves of children who attended residential schools in Canada has shaken Canadians. He said it has understandably triggered “an awful lot of anger and grief,” in Indigenous communities across the land as well.
Mr. Trudeau said the grim discoveries have produced a seminal moment that will allow Ottawa to push ahead more aggressively with its reconciliation agenda. He took issue with criticism that his government has not moved fast enough in addressing the concerns and needs of the country’s Indigenous peoples. Of the 94 calls to action in the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, the Trudeau government has enacted only 13. Some steps have been taken on 60, while no progress has been made on 21 others.
The Prime Minister pointed to an announcement he made this week in Saskatchewan at the Cowessess First Nation. A landmark agreement returned child-welfare responsibilities to the Cowessess in an effort to reduce the number of Indigenous children in foster care. It was his first visit to the nation since the preliminary discovery last month of 751 unmarked graves near the former Marieval Residential School.
“Some were saying that we were only there because of the discoveries of the unmarked graves,” Mr. Trudeau said. “The fact is, that announcement was five years in the making. These policies take time, and involve a tremendous amount of consultation. I know people are impatient, you’re impatient, but you have to do it the right way. It has to result in lasting change.”
He said reconciliation was not something that just governments needed to embark on, but every Canadian as well. While residential schools taught Indigenous children that they had no culture, no language, that their way of life had no value, he said, non-Indigenous children were being taught that as well.
“The wrong-headed teachings of the residential schools were also implanted into all Canadians through our school system. It led us to come out of our schools and institutions in the 20th century not grounded in respect and understanding and worth and value of Indigenous peoples.
“So there is a healing journey for Indigenous people to work on because of the trauma we’ve inflicted on them over generations, but there is also a healing journey that we have to have as individuals and institutions that have at their base a conception of the lack of worth that is not true.”
Meantime, the Prime Minister spent part of his time in B.C. speaking to emergency-response officials involved in the devastating fire that effectively wiped out the town of Lytton.
Mr. Trudeau said the government has been investing in flood-plain protection and developing better strategies on disaster management response. However, the Liberals remain in the early stages of putting together a national climate-adaptation plan. Specific plans to deal with emergencies such as forest fires and floods aren’t expected to be finished until late next year, and it may be 2023 before there is any funding made available to support those measures.
The Prime Minister said the government has a target of protecting 25 per cent of Canada’s natural habitats. He said wetlands can serve as a firebreak, and a more resilient, biodiverse ecosystem is more resistant to floods and fires.
“Those are things we are doing now that we can accelerate,” he said.
He said the fires and a horrible June heat wave that set more than 1,200 new temperature records across North America have provided the Liberal government with an opportunity to bolster its climate change agenda.
“We simply have to be even more aggressive in our thoughts,” the Prime Minister said. “We recently announced that there will only be zero-emission vehicles sold in Canada by 2035, for light trucks and cars. This creates a positive feedback loop.
“When you begin to make a shift, suddenly the opportunities, the market shifts, the business cases, the pitch to shareholders in investing in capital upgrades, suddenly everything becomes easier and you get a positive feedback loop. I think that’s what you’re seeing now.”
He likened fighting climate change to turning a big ship in the ocean. At first, it doesn’t feel like the boat is moving at all. He said eventually – in the case of climate change policy, we’re talking decades – movement begins to accelerate.
“I think we’ve reached a point over the past five years where you can feel the momentum shift and not a second too soon,” said the Prime Minister.
“People have said we didn’t do it quickly enough. Well, you can’t flip something like the Canadian economy quickly. You need to turn it with steady pressure that pushes back against the inertia of ‘we’ve always done things this way.’ We’re going with the flow now and have real momentum.”
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