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The Globe and Mail

Trudeau needs to bring hope back to Canada's rust belt

Neil from London's moment in the spotlight was inevitably brief.

The most visibly disappointed of the 10 Canadians given a chance to interview Justin Trudeau in a CBC special aired last Sunday, Neil Piercey – a 58-year-old victim of southwestern Ontario's manufacturing jobs drying up, who can't find decent-paying work and described cashing out his RRSP to keep his house – briefly provided fodder for the Prime Minister's critics. Mr. Trudeau, the NDP rightly charged the following day, had offered nothing but "empty platitudes" about what comes next for people such as Mr. Piercey. But this was hardly sending shock waves through the country, and by the end of the week everyone had moved on.

Mr. Trudeau's response was unsettling enough that it should not fade from memory so quickly. Because the opportunity to discuss how to bring hope back to Canada's rust belt is one that the new PM should have leapt at. Instead, he skated through it in a way that suggested he has yet to give the matter almost any thought at all – promising extra support for seniors who lack pensions, as Mr. Piercey apparently will, but offering nothing about what his government will do for people in that part of the country still in their working years.

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The long-standing challenges facing Canada's old industrial heartland – the southwestern area of Ontario that's home to roughly two million people, as well as some eastern corners of that province and swaths of Quebec – have been somewhat overshadowed lately by the resource sector's woes. But the fact that its troubles are less new does not make them less significant; perhaps the contrary, now that the rest of the country can't rely on Alberta to help prop it up.

Nor can the dollar's recent plunge be expected to bring back in large numbers the factories lost during its rise to parity the past decade, when nobody is sure how long it will stay low. A more realistic expectation is that it might help keep some manufacturers that haven't left yet, and perhaps increase their workloads, giving a bit of runway for more lasting economic reinvention.

How to encourage that sort of reinvention could be expected to seize a young prime minister with activist impulses. It's a chance to build on the bones of once-proud cities, investing in skills development, research and other components in attracting advanced manufacturers and other providers of the jobs of tomorrow.

Perhaps Mr. Trudeau didn't go down that path with Mr. Piercey because the jobs of tomorrow aren't for him. But there are a lot of people like him – too old to suddenly learn new skill sets but too young not to work – who can't just be abandoned if their towns are to move forward. And there were ways Mr. Trudeau could have tried to offer hope.

Most obviously, if also most contentiously, he could have talked about more aggressively trying to attract traditional manufacturers to locate or expand here. Much of the impetus for auto companies to choose the southern United States and Mexico, often understated here, has been enormous financial incentives offered by government. Canada's subsidization has been comparatively modest, and it could choose to get more into that game. (Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains seemed inclined toward that in an interview on Friday, saying "there is a role for government to play" and he's willing to approach it "on a case-by-case basis," but it's unclear how much it is on Mr. Trudeau's radar yet.)

He could have asked Mr. Piercey what sort of retraining the government has offered him, and what more could be done to make it more useful to him.

He could have talked about infrastructure spending, which his government has promised to ramp up nationally. London, for instance, is currently asking Ottawa for $300-million toward modernizing its transit system – something that could both make it more attractive to future investors, and in the meanwhile offer construction work.

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He could have tried to explain how an increased focus on innovation – more research and development funding, help with growing startups, better integration of universities into local economies – might create ancillary jobs.

And if all else failed, since Mr. Piercey mentioned his family, Mr. Trudeau could have talked about how long-term economic development strategies might enable his kids or his grandkids to build a good life in their hometown.

None of these would have been perfect answers. Some of them might not even have been good ones. And it's entirely possible that none of them would have prevented Mr. Piercey from leaving the room disappointed.

But there are too many Neils from London for Mr. Trudeau to have had no answer at all. A Prime Minister who came to office on a wave of optimism needs to find a way to provide a bit of it even to the sorts of hard-hit people who only rarely and fleetingly turn up on Ottawa's radar.

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