Few platforms on the international stage are as much like church pulpits as the United Nations General Assembly. Leaders go to preach to the world and Canadian leaders can be as preachy as any. Give Justin Trudeau credit for giving that a twist.
He went to the UN and spoke of Canada's historic and continuing failure in dealing with Indigenous peoples, about breached treaties and boil-water advisories, displaying past and present shames.
There is already, quite rightly, debate about whether Mr. Trudeau's government at home is living up to the Prime Minister's words in New York. There will be people who think he talked Canada down on the world stage or skipped serious international issues.
As a speech from the global pulpit, however, it was a coup. Preaching sounds different when you talk about your own sins.
Canada's colonial past, he told the UN, was for its Indigenous people mostly an experience of "humiliation, neglect and abuse." Today, he said, there are children living on reserve "who cannot safely drink, or bathe in, or even play in the water that comes out of their taps." He said there's now an opportunity for reconciliation: "In partnership with Indigenous peoples, we're moving ahead with a through review of federal laws, policies and operational practices, to get our house in order."
Domestically, he made a vast promise and Mr. Trudeau rightly called it uncharted territory. Making it in a highly visible moment on the world stage means he will face repeated pressure to account for it. It amplifies the broad, unfulfilled platform promises he made in the 2015 election campaign, rather than minimizing them.
Internationally, this admission of wrongs still not righted was surprisingly relevant to a long list of global issues. And this was, let's be clear, a Prime Minister campaigning for a seat on the UN Security Council, and on that score, it was also shrewd.
It was not the kind of homily world leaders typically use when they go to the UN. There's often bluster and calls for others to change. Leaders tout their own nation's greatness and demand others do better. Delegates from the UN's 193 members, including presidents and prime ministers in New York for the annual event, have been focused on Donald Trump's warning that North Korea could be destroyed, and his demand that Iran renegotiate a nuclear deal. Along comes Mr. Trudeau saying, "Canada is not a wonderland," and he will probably get kudos for tone alone. To reporters after the speech, Mr. Trudeau even cited the Sermon on the Mount in describing why he chose this particular homily, saying he wanted to address how Canada will "take care of the beam in our eyes as we engage with others' motes."
Admitting historical wrongs is itself a decent display for a world with lingering conflicts, and admitting continuing ones is obviously relevant as Myanmar's Rohingya flee. The UN membership has no shortage of countries with marginalized minorities and Indigenous peoples. Mr. Trudeau linked the need to improve clean water, education and decent work for Canada's Indigenous people with the UN's sustainable development goals, normally applied to poorer countries of the developing world.
Admission aids credibility, too: It will be that much harder for Iranian and Chinese officials to avoid addressing concerns about human rights in their countries by pointing to the lot of Canada's Indigenous people.
Of course, you can criticize Mr. Trudeau's speech for being a way to dodge important international questions, which, by definition, it was. He didn't call out Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar's government for failing to protect the Rohingya minority. He didn't address North Korea, and invite comparisons to Mr. Trump. He avoided talking about his unfulfilled promise to return Canada to UN peacekeeping.
And, of course, UN speeches by Canadian prime ministers don't shake the world. But it's a safe bet this one will filter into the global narrative about Canada. Let's hope it's more than a humblebrag in a UN campaign. The test will come in followup Indigenous issues at home, of course. In a week where leaders preach, however, he found a novel way to speak to the world by making the sermon about home.