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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a town hall at Brock University, in St. Catharines, Ont., on Jan. 15, 2019.

Tara Walton/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday slammed what he called the dictatorship of Venezuela as he tackled audience questions ranging from Canada’s approach to Indigenous issues to immigration and foreign policy.

Speaking at one of a series of election-year town hall meetings across the country, Trudeau reserved some of his harshest words of the evening at Brock University for Nicolas Maduro, the 56-year-old Venezuelan president since 2013 who is presiding over a country in increasing crisis.

Anyone who claims to be a friend of Venezuela or its people, Trudeau said, should stand up and condemn the Maduro government, which he said has been responsible for “terrible oppression” and a humanitarian crisis unseen in South America for decades.

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“All because of an illegitimate dictator named Maduro, who is continuing to not respect their constitution (and) the rule of law,” Trudeau said.

Organizers said about 1,500 people – students and other area residents – filled the campus gymnasium in St. Catharines, Ont., to capacity. Many waited in long lines in the cold night air to get in, while some were turned away for lack of space.

Outside, a small group of oil-pipeline protesters blocked a main entrance to the campus, forcing motorists to find other routes to the event. Inside, the odd heckler tried to make a point but the prime minister, who faces the electorate in October, handled them easily and moved on.

Asked about rising xenophobia in Canada, Trudeau talked about the lack of job security many people feel and their concern the Canadian dream of the post-Second World War will elude them permanently.

“A lot of people are wondering if the promise of progress no longer really holds,” he said. “These are real anxieties.”

At the same time, he said, there are those who would “amplify those fears” for short-term political gain and play to people’s insecurities. He cited the 2015 election in which he said he aimed to stay away from attack ads and strike a positive tone. It’s the same game plan he plans to pursue in October, he said.

“Sometimes, packaging really simple easy-sounding solutions can be very compelling,” Trudeau told the appreciative crowd. “What I’m trying to make sure we do in this coming year of an election year in Canada is come together to have real conversations, make sure there’s room for us to disagree on a certain issue.”

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One audience member asked if Trudeau would retract his condemnation of the anti-Israel boycott, divestment, sanctions movement – BDS. The Liberal leader would have none of it.

The problem, he said, is that resurgent anti-Semitism has become widespread – much of it directed at Israel – and the BDS movement on Canadian campuses has made some students feel threatened.

“We have to be very careful as a society and as a government and as a country not to sanction this new frame around anti-Semitism and undue criticism of Israel,” Trudeau said.

Trudeau was also asked about the situation in northern British Columbia, where the RCMP have acted to break a pipeline blockade by the Wet’suwet’en people.

“You have allowed forcible removal of Wet’suwet’en First Nation people from their land,” the audience member said to loud applause. “Would you please explain in relatable, truthful language why you are allowing this to occur?”

Trudeau responded by saying Indigenous people in Canada have long had the wrong end of the stick. Canada’s government, he said, has for generations failed to live up to the spirit and intent of the original treaties, with residential schools and a skewed legal system the result.

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The Wet’suwet’en situation, he said, is an “unfortunate example” of where Canada hasn’t done well enough, although he said some of their elected officials were in favour of the pipeline.

At the same time, he said Crown-Indigenous relations have improved – even if they have some distance to go.

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