One of the last questions of the morning came from a little girl sitting near the back of the banquet hall in Peterborough, Ont. She looked seven, maybe eight, and was wearing a pink shirt. “Why did you choose to run for Prime Minister?” she asked.
Justin Trudeau smiled. “What was I thinking?” he replied. Everyone laughed.
“I’ve been lucky in my life,” the Prime Minister continued. “I’ve been very, very lucky, and I recognize that. I got to go to great schools, I got to meet amazing people around the world: kings, queens, Aga Khans, popes—a broad range of amazing people.”
Aga Khans? Wait, did he really just say that?
It happened so fast the intent was hard to spot. Was Trudeau poking fun at himself, acknowledging the private-helicopter controversy that has overshadowed the first leg of his nationwide “listening” tour? Or did he genuinely slip up, hoping that if he kept on talking nobody would notice?
They did notice, of course. Within seconds, the crowd was buzzing—a mix of jeers and applause.
Anne Kingston joins our politics podcast to discuss Trudeau’s tour:
All told, Trudeau held court in Peterborough for barely an hour Friday morning, taking questions from 11 audience members on day two of his reconnecting-with-Canadians road trip. Some queries were softballs (one young boy asked him what it was like to have a Prime Minister for a father). Others were even easier (“Will you be attending the grand reopening of the Canadian Canoe Museum later this summer?”) But to suggest, as some have, this is some kind of charade—a jaunt through Liberal-friendly venues—would be wrong. There were plenty of tense moments, even before the PM’s unexpected Aga Khan reference.
“I don’t know much about Liberals or Conservatives or any of that,” one woman, later identified as Kathy Katula, told Trudeau. “I’m just a Christian, single, hard-working mom who lives in rural Buckhorn, Ont. I have overcome many things in my life, many hardships: from growing up in a single-parent household, to being a rape victim, to recovering from meningitis in the brain and undergoing multiple operations to survive for my family, to recovering from a medical error that left me in a coma for three days—and being told I will never walk again. But I’m here today, Mr. Trudeau, very honoured and proud to be a Canadian.”
Holding back tears, Katula described how she overcame her illness, went back to college, found a job as a personal support worker, and eventually purchased a house. “I bought that home and I’m proud,” she continued. “But something is wrong now, Mr. Trudeau: my heat and my hydro now cost me more than my mortgage.”
The crowd erupted in applause. “Shame!” some audience members yelled. “Shame!”
“How,” she went on, “is it justified for you to ask me to pay a carbon tax when I only have $65 left in my paycheque every two weeks to feed my family?” More applause.
Trudeau stood there and listened, berated on camera like few prime ministers ever have. (It didn’t take long for Twitter to chime in, either. Former Conservative MP Jason Kenney, now running for Alberta’s PC leadership, described the video this way: “Trust fund millionaire who parties @ Davos & flies to billionaire’s private island lectures desperate middle class woman on ‘carbon pricing.’ ”)
“Your strength, your determination, is an inspiration and an example to us all,” Trudeau said, when it was finally his turn to speak. “We are a country in which anyone with a quarter of your strength, of your drive, should be thriving and focused on how you are going to spoil your grandchildren with all your energy, as opposed to how you are going to get through the week or the day.”
Although Trudeau pointed out the obvious—that hydro bills are a provincial jurisdiction, not a federal one—he did acknowledge that his government’s plan to price carbon emissions is “causing consternation amongst a broad range of people, and I understand.” He also said it will be up to provinces to redistribute the money they receive from the carbon tax so that people like Katula aren’t left to struggle.
“We need to get off fossil fuels,” he said. “We need to make this transition.”
Speaking of transition, Trudeau’s most controversial comment of the day came after a question about the newly approved Kinder Morgan pipeline, and how it fits into the Liberals’ plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “I’ve said time and time again, and you’re all tired of hearing me say it: You can’t make a choice between what’s good for the environment and what’s good for the economy,” he said. “We can’t shut down the oil sands tomorrow. We need to phase them out.”
Phase them out? Trudeau was still in Peterborough when the backlash began.
“The verdict is in,” said a statement released by Wildrose Leader Brian Jean. “Prime Minister Trudeau has confirmed Albertans’ worst fears about his Liberal government and its plans for our energy sector. By vowing to ‘phase out’ the oil sands, Mr. Trudeau has declared his true feelings towards our province, and Western Canada as a whole.”
The Prime Minister wrapped up his Peterborough Q&A just before noon, then posed for some photos as he made his way to the back of the room. At 12:30 p.m., when he returned to the banquet hall for a press conference, reporters grilled him—yet again—about his Christmas vacation at the Aga Khan’s private island at the Bahamas. (On Thursday, Trudeau admitted that he travelled to the island on the Aga Khan’s private helicopter, an apparent breach of the Conflict of Interest Act.)
“How much do you think Canadians actually care that you took a private helicopter belonging to the Aga Khan to Bell Island?” one reporter asked.
“I have said a number of times this was our personal family vacation, and any questions that the Ethics Commissioner has, and that Canadians have, we are happy to engage with,” Trudeau replied. “I think what we’ve had is conversations today which highlight that Canadians are worried about the future, they are worried about the economy, they are worried about growth for the middle class.”
The reporter asked again. “I need to follow up on that because I don’t believe, with respect, that you’ve answered the question,” he said. “The question is very simply: How much do you think Canadians care that you took a private helicopter to Bell Island?”
Trudeau: “The fact is I’ve been engaging with Canadians over the past two days in coffee shops and town halls on a broad range of issues, and the issues they are talking about are issues that affect themselves, their kids, our environment, our economy. I will continue to answer any questions they have.”
On to the next stop.