An interview with Justin Trudeau

The Prime Minister talks to Paul Wells about managing expectations, the housing market and the weirdness of Canada-U.S. relations

Justin Trudeau in his office on Parliament Hill, Ottawa, ON. (Photograph by Jessica Deeks)

For an interview that first appeared today on City’s Breakfast Television, Justin Trudeau welcomed Maclean’s into his Centre Block office. The Prime Minister was in a relaxed and chatty mood. Behind him at last was a bruising parliamentary session, and polls that showed the Liberals’ popularity dipping slightly from its level a year earlier. Ahead lay opportunities to sharpen his economic message as the halfway point in his march to the 2019 election approached. All around were dangers—a wildly unpredictable neighbour, U.S. President Donald Trump and a young and untested new Opposition leader across the aisle, Conservative Andrew Scheer.

 

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Q: There’s a great, old photo of you and your brothers on the lawn of Parliament Hill, watching the celebrations with your dad. You’ve now been Prime Minister long enough to have a sense of what it’s like as a Prime Minister who’s a father in Ottawa. Is it different for your kids than it was for you and your brothers?

A: I think there are differences. I mean, social media, selfies, the kind of attention that one gets. But the substance isn’t that different. Figuring out how to raise kids who are grounded, despite the fact that they live pretty lucky and extraordinary lives where they get to meet presidents and kings and queens, and have them be able to be normal kids with a normal family life—play basketball with them after school, help them with their homework, go for hikes that they don’t want to go on on the weekend as a family. These kinds of experiences shaped my life much more than everything else, all the fanciness and the crowds, and certainly, I hope that that’s what’s shaping their lives.

Q: What are you celebrating this Canada Day? There’s so much going on, but what does it mean to you this year?

A: It’s strange because celebrating Canada 150 is almost by definition looking back over 150 years. Look at all this way we’ve come over 150 years. But that’s not the way I think. Yes, there’s a lot to be proud of in the past, but I try to very much be focused on the future. The four themes we picked this year—diversity and inclusion; youth; environment; and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples—are all very much present and future emphases. How we move forward on these issues, how we imagine what the next 150 years could be, is what I’m very much focused on.

Q: You mentioned reconciliation with Indigenous people. We see roadside signs that say Canada 150, Mi’kmaq 13,000, and newspaper articles that say Canada 150 is a celebration of Indigenous genocide. What do you say to people who say there’s nothing to celebrate?

A: Canada has some very, very dark histories, from internments to turning away the St. Louis and the Komagata Maru, but none is darker than our abject failure to respect rights, the spirit and intent of the original treaties with First Nations, Métis Nation, and Inuit peoples. We have to transform that relationship. And there’s a lot of people who are rightly skeptical because, over generations, despite good intentions from time to time, terrible things have happened. I go into this very, very open-eyed and aware of the kind of work we need to do, and, quite frankly, the work that’s going to stretch over generations.

Q: I’m sure you’re getting a chance to take the measure of the challenge. Before the election in 2015, you promised to eliminate long-term—

A: Boil water.

Q: Yeah, boil water advisories in Indigenous communities. There were 133 such advisories when you made that promise; there’s 135 now. Is it harder than you thought it would be?

A: We always knew it was going to be a hard challenge. That’s why, quite frankly, we gave ourselves five years. Because fixing boil water advisories are of themselves an important challenge, but they’re also indicators of huge structural, governance, investment, infrastructure problems that need to be fixed. So if you can fix boil water advisories, you’re also going a long way towards fixing a whole bunch of other things that are challenges. We’re working very hard. We’ve taken a number of communities off [the boil water list], and in a long-term way as well, because that’s what you really need. Making sure we’re making the right long-term investments is taking a little while, but it’s because we need to get to a place where, once we do it, they’re done, and we’re still very much on track to meet our five-year deadline.

Q: Your government is at the halfway point in its mandate. If I was a young, progressive voter in Vancouver—three things I’m not—and I had voted Liberal in 2015 hoping I’d have a government that would relax the rules around pot, block pipelines and deliver democratic reform, I would be wondering what happened to those Liberals by now. Do you worry about the weight of expectations?

A: I’ve actually been extremely consistent with what we promised and what we’ve committed to doing. On marijuana, it was never around relaxing the rules; it was always about controlling and regulating the sale of marijuana to better protect our kids from having the easy access they have now, and to take the billions of dollars of profits out of the pockets of criminals.

On pipelines, I always said we’re going to protect the environment and we’re going to build the economy. We’re going to do them both at the same time. And we did approve a few pipelines, and say no to some others, and we’re doing it in a responsible way.

Q: I want to talk a little bit about the economy. Are you worried that a correction to that housing market could drag the whole economy down? And is this really something that the federal government has no possible levers over?

A: We do have levers, and we’ve used some. The finance minister moved forward on some rules around mortgages that have made a significant difference. We’re also moving forward for the first time in well over 10 years on a national housing strategy. The federal government is investing $11.5 billion in housing, particularly low-income and affordable housing. We also have done the kinds of things in terms of putting more money in the pockets of the middle class that make a difference. We lowered taxes on the middle class, we raised them on the wealthiest one per cent. We delivered a Canada Child Benefit and it’s going to lift hundreds of thousands of kids out of poverty.

Q: Your government is moving heaven and earth to get talented, mobile, young knowledge workers to move to Canada. They would likely move to Vancouver and to Toronto. Is it an obstacle for them that those are such expensive cities to live in?

A: You know, one of the great things about Canada is we’re seeing development of hubs of really innovative success right across the country, from Kitchener and Waterloo to Montreal to the west end of Ottawa, to great work being done in Edmonton and in Calgary and elsewhere.

We’re getting companies to invest in Canada, to expand their workforces, to do more R&D. I think people are looking at Canada and realizing we’re a place that is building for the long term and where the world’s going to be.

Q: Your new friend, Emmanuel Macron, the President of France, has whole websites saying look, if you’re sick of the United States, come here. Are you tempted by a more overt marketing strategy like that or not?

A: You know, I don’t think we need to go the whole overt way. Silicon Valley already recruits more people from University of Waterloo than any other institution in the world. There are more and more start-ups and companies that are getting money from elsewhere, from Silicon Valley, and staying and creating success here in Canada. So we’re just going to continue doing what we do, demonstrate the ease of doing business in Canada, the access to capital, the capacity that we have to bring in qualified talent. There’s a great story, and we’re telling it not in an aggressive way, but in a very clear way around the world.

Q: A lot of this involves you personally acting as the pitchman for Canada, going to meet with the head of the Qatar Development Agency from the Middle East, going down to Texas and meeting with CEOs from the big tech and industrial firms. Do you think that Canadians really understand why you’re hobnobbing with billionaires as much as you are? And do you find that you’re spending more time as a pitchman than you would have expected?

A: You know, I think Canada has a great story, and I’m glad to tell it. And if there’s a moment where the world is paying a little more attention to Canada, well, I think it’s important to try and capitalize on that. And we’ve had great successes. Whether it’s Thomson-Reuters moving their global headquarters back to the GTA, whether it’s Microsoft making significant investments in Vancouver, or whether it’s GE opening up an engine plant in Welland. So I’m glad to be highlighting that. But I’m also working very, very hard here at home to deliver on the kinds of things that Canadians expect. We announced recently massive investments in public transit in Ottawa, in Montreal and elsewhere. These are infrastructure dollars that are going to create good jobs now and growth and quality of life for a generation.

Q: I’ve heard it said that there’s more work coming on addressing the sense of fairness that people are seeking in the economy. There’s some talk of tax measures coming in the fall that would make it clearer that the rich have to  pay their fair share. Is that something that we can look forward to?

A: The very first thing we did when we came into office was lower taxes on the middle class and raise them on the wealthiest one per cent. And we’ve said that throughout, that that’s the lens at which we look at taxes and fairness on. We’ve had a long stretch of low growth for our economy, and people feel that the hard work they’ve done just hasn’t given them the kind of opportunities or confidence that it has for the one per cent or even the 0.1 per cent. We need to make sure that everyone’s pulling their weight and doing their fair share.   Canadians get that, including the wealthy Canadians I talk to. [They] understand that we’re all better off when everyone has a real and fair chance to succeed.

Q: So more new measures along those lines coming?

A: We’re looking to make sure things are fair, and we’re always looking at ways to lower taxes for the middle class and raise them on the wealthiest one per cent.

Q: Chrystia Freeland, the Foreign Minister, got an awful lot of attention for a speech she gave in the House of Commons in which she said that Canada has to follow its own clear, sovereign course. That was read, especially by a lot of American commentators, as ‘too bad, so sad’, the United States. We got along for 150 years, but now we have to make our own way in the world. Were people reading appropriately into that one line or not?

A: I don’t see that it’s that much of a difference from what Canada has always done. We’ve always had our own position, our own course in the world, whether it was engaging with Cuba, whether it was, you know, looking for differences in our foreign policy with the United States. The fact is we’re always going to be interwoven with the American economy, and that’s why it’s important to have a good, strong, constructive relationship with whoever the American President is and whatever administration it is, whatever their priorities. We will always work constructively together. But at the same time, Canadians expect us to stand up for our own values, to make our own choices, whether it’s around climate or multilateral institutions, and that’s exactly what we’re going to keep doing.

Q: There’s a lot of pressure and a lot of expectation that the young Prime Minister of Canada will lead the global resistance against Trump. And I get the impression that’s actually just about the last thing you’d like to do because Canadians are also saying don’t screw up Canadian jobs that depend on trade with the United States. How is that balancing act going?

A: I’m very much a reflection of what Canadians have told me, not just over the past year and a half but over the past years, past decades of my childhood, of having been a teacher across the country, having met and chatted with Canadians of every possible background. People don’t expect us to lecture or hector or try and shake our fist at the world. They want us to work hard, succeed, and be a good example on things that we’ve figured out. So whether it’s figuring out how to make a country stronger based on diversity rather than looking at weaknesses through differences, whether it’s about being open to trade and knowing that that can create good jobs for people, or whether it’s charting an independent course in how we engage with the world, this is what Canadians expect. And you know, there’s no sense that ‘oh, we have to go and pick fights around the world.’ It’s much more of how can we help, how can we be productive and constructive. That’s what I’m going to do.

Q: In this context, as you seek free trade potentially with China, and as your Trade Minister’s spending a lot of time in the Pacific Region, is there a strategic interest too? Do you sense that China might supplant older powers as a new power in the world?

A: I think Canadians expect us to take advantage of geography. I mean, Canada has always been lucky enough to have access to the U.S. market through the longest undefended border in the world. We have traditional ties back to Europe that have been strengthened with the Canada-Europe free trade deal. And we know that there’s a lot of opportunity in rising economies across the Pacific. So whether it’s looking for new markets for our agricultural products or partnerships in manufacturing or opportunities for Canadians to succeed, we’re absolutely looking at China and India and deepening our ties with Japan. It just makes sense for us to be engaging constructively and productively everywhere we can.

 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.