The return of Parliament from summer break on Monday was not a banner day for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The headline news was the defection of one of his MPs, Leona Alleslev, who crossed the floor to join Andrew Scheer’s Conservative Party. It was an ominous start to the session for a government that is already besieged on a number of fronts: Trudeau’s Liberals are renegotiating NAFTA against an erratic White House, trying to salvage the Trans Mountain pipeline, figure out how to push ahead with a carbon tax, and manage the flow of asylum seekers crossing the border from the United States. All with just a year left before the next federal election. (It was, according to Scheer, a “summer of failure” for the government.) In an interview on Monday night before a live audience at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, the Prime Minister spoke with Maclean’s senior writer Paul Wells about this growing list of issues, as well as some of the broader challenges now facing his government, including the rise of populism at home and abroad. This is a transcript of their conversation. It has been edited for clarity.
Q: The kind of rumour around Ottawa is that if you were to write a list of your 10 favourite places to be, the House of Commons might not be on that list.
A: Ten favourite places? It could very well be. It’s an important place. It’s an important place where, no, the level of debate sometimes doesn’t, meet the same bar as you get around a table in a diner or a barbecue, but there are important things achieved and done. And everything the historians will look back on is on record in. There’s a sense of the importance of what we’re collectively doing for Canadians while we pass through the House. The permanence of that building reminds us that we’re passing through for a little while and we’d better do right by all the voices that came before us and all the voices that’ll come later. So I like it as a touchstone. Wouldn’t want to have to spend every single day of the year there, but it’s an important place to respect.
Q: I thought we would settle into the conversation tonight. You have moose socks on. Mine are…
A: They’re Paul Wells socks.
Q: I thought we’d settle in tonight by reminiscing your favourite memories of working with Leona Alleslev, your colleague from Ontario.
A: I remember doing a fundraiser with her when she was a candidate. She was thoughtful about her approach. You know, knew she was in a riding that leaned Conservative, but very excited about giving a chance to hear the kinds of priorities we had and sell them to her constituents, who agreed and supporter her.
I wish her the best in her new choices, and you know, that’s something that happens from time to time in politics. It’s not great, but it’s also not the be-all and end-all. It can be an indicator of larger things; it can be just what it is. And we’ll just stay focused on the things that we’re focused on doing.
Q: She narrowly won her riding in 2015. And in 2018, in the provincial election just finished, the Liberal candidate in that riding got creamed by the Conservative.
A: And that only happened in that riding, right?
Q: I assume someone in your office has done the math.
A: We just had a great caucus meeting in Saskatoon, where people were charged up, excited about the upcoming year, excited about all the things we’ve done, focused on the next things we have to do and the opportunity to campaign with Canadians over the coming year.
Q: Is Doug Ford’s election in Ontario a signal? Are there message—are there lessons that you should learn from that election?
A: I think any election offers its lessons. I don’t know that there’s a lot of them that I would apply directly to us. But certainly looking at the fears and anxieties that are out there is something that I’ve often talked about.
There are political parties out there that do a pretty good job of stoking up those fears and exaggerating the anxieties and looking for clever wedges. I’ve always tried not to do that. I think we’ve focused on bringing people together and putting forward thoughtful solutions that hopefully will allay those fears instead of exaggerating them. But we know that that strain of politics is out there, and as Doug Ford showed, it can be very effective.
Q: Speaking of that strain of politics, I wanted to talk about your relationship with President Trump and the one file there was no way I could avoid talking about, which is NAFTA. Do you have any sense of an end to this story approaching?
A: Every time we get momentum, every time we work together, we do knock off a few more things and move closer to an eventual decision point. We’re not there yet. There were points in the spring where we thought we were perhaps days or weeks away; it turned out not to be the case. We might be days or weeks away now; we might not be.
This is really something that we’re engaged in in a thoughtful and positive way. If there’s a good deal to be had for Canada, which I think there is, then we will look to sign it. If it’s not the right deal for Canada, we won’t sign it. I think that’s what I’ve heard from Canadians as being fairly basic in their expectations of me.
Q: It’s got to be a frustrating process from a communications point of view because it’s swallowing up large parts of your day and most of your Foreign Minister’s job, and yet there’s very limited amounts of it that you could communicate to us because all sides have sworn not to negotiate in public.
A: Yeah, but it’s a really big and really important thing, so I don’t feel that just because we can’t go and shout it from the rooftops every day, I don’t feel that we’re not doing really big things and important things.
Q: Does it, from the inside, feel like a coherent process where the reactions of all parties are logical and consistent with what other sides have said and done, or is it just one damned thing after another?
A: No. I think there certainly are narrative threads to pull from what the president has said and what the negotiators are pushing for. And our job is to stay strong on our positions and look for ways where we can reach to mutually beneficial outcomes.
So the public narrative is not something that I spend a lot of time worrying about, either from our side or their side. We’re just very much focused on trying to do the work and get to the right outcome, which in itself may sound like a simple thing but in these current times is not.
Q: And is it a fluid process? Is it changing all the time, or have you known for weeks or months what concessions you were being demanded of you and what you’re going to have to saw off to get a deal?
A: We’re getting into some of the details that I’d rather not get into. We’ve been very clear for a long time about where our issues were. I’ve been clear with them in public as well. And the Americans have their take on that that is, sometimes consistent and sometimes it evolves.
Q: There are two moments that the Trump administration complains about as having been needless irritants to this process. One is the post-summit news conference that you gave in Charlevoix after the G7, and one is a speech that Minister Chrystia Freeland gave in Washington when she was accepting an award. If you had to play either of those over again, would you do them differently?
A: No. We’d do exactly the same thing.
Q: Why was it real important for Freeland to give that speech in Washington?
A: Because, Canadians expect–particularly with this administration–us as a government to do two very important things. One is have a constructive relationship with the American government; and two, continue to stand up clearly and strongly for our values and our principles and Canadian interests. And doing both of those things simultaneously sometimes bump up against each other, but I think it’s also extremely important to highlight, including to Americans, exactly who we are and where we stand.
Q: Meanwhile, your foreign minister is stuck in Washington for two weeks a month. Is that a lost opportunity, having Freeland so tightly bound to these negotiations?
A: No, I think it’s a reflection of the importance of our relationship with the United States for our economy that we consider that our engagement with the world passes through the work that Chrystia’s doing.
But she’s not down there on her own. She has an extraordinary team of trade negotiators, of support from different offices, from the Ambassador’s office, and there’s a bit of a rotating cast around the table. She’s not always there. But this is something that we’re willing to make sure we take seriously enough to put our best people in.
Q: I want to pull back the international camera a little bit from the NAFTA table and talk about the global situation with regard to democracy. Freedom House is an NGO based out of Washington that releases an annual report on the state of democracy, and their reports have been increasingly worried from year to year. The 2018 report is called The Crisis of Democracy. By their count, in 71 countries around the world, rights and freedoms took a step back, or even more than that, last year. And they say it’s the twelfth consecutive year in which democracy has declined around the world.
A: What did they say about Canada?
Q: OK. Decent. They said Canada’s doing pretty well.
A: That was so hard for him to say, wasn’t it? [Laughter] You’re a very good, impartial journalist, Paul, don’t worry.
Q: I bet if I asked the heads of Freedom House, they would hope that Canada could do even more than it already does to advance the cause of democracy around the world.
Q: Do you have concrete ideas on how that could happen?
A: Oh, very much. We’re hosting a global progress summit, as we did last year, upcoming this weekend in Montreal, where I’ll be sitting down with the new Prime Minister of Spain, who is a strong – a strong progressive voice on the world stage. I have obviously a great working relationship with Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel. They were very helpful in moving forward on the G7 commitments we made.
There’s a lot of people around the world in different ways, even someone like Theresa May, who is not necessarily in exactly the same place in the political spectrum. We have great conversations about protecting our democracy from the erosion of either less democratic states trying to knock us down or tendencies towards polarization around the world.
Q: Where do you suppose those tendencies come from? I mean, we’ve seen troubling trends in Poland, in Hungary, in Italy, to a lesser extent in Turkey, countries that to some extent we thought we could depend on for many years, and now things are going a little sideways. How come?
A: I think it’s a reflection of one of the great challenges in our western, developed economies–actually, quite around the world–is that after the boom years of the past 70 years or so, the middle class in our countries doesn’t feel like it is being well supported as the world is changing around them, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s new technologies, AI, automation, whether it’s new arrivals, whether it’s offshoring of jobs.
There’s a lot of sources of anxiety, and I think there are many political parties and actors who have realized that there is a path to short-term gain by exacerbating those differences, by playing up those fears, by looking to point fingers and lay blame, and that is catching. Fear is contagious. And we’re seeing that success erode some of the public trust in institutions, which then creates a cycle of those institutions becoming less trustworthy.
Q: There’s a constant danger in western democracies, which is that if everyone doesn’t feel like the system is delivering for them, they will reject the system.
A: I’m not sure I agree with that. I think that’s a challenge out there, but I can give you plenty of examples, particularly here in Canada, where people aren’t voting on what is the very best for me, and instead what is going to benefit my community, what is going to benefit my region, what is going to benefit my whole country.
I think if you treat voters like all that’s in it for them is who’s going to come out with the better outcome, who’s going to buy them off better in the election, then they will respond to that. But if you make a compelling case for the direction we’re going in and how we can be better if we all succeed together, then they will rise to that. But it really depends on how you choose to speak to your voters and how you choose to treat them like intelligent, thoughtful, value-driven citizens instead of just, you know, short-term consumers of whatever it is a political party is selling.
Q: Maybe we can test those assertions in a concrete setting, which is the continuing drama/dispute over the people who are walking across the border in Quebec and Ontario and Manitoba.
Q: Sometimes I’ve wondered in this debate over the last few months whether some people–your government–is getting too hung up on vocabulary: are these ‘irregular’ or ‘illegal border’ crossers? Your own Immigration Minister, Ahmed Hussen, has said he uses both terms interchangeably. And then a few months later he called Lisa MacLeod, the Ontario Minister, un-Canadian for because he was taking issue with some of the terms she was using. Is it helpful to play language cop on things like this?
A: I think you have to look at the underlying good we are trying to protect. Canada is one of those few countries in the world right now that is genuinely and positively disposed towards immigration. So we have a country that has seen how the waves of immigration coming to this country have benefited us all and created tremendous prosperity alongside tremendous cultural and neighbourhood richness and resilience.
Protecting that, particularly at this time of division and anxiety around the world, is and should be really job one for all politicians. We can criticize handling it this way, handling it that way. Could you do it better? Could we do this better? But undermining people’s faith in immigration is something that I think has potential dangerous long-term consequences that not everyone might be fully cognizant of.
That’s why, when we talk about it, we’re focused on reassuring people that, yes, this is a challenge, over the past year and a half a lot more people have chosen to leave the United States to come to Canada by crossing the border at a non-legal, at an irregular crossing. It is illegal to cross the border in a non-official point of entry, which means they are illegally crossing, for which they would be arrested were it not for the fact that they’re making an asylum claim. As soon as you make an asylum claim, our responsibility is to flow them through our asylum system. We’re doing that. Yes, it’s a challenge because there are more than have passed before. But we have the resources and we have the capacity to check everyone’s criminal and security records. We have the capacity to put them through our process, and we are applying that process.
So are there things that we can be criticized on it? I’m sure there are, absolutely. But is it something you want to make Canadians panicked about or create fears, or bring newly-arrived Canadians to worry that, because these people are crossing irregularly, somehow their place or their pathways or their parents’ opportunities are less? There’s a bit of pitting communities against communities there that I don’t think serves the country we’re trying to build, regardless of what side of the political spectrum you’re on.
Q: It’s clearly a subject of preoccupation, though. You put Bill Blair in at a senior level as a minister responsible for this. You’ve done some shuffling of cabinet committees around this. This is something that you don’t want to see grow out of hand.
A: No. I think, as I said, protecting Canadians’ positive perception towards immigration is something that every government should be very mindful of.
Q: You’re watching the all-night debates in the Ontario Legislature over the use of the notwithstanding clause. And President Trump is going to slap another $200 billion in tariffs on China. It sometimes seems that some of the newcomers to politics–the Trumps and the Doug Fords–can do anything, can make any grand gesture, can move quickly, and the more traditional brokerage parties, like the one that you lead, seem constrained and hemmed in and tentative and incremental. Is it frustrating to watch these guys pull their grand gestures while you’re still consulting?
A: It really depends what you want out of politics. I think it’s easy to pull off grand gestures if you’re just thinking about today and maybe tomorrow’s headlines. It’s harder to do things that reach the two goals that I certainly put at the centre of what our party’s trying to do, which is: one, make things better for Canadians in a real and durable, long-term way with positive impacts right away; and, two, reaffirm people’s faith in governments and institutions as being able to serve them and able to actually do good things for them.
When you’re not too worried about constitutional niceties or institutions like courts or what have you, you can take a mandate and make those grand gestures and satisfy your base in a very loud way. Does that contribute to the long-term wellbeing of citizens? Perhaps. There’s certainly a case that a smaller municipal council might do that. I’ve seen arguments on both sides, and I won’t weigh in. But are you also eroding trust in institutions by calling into question the judiciary, by choosing to override people’s fundamental rights on such a process question? There’s an argument, and certainly I believe, that it is better to get things right, even if it’s a little more complicated, even it takes a little longer. And ultimately, I believe that Canadians appreciate that.
Q: It’s interesting because in 2015 you ran as the agent of change, and all the old guys in the other parties were saying hey, he can’t do that, wait a minute, wait a minute. And now you’re sounding a little bit more like the dad who is saying I will pull this car over right now if you guys don’t smarten up. Have you aged that quickly in office?
A: I’m actually stunned that you’re saying that because the things that we have done to actually shift the economic trajectory that this country’s been on have been significant. I mean, we put forward the Canada Child Benefit. We had folks, including folks in the bowels of Finance saying you know what, that’s not going to work, you can’t do that, you can’t do this. And we said no, no, a means-tested child benefit, a family benefit, will absolutely grow the economy. People were saying, $22 billion is a lot of money, but on the scale of the entire Canadian economy, not much. And what we’re actually seeing is more money in the pockets of the middle class–and people working hard to join it–that is actually leading to more consumer conference, better outcomes, and economic growth, the numbers which you can’t refute.
Q: Let’s talk about Trans Mountain. About 10 days ago you said you would consider all options in response to the Federal Appeal Court decision blocking further work on that. Today can you tell me whether you’re closer to deciding whether the government will, for instance, appeal that decision to the Supreme Court?
A: Anytime you have an issue, you’re going to consider all options. That’s pretty much one of those things that politicians can say and be right and be responsible about. I’ve always said is my preference is to get this done in such a way as not just for this project but for any future energy or infrastructure projects we have a clear path and clarity. And the fact that the Federal Court of Appeals came back with a clear sort of road back and said yes, you did some consultations with Indigenous people but you didn’t quite go far enough, this is what you need to do; and yes, you examined the environmental impacts and the science but you didn’t do this part of it, which you need to do–that’s almost a really good thing. I mean, it’s super frustrating because we much rather would not have had that decision. But having had that decision, they said ‘Okay, if you do these two things, then the approval works.’
We absolutely want to get it done, not to make a profit but because it’s in the national interest to get our oil resources to markets other than the United States because right now we’re totally prisoners of the United States market for our oil resources.
So we say okay, if we do these two things, then we will be able to get it built the right way, and that will provide a path for private corporations and private investors to create projects that will follow those kinds of instructions. So it’s frustrating, but it comes down to the fact that we said we’re going to get these things done right, we’re going to respect the science, we’re going to work with communities, including and especially Indigenous communities, and we’ll grow the economy that way.
And as someone who believes that that’s really the only way to move the economy forward, this is a continued frustrating but, I guess, necessary step along that path.
Q: The legislative expression of these sentiments that you’re describing is Bill C-69, the new Assessment Act, which is facing a really rough ride in the Senate and a really nasty reception from executives in the energy industry. How do you respond to those concerns?
A: Well, the opposition and some folks in the energy industry are highlighting that it does too much consulting with Indigenous peoples and does a little too much environmental science and rigour around getting a project right. That’s exactly what the Federal Court of Appeals just said we need to do more of. So when the Conservatives, who couldn’t get a pipeline to new markets built over 10 years of trying it–and Mr. Harper, I’ll give him this, he really tried. He said the best way to do it is to reduce the amount of scope of the environmental assessments to make it narrower and easier to qualify for that, and not really pay much attention to Indigenous peoples because they’re opposed to him, so we’ll figure out ways of working around that, and we’ll get things built.
Well, we saw from their failures to succeed in that that that’s not the path, that the path instead is going to be no, have genuine, interested, and attentive conversations with Indigenous people to figure out their concerns, to make sure they’re really listened to. And if you have to zigzag the pipeline to get around a burial ground, or if they’re really concerned about this traditional spawning river or whatever, there are things that we can try and do, which is not a veto but is, you know, looking for accommodation. That’s the way we’re likely to get things done.
And similarly, on environmental impacts, let’s take into account the possible challenges.
People are talking a lot about the southern resident killer whale pod right now, which is a very particular species that lives off salmon at the mouth of the Fraser River. They are already under tremendous stress from all the marine traffic coming out of the Port of Vancouver and Seattle. What we’re very much saying is can we figure out a way, regardless of whether there’s one more tanker a day because of this pipeline or not, can we actually support these marine mammals by reducing overall and by bringing in measures to help them, regardless of whether the pipeline moves forward or not. These are things that we need to do.
So being thoughtful about these things, I think most Canadians would understand is probably the better ways to get things done in a country filled with people who are interested in the environment, in economic growth, in reconciliation, rather than trying to shortcut the situation.
So when the Conservatives talk about using, you know, legislation to ram this project through, and then we’ll use legislation again for the next project and the next project, well, what kind of certainty do you think that’s going to give to private investors?
Q: It seems to me, though, that consent for these kinds of big projects, it’s not binary, it doesn’t have an on or an off switch; that people who were really happy that Energy East didn’t go forward and who are really happy that Keystone XL is blocked are not going to say, well, given those two, sure, I’ll go from being a ferocious opponent of Trans Mountain to putting up signs welcoming them. That doesn’t seem to happen.
A: No, and you can get people on both sides. I mean, you get people on one side of the spectrum who absolutely want the pipeline but really don’t like the carbon price that we’re bringing in, the price on pollution, but they focus on the price on pollution that they don’t like. The people who don’t want the pipeline very much like the fact that we’re moving forward on a strong plan to fight climate change with a price on pollution, but they’re busy worrying about the pipeline.
So you have people who focus on the negative aspects, don’t look at the positive aspects, but I do find that those are mostly people on the edges of the debate. When I talk to ordinary Canadians, they get it. People I meet in Nanaimo, in the Interior of B.C., in Quebec, they understand, look, being thoughtful and responsible about how we protect the environment and create good, new jobs for the future is something that goes together. They know we’re going to develop our resources. Can we do them in better ways? Can we do it in safer ways? That’s something they’re interested in.
So most people get that this is a complex balancing act we’re trying to put forward, not an easy one. It’s much easier to sit on one side or the other. But I think people get that the best interests of this country is to find ways to balancing competing interests and both protect our environment and grow the economy together.
Q: Sometimes it seems like those encamped opponents of a middle-ground solution don’t have to be in a numerical majority to win.
A: Well, you don’t see people coming out with signs saying Make a Smart Compromise. You know?. Find the Middle Ground, Find the Middle Ground. No. People will automatically mobilize around a polarized position or other. And one of the challenges of politics is, yes, listening to those concerns, because often there are founded elements in there that you do have to take into account.
But for the most people just know that politics is tough. I mean, I remember speaking with a woman who said, ‘Oh, I’m really disappointed that you’re moving forward with the Keystone XL, with the TMX Pipeline, but you know, I still support you on a whole bunch of other things; I just wish you weren’t doing that. But I understand that you feel you need to do it, and I’ll still vote for you.’
You’d love to, but you don’t often get a hundred percent support for everything you do. People support you or not on a broad range of things, and not if you have been perfect on everything. Are you trying to do the right things, doing a credible job of it, and are you keeping your values at the centre of the decisions you’re making? And on that score, I think we’re doing pretty well.
Q: While these dramas are playing out over Trans Mountain, it sometimes seems that Canada is increasingly a country where nothing big can get made or done. And yet you’re trying to attract international investment precisely on the idea that Canada’s a land of unique opportunity. Do these disputes send a bad message to the world of investment?
A: I think there is a message sent around the fact that for the past, 10, 15 years almost, there has been a real challenge, brought in by the previous government, but that is continuing with the debates we have now. But at the same time, we’re seeing significant global investment into Canada, whether it’s companies like Microsoft or Amazon making investments here, whether it’s great Canadian companies like Shopify and others investing, expanding, the GM plants expanding, doing more engineering in Markham. We’ve had Thomson Reuters coming home to Canada from Connecticut. There are a lot of things that people are noticing is happening and is exciting about Canada, and that’s been a very positive story that has contributed to creating the half a million full-time jobs that we’ve created over the past three years in Canada.
Q: There was a recent report that suggested that CETA, the Canada-European trade agreement, seems to be more attractive in the early going to European exporters than to Canadian exporters. They have dug in and they are starting to send their goods into the Canadian market, which is good for everybody, but the Canadian exporters, perhaps transfixed by the NAFTA dispute, have been a little slower to take up the CETA opportunity.
A: Well, we have seen an increase in Canadian exports in general. But yes, I think one of the things I remember Bruce Heyman, the old U.S. Ambassador to Canada, told me when he got here he did a cross-country trip, and he was trying to encourage people to think more internationally in their trading as businesses. And the number of people who said no, no, no, we don’t trade internationally, we just sell to the U.S. And he was sort of tremendously pleased to hear that of course. But we are in a certain part in a reflexive habit of, well, we have this great big market literally on our doorstep, let’s access that. It’s been part of a shift around diversification that many governments have tried to do, that we’re continuing to do, to get people to realize that, whether it’s the Internet, whether it’s global supply chains, there are more and more opportunities for Canada to pierce markets around the world, including as a brand.
There is an interest in Canada as a place where things are done right, things are done well, things are done responsibly. There’s a certain cachet around Canada right now on the world stage, and there’s a number of companies that are doing well to benefit from that. But there’s more to do.
Q: I wanted to talk about the other side of the energy-environment coin, which is the environment. You have been planning for as long as you’ve been in office to introduce a national carbon plan about now, basically in the new year. Is that carbon plan going to be in place in the new year?
A: We had our first meeting on the environment–First Ministers meeting on the environment–in December of 2015, shortly after getting elected, where I started by thanking the Premiers. Because I said yes, for 10 years we had a Conservative government in Ottawa that didn’t do a lot of leadership on the environment, but provinces, and indeed cities, moved forward in significant ways to reduce carbon emissions and to be thoughtful about the way the world is going.
Well, now there’s a federal government that is going to do its part, and we’re going to make sure that, since 85 per cent of the Canadian economy is already in jurisdictions in which there is a price on pollution, we’re going to make sure that it’s a hundred per cent of the Canadian economy. Because we had Alberta and B.C. and Ontario and Quebec, our four biggest provinces, put a price on pollution in different ways. So we said we’re going to make sure it happens right across the country, because that’s an integral part of making our Paris commitment targets, and, you know, preparing for the jobs and the economy of the future.
So I would much rather, in every case, work with the province so the province can design its approach that will meet the same efficiency and stringency and efficacy standards that the other provinces make. But if someone–in that case it was just Saskatchewan with Brad Wall–doesn’t want to be part of it, we’ll move forward with a federal backstop that will bring in a price on pollution, because pollution shouldn’t be free, and the money we bring in from the price on pollution we will return directly to the people in the province that it came from.
So we think it’s a fair, reasonable approach. It’s certainly within the federal powers to do it. I’d rather work with the provinces. But if they’re not going to be fair and they’re going to let their neighbours put a cost on pollution while they continue to make it free for their heavy emitters to pollute, the federal government has to step in and hold the federation together by saying no, everyone has to have equivalent systems.
Q: Is that something you can do as a practical matter if the number of non-committing, non-cooperating provinces rises to four or five or six?
A: I think that’s a bit of a question we’ll see the answer to. But I very much doubt that it will rise beyond two or perhaps three. We have a very clear understanding by Canadians right across the country that in order to build good jobs for our kids and strong economies moving forward, we have to take in mind the impacts of climate change and the need to fight climate change. I mean, the wildfires, the floods, the hurricanes, the extreme weather events that are increasing in frequency because of climate change are only going to get worse. We need to make sure we are doing what we can to protect future generations. Very little matters as much as this right now.
Q: So you’re going to head into an election year introducing a new tax that will be felt by consumers a few times a month, and which they know will grow over time?
A: The alternative, people who want to make pollution free. I don’t think it should be free to pollute. When you have a company pumping raw sewage or effluent or chemicals into a waterway and not bothering to pay to clean it up as it outputs, the cost gets borne by the town downstream, by citizens who no longer can swim or bathe or eat or drink the water. That’s irresponsible. We should and we do make companies that pollute limit their pollution or pay for the clean-up of their pollution. That’s exactly the principle we’re moving forward with. It’s about basic fairness. People who pollute should be paying for it. And that’s a way not just of bringing in revenue to offset the costs of that pollution but it’s also a way of incentivizing not polluting. If it’s free to pollute, why would you put in something to protect or prevent pollution? If it costs you something to pollute, well, maybe it’s cheaper to actually clean it up at the source instead of polluting in the first place.
It’s a basic small-C conservative economic principle around including internalizing externalities. That’s something that big-C Conservatives don’t seem to get. And I’m still waiting for Andrew Scheer’s promised comprehensive, detailed plan to fight climate change that won’t include a price on pollution. I think we’re all waiting for that, but I think none of us should hold our breath.
Q: Will this nest of issues be on the agenda for the First Ministers’ meeting that you’re hosting in some number of weeks from now?
A: We are focused on the thorny issue of internal trade. Actually CETA sort of highlighted it for a lot of folks, where suddenly people in Europe had better access to certain procurement or opportunities in Canada than one province had for another. As we talk about diversifying trade, as we talk about reducing barriers and gaining efficiencies in the Canadian economy, reducing some of those interior barriers to trade is an easy win scenario for Canadians, for workers, and for our economy.
Q: We’ve got a little bit of time left. And so I’m going to pass along a few questions that came from Maclean’s readers. One is asking what you have to say about the arrest in British Columbia of Ibrahim Ali, who was a Syrian refugee, following the murder of a teenage girl named Marrisa Shen.
A: Obviously it’s devastating news for her family, for her friends. It’s a terrible tragedy. Anytime someone is murdered, it’s a terrible thing. I trust our justice system. I trust our system to go through its processes to both apply consequences to this and to make sure that we’re thinking about how we continue to keep people safe.
Q: Some people say that if it hadn’t been for the surge in Syrian refugees after the 2015 election, guys like this guy would not be here.
A: I’m not one of those people who says that.
Q: Another question from another reader. Again, not the only reader who’s concerned about the promise on electoral reform that didn’t quite see fruition. He says: ‘ live in a rural riding that has never and will never elect a Liberal. My vote is wasted. Real electoral reform was important to me. Why did you abandon your promise and voters like me?’
A: We were heading down a path that I thought, despite all my hopes and best intentions, and indeed my wish to move forward on this promise, it looked like we were going in a bad direction that would have ended up hurting Canada. And if given a choice between ticking a box off on a platform or on doing damage to Canada, I will choose to not accomplish that promise in order to keep our democracy and our country stable.
Q: Could you not have foreseen that in 2015, when you made the promise?
A: No, I was genuinely, genuinely hopeful that we were going to be able to come to an arrangement where, for example, you could have a ranked ballot that would go at this problem here without empowering fringe voices in our country.
Q: Do you have any appetite for taking up this issue again after the next election?
A: If one of the other parties were to come forward with a workable proposal, I would look at it. But it’s not something I’m going to seek to do alone anymore.
Q: Another question, following on a lot of similar questions from readers about the MeToo movement. This is a reader named Sabrina S. She wants to know how the Prime Minister reconciles his past groping experience with his self-branding and bragging as a feminist. Should or would one cancel out the other, or can the two co-exist?
A: I think first of all we have to understand that there is a massive shift going on in our society, in our workplaces, and important conversations that are really, really long overdue. Understanding that someone can experience an interaction very differently from another person and giving weight and credence and support to anyone who comes forward to share those stories and those experiences is extremely important. And how we listen and how we learn and how we grow as a society is absolutely essential. So I will always, as I did, make space for people to come forward, and not seek to shut them down or contradict them, but to support them. And it’s difficult, but there’s a lot of difficult conversations we have to have. And if leaders can be part of modelling the path forward of being thoughtful and supportive, then all the better for it.
Q: One of your other MPs, Kent Hehr, was kicked out of cabinet over a series of allegations, and then earlier this summer you were campaigning for him in his riding.
A: First of all, it’s obvious that when I became Leader of the Liberal Party, I didn’t get a book of instructions handed down by Wilfrid Laurier on how to deal with these situations. These are new situations that we have to go at on a case-by-case basis in a thoughtful way, in a way that really tries to adjust to the fact that people have been marginalized and taken advantage of and not heard for far too long, and we are now giving voice to those. So we are trying to deal with them each as they come up in the most thoughtful way possible.
Q: Here’s a broader question. One of the readers asks, ‘What do you feel has been the most important lesson you’ve learned so far in your term as Prime Minister? How has this lesson affected the way you govern or the way you intend to govern in the future?’
A: Hmm. I think it really does have to do with listening, and listening in a way that does not close off people who disagree with you. And that’s really the big reflection that I’m having these days, and that I think we’re all having, is around the polarization and populism and eroding of democracy we see around the world, and worried that it might end up happening in Canada. And I think one of the sure-fire signs that it’s happening is when people start closing their ears and their hearts to people who think very differently from them. So for me, being in a position of leadership, making sure that I am not discounting or shutting down people with differing views is really important to me.
Obviously there are folks, particularly Conservatives, who might disagree with me on this one or disagree with what I say is my approach on this, but my approach is very much about allowing people to make their own choices and figure out their own expression of their own lives and how they move forward. And if you can create a society in which women and marginalized communities and new arrivals and Indigenous peoples all have greater opportunities to share their perspectives and their voices and be empowered, then you are increasing the wellbeing and success and resilience of that society, even though you are bringing in challenging voices that don’t necessarily like how the status quo has been because they’ve been marginalized in many cases by it.
So where we have, you know, folks out there who will say that I am, for example, limiting an MP’s right to express themselves when I say ‘No, if you want to be a Liberal MP, you can’t vote against a woman’s right to choose,’ my choice is I am actually going to prevent people from restricting other people’s rights. So if you want to be a Liberal MP, you can’t vote to take away rights from anyone else. And that’s the fundamental basis on it. So being open to hearing all these broad voices, listening to them, and seeking to create a path forward that leaves room for everyone while being anchored on your core values is the path I choose to walk, and that we walk carefully, but it constantly reinforces the need to actually genuinely listen to people who do feel like the choices we’re making are not aligned with their values or their hopes.
Q: I want to follow up on that on the issue of the attestations that applicants for the Summer Jobs Program were asked to sign this spring, leading into the summer. There’s an interfaith group that says that 1,400 applications were turned down, up from 127 a year earlier. Do you really think that 1,200, 1,300 of those groups were planning to run anti-abortion propaganda mills, or was the rule–
A: I certainly hope not.
Q: –was the rule way too draconian?
A: No, I don’t think it was draconian at all. I don’t think we should be sending federal funding for students who will be engaged in activities designed to limit another person’s rights and freedoms. Certainly there are anti-abortion groups out there, and they have every right to exist. I just don’t think they should receive federal funding. And the attestation unfortunately was used as a bit of a political tool by right-wing groups in general to try and make their point. And because of it, a lot of community organizations that are doing perfectly good essential work, faith-based day camps and things like that, have had nothing to do with abortion propaganda or actions or are not limiting choices for LGBT youth, for example, got caught up in the choice that Conservatives made to politicize this, when we were very clear, if you’re not going out and trying to limit people’s Charter rights, then you can tick the box on that attestation, no problem.
Q: We’ve only got a few more minutes left. I want to ask about some video that came out last week. You met with Indigenous leaders. The video showed you exhibiting some concern that they were taking longer to talk than you thought you had to be with them. And there’s been a lot of criticism that this shows the same old colonial attitudes on the part of some people in the Indigenous communities.
A: I was very excited about sitting down with the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, the FSIN, in Saskatchewan. We had our caucus meeting in Saskatoon. I had an hour to meet with them. We were supposed to meet with eight representative leaders from across the province, who were going to share the concerns of their communities. Unfortunately, about 50 or 60 people showed up. They were divided into three groups. And instead of the first group taking the 20 minutes that it was able to take, ended up taking 45, 50 minutes. And I wasn’t chairing the meeting, so I certainly couldn’t interrupt people as they were speaking. But then, when the next groups came in, they had much more to say than the 10 minutes remaining for them. And that was really frustrating to me because I wanted them to have an opportunity to express themselves, but because of decisions made earlier around management of the meeting, there wasn’t an opportunity to demonstrate the kind of genuine interaction, genuine, respectful, nation-to-nation relationship that is so important to me.
So yeah, this is something that matters deeply to me, and I was frustrated that there were a number of people who’d driven hours to come sit down and meet with the Prime Minister who weren’t able to because there was some poor time management taken by the organizers of the meeting.