Yesterday Justin Trudeau came to the University of Chicago on the first leg of his four-day American tour. The Canadian Prime Minister spent the first half of the hour-long event at Mandel Hall delivering a speech, and then sat down for an interview with David Axelrod, host of the popular Axe Files podcast and director of the school’s Institute of Politics.
The focus of much of the evening, and a key component of Trudeau’s trip, was the ongoing renegotiation over NAFTA, the landmark free-trade deal that President Trump has threatened to terminate. Last week, Trudeau commented that “Canada is willing to walk away from the NAFTA if the United States proposes a bad deal. We won’t be pushed around.” At the U. of C. event, he took a slightly more moderate stance: “The issue is not trade-no trade. The issue is: What kind of trade? And how will we make sure that people are benefiting from trade?” Still, he said it might be the case that “no deal is better for Canada.”
More generally, Trudeau touted the economic and cultural benefits of free trade, citing Canada’s own history—the initially fraught relationship between the French and English, as well as their mutual mistreatment of indigenous peoples—as a success story. “It certainly was a fault line early on in our society, but it ended up morphing into one of our greatest advantages,” he said. “We often talk about the difference between the American melting pot and the Canadian mosaic, where everyone gets to keep a certain identity.”
Here are five other noteworthy points from the evening.
On his early reluctance to enter politics
Trudeau’s father, Pierre, was Prime Minister for 15 years, and his maternal grandfather was a member of Parliament and the Minister of Fisheries, but Trudeau says that it took some time for him to get into the family line of business. “I have to admit that when I was a kid, I wasn’t particularly interested in politics, and for my entire university career I stayed as far away as I could from any political science class,” he said. (An old Canadian TV segment showing a young Trudeau participating in a college debate about Quebecois sovereignty suggests, perhaps, a bit more interest.)
Instead, Trudeau became a teacher. “It was a tangible way for me of having a real impact on the world around me,” he said. “A good teacher—and I think this applies to politics—isn’t someone who has all the answers. A good teacher helps students figure out the answers for themselves.”
On his “proud feminism”
Trudeau has won praise for his outspoken social liberalism, on issues like LGBT+ rights and Canada’s historical treatment of indigenous peoples—though academics and First Nations activists have also criticized his government for failing to keep its promises to help them. Last night, he reiterated that he was a “proud feminist,” to much applause, and expanded a little on why: “It’s not just a moral position, because it’s the right thing to do, or the nice thing to do or—in some areas—the popular thing to do, but actually because it’s the smart thing to do. If women are not able to fully contribute to our economy the way they are able to…then we are not performing as an economy the way we should. When there are systemic barriers to success, we all are worse off for it.”
On balancing environmentalism and the economy
During his interview with Trudeau, Axelrod asked how the leader dealt with the tension between combating climate change and okaying the construction of new pipelines. Trudeau responded by suggesting that economic growth and promoting environmental health aren’t irreconcilable: “Those to our left and to our right both say that you have to choose—it’s either the environment or the economy. I know, and most people know, that the only way to build a strong economy of the future is to make sure that we’re protecting the environment at the same time,” he said. “The folks on the right are upset there’s a national price on carbon, the folks on the left are upset we approved a single pipeline. We’re doing that because there’s a balance.”
For the record, some climate experts—including those behind a federal report for the Canadian government—have noted that, given the Trudeau government’s support for pipelines, it’s unlikely that the Canada will hit the emissions targets it has committed itself to.
On the softening of political identifications
Trudeau ended his speech with an optimistic declaration of his belief in young people. (His election to Prime Minister in 2015 was helped by a significant increase in youth turnout.) “Young people don’t care so much about the partisan identity aspect. They’re really just focused on the substance,” he said. “We have, as a world right now, an awful lot to learn from all of you. From your approach, from your dynamism, but also from your willingness to challenge the way things have always been done, and say: Why can’t things be totally different? Why can’t you speak to me like an intelligent human being, instead of pretending you’ll be able to scare me into voting one way or the other, or anger me into voting one way or the other?”
Watch Trudeau's full appearance: