Prime Minister Justin Trudeau began his Symons Medal lecture Thursday in Charlottetown on the state of Confederation with a humble story of a Charlottetown couple that helps their neighbours shovel snow.

When asked why, Janey Kitson simply said, "It's the Island way."

The event is streamed live here and on the CBC P.E.I. Facebook page.

"I love that story. Neighbour helping neighbour, lending a hand when times get tough, and being there to help share the load," said Trudeau.

"Long before the Europeans arrived it was the Mi'kmaq way, and today when we're at our best it is the Canadian way."

Economic benefits not shared

But Trudeau went on to describe how Canadians over the last few decades have not always been at their best. He said while the economy is doing well, not everyone is getting a share of that economic growth.

He noted while over the last 30 years the size of the economy has more than doubled, income for the bottom 90 per cent of income earners have seen incomes grow less than one per cent a year over those same three decades.

"No wonder so many Canadians feel they're working harder than ever and not getting any further ahead," he said.

'The taxes we pay help to set broken bones and push cancer into remission. The taxes we pay mean if you lose your job you might not have to lose your house.' - Justin Trudeau

Meanwhile the wealthiest one per cent have seen their incomes increase up to 50 per cent. The incomes of the 0.01 per cent have seen their incomes triple.

"We have to start telling the truth about income inequality in Canada," he said.

"As uncomfortable as it might be to talk about it, it's a lot more uncomfortable to live it."

Sharing the load

Business leaders need to look beyond the short-term interests of their shareholders, he said, and look to the long-term interests of their workers and of the community that supports their business.

"That means paying a living wage, paying their fair share of taxes, giving workers decent benefits and the peace of mind that comes with stable, full-time contracts," Trudeau said.

The Dream Catcher on Confederation Centre state

The Symons Medal ceremony started with a presentation of The Dream Catcher. (CBC)

He said that also means the richest Canadians paying their fair share of taxes. Trudeau said his government has spent a billion dollars investigating tax evasion through overseas accounts, and that those efforts are on track to recover $25 billion in owed taxes.

Taxes are not, Trudeau said, as many of his political opponents would have it, an insult.

"The taxes we pay as Canadians build the highways and seaways and airports and rail lines that get our goods to market. The taxes we pay help to set broken bones and push cancer into remission. The taxes we pay mean if you lose your job you might not have to lose your house," he said.

 "It's not because we're Liberals that we protect the common good, but because we're Canadians."

Trudeau finished his lecture with a challenge for his audience.

"Think about three things you can do, three acts of service, large or small," he said.

"Take a cue from Ted and Janey and just show up."

A celebration

The medal ceremony started with a presentation of the Confederation Centre Young Company's production of The Dream Catchers, a celebration of reconciliation in Canada, not just with Indigenous peoples, but for all of Canada in all of its diversity.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at Symons lecture

Trudeau spoke on a range of topics during his lecture and when answering questions from the audience. (CBC)

Confederation Centre artistic director Adam Brazier introduced the show by describing the cross-country trip, the meeting of youth across Canada, that began the process of its creation. He described finding racism and aggressive colonialism, alongside courage, grace and compassion.

"We are more determined than ever to be a centre for all Canadians," Brazier said.

"We must acknowledge the founding nations that were here 15,000 years before us."

'You get to be Canadian'

After his lecture was done, Trudeau took questions from the audience for almost an hour.

One person asked what it was Trudeau expected from immigrants.

'Unless you protect the environment you're not going to have good meaningful jobs in the future.' - Justin Trudeau

Trudeau responded that Canada was unusual in the world in that from the very beginning, with the merging of English and French cultures, there was no such thing as a typical Canadian. Instead, what holds the country together is shared values.

"Regardless of where you're from, if you come here and you can be open and respectful and work hard and believe in opportunity and justice, and the kinds of things that we don't just aspire to but identify ourselves as Canadian through, you get to be Canadian," he said.

LGBT rights

Trudeau took more than one question on LGBT rights, and reminded the audience he would soon be standing up in the House of Commons to apologize for the country's treatment of LGBT citizens.

He also addressed the issues of defending LGBT rights outside of Canada.

The country has to find a balance in criticizing other countries he said, and not push to the point where other world leaders stop listening. But he stressed the importance of working with people outside of government, and acting as a symbol of equality.

"The symbol of governments and prime ministers walking in a pride parade … resonates around the world and gives people hope that maybe it doesn't have to be as dark as it is where they are right now," he said.

"There are places where they have value. Places where they are celebrated."

Economy and environment

A lot of political parties, Trudeau said in response to a question about carbon emissions, want to try to force you to choose between the environment and the economy.

"You can't make a choice between the environment and the economy," he said.

"Unless you protect the environment you're not going to have good meaningful jobs in the future."

One young member of the audience wanted to know how Trudeau felt when he knew he was going to be prime minister.

"It's fun but it's overwhelming, it's inspiring but it's challenging, and all of that came together on the night I got elected," he said.

The Symons Medal, named for Prof. Thomas H. B. Symons, the founding president of Trent University, is awarded to a distinguished person who has made an exceptional contribution to Canadian life. Previous recipients include Prince Charles, Paul Gross, Beverley McLachlin and David Suzuki.