Manitoba

Obama questions America's ability to stave off crisis in otherwise cheery, laid back speech to Winnipeg crowd

Without mentioning his successor by name, former U.S. president Barack Obama told a sold-out Winnipeg crowd he wasn't sure if his country has the leadership to avoid a period of intense trouble.

Despite concerning rise of extremism, younger people "makes me feel optimistic," Barack Obama says

Former U.S. president Barack Obama shakes hands with moderator Michael Burns, CEO of the 2017 Invictus Games in Toronto, at a speaking engagement in Winnipeg on Monday night at Bell MTS Place. (Tinepublic Inc./Dwayne Larson)

Without mentioning his successor by name, former U.S. president Barack Obama told a sold-out Winnipeg crowd he wasn't sure his country has the leadership to resist troubles like a major recession.

"If we had a crisis today, I'm concerned that we, at least in the United States, may not be in the habit of trying to figure things out in a common sense, practical way," Obama said on Monday night. 

In front of 13,500 people, the popular 44th president of the United States made only indirect criticisms of the current administration and its perceived reliance on passions over facts, preferring instead to reflect on his time in office, the rise of extremist sentiments and his admiration for the younger generation.

A chipper, often humourous, Obama spent 65 minutes answering questions on the first stop of his Canadian speaking tour, "A Conversation with President Barack Obama," which was sponsored by the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce. He will speak again Tuesday in Calgary and Vancouver.

Wearing his signature navy blue suit, sans tie, Obama was treated like a rock star as he walked on stage to uproarious applause from a Bell MTS Place crowd who paid as much as $500 to see him.

"It's a great day to be in Winnipeg," Obama said triumphantly, as he reclined on his armchair.

He quipped about Winnipeg's cold sucking his face inwards, and took a shot at moderator Michael Burns, the former CEO of the Invictus Games in Toronto, for joking that people from Toronto saw no reason to visit Winnipeg.

Obama then referenced the local hockey club, after meeting owner Mark Chipman earlier in the day.

An engaging Barack Obama speaks to a sold-out crowd during a 65-minute question and answer session at Bell MTS Place in Winnipeg. (Tinepublic Inc./Dwayne Larson)

"The Blackhawks are in last place but our captain is from Winnipeg, Jonathan Toews," he told the audience. "Thank you Winnipeg for that great gift."

Burns moved through a slideshow of photos from Obama's life, ranging from childhood memories to his inauguration.

By way of background, Burns told the crowd that Obama, the first African-American president in U.S. history, was born in Honolulu, Hawaii.

"Allegedly," Obama shot back, referencing the conspiracy he wasn't American by birth. 

America's better together

He said Hawaii most resembles the American melting pot, and it's where he learned that more unites Americans than divides them.

"People are all the same. Wherever you go, people have common hopes, common dreams, similar aspirations and struggles," Obama said. "Colour, ethnicity, nationality — they really are constructs. They scratch the surface, they don't mean much."

He said racism is a powerful fault line in American discourse and those impulses flare up in periods of economic unrest.

Obama spoke often of his hope in the younger generation. He tries to meet youth in every city he visits, including before his Winnipeg show, he said.

"Younger people are trying to get away from the baggage that us older folks hoist on them, and that makes me feel optimistic," he said. 

He said the polarization running rampant in politics today can be stifled if people rise up against it.

"If citizens insist on better politics, if citizens insist on integrity, if citizens insist on facts and if citizens participate, that's how change happens," he said.

Speaking of his own administration, Obama said his team's best attributes was their commitment to the greater good and the viewpoints they brought. Obama wasn't afraid of someone other than him being the smartest in the room, he said. 

"I made it a habit of not being afraid to say, 'I don't know what you're talking about,'" he said. 

Make women decision-makers

He drew the night's loudest applause when he said you cannot run a good organization if women are not at the table. 

"If at this day and age, you don't have some racial diversity and the perspectives of those who may know what it's like to be on the outside looking in, you're probably going to be missing the boat," Obama said.

He said progressives are not exemplary in this regard.

A smattering of people where "everybody is politically woke, eats granola and drive a Prius" shouldn't be discussing our reliance on fossil fuels without hearing from a person driving 50 miles each day to get to work. 

"That's a kind of diversity, as well, that is sometimes missing."

Asked of his dealings with Trudeau and Harper, Obama paused briefly and the crowd chuckled.

He gently chided his audience for reading too much into his silence.

"You should be accustomed by now to these pauses I have," he said through a smirk. "It's a weird way I talk."

Afterwards, he said his relationships with both prime ministers were terrific, but he was more closely aligned with Trudeau, who he saw as an "inheriter of a proud progressive tradition."

Obama dined with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at Montreal's Liverpool House after a 2017 speech in the city. (Justin Trudeau/Twitter)

He could have done without all the bickering over lumber disputes, from either prime minister. 

"You do have that whole Canadian thing that certain things are really important to you that nobody cares about," Obama said to the crowd, now laughing. 

While he didn't discount the troubles the world is facing, Obama reminded the audience that society has never been more tolerant, more inclusive and less violent than it is today.

His words were encouraging to the young people in the crowd.

"It made me feel like I'm not crazy," said Michael Redhead Champagne, an Indigenous activist. "For him to direct his message specifically to young people organizing outside of the system ... I think that's really powerful for him to do that."

Allen Khirman, a recent high school graduate, expected a little more from Obama.

"All I learned was what I learned in elementary school, which was treat people nicely," he said. "I don't think we need Barack Obama to come talk about that."

About the Author

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese is a reporter with CBC Manitoba. He has previously worked for newspapers in Brandon and Steinbach. Story idea? Email: ian.froese@cbc.ca.

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