'We are all in this together': Will Trudeau's actions match his words?

After a bruising election campaign that left him with a weakened mandate, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau scaled back his public appearances. But the pandemic has made him, for better or worse, the face of Canada's response to a global calamity.

A global health crisis is when leaders need to be seen and heard

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leaves following his address to Canadians on the COVID-19 pandemic from Rideau Cottage in Ottawa March 30, 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Over his first four years in office, we probably saw more of Justin Trudeau — in photos, interviews, news conferences, town halls, tweets and parades — than of any prime minister before him.

But in the wake of a damaging re-election campaign, there was a sense in Liberal circles that he needed to be more selective about his public appearances. And for several months, he was.

Then came the pandemic.

Trudeau addressed his first full news conference about the novel coronavirus at the National Press Theatre on March 11, flanked by Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Health Minister Patty Hajdu and Theresa Tam, the chief public health officer. Two days later, he appeared alone in front of Rideau Cottage to discuss a rapidly escalating situation that now included his wife testing positive for COVID-19.

Trudeau again met reporters on the following Monday, March 16 — the first of what has now been 16 consecutive morning public briefings in a row. Each day at 11:15 am or thereabouts (this crisis seems to have pushed the PM to be much more punctual about news conferences than he used to be), Trudeau has emerged to address the nation and take questions from reporters.

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For good or ill, every public official is now authoring a case study in leadership during a public health crisis. Trudeau's contribution to the field begins with these extraordinary briefings — his daily attempts to both reassure Canadians about his government's actions and call on them to persevere.

'We are all in this together'

But we don't know how many days this crisis still has to run — or how dark those days might get.

"In a pandemic, there is a particular demand for leaders who represent and advance the shared interests of group members and create a sense of shared social identity among them," said a team of scholars in a recent paper about what social and behavioural sciences can tell us about how to respond to the pandemic. "We seek leaders who cultivate a sense that 'we are all in this together.'"

Trudeau has used that exact phrase at least twice, and variations on it numerous other times. Across 20 news conferences, Trudeau has said the word "together" more than 50 times — to describe the actions of ordinary Canadians and how different levels of government and different countries are responding.

Coupled with those repeated appeals to solidarity has been a promise that the government has "your back."

"We are all in this together and we are there for you," Trudeau said on March 18.

The prime minister has always been adept at conveying empathy and the mere act of appearing before reporters each morning might offer people some sense of confidence that the government is on top of the situation. Trudeau also has taken the unusual further step of casting ahead to announcements that he expects the government to make in the near future — something governments generally are reluctant to do in normal times.

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'Moral standards'

But governments are still measured ultimately by how closely their actions match their words. Some of the long-standing complaints about Trudeau's public appearances might still apply: in his responses to reporters at these morning briefings, he still sometimes floats above the questions asked. He's now being followed each day by a news conference with cabinet ministers and public health officials who are better positioned to deal with the finer details.

"When familiar guidelines are suddenly disrupted, leaders need to clarify when actions are right or wrong," that group of professors wrote. "Effective moral leadership requires the adaptation of moral standards — to achieve behavioral change, simultaneously with the management of moral emotions — to avoid the shame and guilt that tempts people to defend and persist in behaviors that are no longer considered socially responsible."

Trudeau has insisted repeatedly on the need for everyone to engage in social and physical distancing — but only on a few occasions has he gone so far as to admonish people who do not. More often, he has promoted it as a way for Canadians to protect themselves and their loved ones, and to help the doctors and nurses we're counting on to treat the sick. And he has expressed his faith in people doing the right thing.

His appeal to the public's better angels went a step further on Monday when he asked business owners to refrain from trying to abuse the new wage subsidy.

Solidarity and fear

The prime minister has regularly used his prepared remarks to acknowledge the efforts of medical workers, but he has also thanked the grocers, postal workers, truck drivers and airline staff playing pivotal roles as well. Beyond that, he has sketched a picture of Canadians doing small and big things to help their fellow citizens — helping elderly neighbours with groceries, donating to food banks, or just keeping in touch with loved ones.

Rhetorically, he has assembled an idea of national togetherness. But he also has made frequent use of the word "crisis."

Trudeau has used the word "unprecedented" at least 13 times, both to describe the pandemic and the measures taken by the government over the last two weeks. He has used "exceptional" another 16 times. He has used the word "hard" both to describe the impacts on Canadians and how officials are working to respond.

"We're obviously not, in an unprecedented situation, always going to get things perfectly right," Trudeau conceded on Monday — an implicit request for the public's understanding.

The public's willingness to accept imperfection will be tested in the months ahead.

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Preparing the public

Trudeau has talked about coming out of this stronger than before, but he has stopped short of discussing exactly how bad it might get. "We have heard a wide range of estimates from economists and banks about how bad this is going to get," he said on March 21. "The only thing they seem to agree on is that it's going to get very bad."

In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned that "many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time." In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has described the pandemic as the greatest challenge facing her country "since the Second World War."

Trudeau has been neither so grim nor so focused on history. Rather than prepare Canadians for how bad things might get, or the profound scope of this moment, he has focused on encouraging Canadians to do their part now to make things better.

History offers some precedents for leaders communicating directly with the public in the midst of a global calamity — the "fireside chats" of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, for instance, which were replicated (less successfully) by Prime Minister R.B. Bennett during the Great Depression.

But Trudeau hasn't spoken to Canadians from the depths of this crisis. Not yet.

How will Trudeau handle it when things get worse?

When the prime minister spoke on March 11, he reported that there were 93 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Canada and one Canadian had died. Three weeks later, there are 7,708 cases and 89 Canadians have died.

Even now, the darkest clouds still seem to be on the horizon. Maybe we can avoid the horrors of Italy and New York, but the situation in Canada likely will get worse before it gets better. And the social and economic impacts will last months or even years longer than the pandemic itself.

We have not yet seen Trudeau on a day when the situation seems to be truly slipping out of control, or when there is overwhelming public anger and a desire to assign blame.

If this is a marathon, as opposed to a sprint, Trudeau might need to start pacing himself at some point.

It might not be a coincidence that the government's worst days of this crisis so far — when the messages and procedures at airports seemed confused and confusing — coincided with the last two days that Trudeau did not appear before the cameras. But at some point, he might risk wearing out his audience again.

That point probably won't come soon. In his first four years in office, Trudeau might have spent too much time front and centre. But a global health and economic emergency is exactly the time when leaders need to be seen and heard from.

"It is in these challenging times," he said on March 20, "that we also see what we're made of."


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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