Trudeau got an earful during town hall tour: Here are the top concerns
Frequently asked questions centred on the economy, Indigenous affairs, climate change and immigration
Justin Trudeau heard plenty from Canadians as he crisscrossed the country on a national town hall tour this month, with many voters revealing deep unease with the ascendancy of President Donald Trump, and grievances with the prime minister's handling of the economy and his relations with Indigenous peoples.
And yet people seemed unconcerned about two recent controversies involving Trudeau, namely accusations around cash-for-access fundraisers and his Christmas vacation to the Aga Khan's private island in the Bahamas, according to CBC's analysis of the questions asked at the prime minister's town halls.
Only one of the 135 questions the prime minister fielded — at 10 town halls in seven provinces — touched on the subject of ethics.
Economy top of mind
Some issues, regardless of locale, were consistently top of mind for questioners: relations with Indigenous people; pipeline approvals and climate change; and the health-care system. Immigration was a popular topic, but most of the questions related to personal case files about which the prime minister was unable to offer substantive answers.
In all, the five most frequently asked questions directed at Trudeau were, in order: the economy, Indigenous issues, personal questions about Trudeau (including what it's like to be prime minister), immigration and the environment or climate change.
The events drew large crowds, and venues were routinely moved from smaller rooms suitable for a smattering of people to university gymnasiums with seats for thousands. According the Prime Minister's Office, at least 10,000 people attended the events.
The questions varied greatly from region to region. Attendees in Ontario asked about the price of hydro (a hot political issue in the province). Atlantic Canadians were concerned about benefits for veterans, while participants in the West were concerned about the slumping economy in an era of stagnant oil prices. Only nine questions were asked in French.
At virtually every town hall stop, Trudeau was peppered with questions about ambitious promises he made to improve the conditions of First Nations people on reserves. The questioners were displeased with the slow pace of change, and delays in flowing money to communities in need.
Concern over Indigenous issues
"The conditions on our reserves our horrible! Horrible!," said a woman in Winnipeg who said she was a member of the Ebb and Flow First Nation, a community on the northern edge of Lake Manitoba. "We live in Third World conditions in our First Nations communities and that has to change."
Trudeau found himself in hot water for suggesting, on two separate occasions, that chiefs he has met are out of touch with young people in their communities.
In some cases the regional divisions were stark: the Phoenix payroll fiasco, which has resulted in problems for thousands of public servants for the better part of a year, was a sore subject for two people in Kingston, Ont., home to several of the country's penitentiaries, and another in Fredericton, N.B. But Phoenix went unmentioned in other parts of the country where the concentration of public servants is smaller.
Few questions related to foreign affairs, other than general discomfort with Trump, including one from a fearful young grade schooler in Winnipeg who asked Trudeau if he would "save Canada" from the businessman-turned-politician.
Others were more pointed, asking Trudeau to denounce the president's "misogyny." Trudeau walked a fine line, touting the importance of the Canada-U.S. relationship while promising to stay true to his core beliefs.
"I'm never going to shy away from standing up for what I believe in," Trudeau told people at the Belleville, Ont., stop.
Many of the questions were coloured by some of the recent actions of Trump, namely his promise to renegotiate NAFTA and his presidential memorandum clearing a path for the Keystone XL pipeline.
Only two questions were raised about issues overseas: one on the Israel-Palestinian conflict and another on peacekeeping.
'Phasing out' the oilsands
The crowds were more raucous in Calgary and Winnipeg, while, perhaps mirroring the Liberal Party's poll numbers, events in Atlantic Canada were more subdued, with questioners largely deferential to the prime minister.
In Calgary Trudeau was angrily challenged to clarify remarks he made about "phasing out" the oilsands — words he later admitted were inappropriate — which had clearly been a source of anger for many Albertans.
"You cannot come to this province and attack the single-biggest employer," a man said of Trudeau's remarks, which he had made at an earlier stop in Peterborough, Ont. "You are either a liar or you're confused, and I'm beginning to think it's both."
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In Winnipeg, Trudeau also faced moments of vitriol, but this time it came with accusations of being too cozy with Canada's oil and gas industry.
He was asked to justify his decision to approve the Trans Mountain and Line 3 pipelines and a handful of chanting protesters cut him off mid-answer, shouting "Climate leaders don't build pipelines."
Guests not vetted or screened
Trudeau, clearly prepared for opposition at events where guests were not vetted or screened, seemed to relish the chance to take on his opponents, scolding hecklers and calling for quiet while others talked — drawing on skills developed during his days as a school teacher.
"We need to be able to have responsible conversations in this country. We need to listen to each other respectfully, and we are going to disagree from time to time. That happens. That's why we have elections. That's why we have opportunities to debate. That's why I'm having town halls to make sure that I'm hearing from a broad range of voices," Trudeau said to the Winnipeg protesters who remained standing for most of the town hall, with signs held high.
Later, an Indigenous elder urged for calm. "I'm asking that you people that are making statements, please respect everybody, please respect our territory," he said.
"I try not to reward bad behaviour by giving them too much attention," Trudeau said of those who interrupted the events in Calgary.
In other cases, Trudeau was able to win over some of his critics, including a woman who was grief-stricken over her hydro rates and worried the prime minister's demand for a national carbon tax could make her situation even worse. After the event, she hugged Trudeau and said she was happy just to be heard.
No mention of Aga Khan visit
Questioners at the town halls seemed to shrug their shoulders at two issues that have been stalking the prime minister since the fall sitting of Parliament, including accusations around cash-for-access fundraisers and a Christmas holiday in the Bahamas on the Aga Khan's private island.
A woman in London, Ont., raised the issue with the prime minister but did so more out of concern for his image.
"When you came into power I thought there was some fresh air … he's going to have outstanding integrity, he's going to be above reproach, and yet here we are with this conflict-of-interest stuff," the woman said of the fundraisers. "I really invite you as you go forward, really, not get involved in anything that will touch you in that way. You can raise higher than that."