Politics

Liberals 'reconnected' with Canadians, Trudeau says, as party adopts new constitution

Reflecting on last fall's electoral victory, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a hall full of happy partisans Saturday that "we're here because we reconnected to Canadians."

'We have grown into a confident, mature, open movement — united and focused on what matters to Canadians'

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau presents his case for a new party constitution at the 2016 Liberal Biennial Convention in Winnipeg on Saturday, May 28, 2016. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

Reflecting on last fall's electoral victory, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a hall full of happy partisans in Winnipeg on Saturday that "we're here because we reconnected to Canadians."

In hopes of further expanding their reach, he appealed to delegates to adopt a new party constitution that would eliminate the fee required to join the Liberal Party. And that appeal was resoundingly endorsed.

"In 2011, we finished a distant third. Left for dead as a political force. Out-hustled and outworked by opponents who had modernized their parties and, quite frankly, had done a far better job of connecting with Canadians," he said.

"This was not a passing nightmare that we've simply now lurched away from. It was real. It happened. It was almost the end of us. But we didn't luck our way out of it. We worked our way out of it."

Five years after the party was decimated, Liberals gathered in Winnipeg as the party in power. And Trudeau took time to boast of what his government had accomplished in office. 

He stressed the party's oft-repeated commitment to listen to Canadians, but also held himself up as a cautionary tale about losing touch. Trudeau shared with delegates an anecdote from his recent trip to Japan for a G7 meeting. Driving through Tokyo, he said, he had been surprised to see little traffic on the roads. This, he told his wife, was evidence of what can happen when a country invests in public transit.

Trudeau said his wife laughed and reminded him that the lack of traffic was due to the fact that he was travelling in a motorcade.

Reforming the Liberal party

As Liberals gathered in Winnipeg to consider changes to their party constitution, concerns had been raised about whether the proposed amendments to the fee structure would concentrate power around the party's leadership.

Trudeau used a large portion of his speech to address those issues, calling on delegates to approve the new constitution.

The vast majority of Liberal delegates — 1,988 — voted in favour of the new constitution, while only 66 voted against it. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

"We have grown into a confident, mature, open movement — united and focused on what matters to Canadians and to our future," he said. "But the party constitution we have today is a product of the era we worked so hard, together, to put behind us. The era of factional battles and hyphenated Liberals. Of regional chieftains and behind-the-scenes power-brokers. Of the closed, insular thinking that almost killed this party. That is the constitution we need to replace." 

The new constitution, he said, would contribute to building "a modern, responsive, wide-open organization that anyone can join and shape and work to build."

Several amendments were added to the constitution over the course of the convention and Trudeau later appeared on the convention floor to move that the amended constitution be adopted. Despite a few complaints about how the new constitution was drafted, the Liberals soon thereafter voted overwhelmingly to adopt it: 1,988 in favour, 66 opposed.

Tom Addison, president of the Liberal association in Kingston and the Islands, had been the most outspoken critic of the new constitution. But speaking to it on Saturday afternoon, he told delegates that the amendments had addressed his riding association's concerns.

Chiding Conservatives

With the Conservative Party also meeting in Vancouver this weekend, Trudeau took the opportunity to chide his party's primary rival.

"Our Conservative friends are also meeting this weekend. They're in Vancouver where, among other things, they're debating the merits of marriage equality," he said. "In 2016, more than a decade after we made same-sex marriage legal in Canada. Better late than never.

"Who knows … 10 years from now, they might finally be willing to admit that climate change is real. Or that tax cuts for rich people don't help the middle class.  Or that government shouldn't legislate what women can wear on their heads."

'They're debating the merits of marriage equality in 2016, more than a decade after we made same-sex marriage legal in Canada' 0:52

Trudeau later took time to thank Stephen Harper for his service and the former prime minister's family for supporting him.

"Even if you weren't a fan of his politics, there can be no doubting Stephen Harper's commitment to our country," he said. "I ask you to join me in thanking him for his many years of public service."

Kathleen Wynne addresses delegates

Addressing Liberal delegates earlier Saturday morning, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne stressed the importance of women in politics and reflected on her own experiences as a gay, female politician. 

Wynne recently received a rough welcome to Alberta when she was attacked by members of the province's Wildrose party. Asked about that incident, Wynne said she accepted the party's apology, but suggested she might have been received differently if she was not a woman. She also said there was a homophobic element to the discussion that followed on social media.

"It was an interesting confluence of things. You had a woman premier in Alberta. I'm there as a woman. We're talking about climate change," she said. "And I think the attack, the viciousness of the attack, had a particular quality to it. I will just say we need to pay attention to that."

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne speaks to the Liberal convention in Winnipeg on Saturday. (CBC)

Wynne was interviewed by Liz Plank, a journalist with American media outlet Vox.com, who noted that the debate over gay rights continues in the United States. Asked if she had any advice for the United States, Wynne laughed and said: "Don't elect Donald Trump."

She added that she would not presume to advise the United States, but she would remind Canadians to continue pushing for acceptance and progress.

"We have to understand that, yes, we've come a long way, we've come a hugely long way in Canada, but we're not there. We're not there in terms of every child in every school yard feeling safe, feeling included," she said, explaining that, for some, the pride parade in Toronto is still the only place they can "feel free to be who they are."

Canada, she said, could be a beacon to the United States.

In another implicit nod to the Liberal resurgence of the last five years, the convention also heard from three more Liberal premiers: New Brunswick's Brian Gallant, Nova Scotia's Stephen McNeil and Newfoundland and Labrador's Dwight Ball.