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London activists mostly shut out of Trudeau town-hall meeting

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke at a town hall meeting in London last night.

The view emerging from London, Peterborough-Kawarthas and Quinte chapter activists about his town hall meetings this week is appropriately critical. There are concerns that the events have been poorly organized (with people registering ahead of time but not being allowed inside because of seating capacity), that some questions appear to have been scripted, that the prime minister takes a limited number of questions (just twelve in London last night), that his answers are evasive (with no opportunity for follow-up), and that there’s no line-up for the microphone (rather Trudeau picks from the audience).

Concerns have also been expressed that placards are not allowed inside (perhaps because they would spoil the impression of the photos in the news and on social media) and that the forums have felt more like a skillful popularity-building exercise rather than a genuine opportunity to discuss substantive concerns.

Reporting on the town hall yesterday morning in Peterborough, the local newspaper notes, “Trudeau was asked when he’ll take action to improve poor water quality in First Nation communities. Curve Lake First Nation Chief Phyllis Williams mentioned it when she was asked to speak at the outset, before Trudeau took the podium. ‘Curve Lake is – ironically and sadly – a boil-water community’, she said. She told Trudeau that he has the luxury to be able to turn on the tap and get potable water. Trudeau’s government has already promised money for better water quality in indigenous communities, but he didn’t mention it. ‘Canadians have been asking for years now to start fixing the centuries-long mistakes and inadequacies’, he said.”

That said, the ‘National Assessment of First Nations Water and Wastewater Systems’ conducted by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada in 2011 estimated it would cost $4.7 billion over a ten year period to meet the department’s protocols for water and wastewater services for First Nations communities. And yet the Trudeau government budget tabled in March 2016 allocated just $2.24 billion over five years meaning by the federal government’s own calculations it won’t meet its election promise to end boil water advisories within five years.

The Peterborough Examiner has also reported, “[The prime minister spoke] about his government’s commitment to improving the environment generally by decreasing the use of fossil fuels over time. ‘Are we there yet? No, we’re not’, he said. ‘Are we going in the right direction? Yes.’ Trudeau also spoke of phasing out the oil sands, which raised the ire of Alberta politicians when they heard about it later in the day. In response to a question about the federal government’s recent approval of expansion of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline, Trudeau said he is attempting to balance economic and environmental concerns.”

And yet this obscures the reality that just weeks ago the prime minister approved 1 million barrels a day of tar sands pipeline capacity (the 890,000 barrel per day Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline and the 760,000 barrel per day Enbridge Line 3 pipeline), that he supports the 830,000 TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline (that Donald Trump has promised to quickly approve after his inauguration), and that his government has not ruled out also approving the 1.1 million barrel per day TransCanada Energy East pipeline. Trudeau has said these pipelines fit within a hard cap placed on the tar sands, but doesn’t mention that cap allows for a 40 per cent increase in tar sands production.

That said, there has been some critical media coverage.

CBC notes that at the London town hall, “At least two local First Nation chiefs were sitting near the front of the hall and while one stood up to challenge Trudeau on his response to tackling mental health issues on reserves, the prime minister publicly dismissed her comments. Chippewa of the Thames leader Leslee White-eye said she was angry with the tone Trudeau took, and while he offered to talk to her afterward, she said he fails to act in a way that reflects a move toward reconciliation. Chief Randall Phillips from Oneida First Nation also noted after the forum that Trudeau talks about improving living conditions on reserves, touting $8.4 billion earmarked, but no money has arrived.”

Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom has commented, “Trudeau promised neo-liberalism with a human face. Those weren’t the words he used. But the phrase expresses the gist of the election campaign he successfully waged just over a year ago. In that campaign, Trudeau said his Liberals would pursue most of Conservative Stephen Harper’s economic goals — including resource exploitation, pipelines and free trade. But they would do so in a way that distributed the proceeds more equitably. In effect, he promised to be Tony Blair to Harper’s Margaret Thatcher — doing much the same as his political nemesis, but in a more acceptable manner.”

This comment and the photos emerging from the town halls this week also bring to mind that The Globe and Mail reported in August 2016, “The Prime Minister is the most photographed man in Canada. Wherever he goes, he leaves a trail of images in his wake. …Due to the explosion of social media and the retrenchment of the traditional press, politicians have more power than ever to communicate with voters directly. …Mr. Trudeau is a master of that medium. His looks and physical fitness make him photogenic, but so does his awareness of the camera, and his comfort in front of it.”

While an itinerary has not been made public, Trudeau’s tour is expected to go next to Quebec, British Columbia, the Prairies, then the Atlantic provinces and the North. A lesson emerging from the Ontario stops may be that the real opportunity is to reach the people in the line-up outside, rather than to get through to the prime minister inside.