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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau enters the “lion’s den” at U of C town hall

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Trudeau assured the crowd that Calgary and Alberta matters to him // Photo by Justin Quaintance

By Scott Strasser, January 24 2017 —

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrived to a crescendo of cheers — and more than a few jeers — when he walked into the Jack Simpson Gymnasium for a town hall at the University of Calgary on Jan. 24.

The town hall was the eighth stop on Trudeau’s cross-country listening tour, with the U of C visit coming after a three-day cabinet retreat in downtown Calgary.

Calgary Member of Parliament and Minister of Veteran Affairs Kent Hehr introduced the Prime Minister, who before taking questions spoke about youth employment and the Expert Panel on Youth Employment.   

A theme of the night was Trudeau’s claim of being highly committed to Calgary and Alberta. He mentioned that the town hall marked his fifth visit to the city since taking office in October 2015 and that he was “going to keep coming back.”

“Calgary matters. Alberta matters. For years, for decades, you helped support and you drove the Canadian economy with your hard work and your innovation,” he said. “I know Alberta is struggling and has been struggling for the past few years. But at the same time I know there is strength and resilience here.”

Canada’s Prime Minister faced both praise and malice from members of the audience throughout the hour-long question-and-answer period.

Trudeau answered 15 questions from members of the roughly 1,700 in attendance. Questions ranged from his government’s position on the Israel-Palestine conflict to how he would handle a situation similar to the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota.

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Trudeau answered 15 questions in total // Photo by Justin Quaintance

One audience member asked how Canada’s trade relationship with the United States would be maintained, considering U.S. president Donald Trump’s recent executive order to repeal the Trans-Pacific Partnership. 

Trudeau responded by saying trade would continue with the U.S., though his government will pursue other trade agreements and partnerships.

“Trade is good for Canada. We’re a country that has benefitted extraordinarily from good trade relationships with the world. Obviously [relationships] with the United States have benefitted millions of jobs in Canada,” Trudeau said. “We also know it’s important to expand opportunities to sell Canadian goods and participate in partnerships around the world.”

U of C biology alumnus Chris Menzies asked Trudeau if his government was concerned about a loss of national pride among western provinces, citing a poll that suggested an increase in sentiments of western separatism. Trudeau replied by stating he disagreed with Menzies’ assessment that Albertans are not proud Canadians.

“You might say from having seen a poll that Albertans don’t feel proud to be Canadian, but I tend to disagree. I’ve talked to a wide range of Albertans who are very proud to be a part of Canada,” he said.

After the event, Menzies said he was impressed by Trudeau’s ability to cope with heckling from the crowd. 

“I thought Mr. Trudeau did his best to answer [my question]. It was a question that was difficult and I think he tried to address it empathetically and as thoughtfully as he could,” he said.

While supportive applause rang out throughout the night, Trudeau’s approval among the crowd was not unanimous. Frequent jeers from a handful of people at the back of the crowd marred the event, with cries of “another soft one!” and “you didn’t answer the question!” from some attendees.

First-year business student Jason Wilson said he was disappointed in the town hall and that he would have preferred more questions related to carbon taxes and their impact on the agricultural industry.

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Merle Terlesky demanded Trudeau to retract his statements on the oil sands // Photo by Justin Quaintance

“There weren’t relevant issues brought up, there were a lot of wishy-washy questions and answers. I came for a good debate and to learn a bit, but didn’t come out with any new knowledge,” Wilson said.

In contrast, fourth-year international relations student Permeet Randhawa said he thought the town hall was successful and that most of the Prime Minister’s answers were “pretty good.”

“I think there was a good mix [of questions]. Some were definitely easy for him to answer, because they were related to his campaign but some did hold his feet to the fire a little bit,” Randhawa said.

It was the last question of the night that drew the most excitement. Trudeau relented and granted a question to one of the hecklers — Merle Terlesky — who demanded the Prime Minister retract his remark from two weeks earlier about “phasing out the oil sands.”

“Down east, you’ve been telling people you want to kill the single biggest employer in our province,” Terlesky said. “You’re either a liar or you’re confused. And I’m beginning to think it’s both. You cannot come down to this province and attack the single biggest employer.”

Trudeau’s reply that he would continue to balance the economy with the environment brought loud cheers from much of the crowd. He also asked how many audience members believed climate change was real, with the vast majority of the crowd raising their hands.

“I have repeatedly said that the responsibility of any Prime Minister is to get our resources to market and yes, that includes our oil sands and fossil fuels,” Trudeau said. “I’ve also said we need to do that in a responsible, sustainable way — that you cannot separate what’s good for the economy with what’s good for the environment.”

Trudeau’s cross-country tour continued with a town hall in Saskatoon on Jan. 25.

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