By RHEA MAHANTA
The Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago celebrated its fifth anniversary last Wednesday with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, who is on a three-day tour in the U.S. to discuss trade issues with political and business leaders.
Since its inception in 2013, the non-partisan Institute of Politics has sought to encourage young people to engage in politics and public service. With a full house at the Mandel Hall, which has a seating capacity of 878, the theme of the event was directed to inspire the youth to join public service. The opening remarks were delivered by the President of the University of Chicago Robert J. Zimmer, and Trudeau was introduced onto the stage by a fourth-year graduate student Caroline Hutton, who is the Chair of the Women in Public Service Program at the Institute of Politics.
Trudeau opened his speech with the story of his upbringing, and how he ended up pursuing a life devoted to public service. His role as a teacher in his 20s informed his view of what it is to be a politician, emphasizing that a politician is about empowering citizens to be able to take agency and authority of their own lives, to create solutions, be powerful in shaping the course of their lives and by extension shaping the course of their communities. He explained his motivations for pursuing a kind of politics that was not based on divisions in society but the aim to find a common ground and bring people together.
He went on to acknowledge the economic anxieties of the people about the future. To address these issues, Canada lowered taxes for the middle class and raised them for the wealthiest 1 percent, which played a factor in leading Canada to become the fastest growing economy in the G7 and having the lowest unemployment rates in over 40 years in Canada. Aware of the criticisms he has been getting around NAFTA, Prime Minister Trudeau clarified his position saying that while trade was beneficial for the economy, the promise of growth was not shared by everyone. As economies got rich, the middle-class and low income families saw some parts of society break down, and that, he said, led to the fear about the capacity of our system to deliver. Trudeau went on to say that we should recognize these anxieties and elevate the debate instead of playing politics of fear. Trade is a tricky topic because it contributes to growth but does not on its own ensure that everyone benefits from it. For him, the question is not trade or no trade but what kind of trade policies, the type of trade agreement and the government in concern. The challenge is to conduct trade in a responsible way that impacts citizens, workers and the environment positively.
He delved into the interconnectedness between U.S. and Canada’s economies by saying “When you sneeze, we catch a cold” and maintained that U.S. sells more goods to Canada every year than the U.S. does to China, Japan and UK combined. The State of Illinois alone sells more goods to Canada every year than it does to their next two biggest international trading partners China and Mexico. While the two economies have thrived under NAFTA over the past 25 years, at the same time, he emphasized the need to modernize and improve NAFTA by bringing in federal labor standards, protect indigenous tribes, and put women at the center of opportunities.
Affirming that he is a proud feminist, he explained that his position on gender equality was based not on moral reasons but because “it is the smart thing to do….If women are not able to fully contribute to the economy in a way that they are able to, then we as a community are not performing as well as we should.”
He argued that when there are systemic barriers to success, the society is worse off. Deliberately ensuring that people and specifically women are included in the discussions around trade and other policies is the road to success.
With regard to immigration and diversity, he said that Canada is united not by a single shared identity but a shared set of values. Recognizing diversity must be a source of strength that is an asset in for both the countries of US and Canada. He asserted that the arrival of people from different parts of the world bringing in different perspectives is what created the successful countries of United States and Canada. When David Axelrod, founder of the Institute of Politics, Senior Political Commentator at CNN and host of the podcast series the Axe Files, pointed out that welcoming people from different parts of the world has not been the policy of the U.S. for the past year, Prime Minister promptly responded “It continues to be our policy, unapologetically.”
One of the ways that politics shaped Trudeau and the core of his life was being surrounded and challenged by young people. He stressed that getting the youth involved in politics is about drawing agents of change who are not afraid of challenging the status-quo. Young people’s voices both as challengers and dreamers of a different world was the key to changing the nature of political discourse because they tend to be focused on the substance and not partisan or ideological politics. The idea of civil, intelligent and rational discourse that young people are demanding is what gives him inspiration and hope for the future. He ended his speech by saying that public service, civic engagement and shaping the community for the better is at the heart of what is to come in the coming years.
His speech was followed by a question answer session with Axelrod. He put forward questions sent by students on topics of international relations, dynamics with the U.S. President, NAFTA and immigration. Trudeau said that the secret to getting along with other leaders is finding common ground and understanding that the relationship is much bigger and deeper than personal ideologies. The anniversary event ended with a query related to the Prime Minister’s remarks on public service and the purpose of running for office. When asked if there was a cause for which he would sacrifice his political career, Trudeau replied, “My kids. I am not in politics in spite of the fact that I have kids, but because I have kids … an understanding for me that what I am doing is going to lead to them and their generation having a better life and a better future.”