Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was met with cheers and faced a few outbursts from the crowd as he held his first town hall question and answer session of 2019 in Kamloops on Wednesday night.
Surrounded by a packed crowd of about 1,000 people in the Old Gym at Thompson Rivers University, the event served as the start of Trudeau’s re-election bid ahead of the October election.
Calling on people at random from the crowd as he stood in the centre of the room, Trudeau faced a wide variety of questions on topics that have engulfed his three years in office, mixed in with a few compliments and softball questions such as the night’s first: “What’s your favourite part about your day?”
The night did not come without criticism as there were outbursts from a few people who lambasted Trudeau over the Trans Mountain pipeline, First Nations titles and rights and the arrests RCMP made southwest of Houston, where members of the Gidimt’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation had set up a blockade to a pipeline project route across their territory.
The prime minister attempted to talk through the criticism before moving on to other questions. No one was ejected or cut off while taking Trudeau to task.
In response to a heated series of questions and comments from Stl'atl'lmx's Tilly Innes about First Nations oppression in Canada, Trudeau said the country has much to apologize for and move forward on – progress he said will take time to achieve.
“We know that we have to get out from under this Indian Act,” Trudeau said, adding that the federal government needs to work with First Nations to ensure they are taking back control of their land, children, governance and future.
Innes accused the prime minister of lying when he said the government was making progress in this area.
“That partnership is what we’re working on and it’s difficult,” Trudeau said.
During the course of the night, Trudeau also faced questions about his much-criticized trip to India, U.S. President Donald Trump, Syrian refugees, pay equity and TRU professor David Scheffel, who has been jailed in Slovakia.
Scheffel faces charges of on child porn and sex assault charges, which he contends have been fabricated by a Slovak government upset with his research on the Romani, a people marginalized by government of the Eastern European country.
Trudeau said there isn’t much his government can do in terms of consular support as Scheffel is a Dutch citizen, but noted his officials have been “working very closely with Dutch authorities to make sure he’s getting all the support he can in the situation he’s in right now.”
Trudeau, however, did not elaborate as to what that work has entailed.
The person who asked about Trudeau’s trip to India said he heard “it wasn’t good.”
The trip made headlines last February when a Canadian man convicted in a failed attempt to assassinate an Indian cabinet minister in 1986 on Vancouver Island was invited by a Liberal MP to a formal event hosted by the Canadian High Commission in Delhi.
“There were some challenges on that trip that if we had to do it again, we might not repeat, but at the same time, we had some very positive economic investments, we had some jobs created — and it was a trip that happened,” Trudeau said.
When asked about Trump linking forest fires in California to Canada’s lumber prices, Trudeau said Canadians expect two things from him when it comes to the U.S. president: maintain a constructive relationship and stand up for Canadian values and interests.
“I try not to weigh in on various things that he says as a matter of course,” Trudeau said. “As to any links between fallen logs and brush fires, I will defer to experts and scientists on that.”
One man brought up the 2017 murder of 13-year-old Burnaby girl Marrisa Shen and the Syrian refugee Ibrahim Ali , who has been charged in connection to her death – suggesting a link with Trudeau’s refugee policies.
The question was met with claps and boos from those in the crowd and Trudeau answered by saying he didn’t think generalizing immigration policies to incidents like Shen’s murder were helpful or useful.
“At a time when the world is hardening in its hearts to immigration and not seeing the economic benefits of welcoming people who are looking for nothing more than the opportunity to work hard and build a better future for themselves and their kids, I think there’s an extraordinary opportunity for Canada,” Trudeau said.
One woman asked how Trudeau intends to as address the wage gap, to which Trudeau noted his cabinet, which is 50 per cent female and passing pay equity legislation for men and women last fall.
Many students and young people were among those who attended the town hall meeting.
George Gavriel, a third-year TRU student, said he attended because he felt that meeting the prime minister was something he should do.
Third-year TRU communications student Kailee Duncan told KTW that as an Indigenous student, she attended the forum in an effort to represent her people.
“We want Justin Trudeau to be accountable for his actions,” she said.