Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Sept. 19 town hall in Saskatoon saw the candidate in the midst of an election-period controversy. Despite this context, the crowd received Trudeau with few tough questions.
The event, originally meant to be a rally, was changed to an open town hall after photos of Trudeau in blackface and brownface spread like wildfire on the evening of Sept. 18. After a day of media addresses, calls to Liberal candidates and general damage control, the Liberal party went ahead with the Saskatoon event. The stop marked Trudeau’s first time in the province this election period and his first time addressing the general public since the photos dropped.
The event endeavored to put Trudeau’s past record of advocate for diversity front and centre from the start. Tammy Cook-Searson, Liberal candidate for Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River, opened with a speech highlighting the prime minister’s achievements during his first term.
“That is why I’m running as your Liberal candidate because I am proud of this record,” Cook-Searson said.
After Trudeau’s arrival and introduction, it did not take long for someone to address the controversy; the third question he received was to “round to the nearest five” how many times he had appeared in blackface. The question was received by a few claps from the public.
Earlier in the day, Trudeau had said at a media call that he could not remember the number of times he has worn racist makeup. He also did not address the question directly at this event.
“What I did was inexcusable and wrong and hurt a lot of people who considered me to be an ally,” Trudeau said. “I take responsibility for the fact that I lacked respect for people who already faced tremendous discrimination.”
The topic lingered as the next person to pose a question to the candidate asked him not to apologize as he just had, asking the public not to “go back, digging up bones.” That statement caused louder claps from the public present. Trudeau thanked the support but repeated his apology.
The conversation then turned back to other topics. David Pratt, vice-chief of Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, asked about Trudeau’s plans for statutory funding for the rights of Indigenous peoples in relation to childcare and family services. Pratt also asked for a commitment to bringing action to the long disputes about land claims of the Athabasca region.
Trudeau agreed to the commitment asked of him and boasted about the moves towards closing the education gap for Indigenous youth during his term.
“Indigenous students now get the same amount of funding, if not more, in some cases than non-Indigenous kids in the provincial system,” Trudeau said. “I am committing to you. We will continue to work together and ensure that we are settling the claims we need to do in the coming years that are important to you.”
The next person to pose a question was a 19-year-old member of the Liberal staff who asked Trudeau about Canada’s commitment to climate action. Trudeau replied by highlighting the importance of youth in long-term solutions to climate change and by rejecting his Conservative opponent Andrew Scheer’s policies to “make pollution free again.”
“Young people … are focused on not just the next mandate but the next generation… [That] is an extraordinarily important thing to draw on as a society as we shape the future,” Trudeau said. “No one can pretend to have a plan for the future of the economy if they don’t have a plan to protect the environment for future generations at the same time.”
Worries about the climate crisis continued. As time dwindled down, someone asked how a Liberal government would address the growing issue of global water scarcity in years to come. Trudeau answered by pointing to “leading scientists here in Saskatchewan, both at the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Regina [that] have been extraordinarily instrumental in understanding” water resources and how to best manage them.
Once time for questions was over, Trudeau exited the building. With his first public appearance after the drop to his reputation over, Trudeau now heads to Ontario. How he will be received by his usual supporters there remains to be seen.