All Eyes on Justin Trudeau

Published: January 8, 2013

Justin Trudeau’s keynote address at the Reviving Islamic Spirit Conference in Toronto last month was in sharp contrast to Michael Ignatieff’s ineptitude in connecting with key constituents early in the election cycle.  Trudeau’s carefully worded speech was not simply to woo the two percent of the Canadian population that are Muslims, but also to signal [...]

Justin Trudeau’s keynote address at the Reviving Islamic Spirit Conference in Toronto last month was in sharp contrast to Michael Ignatieff’s ineptitude in connecting with key constituents early in the election cycle.  Trudeau’s carefully worded speech was not simply to woo the two percent of the Canadian population that are Muslims, but also to signal the opening of a dialogue with the 16 percent or so that are non-aboriginal visible minorities, many of whom had supported the Conservatives that returned Stephen Harper as prime minister in 2011 at the head of a majority government.

Traditionally supporters of the Liberal Party, large numbers of ethnic Chinese and South Asians – Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus alike – switched allegiance to support the Conservatives who they saw as not only more capable in managing the economy, but also more committed to upholding the conservative values of large segments of the immigrant population.  Under Harper’s leadership and watchful oversight, Jason Kenney, the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism – affectionately nicknamed ‘the Smiling Buddha’ – had successfully persuaded the ethnic Chinese and South Asians fed up with Liberal indifference to vote for the Conservatives.  The result was a huge turnover of once safe Liberal seats, particularly in Ontario, to the Conservatives.  Thus, even excluding Quebec, Harper won a majority of seats in the lower house of Parliament in 2011, relegating the Liberals to an ignominious third place finish.

By all accounts, Trudeau is looking beyond the Liberal leadership convention with an eye on becoming the next prime minister.  Whether he has the drive and charisma at the head of a renewed and invigorated Liberal Party to upset Stephen Harper and the Conservatives remain to be seen, but if anyone can do it, it is Trudeau.  He has not only the advantage of French and English descent, and a famous family name, but the courage to be decisive and sometimes unconventional in a positive way, a refreshing sign of his relative youth.

Trudeau’s decision to address the Islamic Spirit conference amid the controversy over links of one of the conference sponsors (which later pulled out of the conference) with Hamas is an example of courage, standing his ground in the face of opposition.  Even those who supported his participation criticized him for not using this opportunity to address issues such as the burqa or women’s rights within Islam, not realizing these matters do not concern the majority of Canadian Muslims in their daily lives.  Few Canadian Muslim women wear the burqa or the niqab.  Like other women in this country, most Muslim women do not feel comfortable displaying their religion in public.  The vast majority are concerned with the same social, economic and political issues as other Canadian women, so to single out religious attire amounts to focusing on the community from a narrow perspective.  The laws that protect ordinary Canadians also protect Canadian Muslims and that should be sufficient for all law abiding citizens irrespective of religious belief or affiliation.

Trudeau did well not to talk about religion at the conference.  To refer to it would be an unnecessary distraction that he probably recognized and therefore left religion out of his remarks as he did the turmoil in the Middle East and the Palestinian issue.  Instead, he concentrated on Canadian history, building bridges, tolerance and diversity, common hopes and challenges.  It was a call for unity, a common purpose and a shared future.  The speech was uncontroversial and in some respects a boiler plate political speech, perhaps even bland as some have called it.  The purpose was simply to connect with a religious minority – which Harper does so well with Sikhs – to do so in a respectful manner, leaving the discussion of Islam to the clergy and religious scholars.

Like Christians, Muslims are culturally and ethnically diverse, ranging from Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa constituting 15 percent of the total Muslim population to other Africans, Turks, South Asians, Indonesians, Malaysians and a small proportion of North Americans and Europeans accounting for most of the remaining 85 percent.  Trudeau did well to recognize this ethnic heterogeneity within Islam, hence the focus on issues that were purely Canadian in content as opposed to dwelling on particular cultures or geographic areas.

If Trudeau and the Liberals are to win the next election, they will have to impress upon the voters that they will be good economic stewards and will uphold mainstream Canadian values of acceptance, inclusion and diversity that are important not just to religious and ethnic minorities, but to most Canadians.

The key here is not simply to persuade Muslims, but to regain the loyalty of other disparate groups within the broader Canadian society that had once supported the Liberal Party in large numbers.  Addressing the Islamic Spirit conference was a good start, but to show his total dedication for the wellbeing of people who sometimes feel left out of the Canadian mainstream, Trudeau should be visible at events hosted by Jews, Sikhs, Hindus and other minority groups in addition to reaching out to those who view the Liberal Party with suspicion, especially Western Canadians.  Showing up at churches, mosques, temples and synagogues at election time can sometimes be perceived as opportunistic, so the engagement should begin early and extend well beyond the election cycle.

Win or lose the Liberal leadership or the next federal election, Trudeau seems to be doing his part.  He is perhaps the only Canadian politician standing between the Conservatives and yet another term for Stephen Harper as prime minister.