Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has now given two speeches to mark the opening of the UN General Assembly in New York, two speeches in which he sought to burnish his government’s progressive, internationalist credentials at a time when so many other world leaders are focused inward.
A year ago, the prime minister spoke of how Canada welcomed 31,000 Syrian refugees fleeing civil war in their home country. At a time of significant upheaval, he spoke of the importance of global leaders working together to allay rather than exploit people’s fears.
On Thursday, he chose this same international stage to lay out a very different vision, focused this time on what he sees as Canada’s national shame, and how his government is working to right the historic wrongs perpetrated against Indigenous people.
“Canada is not a wonderland,” he said in French early in his remarks at the UN, “or a country where difficulties don’t exist.”
To any Canadian this might seem more than a little self-evident. But what may seem far less self-evident is the purpose of a political leader using time at the UN to publicly highlight his country’s failings. But make no mistake, there is a purpose.
‘We need to take responsibility’
Trudeau has gone to great lengths promoting his government’s re-engagement with the UN, and to similar lengths promoting reconciliation with First Nations, Inuit and Métis. Weaving these themes together was a unique chance to play both to voters at home and to world leaders in New York, where Canada is lobbying hard for a seat on the UN Security Council in 2021.
“In conversations over the years, when I’ve suggested that certain countries need to do better on their own human rights, their own internal challenges, the response has been, ‘Well, tell me about the plight of Indigenous people,'” he told reporters after the speech.
“If there are things we are not doing right, I think we need to take responsibility for that.”
Trudeau also confirmed his government will soon be introducing legislation to guarantee equal pay for work of equal value. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
This speech was clearly more mea culpa than lecture. More about how Canada can take what it’s learned about its own failures to bring positive solutions to global issues.
Trudeau linked his focus on a domestic issue with the UN’s own sustainable development goals as he listed the needs of Indigenous people in Canada: clean drinking water and proper sanitation (Goal 6), quality education (4), gender equality (5) and sustainable communities (11).
He also spoke about his government’s decision to support the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and to abandon the previous Conservative government’s opposition to the declaration on the rights of Indigenous people.
The domestic theme continued in other areas, too.
Trudeau confirmed his government will soon introduce legislation to guarantee equal pay for work of equal value.
He repeated Canada’s support for the Paris accord on climate change, and admonished other leaders that they cannot walk away from the responsibility to act.
Both statements received polite applause in the hall.
‘He’s trying to save face’
But Trudeau’s speech didn’t win any applause from Pam Palmater, the chair of Indigenous governance at Ryerson University in Toronto.
She said Trudeau talked only of past sins, glossing over the continued shortcomings of his and other governments in meeting the challenges faced by Indigenous people.
“What is the No. 1 reason that there isn’t clean drinking water on many First Nations?” she said. “It’s because of a refusal to provide adequate funding by even the current government.”
Pam Palmater, chair of Indigenous governance at Ryerson University, says the Trudeau government hasn’t done enough to help Indigenous communities. (Pam Palmater)
More than 150 of those communities still have drinking water advisories.
“He’s trying to save face,” she said. “He’s trying to make sure he gets on the Security Council.”
Bid for a seat
The bid for one of the rotating seats on the UN’s governing body might not be the only reason for Trudeau’s focus, but it clearly matters.
Stephen Harper’s government withdrew a bid in 2010 when it became apparent Canada would lose — a failure critics blamed on Harper’s unfailing support for Israel, and his outspoken distaste for the UN’s bureaucratic intransigence.
“Canadians benefit when we have a time on the Security Council,” Trudeau told reporters. “But I don’t think it’s overly presumptuous of us to say perhaps the world benefits when Canada has a voice on the Security Council.”
Not surprisingly, Trudeau said nothing about Canada’s still unfulfilled promise to contribute troops and police officers to UN peacekeeping operations, a few weeks before Canada hosts an international summit intended to secure new pledges for those missions.
That’s one delayed decision that isn’t helping the cause.
NDP MP Hélène Laverdière criticized Trudeau for failing to clarify his government’s peacekeeping plans. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
“The prime minister is paying lip service to his commitment to peacekeeping at the UN,” said New Democrat MP Hélène Laverdière.
She said the “hypocrisy is astounding.”
But the strangest portion of Trudeau’s speech came near the end when he raised his government’s controversial plan to force incorporated small businesses to pay higher taxes.
It must have been puzzling to those listening at the UN.
But, when it comes to burnishing Canada’s progressive credentials at the world body, why not treat tax fairness like it’s an international development goal instead of the hot-button domestic political issue it really is.