Friday, November 28, 2014

On Finding Common Ground

I am not normally a biography reader, and I don't say that with pride. It's just not a genre that I tend to think about. However, Justin Trudeau's new autobiography, Common Ground, practically leaped into my hands at the library this week, and I consumed this very readable book in just a few days. Trudeau wrote in such a conversational style that it was both interesting and easy going.

Justin is the son of, arguably, Canada's most renown prime minister of the twentieth century or at least my part of it which began about halfway through the century. Pierre Trudeau was both a charismatic and a contentious politician, whose standout accomplishments (in my mind and likely in most) were repatriating the constitution and enacting the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Having lived through the Trudeau era, both for better and for worse, I was interested to read Justin's accounts of his early days and memories and opinions about his famous father, who demanded that his sons show respect for others, including those on the other side of issues. This surprised me somewhat, as Pierre was seen as a bit of an aloof elitist.

Although it was all interesting to me, I was most interested in Justin's entry into political life, which came rather late in his life, as well as his political views. I was rather surprised that he didn't indicate very much interest in politics in his earlier years, only becoming interested and absorbed in his thirties after spending several years as a teacher in British Columbia in both private and public schools.

I had assumed that the younger Trudeau had been given an easy path to the leadership of the Liberal Party on the strength of his father's name, but such was not the case. When he first began to show an interest in running for parliament, his party actually blocked him from entering the nomination race in his home riding and, then, was offered no support in his quest to represent Papineau as the party preferred two other candidates over Trudeau.

Fascinating to me, was how Justin worked the riding for so many months in order to build support for his candidacy. He was constantly knocking on doors and engaging people at subway stations and supermarkets, talking to them and encouraging them to purchase $10 memberships to the party, so they could vote for him at the eventual nomination meeting. Naturally, he was successful, or neither the biography nor this post would have been conceived.

After the surprise of his winning of the nomination for the Papineau riding, he applied the same formula of hard street work to win the riding in two general elections. Although his father was not the sort of politician to enjoy on-the-street interactions, this became Justin's forte. In this, he was more like his grandfather politician, James Sinclair, from his mother's side of the family. He diligently worked the riding, day after day, month after month, for a year and a half until the first election and applied the same formula to the second. His success was opposite to the party's experience which was defeated in the first election and absolutely trounced in the second one.

Perhaps it was the Liberal Party's hard electoral times that enabled Justin Trudeau to vault into the leadership role as such a young politician, who is still in his very early forties and without vast political experience. However, his fresh vision and ability to engage youth and others in all sorts of roles, mostly volunteer roles, help him to ascend to this position.

He does not speak highly of Prime Minister Harper's and the Conservative Party's disposition to practice both an undemocratic and a divisive style of politics. Unlike his political opponents, however, he seems to be able to voice his concerns and differences without resorting to mudslinging and character assassination. Indeed, as you will see in the quotes below, he is very critical, but he doesn't stoop to underhanded, personal attacks. One hopes that he will continue to take the high ground when push comes to shove in the next general election, which could be called soon, but it will be difficult to continue to turn the other cheek as it were.

The title of his book, Common Ground, fundamentally reveals his view of Canada and how it should be governed. Despite this huge country's differences in geography, Trudeau, in his extensive travels, has discovered that the country's people hold very much in common, even from the typical French-speaking Quebecker to the prairie farmer. He desires a more inclusive government where the common person is seen, heard and considered.

He wishes to bring greater democracy to parliament with more open discussion and votes and wrote that "People feel the effects of democratic decline over time." Trudeau is pro economic growth that also benefits average Canadians, who have seen little or no real personal income growth in the past several decades. He believes that the economy can be developed in an environmentally friendly manner. He is pro immigration and also want to see improved conditions and opportunities for our first nations people.

Permit me to conclude my pithy review with a number of direct quotes. I have ended up including more than I had thought to, but I think it may be instructive to read some of his own words on various issues.

"The whole experience [of having his motion for the creation of a national policy for youth quashed] hardened my resolve to speak loudly and clearly for young people across the country. I would make sure that at least one strong, vocal politician was fighting for youth in Canada." (224)

"In my first years [as an MP] I was on the environment committee, and I later served on citizenship and immigration. On the former, all the government cared about was looking as if it cared about the environment, while doing the absolute minimum it could get away with. On the latter, it felt it had all the answers already, and anyone who disagreed with or corrected it must be a rabid opposition partisan." (224)

"Since the early 1890s ... we have always understood that immigration is essentially an economic policy ... The economic value of immigration has always been recognized. We wouldn't have much growth without it ... I think the current policy has lost sight of immigration's most critical role for Canada; it is a nation-building tool ... We should see the newly arrived as community builders and potential citizens, not just as employees."  (216-17)

"The predicament of First nations, and our willingness as non-Aboriginals to abide the abject poverty and injustice that afflict so many, is a great moral stain on Canada ... there are more than 1,1000 missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada. The government refuses to call an inquiry into the matter, and that is shameful." (235)

"What progress has been made has largely come through the courts, as First Nations people litigate the Charter ... This has to change. Canada's relationship with first peoples is definitional when it comes to our national character and is currently a practical obstacle holding our country back ... First Nations communities across Canada have a right to a fair and real chance of success. They cannot be an afterthought as we develop the resources on their land. (236)"

"I believe that Canadians want a national, non-ideological party that is connected to them and focused on them. One that is focused on the hopes and dreams they have for themselves, their families, their communities, and their country." (238)

"If I earn the privilege of serving as prime minister, I want to be judged by the quality of the arms I twist, all across Canada [emphasis mine], to actively serve our country." (244)

"These Conservatives [after finally winning a majority] are not interested in building on the common ground where we have always solved our toughest problems. Their approach is to exploit divisions rather than bridge them ... One you've divided people against one another ... so you can win an election, it's very hard to pull them back together to solve our shared problems." (254)

"Too many people were being left out and behind in Mr. Harper's vision. I said I believed that the Conservative government's basic flaw was its smallness, its meanness, its inability to relate or work with people who do not share its ideological predispositions." (from speaking to a committee of friends and colleagues while assessing whether he should run for the position of party leader, 258-59)

"I made it clear that I wanted to run a campaign focused on the future, not the past. I wanted to build a new kind of political movement by recruiting hundreds of thousands of people into the process ... We would build an inclusive, positive vision for the country, and have faith that Canadians would want to take part in it."  (also from the same talk as above to his friends and advisers, 264-65)

"I made it clear in my campaign that the Liberal Party needs to be a liberal party. By that I meant that the core values of liberalism — equality of economic opportunity and diversity of thought and belief, which I see as the building block of individual freedom, fairness, and social justice — ought to be the cornerstones of the Liberal Party and its policies. I said that we needed to be a party that stood up for the people's right to have a real and fair chance at success, regardless of whether they had been born rich or poor, where they came from, or what, if any, faith they professed. (281)


Tabor said...

It is sometimes moving and inspiring to follow these leaders who are not in the headlines right now. When they write a book we can get a better picture of the arguments they make without the hoopla that surrounds this divisiveness.

Beatrice P. Boyd said...

While this is not a biography I will read, AC, your analysis and review was quite interesting.

EG CameraGirl said...

Well, Justin Trudeau is certainly inspiring young people in my riding. A young woman in her 30s has recently announced that she run for the Liberals here. I live in a riding now held by the Conservatives. I think I need to read JT's book as it sounds interesting.

Dale said...

He certainly offers a more promising future than the filth and greed of the current government. I wish he had more political experience.

troutbirder said...

I remember his father well. And wish the best to him. He speaks to truth with a vision for the future of his nation.

Chicken said...

Hi AC-wasn't sure what a "riding" was, so just spent some time reading about your government. 8 AM and I've learned a few things. A good start to the day:-)

Ruth said...

Interesting summary. I will look for this book at the library. Pierre Trudeau landed in a helicopter in the football field of my high school (1972) and then addressed the students. I remember shaking his hand. That was the first election after the voting age was lowered to 18.

Hena Tayeb said...

It is often interesting to learn how people became who they are today and how it was not as easy a road as we imagined

Pearl said...

that's fascinating. maybe I'll add that to my reading list as well. I don't often "do" biography but non-fiction is a growing proportion of my stacks.