Trudeau’s cross-country town halls are back with a new format — and new skeptics

Every town hall begins the same way: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, wearing a blue or white shirt, rolling up his sleeves, grabs a microphone, waxing poetic about the state of the world and acknowledging recent challenges facing Canadians.

Those in the crowd who had the opportunity to ask the prime minister uncensored questions were no strangers to these struggles.

A Muslim mother feared for her child’s safety. Immigrants who are concerned about their future in Canada. Blue-collar workers who can’t afford to eat. People who cannot find work or access mental health support. Young people losing sleep over climate change. Aboriginal people say they feel left behind.

In the 14-hour-long town halls Trudeau has attended over the past 11 weeks, the prime minister made their concerns available to him during the question-and-answer session after his speech.

But while some attendees at the event said they were encouraged by Trudeau’s efforts, others found themselves cynical about whether he and his government were actually listening.

It’s a familiar format for Trudeau — one that some pundits say could serve the party well, even as its utility to the wider public has been questioned.

“It’s something I like to do,” Trudeau told a group of businessmen in Winnipeg earlier this week.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the prime minister has limited his interactions with the public as public health measures keep people at a distance from each other.

“I bet he’s eager to do that throughout the pandemic and the 2021 (election) campaign because, for the most part, he can’t,” said Philip Fournier, the polling analyst behind 338Canada (Philippe J. Fournier) said. Voting site.

“I’m thinking he’s really happy to be back on the road. That’s what he does best.”

But after nearly eight years in power, Trudeau faces a different political culture.

Fournier noted that in 2016, Trudeau was treated like a rock star when he visited places like Mississauga, Ontario. — but as he campaigns for a third time in 2021, he has encountered angry protesters at many of his campaign stations.

A man in London, Ontario even threw rocks at him.

“The country has changed,” Fournier said. “The people outside were so angry they would have shot him if they could.”

So while Trudeau used to hold town hall events that the public could attend, his office said it had to change the format because of new security threats.

To arrange visits, the Prime Minister’s Office contacted specific special interest groups – such as trade unions, universities and businesses – to ask if they would like to host a town hall.

Some participants said that this forces people to be respectful as they are in a professional environment that is often associated with their workplace.

“We were told we could ask questions, and feel free to ask hard questions, but with respect,” said Christina Brock, who helped organize a town hall in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, for trade workers and apprentices Be a member local union.

The group organizing the town hall is responsible for the guest list, but must keep the event private. This is a way to circumvent security risks without censoring every audience member.

“We have to keep it secret and be careful about who we invite,” Brock said.

Most of those invited to the event have no idea who the speaker will be, only to be told it will be a “senior government official”.

Many Canadians who attended the town hall knew it was a rare opportunity to air their grievances face-to-face with the prime minister and said they were grateful for the opportunity.

People typically live-stream their interactions with him on social media and flock to him for photos or handshakes after the event.

While attending a University of Manitoba town hall in Winnipeg this week, Trudeau encountered an individual claiming to be a supporter of the People’s Party of Canada in an exchange that was documented by a Reddit user and promptly shared on Twitter. It went viral on the Internet.

The young man said the Liberal Party’s support for abortion rights made it “anti-Christian”, and when the prime minister asked whether women should have the right to “choose what happens to their bodies”, he replied: “Personally, there is no .”

Continuing back and forth, Trudeau finally patted the young man on the shoulder and said, “Sounds like you need to think a little more, and, moreover, pray a little more.”

Trudeau has received some praise on social media for the way he handles interactions — something Fournier said was no surprise.

“Historically, these events have served Trudeau very well,” Fournier said. “He’s really good at talking to people.”

However, Scott Reed, a former senior adviser to Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin, has warned that town halls could become a bubble and not necessarily reflect a country’s mood – even if there is some political interest in holding them.

The excitement of being in the same room with the Prime Minister wears off quickly.

Tyler Fulton, a Manitoba rancher, attended a town hall hosted by the Canadian Agricultural Federation in Ottawa, where he asked a question about protecting prairie grasslands. He called it a good opportunity to engage with leaders, though he said Trudeau might come across as contrived.

But Fulton said when he tried to contact Trudeau’s office to follow up on his concerns, he got no response.

“If you’re going to own these fields, then you need to follow through,” said Fulton, who also works for the Canadian Cattlemen Association.

“Otherwise, people will just become cynical about their purpose.”

At the Port Coquitlam town hall, Brock asked Trudeau a question about mental health, and his answer included advising people to take a mental health first aid class — which she has already done.

She later joked that she should have worn her “No Man Says Parish” T-shirt. But she said she was pleased with the entire campaign.

“I think it showed another side of Justin. It made him more relatable,” Bullock said. “I hope he understands and brings back to Ottawa the suffering he’s hearing from people. If he does that, then it does serve the public.”

At the end of the day, the town hall is good for the Liberal government because it gives Trudeau a chance to talk about his agenda and promote what the government has been doing, said Stuart Barnable, senior director of public affairs at Hill+Knowlton Strategies.

“I think it’s just going to help what the Liberals are trying to achieve,” said Barnable, who also serves as chief of staff to Senate President George Furey.

“They’re setting their narrative,” he said. “Whether or not it resonates with Canadians.”

Mickey Djuric, Canadian Press

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