Prime Minister returns to campus for Town Hall

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Western once again played host to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as Alumni Hall was the setting of a London Town Hall meeting Thursday night. Trudeau was visiting London this week as the Canadian government held its winter cabinet retreat in the Forest City.

Some 2,300 members of the packed Alumni Hall audience had lined up for the evening event as early as 1 p.m., waiting for Trudeau, who fielded more than a dozen questions from the community audience, with topics spanning electoral reform, Indigenous issues, immigration, gender equality and dealing with adversaries.

Two disruptions occurred during the event, with one woman interrupting the question and answer period to protest Liberal MP Iqra Khalid’s Motion 103, which calls on the federal government to battle Islamophobia. Trudeau tried to engage the woman in conversation and she left the auditorium of her own accord. Later in the evening, a man interrupted – on two occasions – with interminable shouts and claims of a corrupt justice system and was escorted out of the room after throwing sheets of paper.

Trudeau kicked off his Town Hall Tour in Nova Scotia Tuesday, then traveled to Hamilton for a second event Wednesday. Following London, Trudeau will take a break before holding another meeting in Quebec City on Jan. 18. Later this month, he will head to Winnipeg and Edmonton.

The Prime Minister’s visit came almost one year to the day after Trudeau brought his London Town Hall to campus in 2017, after overwhelming demand from the community forced a late change of venue.

Below is an edited selection of the questions Trudeau fielded at the London Town Hall, as well as the answers he provided.

What are Canada’s plans to react to the emerging field and investments in artificial intelligence (AI)? How will it take a proactive stance, rather than reacting?

We don’t have to react to emerging AI trends because Canada has actually been one of the countries that has led in the development of the latest area of AI, which is deep learning.

Canada has always shown leadership in this. One of the things we did last year was launch an AI strategy investing well over $100 million dollars for specifically AI research in Canada and it’s paying off as people from around the world are coming to study and develop AI. We have big companies like Facebook and Google investing in Canadian researchers, realizing we have great hubs here that they want to be part of. We’ve created a real positive model in Canada. Whereas formerly an AI researcher would have to pick one of three paths – a pure academic one and hope that someone takes your inventions and turns them into practice; trying to start on your own as an entrepreneur; or being brought into the fold of a big company. In Canada, you can go with Option D, which is a combination of all those things because we understand that there is possibility, when you move forward in AI and that it will be really important.

There’s so much more to come and it becomes extremely important to make sure there is a thoughtful layer of analysis and foresight of various negative potential consequences (to AI) and how we create legal and ethical frameworks around positive use of AI. I’m pleased to say Canadians are actually leading on that. We understand how important it is to build strong and successful communities that we are weighing in, and in some ways, leading the way in the ethical questions around AI. This is certainly something that our educational institutions are going to be leading the way on, as well.

How do you deal with haters?

I think it starts from a place of respect. It’s about defending everyone’s rights to express themselves, whether or not you agree with them or not. If someone has decided that they don’t like me or they don’t like certain policies, I will try to listen to them respectfully and try to understand their point of view and where they are coming from. I am strong enough in my own principles and values, and in my own evaluation of who I am, where my strengths are and where my weaknesses are and I don’t really have to worry too much about feeling I am defined by what someone else thinks of me. I gathered around me a great group of friends who liked me for who I was, as annoying as I can be sometimes, as anyone can be. It’s about having a strong grounding in who I am, and it allows me to be respectful towards people who are not positively inclined towards me and at the same time, to try to listen, in case they have a point they are making, understanding that there are points out there worth hearing and understanding, even if ultimately, I don’t agree with them.

Many of our Indigenous people still live in communities that don’t have full access to clean water and are under water boil advisories. What is the government doing, and what will it do in the future to rectify this issue?

We want to end all boil water advisories on reserves across this country within five years. Our Minister of Indigenous Services, Jane Philpott, is working very hard on this. No Canadian should be unable to drink the water in their community. We’ve already lifted about 23 drinking water advisories across the country.

One of the challenges with this is that this is symptomatic of other things. In order to have clean drinking water in remote communities, we need investments in infrastructure, investments in people to maintain and upkeep that infrastructure; you need opportunities to make sure that when machines and (purification) plants break down, they can be replaced and kept up. These are long-term problems we are trying to solve once and for all, not just on a sporadic basis. That’s why it’s going to take probably a full five years to end all those water advisories. These are fundamental issues we have to rectify and it is something we are focused on and which we will deliver, for its symbolic and its practical importance in moving forward in reconciliation.

You have a younger daughter. As she grows up, what values do you want to pass on to her as she prepares for a world in which there are gender barriers?

I want my daughter to not face the kind of systemic discrimination that has happened for far too long. People have fought for, and continue to fight for a world in which she can do anything as she takes on amazing challenges. But it’s not just about telling my daughter that she can do and be anything she wants. It’s also an issue with my two sons, teaching them that their sister should and will be able to do anything and should be paid every bit as much as they are for the same work. How we shape the world around us to respect each other, and empower each other to succeed, will be of fundamental importance and it’s not just about being good and doing the right thing; it just makes sense to make sure everyone is able to contribute to their full potential in whatever position they aspire to and succeed at. It’s about making sure we have everyone contributing fully and that there are no barriers to anyone’s success.

Canada accepts tens of thousands of skilled workers, educated people who are doctors and professors in their countries but aren’t accepted to work in their fields here. What can you do, as Prime Minister, to make Canada the place those hard-working and qualified immigrants were promised it would be?

In my home riding in Montréal, for years, I’ve encountered this question as people with tremendous skillsets from their own countries have difficulties finding work in their own field. I met a doctor from Algeria, and I know they need doctors in Algeria just as we need doctors in Canada. He wasn’t working as a doctor here or in Algeria and there was a net loss, because of Canada, of one doctor in the world. And that’s not the force for good Canada wants to be.

We need to do a much better job of recognizing and verifying skills and allowing people to update or certify their skills to succeed in the Canadian system. Obviously in countries with different education systems, there might be different standards, and we have to make sure that in no case, someone who might be a doctor who is an immigrant, is less skilled than a doctor in Canada.

We have to make sure that everyone is at the same level. That’s something I know many people are willing to do; they are willing to be certified as long as they are not starting from square one. It’s something the federal government is engaged in. In many cases, when it comes to professional bodies, it goes to the provinces and it counts on the professional communities or associations to make improvements on that and we are working hard to encourage and incite those changes.

We recognize that immigration is an essential source of growth for economy in the world and we are going to be competing with countries around the world for immigrants; we need to make sure we can show people can build on their success when they come to this country.

We have a functioning democracy and that democracy can always improve. There is opportunity for this government to show incredible leadership in this portfolio. I’m disappointed we are not moving forward to make sure every vote for every citizen in this country counts.

I, too, believe our democracy can be improved. Changing the way we vote and changing the way we function as a democracy and democratic institution is an important thing. It’s something you have to get right, because once you change something, it’s difficult to change it back if it ends up not being the best for the country.

I do believe it is possible to improve our electoral system; my preference was always to give citizens more choices on the ballot so they’re not forced to vote for someone they dislike the least, or forced to vote against a party they don’t want to get in power, but actually rank their choices, and to make sure anyone elected, in any riding, had more than 50 per cent of the support.

That’s my perception on this, but other people have different opinions.

We had a process that tried to draw on other ideas, and there was a number of strong ideas put forward, but ultimately, I had to make a decision – and this is my decision and I’m not blaming anyone else – that there was no way to move forward that would ensure a better outcome for Canadians. This was a call I had to make that was difficult because I really did want this last election to be the last one held under the first-past-the-post format, but I wasn’t going to do something that I felt harmed Canada or weakened our democracy just to tick off a box on an electoral platform.

My job is to do things that are good for the country, and when I was aware we were going down a road that I believe wasn’t going to be good for the country, I put that aside. I know there are folks who are disappointed but ultimately, my responsibility is to do things that are good for this country.