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Is it too soon to talk about Trudeau’s legacy?

By Rachel Aiello      

Why do insiders and experts predict some of this government’s forward-thinking policies will stick? Because any change would be ‘backwards movement.’

For Canada’s 150th year, P&I spoke with Liberal insiders, politicos, and policy experts to consider how Canada could look markedly different in 2167 as a result of some policy changes the current prime minister, Justin Trudeau, is undertaking. Photograph courtesy of Adam Scotti
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Baby Justin Trudeau was born May 4, 2017 in Calgary, Alta. His life, and the lives of the handful of other baby Justin Trudeaus—including one girl, Justine, born in a small Quebec city—could be markedly different as a result of some major social policy shifts and leadership decisions made by the Justin Trudeau who was born December 25, 1971 in Ottawa.

Justin Trudeau Adam Bilan’s (Justin Trudeau is his rst name) parents Afraa and Muhammad Bilan, and his two older siblings arrived in Canada from Damascus, Syria on February 5, 2016 as part of the now more than 40,000 Syrian refugees the federal Liberals brought in shortly after forming government.

“Nobody before him did what the prime minister did with refugees,” says Afraa Bilan in an interview with P&I from her home in Calgary. Bilan thinks that will be something Trudeau will be remembered for. That’s why her husband had the idea, shortly after arriving in their new country, to name their new baby after the prime minister.

Baby Justin Trudeau Adam Bilan. P&I photograph courtesy of Afraa Bilan

I was very happy,” Bilan, who is learning to play the violin, says. “Because it’s a nice name and we thought it would be a small thank you for Justin Trudeau the prime minister because he brings lots of refugees and he is the reason I am and my family are in Canada.”

She hopes for a better life for her son, the family’s first Canadian citizen, who, at the time of the interview, is a 14-day-old who sleeps a lot and cries just a little bit.

For Canada’s 150th year, P&I spoke with Liberal insiders, politicos, and policy experts to consider how Canada could look markedly different in 2167 as a result of some policy changes the current prime minister is undertaking.

“You have to be swimming with the tide of history,” in order for a policy to withstand the test of time and stay relatively unchanged over the course of subsequent administrations, says Stephen Azzi, associate professor of political management at Carleton University. It has to be things that can’t be immediately repealed, and the timing has to be right, he says.

Historic examples of lasting policies Azzi cites include the major change Trudeau’s father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, made during his time as prime minister: establishing the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“I think it has to be dramatic, it has to be something noticeable, so things like tax cuts aren’t the sorts of things that get remembered. Big measures—building a railway, creating a charter of rights—those are the things that tend to be remembered. It has to be big and dramatic instead of tinkering at the edges, and it has to be something that lasts,” says Azzi.

Though as Wilfrid Laurier University history professor and author Cynthia Comacchio tells P&I, “these things are very, very slow moving, and Canada in 2017 looks nothing like Canada even 50 years ago, much less at Confederation. It’s not onward and upward, and no barriers to progress, it’s more jagged by far, ups and downs, but we are definitely doing better in regard to social policy that applies and really affects people’s lives in a positive way than we have ever done.”

Comacchio, who focuses on the history of childhood and families, says historically, in Canada, change starts on a societal level and then the government responds, which has become more progressive generally over time given it’s not entirely run by white men anymore.

Patrice Dutil, professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University and author of a new book on prime ministerial power in Canada, tells P&I that often, policy at its base remains relatively unchanged over administrations, but are “conjugated with a different spin,” and the policies that are most likely to have staying power are the ones that take a sharp turn away from the status quo.

“We’re not a country that changes direction a lot… the path is remarkably resilient,” says Dutil.

In short, no one thinks for certain that in 150 years the current shift in social policy will have direct lineage to any one prime minister’s decisions, and legacies can rarely be seen until the dust settles, but people interviewed for this piece say there are a few policy areas the Trudeau government could be looking at in terms of its legacy.

As Susan Smith, Bluesky Strategy’s principal puts it, these are policies that have caused a societal shift, and that’s hard to go back on.

“There’s been a shift in people’s brains about it… and their behaviours are in the process of shifting, and that’s all forward movement. Therefore, I believe those policies will stick because any change [would be] backwards movement. The genie’s out of the bottle with all of them,” she says.

A ‘feminist’ government with a focus on diversity

When Trudeau came to power and walked up the driveway at Rideau Hall with 15 men and 15 women—the Liberal MPs who would comprise his first ministerial roster—and made the now infamous and overused declaration “because it’s 2015,” people took notice.

“That will be remembered in 150 years… and it has ripple effects already,” Azzi tells P&I, noting that while it’s largely seen as symbolic, “it’s changed the way gender issues are addressed in Ottawa.”

When the new French President Emmanuel Macron unveiled his own parity cabinet, it was called “pulling a Trudeau.”

“Who wants to be the prime minister that walks that back?” says Smith.

Since then, the government’s taken further steps to implement gender-based analysis on federal policy, including the 2017 budget; have made diversity and inclusion part of bureaucracy-wide appointments processes; is currently testing a name-blind hiring practice in six federal departments; and Minister for Status of Women Maryam Monsef has been mandated to work on a gender violence strategy and pay equity legislation.

Nancy Peckford, executive director of Equal Voice Canada, says while the impact of some of this change will take time before being known, there are early indicators of success, like having more women around the key decision-making table, and having more Canadians see themselves reflected at the top levels of politics and public policy.

“That emphasis absolutely matters and will shift the kinds of discussions and dialogues and some of the decision making,” says Peckford.

However, women’s rights observers are still waiting to see the federal government provide Monsef ’s department more funding, to step up in a concrete way globally on women’s rights. And, according to analysis done by Equal Voice and Abacus Data, without further steps to prioritize getting more women to enter politics, it could take 20 election cycles—or 90 years
—before the House of Commons reaches gender parity.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. P&I photograph by Jake Wright

“It’s been a really good start,” Peckford tells P&I, noting that now the hard part of governing comes: figuring out how to solidify that change. She says the government would be wise to think about institutionalizing its work around gender-based analysis to guarantee better policy outcomes going forward, and said there’s an argument to be made for the appointment of an official commissioner for gender equality.

“There’s a lot to do… there’s a lot of enthusiasm but also anxiety among equality-seeking groups… who are not quite sure how the yardstick will advance. They understand that the government is being very ambitious about wanting to move the yardstick forward, but the actual mechanics of that in terms of both fiscal expenditures and policy reform are not always moving at the pace that external groups would like,” says Peckford.

Azzi also noted that the forthcoming federal apology to Canadians who were persecuted by the government in the past because of their sexuality, and enshrining the rights of transgender people in law “will stand up well” over time, similar to other formal apologies by previous prime ministers.

Comacchio said it is about kick-starting public acceptance and if it continues, it could make a real difference in the lives of the next generation of Canadians.

“If our elected government is putting on an important example in this manner, then people who voted for them and people who thought this way anyway are more encouraged to take it up, and maybe those who were on the fence are also, they’re going to feel the pressure—institutions, corporations— are going to feel the pressure to diversify,” says Comacchio.

Opening the doors to Syrian refugees

The Liberals’ move to bring in over 40,000 Syrian refugees (25,000 within its first few months as a government) has been pointed to numerous times as one of the most memorable moves this government has made so far, with impacts both within Canada and abroad.

“It has reemphasized the priority Canada traditionally had of accepting refugees,” says former director general of the citizenship and immigration department Andrew Griffith.

“I think it’s a real legacy… both in terms of the political symbolism and messaging, but also my sense from the department is they learned how to do things slightly differently and that’s probably a really valid thing to learn,” he says.

Though society often takes its signals from what the government sets as its priorities, and in this case emboldens many to step up, it’s not something the government should be too “smug” about its immigration acumen when compared to the levels of refugee intake by other nations, says Earnscliffe principal and former Liberal policy adviser André Albinati.

Insiders say it speaks to the broader narrative of Canadian exceptionalism that Trudeau and his team are pushing internationally, and recasts light on Canada being a place aid groups are looking to as a new leader in international development assistance. e follow-through on both is still yet to be fully demonstrated, as is what the government will do about the refugees from places other than Syria, whom the opposition say have taken a backseat.

“In a political file like immigration… if you get five years of your policy sticking, that’s somewhat significant,” says Griffith.

Under the current immigration levels, by 2036, half of the country’s population will be immigrants or children of immigrants. In order to really stitch a new pattern into the country’s social fabric or to accelerate that rate of change, Trudeau would have to up immigration levels considerably higher than the current level. There are people close to the government who have been making pitches for that, including the Dominic Barton-chaired Advisory Council on Economic Growth, which called for a 50 per cent increase to 450,000 people a year.

This considered, Comacchio says “whatever the initial challenges—and there are always challenges—the evidence for their continued Canadian support is historical, and will have a positive impact for generations to come.”

Marijuana policy A ‘seismic shift’

It has been called a “seismic shift” in Canadian society and public policy. e government, by getting taking cues from evolving public opinion on legalizing marijuana in Canada, has the potential—if it’s implemented correctly—to go down in the history books as the ones that raised pot from the underground and made it as commonplace as craft beer.

On April 13, the government introduced the two pieces of legislation in its effort to legalize marijuana. Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould tabled both bills.

Bill C-45, known as the Cannabis Act, creates a legal framework controlling the production, distribution, possession, safety standards and sale of marijuana that would allow adults in Canada to legally possess and use small amounts of recreational marijuana from licensed providers. Bill C-46 addresses the impaired driving aspect of having a new legalized intoxicant and how that will be policed.

“It’s a seismic shift in our society. For so long we’ve had prohibition—since the 1920s—and the government’s objective, I think, with the support of most Canadians, is to now no longer have prohibition,” NDP House Leader Murray Rankin told The Hill Times in May.

A number of the sources spoken to on this acknowledged that Trudeau’s election campaign promise likely helped the Liberal Party’s youth vote, but it won’t come without “growing pains,” as Smith puts it.

Once the legislation passes, which the government made steady progress on in the spring sitting of Parliament, the big questions are answered in the regulations, and there’s a system in place, it won’t be too long before there will be children who grow-up never having known it to be criminalized.

But in order to get there, to normalize and break down the stigma and fear still attached to marijuana and those who use it, education around usage will play a big role, says Navigator Ltd.’s Will Stewart, who represents a number of clients in the cannabis industry.

“If people are properly educated and don’t have bad experiences, I think that we will look back on it and say ‘why was there such a big deal around this?’” he tells P&I.

His shop’s latest public opinion polling shows that for those with an opinion on recreational marijuana, Canadians are split down the middle on accepting legalized marijuana, but approval is growing and is already strong with younger people. Stewart says the come around will continue, and is being helped by the government moving on it, similar to other big social policy shifts in the country’s political past, the most recent example being medically-assisted dying.

Indigenous peoples and reconciliation

Another area highlighted by many people P&I spoke with is the ongoing process in establishing a new nation-to-nation relationship between indigenous people and the federal government. When he came to power, Trudeau promised to improve the relationship with First Nations, Inuit and Métis people, including implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations; launching a national inquiry into the hundreds of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls; and adequately funding First Nations’ healthcare, housing, and education, among other efforts.

So far, the national inquiry is underway but with considerable discontent amongst some families; the government is working on addressing the TRC recommendations, but in an arguably piecemeal way; and despite pledges for proportional funding and $3.4-billion being earmarked in the latest budget through to 2020 for health, training, clean water and jobs, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled in May that the Liberals are still not complying with the required level of response to the health-care needs of First Nations children.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Perry Bellegarde. P&I photograph by Jake Wright

“I think a lot more needs to be done before that’ll become a defining issue of this government,” says Azzi.

However, some Liberal insiders say the government being vocal about respecting indigenous people in Canada has raised social consciousness around respecting and celebrating indigenous culture in Canada.

“Don’t underestimate the importance of how, for a federal government, if they use language, if they talk about something being important and what their expectations are for the institutions within and around government as needing to reflect that in new ways,” says Albinati, who added this file also has the potential to put Canada on the map as an example of how to acknowledge past mistakes, and how to elevate the standard for an equitable relationship.

He says if that’s done, the indigenous relationship reset “over the coming decades and for the next generations of Canadians will impact the fabric of our society and I think it will impact it in phenomenally important and unique and helpful ways.”

Innovation and infrastructure

Others commented that the government’s plans around fostering innovation ‘superclusters’ and spending billions developing infrastructure could have similar tangible impacts considerably down the line if the systems they’re putting in place to support more infrastructure development and innovation jobs are kept up by succeeding governments.

Smith notes that there is already a shift happening within the workforce, recognizing the need for things like artificial intelligence and coding, and that the government’s work in talking about and throwing money behind initiatives aimed at boosting these skills is “laying the groundwork” for future generations of workers to be well-positioned new additions to an evolving labour market.

Though the likelihood of these issues being handled in the same way by succeeding governments is questionable, given the opposition push-back and expert commentary that both the Canada Infrastructure Bank and Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains’ innovation hub plan, are set up with the potential for political interference, or for the government to pick winners with public funds.

‘What will be a signature approach?’

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa. P&I photograph by Jake Wright

All this considered, it’s unlikely that after two years in power, Trudeau and his team are thinking about his prime ministerial legacy, sources for this story said, but it will have to be considered by the next federal election.

“The thinking of legacies tends to come at the end of that first mandate when the government starts thinking hard about ‘what am I going to run on? What will be my legacy? What can I offer Canadians that will be distinctive, that will be a signature approach?’” says Dutil.

The Liberals are governing on an ambitious agenda with a lot of big promises and bold steps that will take considerable work to make people notice, but Smith says in two years things will be different than they were in 2015.

“Many of these things are top of mind for Canadians and from a policy perspective I think that’s a success. If you raise the topic and say ‘oh yeah what’s different?’ they could tell you and that’s pretty significant, I think, from a government side,” says Smith.

Now, the conversation in the PMO is likely: what are the things they can deliver on, and put checkmarks next to, going into the next campaign; and what are the things they’ll look to accomplish in a second mandate, says Albinati.

“It’s more about setting the table so that Canada can prosper in the coming decades, really, and I think that’s what they’re working at,” he says.

Trudeau was unavailable for an interview and did not respond to written questions about his term as prime minister so far, or what thinking he’s done about the remainder of it.

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