On Wednesday, February 7, 2018, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau launched a four-day US tour here at the University of Chicago before continuing on to San Francisco and Los Angeles. It is not unusual for Trudeau to visit the United States—he has made fourteen visits in his time as Prime Minister, mostly for summits and meetings with other world leaders—but this trip stood out, in part due to its focus on young people as agents of change.
As opposed to most of his other US visits, this trip was more broad and ambitious in its purpose. In a press release in mid-January, Trudeau’s office announced that the visit was meant to “further strengthen the deep bonds that unite Canada and the United States.” In order to achieve this goal, Trudeau included meetings with political leaders such as Rahm Emanuel and local business leaders in California in his itinerary, emphasizing his belief in the importance of trade and collaboration between Canada and the United States. This is not new—desire for increased collaboration has been a defining feature of Trudeau’s time in office, ever since he first traveled to the United States in 2016, marking the first official visit by a Canadian leader in nineteen years. Instead, what made this trip stand out so much was its scope—it incorporated meetings with individuals in various regions and sectors, ranging from business leaders, government officials, and, most surprisingly, University of Chicago students.
The visit came at a tense political moment for the United States and the world—during the first year of his term, US President Donald Trump reversed many of the Obama administration’s positions that aligned with Trudeau’s progressive agenda. Most notably, the Trump administration has publicly opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) trade deal, reneged on prior initiatives to protect the environment, and pursued starkly different policies regarding immigration and refugees. In response, Trudeau has been seeking new partnerships in the United States across the board so that he continues to be able to promote Canada’s business interests, even where he and Trump do not agree. Last year, for example, Trudeau became the first Canadian Prime Minister to speak at a US governor’s conference, where he championed NAFTA and other partnerships between Canadian and US companies. Now, he is reaching out to American youth as well.
It is unusual for a world leader to spend a great deal of time courting young adults, let alone those of a foreign power. Yet American college students tend to be receptive towards Trudeau’s progressive ideas—unsurprisingly, since most college campuses lean liberal. Several students echoed this after the event, including Second Year Ronen Schatsky. Schatsky said that he came to see Trudeau speak because “[Trudeau] is a leader that inspires [him]” due to the fact that he is welcoming to immigrants and those who are underrepresented, among other things.
Trudeau is often compared to Obama in his popularity, and especially in the era of Trump, it can be encouraging for many students who have become disillusioned to hear from a politician who they believe in. The appeal to students is another way that Trudeau echoes Obama’s legacy—Obama made headlines during the 2008 and 2012 campaigns by coming to talk to college students and to encourage them to come out and vote, even though they have historically been absent on Election Day. It is likely that Trudeau is seeking to engage with students for a similar reason—because they are generally more open to liberal ideas than older voters, they represent an important and underrepresented demographic in elections, and they will soon become the next generation of world leaders. In other words, if a politician or political party can get college students on their side, they gain a decisive advantage in accumulating enough support to achieve policy goals.
In his address to students, Trudeau said that he chose to include young people in the debate about their future because they are “agents of change for whom change isn’t scary.” In Canada, he explained, youth are changing the nature of the political discourse, demanding intelligent, rational arguments as opposed to fear-mongering tactics—he called on youth in the United States to do the same. Again, this call to action comes at a time when many students are disillusioned by the current state of politics, and Americans as a whole are disappointed in the Trump administration—Trump has the lowest approval rating for a US President in recent history.
“I don’t know if it’s true [that young people] want to hear arguments based on facts . . . but I like that idea a lot. That really explains why people are so disenchanted with politics,” Schatsky commented after the event. “[Trudeau] may have hit on something, actually trying to appeal to people’s ability to think.”
Keeping with that spirit, Trudeau’s address to students incorporated many references to policies on his agenda, such as NAFTA. For example, Trudeau commented with a teasing smile that while Canadians are “very aware of everything going on in the United States,” Americans often take for granted how intertwined American and Canadian interests are. In fact, the United States exports more to Canada than to the United Kingdom, Japan, and China combined. Trudeau argued that NAFTA would be the best deal for every country, including the United States, and that what is good for Canada is also good for the United States. Additionally, Trudeau argued in defense of feminism, claiming that feminism is not only the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do in order to spur further economic growth in our societies.
Other moments of the event, however, were driven more by rhetoric than by facts. During the question and answer session with David Axelrod, for example, Trudeau was asked about military weapons that Canada sold to the Philippines, a decision which has been criticized by many human rights activists and by Trudeau’s political opponents in Canada. When asked if he worried that those weapons could potentially be used to harm civilians, Trudeau danced around the question, claiming that there are plenty of rules in place that the Canadian government committedly follows, but failing to name any specific rules or examples. When Axelrod returned with a follow-up question asking if Trudeau was satisfied in the particular case of the arms deal with the Philippines, Trudeau shut down the line of questioning by saying that he is “still in the process of looking at [the situation].” Additionally, Trudeau stayed away from specifics while talking about negotiating values versus trade in affairs with other countries, stating rather uncontroversially that it is a question of “balance.” In these moments, Trudeau seemed to compromise his own ideals of fact-based arguments and open debate, leaning instead towards the rhetoric and question-dodging that people often criticize in incumbent politicians.
Still, on the surface, it seemed that most students who attended the event agreed with Trudeau’s ideas, a conclusion which is backed up by his approval ratings—ever since his election, Trudeau has enjoyed an almost cult-like popularity in the United States, similar to the overwhelming approval that Obama had in places like Germany for the first several years of his administration. The real question is whether or not Trudeau can animate this latent support into political action among American youth and business leaders—can he motivate students to learn more about NAFTA, or to become more involved in politics in general? Did his rhetoric move any of them to take action in their lives regarding feminism, or will Trudeau remain the attractive, liberal hero that American liberals admire from afar?
Ultimately, it seems unlikely that Canada will truly “lead the free world” anytime soon, but it is clear that Trudeau is vying for a more prominent place in international relations for his country. Only time will tell whether or not Trudeau will be able to advance this agenda in US-Canadian relations and in his own country over the next few years. Regardless, Trudeau’s visit to the University of Chicago marks an interesting turn in relations between the United States and Canada, and could serve as a reminder to students of their potential to enact political change.
The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons. The original can be found here. Alexandra C. Price is a Senior Writer with The Gate; the opinions expressed here are not necessarily reflective of The Gate at large.
Alexandra C. Price
Alexandra Price is a second year History and Russian Eastern European Studies double major and prospective German minor particularly interested in the Cold War and modern developments in the former Eastern Bloc. As this year's recipient of the Gate's annual Reporting Grant, she spent the summer in Germany reporting on refugee integration in Berlin. When she's not reading for class or writing for the Gate, Alexandra participates in Model United Nations, is a member of the Women in Public Service Project, and enjoys long bike rides around the city.