I had just 10 minutes to make it to the Free Press News Café from where I was on the Disraeli Freeway. Winnipeg Free Press columnist Dan Lett would be teaching Advanced Writing I for this week’s multi-media class in the CNC citizen journalism workshop series.
Lett is a regular facilitator at these workshops held every spring and fall since 2012, and having enjoyed his sessions last season, I dispensed with pen and paper for note taking. I looked forward to simply enjoying the talk.
I wished I had left earlier for class, but traffic lanes were smoothly open until turning at the Artspace Building onto Arthur Street where things seemed unusual.
A large police SUV was at the tail end of a very long line of dark, shiny and formal looking vehicles. There were people everywhere. For a second I thought a formal procession had paused.
At the News Café, there were more police vehicles. Many stern looking personnel in dark suits were stationed near the door. They seemed warily vigilant but at the same time not at all intimidating. Many others stood at various places nearby. Could they be under cover officers in dark tailored clothing?
For a second I wondered if something really bad had happened. Sure, Lett’s articles were political but only a percentage of registered voters around here even cast a ballot. I couldn’t imagine that a column of Lett’s had provoked some unfortunate incident of publicly expressed rage. And there was no police tape or even traffic stops.
An open parking stall was miraculously close by. I bounded up the News Café stairs, past the stern gentlemen in dark suits whose interest seemed somewhere else unknown.
The place was packed – standing room only. Many more of the vigilant, deeply serious folks stood among the crowd. I glanced to where Lett was speaking.
Only it wasn’t him.
“The current system provides billions upon billions of dollars of revenue to criminal organizations, street gangs, and gun runners. It’s a massive source of revenue for violence in our streets”, said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Yes, Justin Trudeau.
He looked so very familiar. Then it all seemed so very unbelievable; I had somehow sailed right in to the cafe off the Disraeli without any obstacles despite blocks of watchful security, and it felt like this was exactly where we were all supposed to be.
I was pressed near the doors of the Café, and despite the serious looking bodyguards, I moved up to the counter for an unobstructed view.
Trudeau was explaining his stance on legalizing marijuana, and cited a U.N. study that identified Canada as the easiest place among all developed countries for youth to gain access to it.
Trudeau said control of points of sale for marijuana would include demand to show proper identification, making it more difficult for youth to purchase it.
He said decriminalization was touted by the Progressive Conservatives and the NDP but decriminalization, he said, was very different from legalization that addressed youth access and criminal profit.
I learned that Trudeau was there to mark the one year release since the June 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report that included 94 recommendations.
His visit also coincided with the 25th anniversary of the Children of the Earth School. The school’s curricula includes Aboriginal culture programming alongside academic studies. Students from the school were at the Café and asked Trudeau questions.
I quickly asked the News Café counter staff for a pen and paper. An obliging worker loaned me a pencil and ripped two sheets from his personal binder.
Trudeau said the Liberal’s $8.6 billion commitment over the next five years towards Indigenous issues is not a quick fix.
“The challenges we are facing were created largely by Canada and the Canadian government over decades – indeed centuries – and are going to take years to turn around,” he said, adding there is tremendous opportunity to begin movement towards equality for Aboriginal people, from equitable school funding to health care access and more. He described some conditions for Indigenous people as ‘third world’.
“It’s a challenge that will outlive my time as Prime Minister no matter how successful I am,” he said.
I furiously scribbled down Trudeau’s quickly rolling words. I noticed there were many photographers at the cafe, including CNC’s Doug Kretchmer with his extensive photo gear. Kretchmer frisbeed a folded napkin my way down the counter.
I unfolded the napkin. It read, “Need pics?” I nodded to Kretchmer above the packed crowd as he continued shooting.
“More than any thing else, I am reassured and inspired by young Indigenous people,” said Trudeau.
“You are part of the solution,” he said to the Children of the Earth students. “You have been waiting individually and collectively a long time for a government that was willing to say let us be partners the way our ancestors committed to.”
Charlene Anderson, a grade 11 student, responded directly, asking how the environment might be protected from risks posed by pipelines.
“We are a country with vast national resources and we have always had more resources than people to properly benefit from them. So we are always going to rely on trade with the United States, with Europe, with Asia,” said Trudeau.
He explained the world is still “stuck” using fossil fuels and while other energy sources need to continue to be developed, in the mean time Canada must become a world leader in best practices of fossil fuel extraction that will lessen climate change.
He said the challenge is to do this while gaining support of communities affected by energy projects, working in partnership with Indigenous people and respecting the science required to protect future generations.
“Getting the balance right is quite frankly one of the big, tough issues that Canadians elected me Prime Minister to do.”
Another student asked about the epidemic of suicides among Indigenous youth.
Trudeau said on Monday (June 13) he will meet with the Chief of Attiwapiskat First Nation as well as its young people. He shared an observation that suicide rates are much lower in Aboriginal communities where there is a good system for teaching traditional methods, language and culture – the very thing “wiped away” through residential schooling.
“To think that just 30 years ago, 50 years ago the federal government worked very hard to try to eliminate drumming, languages, songs, culture from Indigenous people. It is so damaging as we saw from the TRC report that we allowed that to happen for far too long.”
Trudeau said the highest percentage of young people are in Indigenous communities. “Investing [in these communities] isn’t just about Indigenous communities, its the future of Canada.”
The talk wrapped to applause when suddenly a young man in a black toque and army jacket startled the crowd with a loud, disapproving question. He asked how Trudeau could possibly call himself a feminist when Canada is fulfilling a deal to produce military vehicles for Saudi Arabia, a country with a poor record for women’s rights.
“It is essential when the Canadian government signs a contract with another country or company, that people don’t feel that as soon as there is an election, that contract might be ripped up,” said Trudeau.
He added that he too has concerns about human rights in Saudi Arabia and prefaced his response by saying he is a feminist.
Despite the startling outburst, the people in dark suits didn’t flinch at all.
The crowd filed out, and the two dozen CNC students remained. Dan Lett was there, and started his class after all.
“This is why I have the best job in the world”, said Lett, referring to the many interesting people one might meet as a journalist.
Justin Trudeau interview at Free Press News Café, Wpg, MB – 1 Marijuana Legalization
Justin Trudeau interview at Free Press News Café, Wpg, MB – 2 Q & A
Justin Trudeau interview at Free Press News Café, Wpg, MB – 3 Q & A
Justin Trudeau interview at Free Press News Café, Wpg, MB – 4 Q & A (bonus) Saudi Arabia and feminism