Justin Trudeau’s vision of Canada lacks substance and clear intent

We should not equate change with progress, but we should expect real leadership from our prime minister

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Peter StocklandJustin Trudeau’s penchant for platitudes masks an unwillingness – or inability – to tell the difference between progress and change.

Waggish columnist John Robson observes in the National Post that Trudeau’s maiden speech as prime minister to the Davos Economic Forum left out much while not leaving out nearly enough.

Our prime minister’s oration this week to the world’s richest at their annual gathering in Switzerland was top heavy with platitudes, Robson notes, while substance was left cold, curled and alone on the cutting room floor.

The effect, he implies in slightly more delicate language, was to affirm Trudeau as the Prime Minister Lite Brite: as pleasing to the eye as a shelf full of children’s toys, and ultimately as useful for a room full of grown-ups.

It strikes me as an assessment that might be considered accurate without being fully fair. Charitably, which of us would not wonder in the moments before we addressed the wealthiest homo sapiens in history whether we’d picked exactly the right topic and, most importantly, who added this task to our job description when we weren’t looking.

And what was he supposed to do in front of this bunch of mega-billionaires? Launch into a dissection of the discursive application of the Filioque clause in Christianity’s Nicene Creed to Canadian federalism, i.e., whether or not Quebec proceeds from Ottawa as the Son proceeds – or doesn’t – from the Father?

No. That was his dad’s thing, not his. This prime minister did as he does, which is give minimally taxing stump speeches on the way governments can use the tax system to make everyone equally happy. Hey, God calls us all to our vocation.

That said, one thought from the PM, loosed in his charming style, should stir substantive debate across the land. Canadians, he told the great, the good and the filthy rich in Davos, believe in progress.

It’s uncertain what statistical sampling method supports that claim. It may be the case of politicians forgetting, once again, to use that small but terribly important word “some” in all of their claims about the land they love and lead.

Some Canadians do believe in progress. Some do not. Some of us go so far as to believe the very idea of progress is perhaps the greatest step backward that humanity has ever taken in comprehending its own nature.

At least as it has come down to us from the 19th century, it makes as much sense to believe in progress as it does to believe in time. The writer Marilynne Robinson points out in her recent collection of essays that we don’t actually even know what time is. We only think we do because we have devised a system for measuring it.

We have done the same with progress, where the system of measurement is often a misrepresentation of mere change. As I have argued before, a corpse decomposing in a grave is changing but can hardly be called a work in progress. The analogy is acutely apropos in the month when “progressives” in Quebec began injecting lethal chemicals into the arms of terminally ill patients to end their lives before their time.

None of this made it into the prime minister’s Davos speech, what with platitudes being the sharp-elbowed space hogs they are. Perhaps when he returns from the land of cuckoo clocks to the re-opening of Canada’s Parliament next week, he will take up the theme in language of substance for grown-ups.

Peter Stockland is a senior fellow with Cardus, and publisher of Convivium magazine.

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Peter Stockland

Peter Stockland

Prior to joining Cardus, Peter Stockland was vice-president of English-language magazines for Readers' Digest Magazines Canada Ltd. He was also a former editor-in-chief of The Gazette newspaper in Montreal, a former editorial page editor of the Calgary Herald newspaper. He's worked as a journalist throughout Canada during a 30-year career in the media.

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