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10 days after 10 minutes with Trudeau

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My ten minutes of fame are long over in the public eye. Returning to campus life (and a vey late thesis) has put my moment in the spotlight in humbling perspective. However, for a little longer, the events of last week loom large in my mind. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my ten minutes Face-to-Face with Justin Trudeau, and even more considering my on-going conversations with the other nine Canadians, with the media in the aftermath, and with students every day. In these, I’ve had a number of thoughts on how groundbreaking these media moments actually are (not very), the potential the federal government has to affect change (still unsure), and what are the movements that really matter.

I’m excited that Canada now has a Prime Minister who promises accessibility and accountability in the form of interaction with Canadians. My concern is that when Justin Trudeau promises accountability, he means real accountability, which means acknowledging the struggles Canadians face every day and actively working towards implementing real solutions. In the ten minutes he spent with each of us, I’m disappointed by the time Trudeau spent skirting around questions, telling me, “I’m looking at it” or telling Danny to “hang in there.” A common response to this complaint is that it is unreasonable to expect one individual to have answers for the personal concerns of ten “randomly” selected Canadians.

I disagree. Because these weren’t randomly selected Canadians and our concerns weren’t randomly selected issues. Each concern raised was an issue Trudeau put at the centre of his electoral campaign. I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect the campaign promises of any party to be founded on pre-existing research and analysis. And I certainly hope it’s not unreasonable to expect promises made over a historical 78-day election to turn into real solutions.

Another common pushback I’ve received is Trudeau may have heard more than he responded to. I certainly won’t deny this: I’m sure as Prime Minister of Canada and Leader of the Liberal Party, he has strict limitations on what he can say on national television. It’s still hard not to feel dissatisfied by his empty answers. The thing is, by the time we got to the one-hour special on Sunday, I had spent three of the most intense days of my life with these people. The nine Canadians were now my friends. And watching someone – anyone – sit across from your friend who is an indigenous woman at constant threat of violence, or a black mom who fears for her son’s life, or who experiences islamophic hatred and bigotry on a daily basis or is in a constant state of fearing for their livelihood, and hear them be told to “hang in there” is unbelievably painful. And, frankly, displays such a blatant lack of empathy that I wouldn’t accept it as a response from anyone.

I think we head down a dangerous path when we start to hold our national leaders to a lower standard of integrity than we expect from those we interact with in our daily lives. If our Prime Minister wants to hear from Canadians, we deserve to really be heard. Which means, rather than skirting questions, if our concerns are not a priority for the federal government, we deserve to know. Because this is our lived experience. As Nikki Fraser would say, we are shared our truth with Justin Trudeau, so we deserved to have him be truthful with us.

I’ve also been told I’m ungrateful, that anyone would be lucky to have even one minute with the Prime Minister. And that feedback is confusing to me. I’m not really sure what one might accomplish in one minute with the Prime Minister (except, perhaps, an awesome photobomb). And I think it’s silly how in our cultural narratives we create these hierarchies in which one person is perceived to be so influential that even a minute with them would be of immeasurable value. Especially because, when I look at the change I see around me that meaningfully affects my own and my friends’ lives, it’s not coming from the Prime Minister’s Office. It’s coming from the work we do on the ground every day.

This is not to say the process was entirely meaningless. Trudeau told me “access to quality post-secondary education is essential to the well-being of our society.” He acknowledged that fulfilling our treaty promise to provide education for all indigenous learners is “not just about the future of indigenous communities, it’s about the future of our country.” These statements are important and they have the potential for powerful change. However we, as an audience and a nation, need to ensure we are not too quickly mollified by statements that are unfollowed by action.

The acknowledgements made by Trudeau in his ten minutes with each of us were an early step in a long process of meaningful national change, and to make sure that happens we need to keep our federal government accountable. I’m excited to see some of our conversations continue. Neil’s story has been raised in the House of Commons. Trudeau’s response was taken to task in a Globe and Mail feature. Nikki’s conversation has been recognized by the UN and brought international attention to an issue that has been dangerously underrepresented for far too long. And students across Canada continue to fight for a vision of post-secondary education that is free for all Canadian learners.

For me, the most valuable follow-up is the support I received from students in days following, thanking me for sharing their story, telling me they felt heard. Though these conversations didn’t happen on national television, personally, they’ve been the most powerful outcome of this experience. I think we have to remember just because the stories that make it to TV are the ones we see most often, it doesn’t mean they are the most important.

Even with the Prime Minister, there’s not much you can accomplish in 10 minutes. When I look around me, it is the work I see students doing every day that accomplishes meaningful change. It’s the students at Mount Allison who fought to restore funding for their Women and Gender Studies Program. It’s the students at Dalhousie, threatened with tuition hikes and fighting just to stay in school. It’s the conversations I have with young women every day in which I validate that their voices are powerful and valuable and need to be heard. These are not the stories receiving national media attention, and I’m sure they’re not the stories that make it to the Prime Minister’s Office, but to me, these are the movements that matter.


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