TORONTO — Days before Prime Minister Stephen Harper was feted by the Jewish National Fund at its annual Negev Dinner, Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau appeared before a friendly audience in a Toronto synagogue to present his vision as a potential future prime minister of Canada.
His message was one of steadfast support for the State of Israel as a fellow democracy, backing for international negotiations with Iran to curtail its nuclear program, opposition to the proposed Quebec charter of values as an attack on minorities, including Jews, and an economic approach that would tackle income inequality with a policy for growth, education and international trade.
Trudeau also took part in a Chanukiyah-lighting ceremony at Beth Tikvah Synagogue during his Nov. 28 visit. He was the first speaker in the shul’s Visions for Canada series, which will feature representatives of the three main national political parties speaking on issues of concern to the Jewish community.
In a brief interview with The CJN, Trudeau was asked how the Liberals could recoup some of the political support within the Jewish community that the party has lost in recent years to the Tories, in part due to the latter’s backing of Israel.
Trudeau acknowledged Harper’s “strong and steadfast support for Israel,” but he said the Tories have used that support as a “competition point” to attract voters.
“I feel all parties should be equal in our support of Israel, the only democracy in a very challenging region,” Trudeau said.
Later, during a public question-and-answer session, when asked by Beth Tikvah spiritual leader Rabbi Jarrod Grover about support for Israel, Trudeau said, “No question that Canada must always be a strong, true friend of Israel,” and he accused the Conservatives of turning that support into “a divisive political issue.”
Harper and the Tories aren’t the only ones to back the Jewish state, he noted. Former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin had shifted Canadian policy on Israel to one that was more supportive at the United Nations, he said.
As for the Iranian nuclear program, Trudeau said it “poses an existential threat to Israel, but goes far beyond that. It poses an existential threat to the Middle East and to the world.”
“It is clear that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable.”
The recent agreement negotiated by the P5+1 countries, a group that includes the United States and several western European nations, “is a positive step,” he said.
But, he cautioned, “it will require an awful lot of vigilance and attention to make sure Iran lives up to its obligations in the next six months.”
As for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s concerns that the deal is a mistake, Trudeau said, “While I understand the skepticism of the Israeli prime minister, I choose to be optimistic.”
Asked about Quebec’s charter of values, Trudeau called it an attack on the province’s minorities.
If you focus too much on its effects on fundamental freedoms, “you already miss the point,” he said. It’s not about values and solidifying a secular state. “It’s about politics.”
The Parti Québécois, which governs Quebec, is faced with a poor economy, he said. “They don’t want to fight a battle on the economy. So they do what they do, fall back on identity politics, us versus them.”
Trudeau called it “a deeply cynical exercise. This is an invented problem by people looking to change the channel.”
Questioned on income inequality, Trudeau described it as “the great challenge of our time.”
In the past 30 years, the economy has expanded by 110 per cent while median incomes have risen by 14 to 15 per cent. From the 1950s to 1970s, 100 per cent economic growth was matched by 50 per cent income growth, he noted.
Trudeau said he would focus on the importance of education, preparing young people for the new economy, whether in universities, colleges or trade schools.
He also advocated global investment and support for trade initiatives. Companies that engage in international trade pay wages that are 50 per cent higher that those that do not, he said.
“The best way to grow the economy is from the middle out and not the top down,” he added.
With the microphone open to the audience, Trudeau was asked his views on issues such as Senate reform – he’s against another round of constitutional talks like Meech Lake; the national anthem’s French lyrics, which call on Canadians to carry the cross and guns – it’s not a priority at this time; free trade – “the Liberal Party is a pro-free trade party,” and public health care – he’s for it, but it needs “a comprehensive rethink.”
Next up in Beth Tikvah’s Visions for Canada series will be Chris Alexander, the federal minister of citizenship and immigration, who will address the shul Dec. 17. He will be followed by Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair, though no date has yet been set for the New Democratic Party chief’s presentation.