Once again, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made a display of his progressive splendour with his new word “peoplekind,” which quickly became the focus of mockery from Canadian and American conservatives for its politically correct overtones.
The comment and its criticism are examples of a vacuous culture war between conservatives and liberals that misses the point and leaves progressives choosing between lesser evils, between bad and worse.
Conservatives took offence (as they do so easily) to “peoplekind,” arguing “mankind” is a perfectly good word that includes all people. Of course it doesn’t. Whatever justifications conservatives provide about the meaning of the ancient English word “mann,” its modern English derivation, “man,” undeniably excludes women. “Peoplekind” may be a goofy word, but most everyone who choses their words carefully — except conservatives — have moved on to more modern words like “humankind” or “humanity.”
Now for many Canadians, the take-away from the controversy has been that conservatives are hopelessly — perhaps haplessly — sexist. After all, the leader of the federal Conservatives says he will refuse to sing the national anthem because “all they sons’ command” has been banished from it. They seem irredeemable.
But beyond the zeitgeist argument between one group that feels politically correct language should be inclusive and another that feels the opposite is a far more important and real-world point. True, the language of equality and inclusion is meaningful. But it is no substitute for changes to our economy, public services and social institutions that create greater actual equality and inclusion. And this is where Trudeau needs to be sharply called to task.
A central motif in Trudeau’s politics is his constant use of progressive language that contradicts his government’s actions. Over and over, Trudeau appropriates and mimics the language of progressives while implementing the policies of conservatives. “Peoplekind” is another painful and goofy example of his hollowness.
On the very day Trudeau called it a “dumb joke” came disturbing news about how his government is opposing a lawsuit by women employed in the Canadian Armed Forces. Sexual assault, harassment and discrimination have been long-documented in the Forces, an admission made at the highest levels. And in response to that toxic workplace environment, one which must have affected women psychologically, physically and financially, a group of women launched a class-action lawsuit.
In fighting the women’s court action, the Trudeau government’s central argument has been that their employer owes them no duty “to provide a safe and harassment-free work environment, or to create policies to prevent sexual harassment or sexual assault."
And that’s only one of Trudeau’s hypocritical legal fights against rights of “peoplekind.” Trudeau’s government has refused to comply with multiple orders from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal to fully implement Jordan’s Principle, a protocol to end discrimination against First Nations people in providing public services. Adopting Jordan’s Principle ensures First Nations people — like every other Canadian — receive the health care they need without delay, leaving until later the question of whether a federal or provincial program should pay the cost. By last summer, the Trudeau government had already spent over $700,000 in legal fees fighting the Human Rights Tribunal.
On Tuesday of this week, the Trudeau government penned a deal permitting the sale of $233 million in military helicopters to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, a despicable human rights abuser. Duterte has confessed to personally killing. He has endorsed the murder of drug users. He told soldiers that martial law allows them to rape with impunity. Now the Canadian government is arming him.
Yet last fall, even as the deal was being developed, Trudeau told Canadians about how he’d taken on Duterte with a “full and frank” discussion stating Canada’s principled opposition to his abuses. Evidently hollow words.
And it’s not the first decision by our self-declared feminist prime minister to arm a violent and sexist political leader. Shortly after the 2015 election, Trudeau authorized a $15 billion military sale to the Saudi king, who represses minorities in his own country and indiscriminately bombs civilians in neighbouring Yemen, killing thousands of innocents. Sure, it was a deal in the works under the bad Harper government. But it was the Trudeau government that signed the export permits and then promised Canada’s role in the arms trade would change. The sale of military equipment to Duterte shows that, too, was an empty promise.
But the hypocrisy and hollowness of Justin Trudeau isn’t just about his arms trade policy or his court battles. Running down the list of his major electoral promises in 2015 is a stunning indictment of Justin Trudeau.
Trudeau gave empty words on the Trans Mountain pipeline, saying the National Energy Board review of the project would be restarted under more stringent NEB rules. Of course the review was never restarted and a little more than a year later, his cabinet approved the pipeline plan. Now, based on unknown criteria, Trudeau declares the pipeline is in the national interest — end of conversation.
A bit more than a year ago, Trudeau broke his word on electoral reform. And as he danced and dodged to explain himself, something even more upsetting became apparent. Trudeau had told Canadians he was “really open” to options and “it’s not up to any one person” to determine the electoral system. Those were lies. He later confessed that as far back as his 2013 leadership race his mind was closed to the option of proportional representation and that he would never support that option. Yet again, his words were empty.
His infrastructure promise clangs with emptiness. He promised $6 billion over four years, then only budgeted $5 billion. Then his government only spent about 40 per cent of 2016/17 funds allocated that year. Worse, rather than use historically low interest rates to fund construction projects as explicitly promised, Trudeau has created an Infrastructure Bank that will pay private investors far higher rates of return — that is, impose far greater costs on Canadians — and will require completed projects to collect fees, fares and tolls to pay the investors. Trudeau’s words promised to pump up the economy and prepare for the future. In actions, he’s creating a lazy, costly rent-seeking scheme run by an investor cartel.
Promises to fix the broken First Nations education system have been broken. He promised an additional $300 million a year for kindergarten to Grade 12 education, $500 million over three years to fix and build schools, and $50 million a year more to support Indigenous people through post-secondary education. In total, Trudeau promised $2.6 billion over four years for First Nations education. But the actions didn’t follow. When the multi-year spending plan was tabled in the 2016 budget, funds were pushed off until after the next election and the only $1.8 billion was available over four years.
He’s broken his words on restoring home mail delivery and eliminating the stock option tax deduction. His tax cut turned out to give the maximum benefit to everyone earning over $90,000 and not a penny to someone earning the actual median income. His government still tables omnibus bills. Blood donation by gay men is still banned. Hasn’t kept his word on youth employment, job and skill training or co-op placements. The list is long.
And a real feminist government would be fixing unaffordable childcare, introducing employment equity and boosting the minimum wage. Trudeau has done none of them.
Yes, words matter. Words and debate are powerful. But empty words disempower. Empty words create an unhealthy frustration, mistrust and skepticism about democratic responsiveness.
The conservative nonsense about Trudeau’s “peoplekind” entirely misses the mark — of course it does. But actual progressives can’t take a pass. Trudeau’s hollowness doesn’t just fail to make real change. It distracts and diverts. It disempowers Canadians by leading us to believing no political leader will ever keep promises — that reform of our public services, institutions and economy will never happen, no matter who Canadians vote for.
In previous decades our politics has addressed big ideas like universal public health care, pensions and schooling. Today, there is an incredible progressive agenda waiting to be made real by Canadians with optimism and determination. It won’t happen without challenging the dispiriting emptiness of Justin Trudeau. And if, in making that challenge, Canadians’ frustrations cannot be channelled into optimism, Trudeau’s political hollowness may build an ugly rage of resentful self-destruction.
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