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Trudeau engages with students on climate, optimism, and compassion at SIS

By Kay Summers and Anne Deekens

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to students about topics including climate, diversity, optimism, compassion.

More than 300 students, faculty, and guests gathered to hear Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the School of International Service (SIS) on Friday morning. Speaking in the school’s Atrium, Mr. Trudeau opened by saying: “This is something that really matters to me. As much as I could over the past years, I’ve gotten out to universities, to high schools, to colleges, to do what I’m about to do here: instead of focusing on what the leader has to say to all of you, I’m very much interested in hearing from all of you and what you have to say to me.”

Mr. Trudeau went on to talk about the need for world leaders to focus on the future, and to keep in mind the people for whom the future ultimately exists – those who would be “the ultimate beneficiaries of the decisions that we take – good or negative – these days.”

He cautioned against cynicism about politics, while acknowledging its very real underpinnings: “We live in an incredibly short term world. When we look as citizens and electors at the political process, there’s a real instinct to say, ‘What have you done for me lately, and what are you going to do for me right now?’ The idea of building for the next decade, building for the next generation, seems implausible when you look at so much of what politics is about. And it’s not because people don’t want their leaders to be focused on that, it’s because largely there’s a degree of cynicism about the capacity of the political system itself to effectively deal with ten or 20 years out.”

Revealing what keeps him focused on the future, Mr. Trudeau said, “For me, one of the best ways to make sure that that [forward] thinking is folded into the political process and the process of governance is regular contact with and empowerment of young folks like all of you.”

To that end, Mr. Trudeau turned the microphone over to SIS students to pose questions in an eagerly anticipated live and unscreened Q&A.

Questions ranged from how he might stem a rise of hardliners in Canada to a humorous inquiry of whether or not Canada was prepared for a large influx of American immigrants depending on the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Students asked about relations with indigenous peoples and international collaboration around space travel, and Mr. Trudeau responded to questions about ISIS, about compassion, and about not using politics to incite tensions.

"It's easy to stoke anger,” said Trudeau, alluding to the 2016 presidential election. “It's easy to point blame at others for your misfortune. It's much harder to build a sense of optimism and realize it's not a zero-sum game. We need to understand that countries like ours need people to work together, to succeed together, or we all fail alone.”

The session was sprinkled with pop culture references from Star Trek and Game of Thrones, shout-outs to feminism, and a plea from the Prime Minister for more men to join the ranks of feminists. Anish Babu Bharata, a first year master’s student in the Global Governance, Politics, and Security program who attended the discussion, admired the Prime Minister’s progressive stance.

“I really admire his commitment to gender equality—not just for feminism as a whole, but how he advocates that men can and should be feminists too,” said Bharata. “This issue is really important to me. The fact that the Prime Minister is addressing it proactively is inspiring.”

In his opening remarks, Dean James Goldgeier referenced Mr. Trudeau’s groundbreaking cabinet, evenly split between men and women—after all, as the prime minister quipped, “It is 2016”. The dean also lauded Mr. Trudeau’s humanitarian move to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees on a rapid timetable.

After the event, Dean Goldgeier said: “I was so proud of our students. Their questions, filled with insight, humor, and humanity, kept the level of discourse extremely high and elicited very thoughtful responses from Mr. Trudeau.”

Professorial Lecturer Michael Schroeder, the director of the Global Governance, Politics, and Security master’s program, was also impressed by the level of student engagement: “It was such a treat to watch the students engage the Prime Minister on a wide range of substantive policy issues. As a teacher and a Canadian, I could not be prouder of what I saw today.”

Mr. Trudeau’s talk at SIS comes at the end of a whirlwind first official visit as prime minister, the morning after a state dinner during which he and President Obama struck a neighborly tone throughout. The event at SIS was an extremely hot ticket despite occurring during spring break, with all seats filled within 20 minutes of the announcement. In addition, more than 2000 people watched the livestream, which can be streamed here.

“I am so grateful that the Prime Minister was able to visit SIS,” said Morgan Seiler, a master’s student and program coordinator for the Global Governance, Politics, and Security program who attended. “For our students, it means that they have the opportunity to interact with individuals who they may work with one day, thanks to our SIS degrees. I thought the Prime Minister's comments on a variety of issues, including feminism, the environment, and the cooperation between our two nations were exactly what our generation yearns to hear more of in political discourse.”

Watch the discussion here.

See highlights from Mr. Trudeau's visit to SIS here.