For the record: Justin Trudeau on liberty and the niqab

The text of Justin Trudeau’s controversial speech

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau gives keynote address at Liberal Biennial Convention in Montreal

The following is the prepared text of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s speech to an audience in Toronto this evening—a speech that has made news for its criticism of the Harper government.

Thank you, Ken, for that kind introduction. And thanks for all the work you do for the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. MISC depends more than anything on generosity of spirit, and you have been beyond kind with your time and talent over the years. Countless McGill students have had their lives and career choices touched by your wisdom, and we’re all better for it.

I also want to thank the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada for hosting this great event.

Wasn’t that a fantastic debate?

You know, I dabbled in the debating union at McGill. I even debated Ted Cruz once at a tournament at Yale.

He hasn’t changed very much.

Anyway, I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t convincingly argue for things I didn’t believe in. I congratulate tonight’s debaters for overcoming that obstacle.

As you all know, I had a unique window on Canada and the world through my childhood. But, like all McGill graduates, I had my ideas shaped, tempered and tested by my time on campus. I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to McGill, to my professors and to my fellow students.

Most of you will know what I mean when I say this. One of the first things you learn at McGill is that every room is teeming with people who are used to being—or, at least, feeling like—the smartest person in the room.

Then, as now, since you are all in the same room, basic math requires you to put that feeling behind you.

And if you’re really smart, you learn to do it quickly. You take advantage of the unique opportunity that comes from being immersed in such a dynamic environment. I remember hours spent at Gerts over pints, arguing with friends from the women’s union about whether a man could be a feminist.

I remember challenging fellow students in seminars about a culture of political correctness that didn’t change mindsets, but just drove them beneath the surface.

McGill, like Canada, is an amazing place. And MISC serves both extraordinarily well.

The Institute was created by McGill and the Bronfman family to help us all understand this great country better. To see our history and heritage with clear eyes, to grapple with the challenges we face today, and to gain the broadest and deepest sense of the many possibilities open to us in the future.

It’s a big, important mission. And I want to address one particularly vital aspect of it. I hope tonight to make a modest contribution to the Institute’s ongoing effort—and I’m quoting from the mission statement here—“to identify and explore the benefits that a pluralistic society offers.”

It’s an important mission for Canada, but it’s a uniquely fitting topic to talk about, here in Toronto. This city is the epicentre of Canadian multiculturalism, a place where people from every imaginable country and culture, who speak every language, live and work and build and thrive together. For much of the world, Toronto represents the most hopeful vision of what their future could look like. Here, we are blessed to call it our present.

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To me, pluralism means diversity, and diversity is at the very heart of Canada. It is who we are and what we do.

We do it better than anyone else on Earth. So well, in fact, that we often take it for granted.

So let’s remind ourselves: Canada is the only country in the world that is strong, not in spite of our differences, but because of them.

There are a lot of reasons for this, but I believe the root cause of our success is a uniquely Canadian idea of freedom, of liberty.

That’s the idea I want to develop with you tonight.

First, I want to argue that Canadian liberty is all about inclusion. We have had deeply regrettable moments. But the history of this country is one in which we are constantly challenging ourselves and each other to extend our personal definitions of who is a Canadian.

This is a good and important thing. It is good for us, good for our country, and important to the world.

Second, I’ll make the case that Canadian liberty has got one of the world’s most vexatious problems right: the interplay between individual freedom and collective identity. We understand that people are defined both by the things that unite and distinguish us from one another: languages, cultures, faiths—even, importantly, our gender and sexual orientation. However, we also know that all of these contribute to a person’s identity, but don’t define it. These things all find their highest, most concrete expression in the individual human beings who embody them.

This, too, is a good thing. It gives people room to live and breathe. It gives our many cultures fuel to grow and change. It gives Canada over to Canadians, to build as we see fit.

Nous, les Québécois, sommes fiers de notre héritage linguistique et culturel. Avec la Révolution tranquille, nous nous sommes donnés les outils pour affirmer notre identité et notre culture dans le cadre canadien.

Notre réussite est l’incarnation et la manifestation que, dans ce pays, on peut exprimer sa différence sans compromettre l’unité et la cohésion.

Quand mon père a déposé la Loi sur les langues officielles en 1969—que Brian Mulroney a bonifié et rendu encore plus mordante en 1988—il a voulu renforcer cette idée que notre pays a été depuis ses débuts fondé sur la diversité et l’inclusion. Que les francophones de ce pays sont chez eux dans ce pays, peu importe la province dans laquelle ils résident.

Third, I want to make the important point that none of this happened by accident, and it won’t continue without effort. We have built vital institutions around it, but Canadian liberty requires Canadian political leadership to be sustained. Canada is the way it is because Canadians built it to be that way. Generations of us elected leaders from all parties who shared those values and shaped this country. While I am deeply optimistic about this country’s future, I recognize that that future is by no means certain. It depends on the choices we make today.

So it won’t surprise anyone to hear me disagree with the kind of leadership we’re getting from the current Prime Minister and his government.

But before I get into the meat of the argument, let me set the table. Plenty of people will wonder why a political leader would bother giving a speech on a notion such as liberty. After all, our politics are supposed to be retail these days. We’re expected to talk about very specific measures targeted at “key audiences” and “swing voters,” especially in an election year.

But I have an old-fashioned view. I think policies are concrete expressions of values. Priorities are important. Specific commitments are important. But there is no way to predict the events you will need to navigate during your time in office, let alone the measures that will be required to manage those events. People aren’t naive. They know that.

So Canadians ought to know what core values will motivate their leaders’ decisions, whatever events may throw at them.

For me, one of the most important core values is liberty. Specifically, I believe that one of the highest aims of Canadian political leadership is to protect and expand freedom for Canadians.

I say this not just because the Canadian idea of liberty is important to me, which it is. It has motivated several of the significant policy changes I have brought forward as leader of my party. But it’s important to all of us. Our shared commitment to it is the very foundation of the amazing country we have built together.

I also think it’s time Liberals took back liberty. These Conservatives pretend to talk a good game about freedom, but look at what they’ve done with it.

They have fallen a long way from the era of Sir John A. Macdonald to the “why do you hate freedom?” taunts of the recently departed Sun News Network.

Their instincts are now to be suspicious of people who do not share their beliefs, to harden divisions with people whose views differ from their own.

In my seven years in Parliament, I have heard the conservative Prime Minister accuse two leaders of the NDP of sympathizing with terrorists, the Conservative party accuse notable McGillian Irwin Cotler of anti-Semitism, and the former public safety minister declare: “You’re either with us, or you’re with the child pornographers.”

For that particular effort, the Prime Minister eventually rewarded him with a judicial appointment.

This, my friends, is not your parents’ Conservative party.

Their approach to politics might work in the short term, but it is corrosive over time, especially in a diverse country like Canada. It stokes anxiety and foments fear. Instead of encouraging Canadians to fight for one another’s liberty, it tells us to be suspicious of each other’s choices.

Mr. Harper and I disagree fundamentally about many things. None perhaps more so than this: Leading this country should mean you bring Canadians together. You do not divide them against one another.

Fear is a dangerous thing. Once it is sanctioned by the state, there is no telling where it might lead. It is always a short path to walk from being suspicious of our fellow citizens to taking actions to restrict their liberty.

And that, to borrow a phrase, is not the way we ought to do things around here. Not in Canada.

So, first, in Canada, when we are at our best, liberty means inclusion.

We haven’t always been at our best. We have had many failures, the most pernicious and invidious of which is still very much with us: the second-class citizenship of indigenous peoples.

There are other dark episodes: the Chinese head tax, the internment of Ukrainian, Japanese, and Italian Canadians during the First and Second World Wars, our turning away boats of Jewish or Punjabi refugees, our own history of slavery. No Irish need apply. We don’t speak French here, so “speak white.” The discrimination faced by Greek and Portuguese Canadians in this very city.

For each and every one of these, we look back with regret and shame. And we should.

But we should also learn from them. Mackenzie King ordered those internments because they were popular. In fact, he did it despite evidence from the RCMP and Defence that they were unwarranted. He did it because people were afraid.

When I talk to young people today about these episodes, they can hardly believe they happened. It doesn’t sound possible, not in Canada.

So we should all shudder to hear the same rhetoric that led to a “none is too many” immigration policy toward Jews in the ’30s and ’40s, being used to raise fears against Muslims today.

That’s because the Canada we all cherish stands for the opposite of those dark moments. And for each of those, there are thousands of hopeful, open, moments, where the Canadian journey moves inexorably toward greater inclusion and greater liberty. The Underground Railroad. The Official Languages Act. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Multiculturalism Act. The admittance of Ismaili Muslim refugees. The freedom for Jews and Sikhs, Hindus and Evangelicals to practise their religion.

We all know the famous quote so beloved by Martin Luther King, Jr: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Well, for all our instructive moments of failure, the arc of Canadian history bends toward inclusion, toward liberty.

We don’t get it right every day. We don’t make progress every year. Sometimes we even take a step back. But as we approach Canada’s 150th birthday, we can look back over our history and see which way our country bends.

The point is that each successive generation of Canadians has fought to expand liberty to their fellow citizens who had been denied it. The naysayers claimed at every step that liberty’s expansion would compromise our traditional values. They said it would somehow dilute what it means to be Canadian.

We can see now that they were categorically wrong. That’s because working to gain freedom for our fellow citizens is a bedrock traditional value in this country. It is in large measure what it means to be Canadian.

There is no greater illustration of this point than the history of women’s experience in Canada.

When I was one, my grandmother Grace held me in her arms before she passed away. She was of a generation of Canadian women that had to fight to gain the franchise. Her eldest son—my father—was born in the first year women were eligible to vote in federal elections.

My mother, who, in many ways, represented a new movement of freedom to her contemporaries, still endured public criticism that would be unacceptable today.

And when I think of the possibilities open to my daughter’s generation, it’s hard not to be proud of all we have achieved. Again, though, much remains to be done. Women still face unacceptable sexual violence in Canada, and discrimination, especially when it comes to equal pay for equal work.

But when you take the long view, it is impossible to be anything but awestruck by the progress we have made in creating a society where women are not just included, but vital to our economic and social progress.

The instructive point here is obvious, but often overlooked. One set of policies in postwar Canada generated more liberty for more people than any other. It was the decades-long effort of the women’s movement to gain control over reproductive health and rights.

Indeed, let me be perfectly clear on this point. The Canada we know today is unimaginable without widely available birth control and the legalization of choice.

Every conceivable measure of inclusion and progress has moved in the right direction since women gained legally protected reproductive freedom in Canada, from workforce participation to educational attainment to representation in the corridors of economic and political power.

That’s why I took such a strong stand in favour of a woman’s right to choose when I sought the leadership of my party. It’s why I implemented a strong new policy soon after being elected, a few years back.

You see, I have this notion that the Liberal party ought to be a liberal party. It ought to stand for the policy that created an unprecedented expansion of liberty for half the population of the country.

The criticism that followed my decision from many quarters shows you how badly we need to restate and defend a clear idea of Canadian liberty. Indeed, most of my critics argued that this new policy represented a restriction of freedom—the freedom of Liberal MPs to vote their conscience.

This is an important point, because, when different notions of liberty come into conflict, it helps clarify our thinking.

Their argument went like this: Forcing a Liberal MP to vote against [his or her] conscience on a matter of morality is an unjust restriction of [his or her] liberty. It sounds like a reasonable argument. However, it is easily dismissed, when you realize it is based on a value judgment about whose freedom is more important: that of an MP elected as a Liberal, or that of Canadian women.

Let’s be clear on this. For Liberals, the right of a woman to control her body is more important than the right of a legislator to restrict her freedom with [his or her] vote. MPs who disagree with that have other choices. They can sit as Independents, or as Conservatives.

But for me, Canadian liberty is not about the freedom of powerful people to exercise that freedom according to the dictates of their conscience. It is about Canadians’ rights not to have their freedom unduly restricted, especially by the state.

Indeed, this gets to the heart of the Canadian idea of liberty. In Canada, freedom is not just an aspirational value. It is a lived reality. It is woven into the fabric of our most important institutions, from the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to our uniquely successful approach to immigration, to our cities’ excellent public schools.

In Canada, liberty is a public good. It is not just something that we hope you can achieve on your own, if given the opportunity. It is something we work to provide for one another, and that we have grown to rightly expect from one another.

As my second-favourite prime minister, Wilfrid Laurier, once said: “Canada is free, and freedom is its nationality.”

That is why efforts of one group to restrict the liberty of another are so very dangerous to this country, especially when the agencies of the state are used to do it.

We get a very important thing right in Canada. Not perfect, but right. That thing is the balance between individual freedom and collective identity, which is the second argument about Canadian liberty I want make tonight.

In Canada, we know that people are defined, in large measure, by our relationships to other people: 0ur cultural background, our religious beliefs, our gender, our sexual orientation.

However, we also believe that all of those collective associations receive their highest expression in the form of real, flesh and blood, individual human beings. That is the genius of Canada. We expand cultural freedom by ensuring that individual Canadians who come from diverse communities have the freedom to live and express and grow and change their cultures.

We refuse to see a contradiction between individual liberty and collective identity. In fact, we have created a society where both thrive and mutually reinforce one another.

It was, at its root, a leap of faith, and a very new idea. Over time, we learned to trust that, whatever their culture of origin, the more people engage with the breadth of our country’s diversity, the more Canadian they will become.

In turn, we would change our own cultures. Where there was repression, it would be defeated by the more compelling Canadian opportunity to achieve liberty. Where there was isolation, we would meet it with openness and inclusion.

It may have started as a leap of faith, but it has become a defining characteristic of our country, our great success, and our gift to the world.

We have proven that a country—an astonishingly successful country—can be built on, and defined by, shared values. Not by religion, language, or ethnicity, but shared values.

In characteristically Canadian fashion, we don’t celebrate this success often enough, but the world needs us to, especially now. One of the most difficult and urgent global problems is how to develop societies where people of different cultures can live together and build common ground.

I have deep B.C. roots, but I am a francophone Quebecer, and proud of it. Very proud. But I am most proud that my country not only grants me the freedom to be who I am, but values and honours my culture in a way that has created the conditions it needs to thrive.

We are all richer for it.

Au Québec, je sais que certains mettent en opposition la dualité linguistique et le multiculturalisme, que certains voient dans le multiculturalisme—ou ce que plusieurs appellent l’interculturalisme—une forme de négation de l’identité québécoise francophone.

En tout respect, je ne les vois pas en opposition, mais en complémentarité. C’est en grande partie grâce à notre dualité que nous avons pu devenir une société ou des gens de diverses cultures, origines et religions ont pu venir s’installer ici et se sentir chez eux.

Je dirai aussi ceci: En tant que francophones, plus notre culture et notre langue sera véhiculée, valorisée et promue à travers le monde par le rayonnement de nos romans, de nos films et de nos artistes, plus nous en serons riches, en tant que Canadiens, et fiers de l’idée même du Canada.

This model of Canadian liberty, of inclusive diversity, might indeed have been born of the need for two great cultures who had been historically at odds to make a new country together. However, informed by the peoples who had lived on this land for millennia, we have turned it into a model for how to make an unimaginably more diverse society harmonious.

And the world has noticed.

Mr. Harper has been busy trying to portray Canada as a fossil-fuel superpower. He chooses to ignore that the world has already recognized us as a constitutional superpower. Places as diverse as Israel, South Africa and Australia have consciously emulated our Charter of Rights and Freedoms in an effort to tackle some of the problems that we have dealt with better than any country on Earth.

As the Globe and Mail wrote back in 2012, on the Charter’s 30th birthday: “The Charter doesn’t belong to the Liberals or to Conservatives. It belongs to all Canadians—and, increasingly, to the world.”

Now, for obvious family reasons, I’m tempted to claim that the Charter is responsible for the idea of Canadian liberty I am describing tonight. And let there be no doubt: The Charter certainly expanded freedom for all Canadians.

We are all now free to marry whom we love, women are free to control their reproductive rights and, soon, we will be free to choose to die with dignity.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms created the opportunity and the vehicle for Canadians to gain these new liberties for themselves. Heaven knows, it would have taken a lot longer to win those freedoms, had the effort been left in the hands of Parliament. More ominously, I shudder to think about what Mr. Harper’s government might have gotten away with, were the Charter not in place.

But I like to think what the Charter really does is hold us accountable to our best vision of ourselves. It requires Canadians to live up to our responsibilities to one another, and to Canada. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t be necessary, but, since we live in this one, we all should be deeply thankful we have it.

Which brings me to the third point I want to make tonight: that the Charter is the ultimate guarantee of Canadian liberty, but it’s not enough. It’s important to remember that the Charter itself was the product of political leadership. It had its opponents, still has its detractors, and we currently have a government that refuses to celebrate it.

It is also important to understand that the Charter might protect us from our government, but it doesn’t always protect us from each other. Canadian liberty might be protected by the Constitution, but it must be promoted by political leadership.

I want to tell you about someone. Her name is Rania El-Alloul, and she just endured something no Canadian ought to be put through.

Rania arrived in court in Quebec last month on a routine property matter. She is a single mom who is working hard to raise her kids. Like millions of women who face similar circumstances, she has a hard time making ends meet. She was petitioning the court for help.

Like a million other Canadians, Rania professes the Muslim faith. She presented herself to the court wearing a hijab, a headscarf very commonly worn by Muslim women, and women of other faiths, I might add. For her, it is an important part of her personal identity, and an expression of her religious liberty.

Imagine her shock when the presiding judge refused to hear her case unless she removed her headscarf. Not without reason, she said that order made her feel as if she were not Canadian.

Rania’s story is part of a troubling trend that Mr. Harper seems keen to accelerate and exploit.

Last year, after more than seven years of accepting the practice, his minister of immigration declared by fiat that women would no longer be able to wear a niqab during citizenship ceremonies. The federal court of appeal overturned the policy.

But a few weeks before Rania suffered her unjust indignity, Mr. Harper made an announcement at a campaign rally in Victoriaville, Que.

What did Mr. Harper say at this rally? Despite broad consensus that he has no reasonable chance of success, he announced that his government would appeal the decision, because he found the wearing of a niqab “offensive” and was convinced that most Canadians did, too.

Within hours of that rally, the Prime Minister’s party was using it as a fundraising pitch, declaring flatly, and I quote, that wearing a niqab is “not the way we do things here.” Within a week, I am sad to say that a distinguished graduate of McGill, Minister Chris Alexander, was declaring in the House of Commons that even Rania’s hijab represented an indefensible perversion of Canadian values.

As I said earlier, my friends, fear is a dangerous thing. Once stoked, whether by a judge from the bench or a Prime Minister with a dog whistle, there is no way to predict where it will end.

These are troubling times.

Across Canada and, especially, in my home province, Canadians are being encouraged by their government to be fearful of one another.

For me, this is both unconscionable and a real threat to Canadian liberty. For me, it is basic truth that prime ministers of liberal democracies ought not to be in the business of telling women what they can and cannot wear on their head during public ceremonies—least of all, this liberal democracy.

Cloaking an argument about what women can wear in the language of feminism has to be the most innovative perversion of liberty that conservatives have invented in a while. It is, of course, not the first time the most illiberal of ends has been packaged in the language of liberation.

You can dislike the niqab. You can hold it up it is a symbol of oppression. You can try to convince your fellow citizens that it is a choice they ought not to make.

This is a free country. Those are your rights.

But those who would use the state’s power to restrict women’s religious freedom and freedom of expression indulge the very same repressive impulse that they profess to condemn.

It is a cruel joke to claim you are liberating people from oppression by dictating in law what they can and cannot wear.

Whatever happened to a free society’s requirement that we can disagree with a person’s choices, but must defend their right to make them?

But what’s even worse than what they’re saying is what they really mean. We all know what is going on here. It is nothing less than an attempt to play on people’s fears and foster prejudice, directly toward the Muslim faith.

This is not the spirit of Canadian liberty, my friends. It is the spirit of the Komagata Maru. Of the St. Louis. Of “none is too many.”

Canada is where a million Muslims live and thrive in a free and open, secular democracy. The world needs more of that, not less of it.

Keeping these freedoms safe from those who would undermine them through violence is a vital national responsibility. It is both true and obvious that Canadian liberty cannot exist without collective security. As I learned at McGill many years ago, our social contract sometimes requires us to moderate our freedoms in order to ensure we maintain them in the long run. The ongoing question for democracies is how we strike the right balance. We will offer our answers to these questions as part of our national security policy in our election platform.

What we cannot ever do is blur the line between a real security threat and simple prejudice, as this government has done. I believe they have done it deliberately, and I believe what they have done is deeply wrong.

In defending Canada, we cannot allow ourselves to become less Canadian.

Ultimately, my friends, the antidote to repression is liberty.

It is this idea that will defeat terrorism and totalitarianism in the long run. It always has. The lethal enemies of terrorists and dictators are societies that are open, thriving and free—not just on paper, but in the streets.

Those of us lucky enough to benefit from Canadian liberty’s many blessings need to be strong and confident custodians of its character: inclusive freedom, expansive freedom. That is the Canadian idea of liberty: the idea that the liberty of all is enhanced when new freedoms are granted to individuals.

Nelson Mandela, honourary Canadian, who knew something about liberty and about being deprived of it, put it this way: “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

Canadian liberty compels us to resist the urge to impose our personal beliefs upon our fellow citizens, but it is worth it because of what we get back in return. Because what we get back in return is Canada.

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