Justin Trudeau talks public service, trade in UChicago visit

Institute of Politics hosts Canadian prime minister for fifth-anniversary event

The idealism of public service and the reality of governing were at the heart of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Feb. 7 address at the University of Chicago.  

Speaking to a packed Mandel Hall as part of the Institute of Politics’ fifth anniversary celebration, Trudeau struck a balance between political optimism and the challenges facing the United States and Canada.

The event marked Trudeau’s first official visit to Chicago, the start of a four-day tour of the United States to discuss the importance of public service and how it can strengthen economic and political ties between Canada and the U.S. 

It wasn’t a straight path to politics for Trudeau, the son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. “When I was a kid, I wasn’t particularly interested in politics,” said Trudeau, who started his career as a teacher.

He said the call to public service was instilled in him from an early age. He acknowledged his parents “raised me with a deep sense of responsibility, and I think that was one of the only ways I could make sense of the ridiculous good luck I was born in.”

Caroline Hutton, a fourth-year studying political science, said in her introduction of Trudeau that his presence on campus encapsulated the Institute of Politics’ mission to inspire young people to go into public service.

Importance of trade, strong ties to U.S.

In his remarks, Trudeau detailed the political challenges facing both his country and the United States, including the need to reform NAFTA and immigration policy.

Trudeau said that the trade agreement has benefited both countries, but that changes need to be made to modernize and strengthen it, in particular improving labor standards and increasing opportunities for all.

Following his speech, Trudeau sat down with David Axelrod, the IOP’s director and former chief strategist to President Obama, for a Q&A including questions from students—part of what Axelrod said is the institute’s tradition to “scrutinize guests.”  

Axelrod didn’t waste time asking Trudeau how his political relationship has changed with the U.S. since the 2016 election, but Trudeau emphasized the relationship of the two countries surpasses any ideological differences.

“At the center of the relationship is the fact that our countries’ relationship is much bigger and deeper than the ideologies or perspectives of whomever happens to be prime minster of Canada and whomever is occupying the White House.”  

Trudeau also spoke about the importance of young people getting involved in public service in the face of current political polarization, and said he finds hope in the next generation of political leaders.

“We have as a world right now, and as a society, an awful lot to learn from all of you. That idea of civil, intelligent rational discourse in politics is one that young people like you are demanding more than just about anyone else,” said Trudeau, addressing the students in the crowd. “And that, when we look at all the challenges we’re facing around the world, is the one thing that gives me more cause for hope then just about everything else.”

Since January 2013, the non-partisan institute has hosted more than 1,000 guests as a part of its speaker series, including Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. John McCain, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Firouz Niazi, a first-year student in the College, has been involved with the Institute of Politics since arriving at UChicago. He was excited to hear Trudeau speak, and said he has appreciated the access to such impressive guests and opportunities thanks to the institute.

“The first quarter I went in for office hours with Laura Haims, former spokesperson for Emmanuel Macron’s presidential campaign,” Niazi said. “The IOP is doing really cool things, and I know for the next three years I’m going to be here I’ll have access to opportunities, and I don’t have to go looking for them.”