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The climate is a hot topic but will it motivate voters on Oct. 21?

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on September 29, 2019.

In a week with no shortage of international political theatre, from the launch of impeachment proceedings in Washington to the showdown between Parliament and the Supreme Court in London, I found myself returning again to watch a clip of 16-year-old Greta Thunberg in tears, excoriating delegates at a United Nations summit for their inaction on climate change.

On Friday, thousands of Canadians participated in a movement of rotating strikes and protests inspired by Thunberg. It seems that more and more of us are thinking longer and harder about the environment than we ever have before.

In the run-up to the election, pollsters told us that voters ranked the environment higher than ever before as a ballot issue they cared about. What’s more, in some polls, it edged out the perennial leading concerns: health care and the economy.

These findings mark a public opinion sea change from 2015, when barely one-tenth of voters were prioritizing the environment and climate change.

And the parties are paying attention. For the second election in a row, each has addressed environmental issues and climate change in their platforms. But given the increase in interest Canadians are showing toward these policies, it will be the first election where voters now claim to actually care about this issue. This sudden scrambling of priorities means that now we might put to the test once and for all the question of whether Canadians truly care about the environment.

The Liberals are certainly hoping so. Much as in 2015, they have embraced environmentalism as not only a core platform plank, but as a fundamental generational obligation.

They have sent the prime minister out canoeing and hiking to illustrate his commitment to the land and have gone further by pledging to protect 25 per cent of Canada’s land and oceans by 2025.

They have gone to the mat defending the carbon tax (or “price on pollution,” as they prefer to call it), even as it has contributed to a wave of right-wing victories at the provincial level. Yet for some voters, their message has been muddled by their simultaneous backing of pipelines.

The Conservatives are offering a business-friendly plan of their own that relies on innovation and the encouragement of the adoption of new technology, such as capture-and-storage. They promise to repeal the carbon tax and help other countries lower their emissions.

The New Democrats have largely been missing in action, proposing to tinker with the carbon tax and complete the move to zero-carbon energy by 2050.

Stepping into the breach, however, has been Elizabeth May’s Green Party, who have the most to gain from this apparent surge in environmentalism. The party has occasionally pulled ahead of the NDP in the polls, and their provincial counterparts have consistently exceeded expectations.

With an entire platform that revolves around an issue that Canadians suddenly profess to care deeply about, this election represents a golden opportunity for her and her colleagues.

May is the most experienced federal leader, no longer a novelty on the debate stage. She may well be an attractive alternative to disaffected Liberals, who often rank climate change as a higher issue than voters in other parties.

To be that alternative, May will need to be more disciplined during the balance of the campaign. She, and her party, will need to avoid such embarrassing sideshows as a rolling controversy this week over a photoshopped image of her, altered to include a reusable cup instead of a disposable one.

So, does this all represent a once-in-a-career harmonic convergence for May?

While Canadians tripped over themselves to tell one pollster just how much they cared for the environment, another poll quietly released last week by Ipsos found that while nearly half of Canadians wanted action on climate change, that number fell to barely a quarter if the cost were to be even a single cent.

Not unlike their prime minister, Canadians fall sometimes into the habit of virtue signalling. The environment has always been a victim of the gulf between voters’ intentions and their behaviour. This election will once again test that trend.

Justin Trudeau can earn forgiveness but he will have to continually work to earn it

The article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on September 22, 2019.

This week, the federal election campaign was thrown into chaos when years-old pictures emerged of Justin Trudeau dressed-up in a way most would deem highly inappropriate.

Commentators around the country, indeed around the world, have weighed in with comments on the prime minister’s conduct and the sincerity of his apologies.

For a country that all too often rests on its laurels when it comes to issues of discrimination and race, it is an important conversation to have. We like to smugly contrast ourselves favourably with our southern neighbours and sing the praises of our multicultural society.

We hear it all the time: “Canada is a mosaic, not a melting pot,” and, “Toronto is the most multicultural city in the world.”

Well, yes, but that multiculturalism did not come without a price paid by many Canadians — especially racialized and Indigenous groups — who still face prejudice every day of their lives.

Their experiences are their own and not only do I do not presume to speak on their behalf, I can’t. As a gay man, I can, however, share some of the pain and humiliation of having had to endure painful and haunting episodes of discrimination in my own life. It is about more than political correctness — it is about lived experience.

So, when I first saw those images on Wednesday evening, I was of course taken aback. Sitting at dinner with my colleagues, I began to wonder, “how will the prime minister respond to this? Will Canadians ever forgive him?”

Forgiveness in the public sphere need not be a complicated thing. Over the course of my career I have had the privilege to meet with and learn from Canadians, literally, from all walks of life. And I have come to learn just how decent and understanding they are. If Canadians feel that someone has made a mistake for which they are genuinely contrite, they have an astounding capacity for forgiveness.

The key to that forgiveness, however, lies in the word genuine. A sense of authentic penitence is the essential starting point of public reconciliation. Without it, an apology is not worth the paper on which it’s written.

But there is more. The apology itself matters. A lot.

Trudeau’s hasty apology on Wednesday night missed the mark. His focus was on himself. Not on those he hurt and harmed.

On Thursday, Trudeau tried again. And this time he got it right.

“I was blind,” he said, “to the pain that I may have caused at those times and that I am now causing to people that count on me to defend them.”

He spoke as someone who understood he had made a mistake. As a man who deeply regretted his actions and had only recently come to understand their significance.

Time will tell whether this incident has shifted the dial of his electoral fate.

Asked why he should be allowed to stay in office, I was struck by the Liberal leader’s response: “I’m going to be asking Canadians to forgive me for what I did.”

His answer stood in stark contrast to his unequivocal non-apologies in the SNC-Lavalin affair and it spoke to a comprehension of the severity of his actions.

But, what does it really mean for Canadians to forgive a public figure?

In a practical sense, forgiveness at the polls would mean allowing Trudeau to return to Ottawa and begin, in earnest, to reconcile the hurt he has inflicted.

On a deeper level, the prime minister may wish for Canadians to view his past transgressions as the starting point of his transformation into a devoted public servant.

Is it not a testament to his “different” vision for Canadian politics that the obliviously ignorant man in those photos could, 20 years later, become a champion for the rights of minorities and the oppressed?

Forgiveness is a journey and Trudeau will have to continue working to prove that those photos do not represent the man who wants to be our prime minister today.

The process will be drawn-out, uncomfortable and, at times, painful. Perhaps that is a fitting penance, given the very real pain that has been caused.