Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was pressed to justify the implementation of a federal price on carbon during a town hall forum on the second day of his whirlwind outreach tour on Friday.
At a public meeting in Peterborough, Ont., Trudeau was asked by a woman struggling to pay her bills, amid high hydro costs in the province, why he was proceeding with a carbon price.
“I feel like you have failed me, and I’m asking you today to fix that,” said the woman, who later identified herself as Kathy Katula of Buckhorn, Ont. “My heat and hydro (electricity) now cost me more than my mortgage.”
“I’m asking you, Mr. Trudeau, how do you justify to a mother of four children, three grandchildren, with physical disabilities, and working up to 15 hours a day, how is it justified for you to ask me to pay a carbon tax when I only have $ 65 left in my paycheque every two weeks to feed my family,” she said to applause.
Defending his policy on climate change, Trudeau said Canada needs to make a transition away from fossil fuels, but that governments need to ensure that the most vulnerable are taken into account.
“What’s so important is we do not penalize people who are already stretched beyond the breaking limit in terms of their finances,” Trudeau said.
The prime minister noted that revenues from the price will stay with provincial governments to be used as they see fit, while clarifying that the national carbon pricing requirement doesn’t kick in until 2019.
It was not the first time that the high cost of electricity in Ontario, which also recently introduced a cap-and-trade system to price carbon, was brought to Trudeau’s attention during his tour of the province.
Provinces have responsibility for hydro, Trudeau noted, but the palpable unhappiness bodes poorly for Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, generally an ally for Trudeau. And public concern for energy prices could present an obstacle for the federal government’s climate change plans.
Katula later told reporters she wasn’t angry with Trudeau, and she praised him for taking part in the town hall.
“He’s proven today he’s not just hanging out with rich millionaires. I’m not a rich millionaire, he came out and spoke to me today,” she said. “I’m proud of him.”
But she said she wanted Trudeau to justify the impact on rural Canadians. “I understand that a carbon tax is good for our environment, but why should someone like myself, who’s barely making it, be responsible for better transit in Toronto, for electric cars and charging stations? I’ll never be able to afford that and I’m not adding to the pollution.”
‘Phase out’ oilsands?
Asked about his decision to approve the Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to British Columbia, Trudeau repeated his views that the prime minister has a responsibility to get Canadian resources to market, but he also suggested that development of the oilsands would be phased out.
“I’ve said time and time again, and you’re all tired of hearing me say it, you can’t make a choice between what’s good for the environment and what’s good for the economy,” he said.
“We can’t shut down the oil sands tomorrow. We need to phase them out, we need to manage the transition off of our dependence on fossil fuels. That is going to take time, and in the meantime, we have to manage that transition.”
Trudeau has spoken of transitioning away from fossil fuels, but without specifically suggesting an end to the development of Alberta’s oilsands.
Brian Jean, leader of Alberta’s Wild Rose party, quickly condemned the comments.
“The verdict is in. Prime Minister Trudeau has confirmed Albertans’ worst fears about his Liberal government and its plans for our energy sector,” Jean said in a statement.
“If Mr. Trudeau wants to shut down Alberta’s oil sands, and my hometown, let him be warned: he’ll have to go through me and four million Albertans first.”
Via Twitter, Jason Kenney, the former federal Conservative now looking to lead Alberta’s Progressive Conservative party, asked whether Trudeau wanted to “hand over all global oil production to Saudi [Arabia], Iran, Qatar, et al.”
The controversy echoes a tempest from the 2015 election campaign, when Toronto NDP candidate Linda McQuaig suggested “a lot” of oil in Alberta would have to remain in the ground.
Despite Conservative (and Liberal) criticism at the time, Stephen Harper had already committed to a G7 pledge to phase out fossil fuels by 2100.
Trudeau identified no timeline in his comments Friday.
Questions on deficits, travel
The tour continued with another town hall in London, Ont., on the campus of Western University. It opened with a 21-year-old named Zack asking the prime minister why he was putting the country on track for decades of deficits when Trudeau had campaigned on modest, short-term deficits.
“Justin, what are you doing to this country? You are intentionally setting millions of young Canadians like myself up for complete and utter failure,” he said.
Trudeau shushed boos from the crowd, saying the event was supposed to be an open discussion and allowing the questioner to finish.
“What, if anything, are you going to be doing to curb your insane and reckless spending habits, which are on the verge of being criminal, to make sure we don’t end up $ 1.5 trillion in debt as your government predicts?”
Trudeau said that he stands by his election commitment to invest in infrastructure through deficit spending.
Another questioner expressed disappointment over big-ticket private Liberal party fundraisers and the Trudeau family vacation to the Bahamas, where the prime minister travelled on the Aga Khan’s private helicopter.
She said she expected Trudeau to be “above reproach” and told him he could “rise higher” than the recent controversies.
Breakfast with military families
Trudeau’s day began at CFB Trenton in eastern Ontario on Friday morning.
He was up at 5 a.m. to go for a five-kilometre run with parachute jump instructors from the Canadian Army Advance Warfare Center before having breakfast with military families in its mess hall.
After stopping in Peterborough, Trudeau’s Friday includes another town hall forum in London, Ont., and a number of photo opportunities, including one with young people from La Loche, Sask., at the Toronto Raptors training facility.
The prime minister has faced questions on the campaign-style tour about a range of issues including electoral reform, the environment and the government’s handling of the Phoenix pay system controversy.
Trudeau told a large crowd that gathered for a town hall Thursday night in Belleville, Ont., that he will stand up for diversity and feminism during Donald Trump’s presidency.
After Friday, Trudeau heads off to Quebec, B.C. and the Prairies, then the Atlantic provinces and the North.