Justin Trudeau calls U.S. President Donald Trump on July 13, 2020. Image: Justin Trudeau/Twitter

I agree the WE fiasco is strike three for Justin Trudeau; I’m not sure I agree on what were strikes one and two. My colleagues think it was the Aga Khan getaway freebie and the Wilson-Raybould mélee, as called by the federal ethics ump. I think WE fits better with his loopy India trip and the blackface.

If so, it helps explain the absence of a national gag reflex. There’s a goofy, oblivious quality that seems more like the real Justin than the plodding wannabe adult who gives robotic COVID-19 briefings while handling the economic challenge impressively, and working effectively with right wing provincial preems not naturally disposed to interventionist, high-spending government.

Then suddenly it’s, “Hey guys, where’s the party? Can I come? Will there be costumes?”As he did, mocking Trump, at the G7. He says in his book, he learned that everything his dad hated about politics — schmoozing, socializing — he loved. Action, reaction — n’est-ce pas? If you watch him waving and beaming at those stupid WE Day cheerathons, I for one see: India.

Here I must pause and do one of those pompous “full disclosures.” In 1996, 13-year-old Craig Kielburger from Thornhill suddenly became famous, a bit like Greta Thunberg, for globe-trotting to free child slaves. Ken Whyte, neo-con editor of Conrad Black’s Saturday Night magazine, commissioned a classic hit on the kid as a politically obnoxious brat. In my Globe column at the time, I argued back saying even if he’s obnoxious, he’s 13 and, y’know. I think I got a grateful note from the dad and no further contact.

Fourteen years later, through no deliberate intent, I found myself at a WE Day rally at the ACC. It’s the kind of headless event where you can’t possibly figure out why it exists. There are thousands of kids, bused in by school boards, spotlights, giant screens, music (Nikki Yanovsky, I think). Inspirational speakers (well-paid, it turns out). All hosted by Craig and his brother Marc.

They say vacuous things like “What’s up, WE Day?” And “Everyone is joining the WE movement because they realize that together we can make the world better.” They call WE Day rallies the Super Bowl of doing good. They’re older now and starting to look like the aging, superannuated “youth” leaders in the last days of the Soviet-led communist youth movement. They smile too much, are too ingratiating, too intent on sounding sincere to actually be it. They’re like the adult hosts on TVO Kids shows. Many kids leave early.

It is, in short, the sort of pointless, airheaded fiesta that Justin Trudeau seems unable to resist. Maybe he, and they, feel they missed out on aspects of their youth and want to recoup. I could identify with that.

Some of what they sponsor seems palatable: helping dig wells in poor villages, that kids can then, as Chris Selley says, put on their college applications. They’re retrenching now and have cancelled WE Days for the “foreseeable future.” They seem a bit like the Liberal party: people who want to do good but with no noticeable inconvenience or lowering the fun quotient.

OK, back to ethics. It’s easy to deal with in high abstraction. Up there, there’s little to say beyond what Kant (The only unquestionably good thing is the will to do good) or Bentham (The greatest good of the greatest number) formulated. But on specific cases it’s like the law. Every judge will explain why the facts necessitated only one choice; then they all disagree what that is.

So in this case, my judgment is: Justin had a clear conflict of interest but it amounts more to an embarrassment than an outrage. He got nothing personally and his mom got about $12,000 per speech, quite modest compared to the big talkers.

The shame isn’t that he was out to serve himself, it’s that he missed a chance to help some kids who’re already having the worst summer of their lives because he wanted to go outside and play with his buds. He’s not evil but he can be a real putz. It’s the failure to help those kids that he’s most guilty of and at least, to his limited credit, he acknowledged his failure, yet again.

Rick Salutin writes about current affairs and politics. This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image: Justin Trudeau/Twitter


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.