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Prime Minister Trudeau talks politics, fatherhood, and feminism with Vox

From the moment he was elected prime minister of Canada in October, Justin Trudeau had a long list of expectations and campaign promises constituents eagerly expected him to fulfill. But it’s not just Canadians with hopes for the new prime minister — the rest of the world has some too.

Since coming into office, Trudeau has managed to make Canada not only ”hip” but also relevant on the international stage, by welcoming thousands of Syrian refugees and crafting an ethnically diverse and gender-equal Cabinet. His famous answer to a reporter who asked why he chose to have an equal amount of male and female Cabinet members (“Because it’s 2015”) spread a wave of feminist optimism around the globe. Despite these success, many challenges lie ahead for the leader.

Vox sat down with Trudeau in the Montrealer-owned restaurant Mile End in New York City to find out, a few months later, the actual effects of more diverse government and the challenges that the first self-proclaimed male feminist head of state in Canada can face. We also asked him about the millions of Americans who claim they would consider moving to Canada if Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton is elected president. It turns out their messages of desperation gave the eternally optimistic prime minister a glimmer of hope.

A lightly edited transcript of our interview follows.

Since coming into office, Trudeau has managed to make Canada not only "hip" but also relevant on the international stage, by welcoming thousands of Syrian refugees and crafting an ethnically diverse and gender-equal Cabinet. His famous answer to a reporter who asked why he chose to have an equal amount of male and female Cabinet members ("Because it’s 2015") spread a wave of feminist optimism around the globe. Despite these success, many challenges lie ahead for the leader.

Vox sat down with Trudeau in the Montrealer-owned restaurant Mile End in New York City to find out, a few months later, the actual effects of more diverse government and the challenges that the first self-proclaimed male feminist head of state in Canada can face. We also asked him about the millions of Americans who claim they would consider moving to Canada if Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton is elected president. It turns out their messages of desperation gave the eternally optimistic prime minister a glimmer of hope.

A lightly edited transcript of our interview follows.

Prime Minister Trudeau sits down with Vox's Liz Plank.
Carlos Waters

Liz Plank

How has the trip been so far?

Justin Trudeau

It's been great. It's been busy. We've been more present on the international stage, on the travel stage, than I think I might have designed if we had been able to control the schedule, but the summit is right off the top, and then the state dinner, and then the New York visit, and then back here next month for the UN. All that together ends up meaning there's a lot of international attention at a time where we're working really hard on running the country.

Liz Plank

You're part of the reason why there's so much attention on Canada, too.

Justin Trudeau

It's been an opportunity to showcase that the lessons and the messages Canadians shared with me on the campaign trail were messages that I'm trying to be consistent with. So this is really a reflection of what Canadians wanted to see out of the politics and out of a government, and I'm just happy to follow the great direction given to me by so many people.

Liz Plank

Do you feel like those messages are resonating with people in the US and abroad?

Justin Trudeau

I think there's certainly a sense that democracy is changing and people no longer want to accept the authority of the establishment. And therefore I think my political campaign was a nice opportunity, because I come at it with a certain baggage from my family history where people say, "Okay. He's sort of of the establishment," but at the same time I demonstrated a desire to completely change the way politics works, to put away some of the orthodoxy that attack ads has to be the way you go in politics, that division is how you get elected. I said no.

Can we focus on bringing people together, can we engage with data in a constructive way and not a targeting negative way, and can we run a campaign that is focused on bringing together voices of our generation in a tangible way, even though people say, "Young people don't vote, so why bother with young people?" I say because they will, and because they care. It changed a lot.

Liz Plank

What's your message to people here? A lot of Americans are disillusioned by the election here, and they're like, "I'm not even going to go vote."

Justin Trudeau

First of all, not voting is a terrible idea, because you lose any legitimacy to complain about a government you don't like after the election. Get out and make yourself heard. A lot of people are cynical about the fact that voting might not make much of a difference, but I think we've had examples — whether it was Obama in 2008 or even us in this past election — that young people can turn the tide of politics. But more than that, they actually change the kind of conversations had in politics.

Young people care about the long term in the way that a lot of politics focused on short-term deliverables and what are you going to do for me tomorrow, forget about the next five years or even 10 years [doesn't]. Getting young people engaged in the political process is not just about a few more mostly progressive votes; it's also about making sure the conversation turns to the big issues around poverty, around social justice, around environment, around international engagement in positive ways that young people really care about.

Liz Plank

I want to talk about a poll that Vox just came out with showing that 28 percent of Americans say they are considering moving to Canada if Donald Trump is elected president. That's so many millions of Americans — like, Qu'est-ce qu'on va faire avec tous les Américains? [What are we going to do with all the Americans?]

[Check out the poll here.]

Justin Trudeau

D'abord il faut se rappeler que ça arrive tous les années. [First, we have to remember this happens every election.] If you remember George W. Bush's election and George W. Bush's reelection especially, there was a lot of people saying, "Oh, no. If he gets elected again I'm moving to Canada." Then other people were saying the same thing around Obama and Obama's reelection. Every election cycle that's the easy go-to threat for people in the States to say when something happens [and] they don't want it to happen. "The candidate I want doesn't get elected, I'm moving to Canada." If you actually look at what happens after elections, the immigration numbers don't necessarily spike.

Liz Plank

Okay. We actually talked to New Yorkers in Times Square. We asked them what were their feelings about the election right now, and do you mind if I share their messages with you? Here we go.

[Watches video of Americans begging him to accept them as "refugees from Trump"]

Liz Plank

What do you make of that?

Justin Trudeau

This actually gives me tremendous confidence.

Liz Plank

Really?

Justin Trudeau

Yeah. Because people are realizing that this election does matter, and they have strong opinions, and people who might not have thought about voting are now going to make sure their voices get heard, and they're going to make sure that the government that gets elected in the United States reflects their values and their priorities. And that's what democracy is supposed to be all about.

Liz Plank

What do you think is the appeal of Canada? Why do you think so many people want to go?

Justin Trudeau

The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. People are looking at it as the perfect place. We had difficult, divisive discussions in our election campaign. We've had challenges around all sorts of things, and I think the sense is that we're a place that has been able to work through it and work it out a little bit better than some other places, because Canada is one of countries that figured out a fair while ago that differences and diversity are actually a source of strength, not a source of weaknesses. And when you draw people together with a whole bunch of different perspectives but a similar desire to succeed and create a good future for themselves and their neighbors, there's a lot of good things that happen.

I think that's a reasonableness that the amplification of negativity and attacks that is so common in politics sort of quashes or minimizes a bit, and I think most people are reasonable.

Most people want to see a better future. Most people don't want to be angry at their neighbors or the people down the street, but in many cases people are looking for explanations around why the economy isn't working for them, why they're worried about their job, why their kids aren't going to do well. And when you have a political discourse that loves to point fingers, "Oh, it's this person's fault or that group's fault," it becomes an easy escape. Fundamentally I believe that people are reasonable and responsible, and right now that's been — you know Canada has been held as an example of that, and we're doing okay, but there's a lot of work still to do.

Liz Plank

What's the work left to do? What are the things you have to fix?

Justin Trudeau

A big one — Canada has, for generations if not centuries, broken its relationship and its partnership with indigenous peoples. We ignored the fact that thousands upon thousands of indigenous women and girls went missing and murdered over the past few decades, and we need to reengage with that responsibly.

We need to look at the fact that a kid who grows up in an indigenous community doesn't have the same access to education or positive outcomes that any kids born anywhere else in the country have.

There's more work to do even on feminism. Everyone is talking about how it's 2016 and we're doing well, and there are good things that we've done, but we're still way down on the list of countries in terms of pay equity. Canada is worse than a lot of other countries, including ones we wouldn't suspect we would be worse than, on are women paid as much as men. There's a lot of work still to do.

Liz Plank

You talk a lot about diversity as not just a moral imperative, so it's not just the right thing. It often is the good thing to do in terms of societies that are more diverse are more creative, productive. It's been a couple of months since you installed that Cabinet that is so diverse. What have you seen pragmatically happen?

Justin Trudeau

We've had big discussions around things like physician-assisted dying, around tricky moral issues that we're moving forward on, and sitting around the Cabinet table listening and looking at all these incredible diverse voices, it's unbelievably empowering, because we're all in agreement on the values and on the big things and on where the country should go in general. But the perspectives and the experiences around the table highlight all sorts of different approaches and solutions, and say, "Well, maybe this way is not the right way to do it."

The respectful and inspiring conversations that I get to be a part of really just encapsulate what's great about diversity. We see that with workplaces or communities where there is a lot of different perspectives and voices, but who can come together and exchange and agree in general. The debate we're having is how best to get there, what are the tools to use. That makes for a really rich and creative conversation, and frankly we need a lot more of that.

Liz Plank

What would the world look like if every Cabinet or every office was 50-50 [gender split]?

Justin Trudeau

I think first of all, citizens around the world would be more comfortable that their issues might be noticed and taken seriously. The question when you have a broadly diverse Cabinet is not — I mean, because there's always in a group of 30 people no matter how you put it together, there's going to be groups and identities that aren't well represented. But the idea that you do have such a pluralism of views around the Cabinet table means it's much easier to draw on smaller perspectives that might not otherwise be held if there was a much more homogeneous decision-making group.

Then again, the capacity to think around corners and be really creative about coming together — I mean, as innovators and inventors know, when you're on your own it's a lot harder to come up with things than when you're in a workplace where people are working on different things, and you have ideas and patterns and solutions sort of sneak up on you through conversations [between] people with different ideas than you. That's what's been the extraordinary trigger to so many innovations and solutions.

Quite frankly, we need a new set of solutions. We know that Einstein was right — the problems we have created for ourselves can't be solved at the same level of thinking that created those problems. Well, we need to try a different approach that's much more heterogeneous in our decision-making.

Liz Plank

What do you say to people who say you promised all of these things, you've raised expectations — how are you going to ram all those changes in if you have such a collaborative, positive leadership style?

Justin Trudeau

First of all, I have very, very high expectations of Canadians, and if they have high expectations of me, that's fine, but I'm expecting them to step up as well. No individual at the top, however many levers they get their hands on, is actually going to change much unless there is a sense of engagement and involvement by citizens. That's why I've spent as much time as I have as sort of the youth critic and now the minister for youth on top of being prime minister — because for me, how we look at the young generation that are activists naturally, that see, "Look, we need to make a better world. We need to create change. We need to challenge ourselves and the status quo in all sorts of different ways."

Many times they feel that politics isn't an effective way of making that change, but for me if we can draw those people into the actual kinds of conversations we need to have and draw on that sense that, "Yes, the world should be better, and you know what? I have a role to play in that." You can go out and wave a banner in the street if that's it, or you can go and actually be heard and push your local elected official, or you can do both, or you can run for office yourself.

There's a huge range of ways of engaging, and that for me is what 21st-century democracy is going to look like: a whole bunch of people realizing through Twitter and Facebook, "I should be able to challenge my leaders directly. I should be able to get concrete response, and I should be able to really make things happen in the world. I should be heard. You're not always going to agree with me, but you should be listening and acknowledging that maybe I have a point."

That's the frame I get. Are we going to make everything perfect and great and rainbows and butterflies? No. We're not. There's going to be good decisions. There's going to be decisions that other people disagree with that we sort of have to do anyway, and I think what matters to me and what the expectation is clearest on is not even the outcomes — although growing the economy for everyone is the big outcome that we've talked the most about — but it's also the attitude and the intent.

How are we being open and transparent? How are we serious about listening to people and coming to reasonable solutions? Again, is it always the perfect, right solution that one might theoretically like to imagine? Probably not, because politics is a messy business. But can we do it in a thoughtful, responsible, reasonable way where even if you totally disagree with my decision you at least understand, but disagree, with the thought process that led me to that place, and it's based on values and principles that you can at least recognize, if not totally agree with?

Liz Plank

In Canada, if we look at the lessons that can be learned — I mean, in the '90s we almost separated. The divisiveness was very strong. I mean, talk about people wanting to move to Canada, people wanted to create a whole different country. What are the lessons, from how Canada was able to overcome that moment, for Americans?

Justin Trudeau

I think for me, the solution is always to trust in people. You're from Quebec, like me, so you know that the joke is always what Quebecois really want is a separate Quebec within a united Canada. It's the sense of, yes, there's always a desire to stand up and be proud in your own identity, and if you think you're getting a raw deal, you know, push a little for it, for better.

At the same time, there is an understanding that folks are your neighbors, and as I said a few times in my election campaign, look, conservatives are not our enemies as liberals. They're our neighbors. They're our cousins. They're our uncles. They're our friends. How we engage with them and figure out how to move forward in a way that gives opportunities and voice to everyone is the challenge of a 21st-century democracy.

Liz Plank

There are Canadians who are not on board with multiculturalism, who believe there is a huge cost to that. There is even a poll showing that a third of Canadians actually agree with Donald Trump's Muslim ban. How do you govern for all Canadians, including them?

Justin Trudeau

For me, I try to bring it down to the actual people and the individuals. There's two ways to do it. The first one is ... on individuals, and you ask if they really, when they think about that, they're really thinking about the shopkeeper down the street who they see every day. And [they go], "No. No. No. No. That guy is great, but, you know, it's just in general." You realize it's a nebulous fear that has latched onto an idea, perhaps enhanced by politics, perhaps enhanced by media, but it's not actually tangible.

A great example of that was the issue of Quebec's Charte de Valeurs, which was a proposal that said, "We're a secular state. We should[n't] be a religious state, therefore anytime you go to a government ticket counter or office you should be served by someone who is not wearing religious headgear, whether it's a hijab or a turban or a cross or a Star of David or whatever."

That idea that it was put forward to free people from religion got a lot of response from people. It's like, "Oh, yeah. It's about equality. It's about treating men and women the same. These are principles that we can get behind." It was very popular in a lot of places when it first came out and was framed that way. When people actually realized what that would mean ... for example, a young woman would have to choose between her job and her faith, people said, "Well, no. No. No. That's not what we wanted at all, and that's not what we need at all."

I think a lot of what we need to do is really unpack the consequences of things, and the idea of rights and freedoms and being a free society. I mean, a society that tells a woman what she has to wear on her head in the case of a veil or a niqab is not a free society, but then how is a society that tells a woman what she can't wear on her head or on her face? How is that a free society? It's not an easy question, it's not an easy answer, but it's a conversation that should be had in a responsible, respectful way.

What I've found is whenever I've had genuine conversations with people, there's a reasonableness and an openness that shines through with most people. You will always find exceptions. The challenge is politics doesn't work in thoughtful, reasonable conversations anymore. It happens in sound bites, in shouted slogans, in bumper stickers, in 10-second video clips. And how we take those tools that we have to use and tie them to reasonable conversations is the big challenge that politics is defined by now.

Liz Plank

Do you get frustrated when they call for these policies in the name of women's rights when really they're actually limiting women's rights?

Justin Trudeau

You know what? I've talked to a large number of strong feminists, who had, and self-declared, and been active all their lives in women's rights movements, who make very compelling cases on that side, and I'm certainly not one to tell them that they're absolutely wrong. But I mean to highlight that I think we're in a different place.

I think the nature of the discussions we need to have has to focus on the fundamental rights we fought so hard for, even if they make us uncomfortable — which in some cases they do — and also focus on the next generation. If we have people who have come over from somewhere else who have a certain way of dressing and a certain way of behaving that is their own choice but that fits in to a certain extent within our society, even though it may make people uncomfortable, well, then we should be okay with that.

But I'm more interested in what is the second generation going to do? Is the second generation with kids born here or raised here, are they going to have to feel like they need to choose between being Canadian or being true to their family identity, or are identities additional? Can you be both a proud and devout Muslim and a strong and proud Canadian?

Actually, when you look at terrorist groups like ISIL [an alternative name for ISIS], what they're trying to demonstrate is that Western free democracies are absolutely incompatible with Islam, and I think they're wrong. I think that million-plus Muslims living in Canada, for the vast, vast majority, if not 99-point-whatever percent, demonstrate that our Western, secular values are compatible and comfortable within a frame of Islam. That's where we start to need to go. How you get there is by getting beyond the knee-jerk reactions and building on a thoughtful approach.

Liz Plank

We often talk about the role models for women and the need for more role models for women. What about men? What kind of role models do they need?

Justin Trudeau

My own role models on that have been my mum, who went through some very, very tough times as a young woman in a political world that was uncompromising in terms of the role of women and the expectations of what a first lady of Canada would actually do and be. And she ended up being a very strong voice for me for women's rights.

My dad was too, because he was good on equality. He wasn't great on feminism, but he was good on equality and rights, and that was his generation. That's where I sort of come from. My wife, Sophie, continues to challenge me. ... We were having a conversation at one point, and I said, "I talk to our daughter, Ella ... all the time about how she can do anything she wants and she's just as good as any man, and she's better than any man because she's brilliant and she's wonderful and everything."

Sophie is like, "Good. That's great, but how are you saying that to our sons as well? How are you training your sons to be focused on women's rights and women's opportunities the way you're focused on telling your daughter that she can be anything?" That for me was a really important wake-up, and that's great for me.

Liz Plank

They're so young. How do you do it at such an early age?

Justin Trudeau

Part of it is modeling. Showing that I'm attentive and respectful and very much in a partnership with Sophie as much as we are in a marriage. That I respect her advice. We disagree, and sometimes it's because I'm right and sometimes it's because she's right, and there's a relationship amongst equals there.

We highlight for examples. In a certain sense, highlighting gender stereotypes has been a little more challenging because we're in a family where, you know, Sophie does a lot of great activism and work and public speaking, but she's mostly a mom and I'm the one who is the breadwinner, and we live in a place because of my job.

That's been a little more challenging in some ways than getting them to be open to LGBT issues. ... One of my close friends is married to a wonderful guy, and they've adopted a child. There is a much greater awareness of gay rights equality than sometimes the gender imbalances that still remain, so there's a challenge to be thoughtful about all those things together, and we had a great conversation about mental illness and what that means, and stuff. My son who is 8 now, and the 2-year-old, we're still easing him along.

The 8-year-old is getting it, but when you look at what conversations they have in the schoolyard and I caught Ella-Grace at one point leaving through a magazine, a Vogue or a Cosmo or something, and saying, "She's a 10. She's just sort of an 8. She's nice, but the face is sort of medium." It's just like, "My God, Ella. What are you doing?" This was just...

Liz Plank

What did you say?

Justin Trudeau

"Sophie! Come here and talk to Ella." It was just, you know, Sophie: "Ella, you can't judge people by their appearances." She said, "But this is a magazine that is all about judging on appearances." I'm like, "Okay. I'm raising a good debater there. That's great."

Just talking about it and getting through that reflections and engaging with inner strength, inner beauty, real people, personality, like, all that stuff. It's messy being a parent, but it's exciting.

Liz Plank

Speaking of Sophie, is she a little bit jealous about your bromance with the president?

Justin Trudeau

She would be if she had noticed. She was too busy with a crush on Michelle, so I think we're safe on that one.

Liz Plank

You're good.

Justin Trudeau

They just hit it off so incredibly well, and Sophie has been working on women [and] girls' issues for a long time, and to be able to join with Michelle in advocating and highlighting — it was just great for her.

Liz Plank

What is your relationship like with the president? I mean, when the cameras were off.

Justin Trudeau

He's a great, thoughtful guy. We share a whole bunch of values in terms of where society needs to go. We line up very, very well on a lot of big things, and I think we're similar in our worldview and in our personalities. There was a really nice compatibility there.

Liz Plank

I have two more questions. I'll be really quick. Is that a big deal?

Justin Trudeau

You can take the time you like. I still haven't gotten my food, so you're fine.

Liz Plank

How do you balance fatherhood with being the prime minister?

Justin Trudeau

There's no question that I work extremely hard. I'm traveling around the country, now a little more around the world. I work long, long hours. Being able to get home to see them every night or almost every night when I'm in Ottawa is great. Being able to bring them with me on trips when I can is really important.

My dad did that with us. He'd bring us with him, one of us with him, when he would go on overseas trips, and we got to see the world and engage and mostly got to spend good quality time with our dad. Throughout I just sort of remember, look, I'm in politics not in spite of the fact that I have kids but because of the fact that I have kids, and they keep me really grounded in, "Well, am I doing things that are meaningful, or am I just sort of playing the game?"

Now that I'm in government, it's easier to say that we're doing meaningful things, but when I was in opposition, when I was just a backbencher and I'd be away from them four or five days a week in Ottawa while we were still living in Montreal, on that drive home I'd often think to myself, "Okay. Did the things that I did and that engaged me and used up my time this week, did they contribute to the better world that I'm making for them to a greater degree than what they lost from me not having been around for four nights? Is it worth it?"

I never know whether I could have the perfect solution on that or the perfect answer. But just asking the question, "Is the time I am away from them compensated by the fact that I'm busy making a better world for them, and am I getting that balance right, and then am I remembering to turn off my BlackBerry, am I remembering to—"

Liz Plank

You turn it off sometimes?

Justin Trudeau

I'm not supposed to anymore, because I need to be accessible in case something happens, but do I put my work aside and do I focus on them when I'm with them, so I'm not sort of half, "Oh, yeah. That's nice," or working or reading. I take time to work, and I take time to play with them. Similar with Sophie, [I] have time where I'm working and time where I'm just the goofy husband.

Liz Plank

Good. Okay. Last question. No. We don't have time. Okay. Thank you so much.

Justin Trudeau

Yes. Last question.

Liz Plank

Do you know Feminist Ryan Gosling, the meme?

Justin Trudeau

Yes. I'd seen a little bit of that.

Liz Plank

There's a study that shows that when men were exposed to the meme, they were more likely to identify with feminist beliefs. Would you be willing for us to use a photo of you and put the feminist meme on top?

Justin Trudeau

Absolutely. Quite frankly, I talk about the fact that I'm a feminist as often as I can, and every time I do it gets huge reaction and media reacts and the Twitterverse explodes, and things like that, because here I am saying I'm a feminist.

I will keep saying that until there is no more reaction to that when I say it, because that's where we want to get to. If you're a progressive, you really should be a feminist, because it's about equality, it's about respect, it's about making the best of the world we have.

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