Justin Trudeau won’t discuss his approval ratings — but some Liberals are wondering if his message needs to change

HAMILTON—As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wrapped a federal cabinet retreat Wednesday ahead of Parliament’s return next week, he struck a defiant note in the face of angry protesters who dogged his visit here.

Trudeau said they don’t represent most Canadians, nor do they represent a broader shift in public mood against him personally.

Rather, Trudeau sought to cast his minority government’s agenda for its second year as one that will restore confidence in Canadians’ short- and long-term economic future, as well as in the country’s troubled health-care system.

Much of that governing agenda is guided by a deal with NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh to secure votes in the House of Commons until June 2025.

But already, many Liberal ministers are looking ahead to the next election, and musing about whether Trudeau and the government need to rebrand, or at the least refresh their public messaging.

Some want to emphasize economic and governing competency, while others say the Liberals must emphasize they are the best option to offer “progressive” governance, in contrast to the Conservatives. Many in cabinet are mindful of Trudeau’s own decline in polls, but since last fall’s retreat where the prime minister made clear he intends to lead the party in the next election, there appears to be no organizing by would-be successors to show him out the by means of. Still, several would prefer less focus on the prime minister personally.

But Trudeau is not interested in discussing a decline in his approval ratings. He deflects questions about his own popularity, acknowledging only the difficulties faced by others, and dissing the negative political messaging of the Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre.

Poilievre again Wednesday blamed Trudeau personally for high inflation, high interest rates, crises in the country’s hospital emergency rooms and more. “Everything feels broken,” Poilivre said in Ottawa.

Trudeau rejects that talk, saying Canadians can be “incredibly optimistic” and on Wednesday he turned aside questions about the anger on the streets in Hamilton.

“Yes, Canadians are facing tough times right now,” Trudeau told reporters. “But the vast majority of Canadians aren’t the type to throw up their hands and say, ‘Oh, it’s all broken.’ Most Canadians roll up their sleeves and say, ‘You know what? This is tough, but we’re gonna be there for each other … and we’re gonna build a better future for ourselves, for our family, for our communities.’”

Trudeau shrugged off the raucous crowd of a few dozen protesters that trailed his movements day and night.

Outside of the downtown hotel and convention center where cabinet met, demonstrators hollered obscenities, and waved flags and signs denouncing the World Economic Forum and Trudeau for “treason.”

For two nights, they blasted fireworks that whistled over the front of the hotel when Trudeau or ministers were in sight, starting some cabinet members. On Tuesday night, a larger crowd dogged Trudeau outside a nearby restaurant where he was eating dinner. It swelled to about 100 protesters, with horns, loudspeakers and an inflatable sheep emblazoned with an anti-vax message. Hamilton police closed off streets, later saying they did so to facilitate demonstrators’ right to peacefully protest. No arrests were made, police said. A right-wing media outlet followed the prime minister through a mall demanding to know if he would “go outside and speak to Canadians.”

Trudeau did meet with people while in Hamilton, including Mayor Andrea Horwath, students and researchers at a McMaster University automotive research lab, and at a local restaurant. His ministers fanned out and made a few local funding announcements.

On Wednesday, he said he had received an “extraordinary” welcome to Hamilton from people who were “open and thoughtful and warm.”

“And a handful of angry people do not define what Hamilton is or what democracy in this country is,” Trudeau said, prompting applause from ministers lined up behind him.

However, Trudeau no longer does big, open non-partisan events like his pre-pandemic cross-country town halls in January, where he would field questions from the public for hours. Trudeau disagreed he’s changed tack. “On the contrary,” he said — he travels the country to connect with people, and said the pandemic meant “we all had to change the way we’re doing things.”

Still, the Trudeau government has come under fire from many sides as Canada emerged from the pandemic, not just from angry protesters, but from frustrated travelers faced with airport delays, or passport wait times, and from prime ministers demanding federal cash to ease the crises in emergency rooms and pediatric hospitals across the country.

Trudeau — who once campaigned on “sunny ways” but ran into governing headwinds when it came to NAFTA talks, China’s aggression, rail blockades, a global pandemic and a looming recession — on Wednesday still urged optimism, and insisted his government would deliver on health care, climate change and easing the country’s transition to a green economy.

“We’ve got a big, amazing country built on strong, progressive institutions like public health care that Canadians care deeply about. We’re doing the hard work of strengthening health care and making sure that we all live up to the promise of this country,” he said.

Trudeau is set to address his broader Liberal caucus at a retreat in Ottawa starting Friday. And as he left Hamilton, he vowed to “continue to work with leaders of any jurisdiction and any stripe to make sure that we’re delivering for Canadians, because we know that now is not the time for divisive or obstructionist politics. We’ll keep tackling climate change, we’ll keep addressing income inequality, we’ll keep growing the middle class.”

He said his team will have a “dual focus: making sure we’re there to support Canadians right now, while we need it, as we always have, as we did during the pandemic, as we did last fall, and making sure we ‘re building that strong, innovative economy filled with good middle-class jobs for the coming years.”

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