Six days after acknowledging that his country was guilty of genocide, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held a press conference outside of Montreal and announced that Canada was going to take a hard line on single-use plastic items such as straws, water bottles and cutlery. The leader of the nation he agrees is actively trying to destroy a segment of its population went on to add, “We need to cover all of Canada with this decision and that’s why the federal government is moving forward on a science-based approach to establishing which harmful single-use plastics we will be eliminating as of 2021.” If you’re pressed for time, dear reader, you can probably just stop now. I’m going to keep going for a while to actually fill out the column, but if there is anything you should take away from this, it’s that the prime minister pivoted from a crime against humanity to the crime of the drinking straw in your smoothie in about 140 hours. This is the problem the prime minister faces — arguably more than even the average Canadian PM would. This prime minister has spoken often of his desire for a better relationship with Indigenous communities and people. He’s spoken a lot about reconciliation. He’s had some major flops on that front, too, of course, from his flippant “Thank you for your donation” dismissal of a protest over poor environmental conditions on a First Nations reserve (for which he apologized) to the obvious damage inflicted by the prolonged and public battle between the Prime Minister’s Office and former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould, an Indigenous woman. Still, if only as a matter of political branding, the PM has tried to sell himself as the federal leader most committed to reconciliation.So what do you do when a report your government commissioned and spent almost $100 million on concludes that the government you’re running is genocidal? I’m not sure there’s an easy answer to that question, but we can certainly recap what the prime minister actually did. First he avoided it entirely, speaking in more general terms about Canada needing to do more for the “safety, security and dignity” of Indigenous women and girls. That’s obviously true and fair, but it didn’t help the PM much; every headline that day was some variation of “TRUDEAU WON’T SAY GENOCIDE.” The next day, having decided that just ignoring the word wasn’t going to work, he used it. “We accept (the report’s) findings including that what happened amounts to genocide,” he said. It was a carefully chosen admission — what “happened,” not what’s “happening” — but there it was. Trudeau had admitted it was genocide.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on June 11, 2019.
It didn’t last. By Monday of this week, the same day the prime minister committed Canada to the great crusade against those loopy things that hold your six-pack together, he was qualifying his statement, telling Radio-Canada in an interview that he would describe what had happened as a “cultural genocide.” It’s easy to jump on the PM for trying to hold every possible position on this issue simultaneously. (Chantal Hébert, writing in the Toronto Star, noted dryly that, “Trudeau’s mixed messages will likely satisfy no one.” No kidding.) But rather than view the prime minister’s evolving response as a sign of confusion or conflict, I see something else entirely: the contortions are the natural product of and undeniable truth — for this prime minister, there is no good position. He’s screwed.He can avoid calling it a genocide at all, as seemed to be his first instinct. But a day of criticism was all he could take before he abandoned that position; it’s obvious he and his advisers concluded it simply wasn’t a politically defensible stand for a nominally reconciliation-focused prime minister. So he shifted to acknowledging that genocide was a valid term, but carefully put the term in the past tense — genocide had “happened.” But there’s no safe harbour for the prime minister there; the final report’s supplement specifically dealing with genocide’s definition and meaning notes, “In addition to the lethal conduct, the non-lethal tactics … fall within the scope of the crime of genocide. These policies … in different incarnations, are still ongoing.” (Emphasis added.) So cleanly carving genocide off as just some other historic wrong the prime minister can formally apologize for without needing to personally own any responsibility isn’t going to work, either. The report is clear that the genocide is ongoing. The crime is ongoing, the report argues, right now, and the buck stops with Trudeau. The prime minister can’t accept that. Even if he wants to — and that’s far from clear, as he has always seemed way more comfortable apologizing for historic crimes than any errors he himself has made — he simply can’t. If the PM admits there is a genocide and that he’s partially overseen it, how can he then go back to business as normal, slamming Conservatives for their support of Alberta oil and cracking down on water bottles? You can’t cop to a war crime over breakfast and then deliver an infrastructure announcement to a local chamber of commerce at lunch without looking absurd. Recasting it as cultural genocide isn’t going to work all that much better for the prime minister, but it probably is the best avenue open to him.A different prime minister might have felt more comfortable than Trudeau simply rejecting the use of the term, as Conservative leader Andrew Scheer did when he agreed that horrible things had happened, but that they didn’t constitute a genocide. You can agree with Scheer’s position or not, but it’s coherent and defensible. Trudeau’s? Not so much. You don’t need to grasp quantum computing to realize you simply can’t be the country’s leading champion of reconciliation and the self-confessed overseer of an ongoing genocide at the same time.• Twitter: mattgurney