Dressed in blue jeans and a casual shirt with the sleeves rolled up, Trudeau drew a generally positive response from about 1,700 people at the University of Calgary’s Jack Simpson Gymnasium.
The prime minister, wrapping up a two-day visit to the city, took questions on everything from the the challenges faced by indigenous people to taxes on the wealthy.
But it was the thorny issue of finding a balance between a healthy economy and protecting the environment that drew the strongest reaction from the forum audience, which was made up mostly of students, including dozens from SAIT.
“You cannot separate what is good for the environment and what is good for the economy,” Trudeau said, to loud applause and jeers, when asked by an audience member whether wanted to see the mining of Alberta’s oilsands phased out.
At a town hall meeting Jan. 13 in Peterborough, Ont., Trudeau said that oilsands operations would have to be phased out eventually, a comment he later characterized as a misstatement.
But near the end of the Calgary forum, the PM was questioned about it again, by Merle Terlesky, who wore a Donald Trump hat and a shirt that read, “I love the oilsands.”
The PM appeared to ignore Terlesky at first. That drew boisterous objections from the crowd and had some audience members jumping to their feet.
Finally, as the last question for the evening, Trudeau turned to him.
“You cannot come down to this province and attack the single biggest employer that employs hundreds of thousands of people,” said Terlesky.
“You are either a liar or you are confused, and I am beginning to think it is both,” said Terlesky, accusing Trudeau of saying different things in Eastern and Western Canada on the issues of energy and the environment.
His comments were met with whoops and hollers of support.
“I have been extremely consistent in what I have said to Canadians,” Trudeau replied.
“The responsibility of a Canadian prime minister is to get our resources to market, and yes, that includes our oilsands and fossil fuels.
“I have also said that we need to do that in a responsible, sustainable way.”
Trudeau also pointed out that, unlike the former Conservative government, he has managed to approve pipelines.
“Even Stephen Harper recognized that we need to get off fossil fuels eventually, but we cannot do that right now.”
Late last year, the federal government gave the nod to the expansion of Kinder Morgan Canada’s Trans-Mountain pipeline which will carry bitumen from the Alberta oilsands to the West Coast.
Citing the importance of reducing emissions through innovation and advances in technology, Trudeau said that such actions will “[demonstrate] what Albertans know, what Canadians know, that we can build a strong economy, with good jobs, and protect the environment at the same time.
“That is what Canadians want.”
Every seat in the hall was filled when the forum got under way about 8 p.m. and long lines of people were turned away, showing that the prime minister is still a big draw, even in conservative Calgary.
Tristan Bray, the acting vice-president external of the University of Calgary Students Union, attended the form and said afterward that he had hoped to ask the PM about issues of concern to post-secondary students.
“With the prime minister coming into town, and a number of other ministers and Members of Parliament, I absolutely had to be here to hopefully use this occasion as an advocacy opportunity,” said Bray.
“I wanted to ask him specifically about funding for the post secondary students’ support program,” said Bray.
“It was actually a campaign promise of his to fund the backlog of that program. I think many advocates were surprised when we did not see money to fund that backlog in budget 2016.”
The program funds First Nations, Inuit, and Metis to attend post-secondary institutions across Canada.
But with the focus on the event on higher-profile issues, Bray didn’t get the chance to ask about student issues.