Zoomer Q&A: Trudeau and Senior Minister On Creating a Better Canada for Seniors

Justin Trudeau with his hands clasped sitting at his desk in Ottawa.

Photo: Chris Chapman

In sweeping to power in the 2015 election, Justin Trudeau not only revived the Liberal party but also became a global superstar.

Trudeau wasn’t just simply our new prime minister. He was “young, tall and athletic” or so gushed the New York Times, the “emoji politician” millennials craved, a dynamic headliner who was making Canada “suddenly hip.”

The scion of a Canadian political giant, he ousted the Stephen Harper-led Conservatives by following his father’s playbook: he ran as the youthful candidate, full of vigour, charisma, good looks and fresh ideas. Appealing to 20-somethings flexing their political muscles for the first time, he was a leader for the social media generation, replacing a buttoned-down Harper whose government had simply run its course.

While Trudeau was ushered into office by capturing younger voters, he also attracted support from older Canadians, true-blue Harper supporters, many of whom checked Liberal on their ballot for the first time in more than a decade.
At first, everything Trudeau did not only won acclaim but also went viral. He declared himself a feminist and appointed a gender-balanced cabinet “because it’s 2015.” He jogged with world leaders, photo-bombed selfies, hugged panda bears, trick-or-treated with his photogenic family, wore rubber ducky socks to the World Economic Forum and got his picture on the cover of Rolling Stone.

His was an exciting new face, standing out in the staid world of Canadian politics. And the social and mainstream media here and around the world lapped it all up.

On the policy front, he could do no wrong either. Right off the bat, he fulfilled the election promises made to older Canadians at a CARP Town Hall meeting in September 2015.

Appealing to the progressive base, which the Liberals had adeptly snatched from the NDP, he apologized for residential schools, taxed the wealthy, cut taxes for the middle class, passed a gender friendly budget, legalized medically assisted dying and imposed a carbon tax.

But such is the capricious nature of being a leader that, no matter how bright the forecast looks on your first years in power, “sunny ways” will inevitably give way to stormy days.

A black and white photo of Justin Trudeau sitting in his office in Ottawa.
Photo: Chris Chapman

First came reports of cash-for-access dinners with Chinese billionaires that, while probably very tasty, were nevertheless dubbed by the ethics commissioner as “not very savoury.” Then came the revelation of an all-expenses-paid family vacation to the Aga Khan’s island, which drew a stern rebuke from the federal ethics commissioner for violating the Conflict of Interest Act.

A trip to India became a PR disaster when his over-the-top wardrobe choices and a dinner invitation to a convicted ex-terrorist sparked controversy and ridicule. Critics also began worrying out loud about the price tag on his budgets, accusing him of reneging on promises by running up huge deficits. He set eyeballs rolling with a snarky “peoplekind” comment, dodged a #MeToo moment and somehow ended up buying a controversial and absurdly expensive pipeline that no one wanted, least of all the environmental and First Nations’ voters he had so aggressively courted.

The honeymoon, it seemed, was over, and the fickle press smelled blood. “Stop swooning over Justin Trudeau,” declared the headline of an April 2017 Guardian op-ed, “The man is a disaster for the planet.”

Hyperbole aside, the prime minister was certainly aware of the effect these missteps were having on his party’s fortunes and skilfully reversed the downward trend. He won raves for staring down U.S. President Donald Trump at the G7 summit in Quebec, during renegotiations of the North American Free Trade Agreement and during the tariff war. And his refusal to be baited into a Twitter beef with the bigmouth from the south pleased nationalists, won respect and bumped up his approval ratings.

Shoring up his progressive credentials, the prime minister fulfilled another campaign promise by pushing through the legalization of marijuana, praised by ZoomerMedia founder Moses Znaimer as “the signature social legislation of this generation.”

So in early August, with the next federal election a little over a year away, his government embroiled in heavy NAFTA negotiations while defusing a diplomatic flap with Saudi Arabia, Trudeau sat down with Zoomer editor-in-chief Suzanne Boyd and me for a wide-ranging 30-minute chat. Joining him was Filomena Tassi, his newly appointed minister of seniors.

The political landscape has shifted greatly in three years since Trudeau came to power. The Conservatives and NDP have elected new leaders, both – though it’s hard to fathom – younger than Trudeau. Kathleen Wynne, the former premier and Liberal ally in vote-rich Ontario, has departed the political scene, obliterated in the spring election by Doug Ford and his Liberal-bashing, carbon-tax busting government.

In his summer office looking out over the Parliament buildings, under the watchful eyes of Sir Wilfrid Laurier – a life-sized portrait of the great Liberal prime minister dominates the east wall – Trudeau talked aging, family and life after office as well as teasing a big policy development. And Minister Tassi explained how she’ll ensure the voice of older Canadians will be heard in Ottawa.

Suzanne Boyd: I think it’s really interesting from the perspective of our magazine, which looks at the journey of aging in Canada, that one of your calling cards is youthful vigour. You have that healthy vigour that’s usually only associated with youth. And you made yourself youth minister when you became prime minister. So why a seniors minister and why now?

Justin Trudeau: I’m going to start by taking exception to one of the things you just said. The role model for me growing up was my father. I was about 11 or 12 when he got his seniors card to the movies. I lived with someone who was incredibly physically fit, in shape and energetic all through his life. So for me, [being active] is not something I only associate with youth, and I’m looking forward to being filled with energy and capacity until the very end of my life, however long that is, so I don’t see dynamism and vigour as being just for young people.

SB: It’s true. Because that’s a stereotype that we feel makes a magazine like ours necessary. Seniors are active, they’re working, they’re dating, they’re on social media but many people still haven’t woken up to this. Minister Tassi, you’ve spoken about the “golden years” – that’s a term that might seem paternalistic. So what’s your take on aging and the position that Canadians should have toward it?

Filomena Tassi: I’ve just visited McMaster [University’s] Institute for Research on Aging. They have an amazing hashtag – #agingreimagined. I loved that. You know they’re doing fantastic work and I think what that hashtag says is very important. The “golden years” comment comes from something my 89-year-old mother has said to me in the past; with raised eyebrows, she would say: “These are the golden years?” So this is where bringing “golden” back to the “golden years” comes from.

Justin Trudeau and Filomena Tassi sit across from Zoomer Magazine editors during a Q&A.
Photo: Chris Chapman

SB: So it’s not the condescending stereotype?

FT: No. Look at the article Zoomer did recently on the 81-year-old runner, who’s breaking records on the track. And what does she say? “The best is yet to come.” Fantastic.

Peter Muggeridge: Minister Tassi, imagine this is a job interview, and you’re meeting with the prime minister. He asks you: “What are your qualifications for the new seniors portfolio?”

FT: Well, first, and probably the most important thing is my life has always been about service. I’m happiest when I’m serving. I practised law because I wanted to serve. And I spent 20 years as a chaplain in service. And then I decided to come forward and run as a member of Parliament for service. When I look at my life, particularly during my time as a chaplain, working at an initiative and seeing what happens when youth and seniors come together, there’s a magic that happens. That is something I think we need to create and foster. And then as a member of Parliament over the past number of years, seniors were always first and foremost on my mind. I reached out to this community by having Tea and Talks with Tassi. Whether it was going to Villa Italia to listen to our seniors or hosting them at my office … that experience will ensure that their voices are heard.

PM: We’ve heard seniors ministers say their goal is to make sure their voices are heard. But how will you make this a reality?

FT: First you have to make a commitment to be that voice, and I have. Secondly, there’s the importance of collaboration. There are so many important organizations and people working out there for seniors. So it’s a collaborative piece – bringing partners together in a way that we’re complementing the work that’s being done. And the contributions that our seniors have made to our communities – economic, social, spiritual, this in and of itself is the driving force for me to realize: this is what our seniors deserve. We care about our seniors. We want them to look forward to their aging years. They earned that. They deserve that. And I’m going to work hard to make that happen.

JT: That’s at the centre of why we’ve made Filomena our seniors minister. When we were building a platform, when I was getting out across the country over the past many years to see what the programs and initiatives we needed to put forward if we wanted to be elected as government. We had a lot of very strong commitments toward seniors, whether it was restoring that age of retirement to 65 (down from 67 which it had been raised to), increasing the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) for the most vulnerable single seniors, moving forward on better caregiving benefits, on enhancing and strengthening the CPP for future generations, on housing, on home care – we had a really ambitious range of things that we committed to doing in the last election and we did them all! And what we realized now is that we need to have that next step. And that’s where bringing in a minister for seniors to actually go out and build the next phase because, while we addressed a lot of the big things that we had to start with right away, there’s lots more to do. And now, it’s not just about doing it – of course that’s a big piece – it’s about listening and drawing in. So, at the core of Filomena’s strengths, it’s not just delivering for people but actually building with them where we’re going as a government for seniors, but as a society.

SB: Did Minister Tassi lobby you for the role? How did you choose her from among all of your backbenchers?

JT: Well, first of all, we have an extremely active seniors caucus among our MPs. There was an understanding that this was a really big issue in an area where we had to show leadership. A lot of it started from: “Wow, we need to make sure we’re getting out the message of all the big things we’ve done.” So a lot of folks came together to promote seniors issues, and Filomena was doing incredible work, both with them but also as deputy whip for us in a very difficult time, and she demonstrated both a level of capacity, of thoughtfulness, of engagement with people on an individual level and engagement with really big and difficult issues. It made me realize that she was exactly the right person. Not to mention the fact that she talks about her mom all the time. It made me really know that she understands what needs to be done and is going to be able to draw people together.

SB: Minister, what is the next step for you in setting up your portfolio?
FT The prime minister has asked me to travel across the country and to listen. To engage with seniors as well as organizations that are working hard for seniors. I’ll be bringing those voices back and determining on how we build on what we’ve already accomplished.

JT: And the other piece we have to think about when we talk about the seniors minister is that, while there’s obviously a focus on seniors, we really see three groups within the ministry. First of all, yes, looking at seniors and what they need right now. We’re also looking at their families.

SB: Like caregivers, for example?

JT: That’s where we talk about enhancing the caregivers’ benefits, enhancing support for families who are, more and more, supporting and looking at increasing quality of life for their aging parents. But the third group we’re also very much thinking about is our future seniors. How are we preparing so that people who are young today, when they retire will have the opportunities and the quality of life that we really need to start thinking about now? Those three aspects are very much at the core of what the senior minister’s mandate will be.

SB: That’s so important because when we were creating the Zoomer brand, one of the things we kept ensuring was that we had younger people in the magazine as well as older. Aging is not a ghetto. It affects everyone and the entire society. We hear a lot of talk about millennials these days – and it’s a voice that’s so important – and this is the first time in a long while where none [of the three federal party leaders] is a boomer. These issues that affect older people have been on your radar. But how do we ensure they don’t go off your radar? For instance, the seniors’ cost-of-living index?

JT: This was something we recognized when a lot of studies came out pointing to the fact that the way StatsCan analyzes the cost of living didn’t necessarily reflect some of the very real challenges that seniors in particular were meeting. So we’ve worked with StatsCan looking at a number of ways to go at that problem. We’re looking at going forward with the Seniors Price Index to recognize the genuine costs that seniors are facing. But there are a lot of ways and tools to do this and we want to make sure that whatever we do is capturing the challenges and needs that seniors are facing.

SB: And pension protection?

JT: A huge issue. Filomena knows it well because she has Stelco in her riding, and the challenges around that are very real. There are a lot of tools we have to ensure pensions are protected, and we do have to take a holistic approach toward it but it’s something we’re very much working on with stakeholders, with other orders of government. This is a concern that people are facing right across the country, around the world even, and we know we can show real initiative on that.

FT: We’re very proud of the pension commitment in the budget saying we are entering the consultation stage of solving this decades old problem.

PM: Although it may seem like a mundane issue, RRIF withdrawal rules are a huge bone of contention among CARP members. People are forced to liquidate their savings even though they may not need to. Basically, they want more autonomy over their money. Is that something on the agenda?

JT: One of the things we recognized in our last platform is that people need more flexibility. The way things used to work in a very predictable fashion 20 or 50 years ago no longer make sense. People are living healthier, longer, in different ways, and we need to look at how we can make sure there is more flexibility while still reaching the goals we have of ensuring stability and prosperity, while we protect the most vulnerable. So getting that balance right is always a challenge because you have people with a very wide range of needs, but recognizing that this is a significant issue for many people is certainly something we are aware of.

PM: Developing a national pharmacare plan is an idea that comes and goes at the provincial and federal level. Is it ever going to be a reality?

JT: It’s coming. There have been a lot of studies and talk about [pharmacare] over the years as being a big gap in our health-care system. Politicians have been talking about this for a long time. We put together an expert panel to really dig into all the recommendations made over the years to look at how we can move forward for seniors, for young people, for everyone facing challenges over the cost of medications.

PM: When you say it’s coming, do you mean it’s inevitable or it’s actually coming soon?

JT I’m not going to reveal the platform yet, but we have heard very clearly that this is a significant priority for people and we have asked this expert panel, led by Dr. Eric Hoskins, to come forward with a practical, pragmatic way on how we can make pharmacare a reality in Canada. Because we’ve just heard from too many people that it really matters.

PM Budget 2017 devoted $11 billion to home care and mental health, which is really important. However, it seems we’re continually throwing money ad hoc at the home-care problem, and it never seems to go away. Is there any idea of creating a central plan that would address home care on a national level?

JT: Whenever the federal government makes investments in health, it can’t be ad hoc. It has to be recognizing that this is a priority for the provinces, and it’s why we deliver it. And in all my conversations with every province, they said: “Money for home care and mental health? These are priorities we have. We absolutely want that.” So it’s not just about putting money out there. It’s about recognizing that these are areas that are essential for our society. Yes, they’re big-ticket items but they’re also areas where we’ll be saving money and increasing quality of life. When you give opportunities for people to stay at home and not be institutionalized, to be cared for with their family, get that outside help come to them, the quality-of-life improvements, the lower costs of having someone at home rather than an institution, these are benefits for our society. But it requires a shift in the models that we’ve created over decades, and that’s really what [the home-care investment] was all about. We need to start looking at these things differently because our seniors want to stay independent longer, want to stay home, want to be with their families. But their families can’t give them institutional care at home without external support.

Trudeau sits across from Zoomer editors during a Q&A.
Facing the Zoomer Nation: Prime Minister Trudeau shed light on next year’s election platform, telling editor-in-chief Suzanne Boyde (left) and senior editor Peter Muggeridge (right) that a national pharmacare plan is coming. (Photo: Chris Chapman)

PM: The workplace can be treacherous for 50-year-olds. They’re often the first to go when companies downsize. Is there a leadership role the seniors’ minister could take to change the perception of how companies view the older worker?

FT: It’s about myth-busting, right? It’s really tackling that by demonstrating through evidence and facts that these myths need to be broken. The truth needs to be revealed. As we age, we can make even greater contributions to the workplace.

It’s about highlighting that and getting the real facts and information out there.

JT: I think another big piece of this is also reducing that idea of competition or contrast [between the generations], that there isn’t actually a great complementarity between people with more experience in the workforce being able to mentor and being able to support and guide younger people coming into the work force to be even better. Looking at this as an “either/or,” I think, is terrible in our society. We do far too much stratification instead of bringing people together.

PM: Which speaks to Suzanne’s point of ghettoization.

JT: Exactly.

SB: Just look around you – 55 isn’t what it used to be; 65 isn’t what it used to be. So why hasn’t this message broken through? We’ve been working on it …

JT: Yes, you’ve been doing a great job.

FT: The [$50 million a year] investments we’re making with the New Horizons for Seniors Program will go toward mentoring, volunteering and ending seniors’ isolation. These investments are so important. When I look at my experience with youth, there are so many stories I could tell. As part of the mission work we did, we brought a student to the Dominican Republic to live with the poor. One student brought a medical kit because he wanted to be a doctor one day. And a senior comes up with an infected leg – they don’t have medical treatment there so she’s going to lose her leg – and [the student] takes the time, cleans out the leg. She comes back every day. And on the last day, she says: “Last night was the first time I slept without any pain.” So she jumps in the pit and starts helping us shovel. And today, that young boy has become a doctor. There are countless stories like this.

PM: The pending trade war with the U.S. is bound to cause a rise in prices. Many people living on a fixed income won’t be able to afford the extra outlay. This might be an area where the Seniors’ Price Index comes into play.

JT: Yeah, this is something we’re very aware of. When we chose the items on which we were going to impose retaliatory tariffs, we looked very carefully to make sure they were items that could be easily substituted by available options – either Canadian-made or places that aren’t imposing tariffs on us – in order to make sure that consumers don’t get dinged as much as possible. We’re limited by the fact that the U.S. has decided to move forward and impose tariffs, and certain things are going to get more expensive, no matter what we do. That’s why one of the things we’re very focussed on is listening to stakeholders, communities, merchant groups and consumer protection organizations to see where the challenges are and bring in exceptions, compensations or support for people who need it. Everybody gets hurt in a trade war. Our responsibility as a government is to make sure that the most vulnerable – like seniors – don’t get disproportionately harmed by this.

SB: This weekend, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said she’d like to see [negotiations on a new NAFTA deal] get wrapped up as soon as possible.

JT: We would very much like to see this wrapped up soon. This uncertainty has been bad for consumers. And bad for Americans. The number of folks I’ve seen throughout the summer visiting Canada who have been sort of apologetic or saying “Hang in there. We’re your friends. We want to see this settled” has been really touching. We are two countries with the closest and deepest relationship of any two countries in the world. I am not worried about it but I am impatient as a lot of people are to move on to the next steps of our relationship and get NAFTA renegotiated.

SB: So we can’t put a time frame on it?
JT We’re working very hard and when it gets done, it will get done.

SB: The Conservatives doubled the annual amount that Canadians can contribute to their tax-free savings account to $10,000, and your government rolled it back to $5,000.

JT: It was a recognition that the number of people who actually had that much money to put aside every year in a tax-free account was very small and were disproportionately wealthier.

SB: But they were also older.

JT: Well our focus has always been on the most vulnerable. We don’t look at it as: “Because you’re old, you must be vulnerable.” No, there are a lot of older folks who are tremendously well-off. If we’re going to make sure that we’re giving the best help to the people who need it, we have to be honest about that. That’s why one of the first things we did was raise taxes on the wealthiest and lower them on the middle class. There are people who said: “That’s no fun.” I said: “That’s no fun for you because you’re doing very well.”

PM: Is pension income-splitting safe? Because if you want to lose the next election …

JT: Yes, I’ve said that it is, and Hazel McCallion repeated it for us. Despite the fear games that the Conservatives are playing, we have always protected that for seniors, and we always will.

SB: Your recent cabinet shuffle started us thinking about the next election [which must be called by October 2019 at the latest]. How are you feeling about things going forward?

JT: We have put forward a government that has been focussed on basing our decisions on facts and evidence, on helping the most vulnerable, on not looking at boutique tax credits that will be great for electoral purposes but actually simplifying and moving things forward in a way that is helping the vulnerable and growing the economy … We will continue to have a thoughtful, reasonable approach that recognizes the challenges that we have, recognizes the anxiety that’s out there amongst people, but doesn’t work on enhancing that anxiety but allays those fears. We know, unfortunately, that there are very strong narratives of fear, of division out there that can be useful electorally. Certain parties will take that on – we won’t. We’re not going to be doing personal attacks, we’re not going to be playing the politics of division and fear, we’re going to hopefully demonstrate once again that campaigns based on fear, division and attacks don’t work with Canadians.

PM: You were born in politics and you spent most of your life in politics – what will you do after you have your own “walk in the snow” or, perhaps in your case, a “jog in the snow”?

JT: Well, I was born into politics but then I avoided politics like the plague for about 25 years while I was a teacher and an activist on all sorts of different issues. I’m now serving but I look forward to time after politics where I get to make up a little bit for some of the time I haven’t been able to spend with my family as much as I’d like to. And I look to contribute to society in different ways but not nearly in as active service as I am right now.

PM: Your dad served 16 years as prime minister. Is that a goal you’d like to aim for?

JT: No. I don’t think my kids or my wife would allow me to last that long in politics, even if Canadians did, which is far from certain as well.

SB: Speaking of family, I’d like to ask after your mother [Margaret Trudeau]. She’s been on Zoomer’s cover – she’s someone who proves our point that the best is yet to come. She’s done such amazing work [advocating for mental health and for clean drinking water in developing nations]. How is she doing and how does she inspire you?

JT: Well, she inspires me as a grandma of eight, right now. And she is now more fulfilled and happier than I’ve seen her in a long time. Her advocacy work, her work on mental health, her work on aging successfully and gracefully is really resonating and is inspiring to me. We have wonderful conversations, mostly about kids and about parenting, but also about the world we’re building and the world we’re contributing to. I just couldn’t be prouder to be her son. For me, she is a real inspiration and a source of tremendous pride. She’s got a big birthday coming up in September that I’m very much looking forward to celebrating – a big milestone that we’re all very excited about.

SB: Congratulations. Well, thank you both so much.