The age-old expression that “actions speak louder than words” conveys an important insight: character is best judged through action. Anyone can say or promise anything but doing requires ability and skill, discipline and commitment. So, the simplest test of character is to pay attention to deeds.
Plutarch, the first century Greek biographer, refined the test. He advised that simple gestures, often private gestures, reveal far more about a leader’s character than his great speeches, political accomplishments or actions in battle. Plutarch’s insight speaks to the contrived nature of political activity. In public life, symbols and events are arranged for the sake of appearance. That is why unrehearsed, small gestures speak louder than great deeds, Plutarch would say.
The distinction mattered to the ancients. They believed the essence of a person matters more than her appearance. Grasping a person’s character despite crafted appearances was crucial, and it mattered most in political life. In public life, it meant developing the ability to evaluate character to determine the best possible person to govern.
All of which brings us to our prime minister. Since the 2015 election campaign, Justin Trudeau said he placed his relationship with Indigenous Canadians above all others. He promised to hear their voices. He promised them greater representation. He promised them clean drinking water. He promised them truth, and he promised them reconciliation.
Along with the promises, there has been no shortage of symbolic action. He says he is remorseful for the treatment of Indigenous people in residential schools. He appointed the first Indigenous governor general. He chose (and then her chased out) the first Indigenous attorney general. He declared a national holiday to honour Truth and Reconciliation. He visited and cried with former residential school students and their relatives. Many see these as big political accomplishments.
Conversely, some of his less grandiose actions point in a different direction.
On the first ever Truth and Reconciliation Day honouring Indigenous victims of institutional abuse — a sombre occasion by any standard — Trudeau took off to the beach and ignored invitations to attend Indigenous ceremonies in Kamloops, BC.
Two things stand out from the beach vacation. First, the prime minister’s office launched a holiday with “truth” in the name with a lie: The PMO covered up the beach excursion, saying that the PM was in Ottawa for “private meetings.” Hiding the beach vacation shows some awareness of the political sin.
Second, the holiday Trudeau created called on Canadians to reflect seriously on the relationship with their Indigenous brothers and sisters. But outside Normandy, beaches hardly ever convey mourning or contrition. Trudeau defended the triviality his vacationing choice assigned to the day by saying that he had made phone calls, made more apologies, given Indigenous people the holiday and cried with them. Being minutes away from Kamloops on his way to Tofino, he still chose to fly over them, rather than accept their invitations. He had already given them his best performance, tears and all.
Consider an earlier, unrehearsed situation involving Indigenous Canadians. In front of a gaggle of wealthy Torontonians in March of 2019, Trudeau mocked Indigenous women for daring to ask in protest about the mercury poisoning of water in their Grassy Narrows community. Shooting from the hip, his unscripted reply was: “Thank you for your donation tonight, I really appreciate it.” His sarcastic gratitude referred to the $1,500 per person the protestors paid to attend the posh fundraising gathering in the benefit of his Liberal Party. The footage shows the party faithful loudly cheering the prime minister’s wit as the security detail whisked away the women. Seconds later, a male voice cried out to Trudeau: “if it was your family waiting for 500 days, if your family was suffering from mercury poisoning, what would you do?” He too was spirited away, silenced, as the PM repeated his sarcastic thank-you.
These two unrehearsed and seemingly minor situations stand in contrast to Trudeau’s scripted words and symbolic actions. They show a face of the Justin Trudeau that Judy Wilson-Raybould would easily recognize.
The prime minister may be using Indigenous Canadians as human props to get their votes, and the votes of Canadians for whom better treatment of Indigenous people is important. I ignore what lies in the PM’s heart. But for all the grand pronouncements, it is up to Indigenous and other Canadians of good will to ask themselves whether Indigenous Canadians are better off today than they were before 2015. It is up to them to put the prime minister to Plutarch’s test.