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Episode Transcript

Hey there, it’s Stephen Dubner. We recently published a three-part series on immigration, mostly about the economics of immigration. The first two episodes were focused on the U.S., and Part 3 on Canada, which has recently turned the volume way up on immigration: they now take in half a million new permanent residents a year, in a country of around 40 million. For that episode, we interviewed a variety of people, including Canada’s immigration minister, Marc Miller:

Marc MILLER: There is no doubt that we have made a conscious decision to be an open country and a country that needs to grow. The reality is, we don’t have much of a choice.

Miller’s point was that Canada, like many high-income countries, has an aging population and a need for more workers in many sectors of the economy. We did ask Miller about the pressures that immigration is putting on Canada, especially when it comes to affordable housing, access to healthcare, and potential mismatches between immigrants and jobs. But after we put out that episode, a lot of our Canadian listeners wrote in to say the pressures were even greater than we knew — especially because Canada wasn’t taking in just a half-million new permanent residents a year, but nearly 700,000 international students and 750,000 temporary foreign workers. So we decided to revisit some of these questions — not with the minister of immigration, but with his boss, the prime minister:

Justin TRUDEAU: You can invite half a million people into your home every year, if you’re Canada.

Today on Freakonomics Radio, my conversation with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. And we go way beyond immigration — we discuss whether to drill, baby, drill; we talk about how Canada is reconciling its brutal history with its Indigenous population; we hear why Trudeau isn’t a big cannabis user, even though he legalized it; and: what he might do if he loses re-election next year.

TRUDEAU: I’m ultimately a social activist who’s going to look to how I can have a positive impact on the world.

You will also hear, in the course of this conversation, at least one hockey reference. Oh, Canada. Justin Trudeau — possibly the most polite prime minister in the world — he most definitely stands on guard for thee.

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Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre, was also prime minister of Canada, for more than 15 years. He represented the Liberal Party, as does his son. Justin Trudeau was elected in 2015, after nine years of rule by the Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper. So Trudeau has now served nine years of his own. And how have those years gone?

TRUDEAU: When you look at the macro level, it’s been a rock-and-roll few years. I mean, from Canada’s perspective, you know, I get in and then we’re dealing with Trumpism in our major partner and best friend. We’re dealing with increased massive climate change, including wildfires that smoked out New York last year. 

DUBNER: Yeah, thanks for that. 

TRUDEAU: You’re welcome. Well, you guys did enough years of acid rain for us that I think it evens out. We’re dealing with a pandemic that sort of shook the world in its foundations. We’re talking about transformation of the world of work, of A.I., of robotics. We’re talking about inflation and interest rates. There’s just so much uncertainty. Of course, people are going to look at whoever’s up the top and say, “Oh my God, this is their time, and this is all going wrong.”

Indeed, Trudeau is facing record-low approval ratings; in the past two elections, his Liberal Party failed to win a majority, and things aren’t looking good for next year’s election either. But Trudeau is free to run again — and again; Canada has no term limits. And as you have perhaps already gathered, Trudeau projects a measured view of these things. Or maybe his measured view is strategic. In 2014, just before running for prime minister the first time, he published a memoir called Common Ground. He writes about the jobs he had before his political career: teacher, camp counselor, whitewater river guide, snowboarding instructor, bartender, and even bouncer, at a bar in Whistler, British Columbia. “Whether you are trying to assert your will in a barroom confrontation or a political altercation,” he writes, “the biggest obstacle to overcome is the human ego. Once a disagreement begins, no one wants to back down. The trick is to find a way for your opponent to save face, like leaving the aggressive drunk waving his fist in triumph, but in the rain. Meanwhile you’re inside, staying warm and dry and getting your job done.”

Common Ground reads primarily like a book designed to launch a successful political campaign, which it was, and which it did. But it’s also interesting, and thoughtful. Trudeau writes of his privileged, idyllic boyhood, growing up the son of a popular prime minister and a much younger mother, Margaret Trudeau, a legendary free spirit who, years later, revealed she’d been suffering from bipolar disorder. Justin’s parents split up when he was a boy, while his father was still in office. And just last year, Justin Trudeau split from his wife, Sophie. Father-and-son prime ministers, both seeing a marriage disintegrate while in office, both with three school-age children. Pierre Trudeau responded by doubling down on his devotion to job and country. And his son seems to be doing the same thing. Last week, Justin Trudeau’s government announced its 2024 budget, which lays out a muscular progressive agenda, with big spending on housing, healthcare, and clean energy. Given what seems to be a rather fragile and fraught moment in world affairs, I asked Trudeau how he would tell the story of Canada right now.

TRUDEAU: Well, to tell the story right, you have to go back to 2015, when I first got elected, where the world was still reeling a bit from the aftershocks of the 2008 recession, the financial crisis that saw the economy bounce back, but wages not bounce back. And there was a sense that the system wasn’t working for the middle class anymore. There was a hollowing out. There was an anxiety that, whether it’s the American Dream or Canada’s Promise of Progress, that it didn’t hold to the same way. And we saw that in Canada, and we’d had a conservative government for about 10 years. And I said, “Okay, let’s respond to that with a focus on the middle class that actually invests in community.” First thing we did was raise taxes on the wealthiest one percent so we could lower them for the middle class. We showed up with a Canada child benefit that put more money in people’s pockets hundreds of dollars a month, tax-free, that sort of helped move things along. And we started investing in Canada. We started investing in fighting climate change. We started investing in reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. And we started to say, okay, how can we make the economy work for everyone in meaningful ways? We were responding to the forces that in other places got translated into populism. You think of the American election in 2016, the very next year, where it was a conservative populist win by Trump over a more progressive, interventionist government. And that went towards an aggressive populism that was a very different path. But the path that we took in Canada, I think, has held us in very, very good stead. It was one of the things that saw us through the pandemic better than just about any other of our peer countries. We bounced back faster. We had a way lower death rate. The vaccination rates were higher. There was a thoughtfulness and a reasonableness in how we did things that didn’t — 

DUBNER: You did have some pushback. You had the trucker strike and rally and so on, right? And you did see what you might see as the roots, of a sort of American-style or British-style, whatever, populism coming up, yes?

TRUDEAU: Very much. Oh, yeah. No. And it all goes to the point that Canada isn’t some magical place where the same principles don’t apply everywhere else. We have the same kinds of anxiety and populism and frustration and amplification of fears by certain political parties, instead of trying to solve problems. 

DUBNER: The conservative administration that preceded you — how much more conservative not only was it than any previous Canadian administration, but how much more conservative was it or maybe even populist-leaning than was anticipated? Because my sense — and I’m not a student of Canadian government or policy — is that it did take people aback, how un-Canadian the Harper government was in some ways. And, I’m curious whether that’s a poor read or an accurate read.

TRUDEAU: No, it’s an accurate read. It’s just one that we tend to minimize as Canadians as we look back.

DUBNER: Because you’re polite?

TRUDEAU: Because we’re polite, or because recency bias, or whatever it is. I mean, the Harper government did things like slashing veterans’ services, closing offices, muzzling our scientists, muzzling our diplomats, really refusing to invest in science, refusing to take any action on climate change, in a defensive way, but also in not seeing the opportunities because they were beholden to oil and gas. They slashed arts and culture funding. There was a lot of things they were doing that didn’t make a lot of sense, and were somewhat un-Canadian. But at the same time, a lot of people are contrasting the impending populist 2.0 approach that the current Conservative Party is saying, and look to a kind of far-right but incrementalism that Harper had, that still believed that there was a role for government in certain ways, and you did need to intervene in certain things. And there was responsibleness that I would put a little more now in the frame of the classic Republicanism, rather than the Tea Party or the MAGA that you guys are seeing now. And there is an iteration now where modern Canadian conservatism is on some ways doing a better job of hiding some aspects of itself and some of the negative and disruptive approaches they have, but at the same time being more unabashedly populist than someone might have dared to a few years ago because they’ve been emboldened by movements around the world.

DUBNER: Right. So you are, no offense, not very popular at the moment. Looks like about two-thirds of Canadians have a negative view of you. When asked why, a fifth of respondents say they’re just sick of you. Obviously, you’re part of a political dynasty in Canada, which is famous and has been for many years beloved. I’m curious, from a personal and political level, how much do you care and pay attention to that? Because on the one hand, it’s a political reality. On the other hand, if you worry so much about people disliking you, it makes it, I would think, quite hard to do your job. And I did hear you say in a recent interview, “I think about quitting every day. It’s a crazy job I’m doing.” So I want to get a temperature check on you at this moment.

TRUDEAU: Actually, what I said in French was, “C’est un job de malade,” which means, “It’s a job for crazy people.” I mean, there is an intensity to this. And when you’re doing any job like this, you have to check in regularly on the family sacrifices, on do you still have the energy and the drive to do it? There are always days and moments in which you go, “Oh my God, you know, haven’t I done this enough? Haven’t I given enough? I can do something else now.” But the stakes are so high, and the moment is so real. You mentioned the political dynasty. One of the biggest challenges any politician has is detaching what people say about them from who they actually are. I was seven the first time I remember someone coming up to me in the schoolyard and saying, you know, “My parents didn’t vote for your dad, so I don’t like you either,” and walk away. I had to learn early on to detach people’s opinions — sometimes founded, mostly unfounded — that were negative from who I really was. But I also had to learn because, as you mentioned, my father was also beloved in many quarters, the people who automatically liked me and thought I was the best thing since sliced bread without any greater justification than that. And I developed a strong sense of self. So right now, I’m very much focused on what are we doing, how are we solving the real challenges people are facing? Rather than, you know, do people like me right now?

DUBNER: My sense is that a fair share of the unpopularity, or the decline in popularity, let’s call it, is due to the uncertainty surrounding immigration. It’s a huge move you’ve made. And the arguments for increased immigration are empirical, logical, I think people really understand that. But of course, every idea requires a policy, and carrying out the policy is difficult. And then there are knock-on effects. Like, what do you do about all the extra housing and infrastructure you need, and how do you amplify your education and healthcare systems and so on? My sense is that your new budget is prioritizing a lot of the needs that arise out of the new, expanded immigration, and to try to win voters back to your side in next year’s election. So could you describe for me what you see as maybe, whatever, the top two or three actual physical priorities. Maybe it is increased housing, maybe it is wages. I want to know what you see as the major problems that you’re trying to address through this budget. 

TRUDEAU: Well, the single greatest problem is — it’s a feeling that young people have that the economy no longer works for them. That the system that their grandparents and parents went through of, you know, coming out of school, getting a good job, renting a place while you save up a little money for a down payment, then paying a mortgage, and being able to go through life and access the middle class — that that system no longer works. You know, us Boomers and X’ers sort of say, “Oh yeah, no, it was tough for us too.” No, it’s different now. It’s like the rules have changed. The economy has tilted away from the success of young people. And quite frankly, we need, every economy needs its young people, its millennials, Gen Zeds — Gen Z’s, sorry, for Americans — to be successful. Now a lot of it is on housing, but there’s a lot of pieces that go to that narrative that says, yeah, we’re going to ask the wealthiest 0.1 percent to pay a little more by raising our capital gains rates to levels that are close, but still not at New York and California’s levels. But that we are going to be investing to make sure that young people can see their own success because that will feed into everyone’s success. 

DUBNER: What if I were an advisor to you, and I said, “Prime Minister, we need to really spend our way out of this dilemma. We need to build more housing and infrastructure. We need to amplify our beloved but overburdened healthcare system and childcare and education systems. And we need to do it fast, because things are not going in the right direction.” And furthermore, I would say to you, “The best way to get the money to do that is not just with higher taxes here and there, but we need to harvest and sell as much as possible of our country’s vast natural resources. Oil and gas, rare-earth minerals, timber, etc., and who knows what’s even under all that permafrost up north that climate change may soon make available,” right? So my advice would be: this industrial policy will save our bacon, but it may also damage your reputation as an environmentalist. It may damage the environment to some degree. How do you respond to that?

TRUDEAU: I remember getting a question from a progressive journalist many, many years ago, saying, “Well, how are you going to build the knowledge economy and get off of all that, sort of the dirty products that Canada has always been reliant on?” And I’m like, Canada remains Canada. We have vast natural resources. We have great energy resources. And it’s part of why, in an era of protectionism, my government has been able to sign trade deals so that we’re the only G7 country with a free-trade deal with every other G7 country in the world. I mean, we are one of the most trade-based nations in the world, and it comes from the fact that Canadians know we have more stuff than we can use ourselves, because we have a small population on a very large territory. So developing our natural resources is a huge part of what we will continue to do. But, you know, another purely Canadian conceit is — as Wayne Gretzky once said, “Going where the puck is going,” as opposed to where the puck is — and when you look at where investment is going around the world, when you look at the decarbonization, the E.S.G. investment, the money flowing around the world to places that are doing things cleaner and more responsible at the same time as they are providing those necessary ingredients for the world. You look at our critical minerals and you realize, Okay, if China has cornered 80, 85 percent of the critical minerals market in the world that is required to build the economies of the future, whether it’s superconductors or E.V.s or whatever future we want to build, we’re going to need reliable suppliers who are allies, who are friends, who are doing it both without slave labor and with environmental responsibility. Canada can do that. And the push that we’ve had is how we do that. Yes, we have the third-largest proven oil reserves in the world. But we also know the world is trying to get off its massive reliance on oil. There will always be a role for oil in our economy, but more and more on renewables. So how can we be part of that? Well, we’ve had to nudge and push and cajole so that we’re investing in decarbonization. We put a price on pollution, and return that price to citizens to help with affordability. We should do more on mining, but in order to do more on mining responsibly, not only environmental standards, but partnership with Indigenous peoples and bringing them in as full partners on this land instead of, you know, ignoring them or marginalizing them as we have for centuries. All these things actually fit together.

We’ll be right back with more of my conversation with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau. I’m Stephen Dubner, and this is Freakonomics Radio — a show whose second-largest national listenership, by the way, is Canadian. As someone who grew up in upstate New York, who went to Montreal as a teenager and thought it was every bit as exciting as Europe might be if one had the ability to go to Europe; as someone whose upstate New York “accent” is still mistaken for Canadian all the time — this makes me very happy. So: thanks, Canada.

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We spoke with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday, the 18th of April.

DUBNER: Let’s talk a little bit more about immigration and the pressures it has put on the country. There are plainly many, many, many upsides of immigration, which is what we spent a lot of time discussing in the series we did. But if you look at all these problems that you are now trying to address, especially housing, but also access to healthcare and education and infrastructure — I mean, you had to see that they were coming to some degree. You can’t invite half a million new people to your home and not expect growing pains and shortages. When you look back over the past, let’s say, five years, how do you think you might have planned differently or better?

TRUDEAU: Actually, let me correct you on one little thing there. You can invite half a million people into your home every year — if you’re Canada — and not experience growing pains at all. That is not the issue we’re facing right now. We welcome in, you know, 465,000 last year, we’re on our way to 500,000 immigrants, for a country of 40 million. That’s a big, big number. It’s well over 1 percent of our population. But that is totally sustainable for Canada. One of our competitive advantages is that Canadians remain positive to immigration. I know you had our immigration minister, my buddy Marc, on a while ago and he pointed out that, you know, Canada is lucky in that we’ve never had to deal with irregular immigration. People coming from the South will stay in the United States, where the economy is stronger and the weather is nicer. They’re not going to cross the three oceans to come to Canada. It hasn’t been the challenge it’s been elsewhere, and we’ve been able to be positive around immigration because of it. We’ve done a great job of integrating diversity while holding up that diversity as a sense of richness, instead of trying to make everyone into a unique identity of Canadian. Because we’ve always had multiple identities, with the French, the English, the Indigenous, and the origins of Canada was always very disparate. But the pressure we’ve had recently, particularly since the pandemic, is that on top of the 500,000 or so permanent residents that we settle in an orderly manner that are great for contributing to growing communities, to our workforce at a time of labor shortages, we’ve had a massive spike in temporary immigration or unplanned immigration to a certain extent. Some of that are asylum seekers, where we have had a boost from Mexico and from other places that we’ve had to tighten up on, and reimpose a visa on Mexico. But the large part of it is in two categories: international students and temporary foreign workers. International students went from like 200,000 a year to 700,000 a year over the past few years.

DUBNER: Wow, why was that?

TRUDEAU: Because there was a real decision by universities, and particularly by the provinces who run the universities, to go out —

DUBNER: They’re cash customers, correct?

TRUDEAU: They are. We have tuition fees in Canada of between $5 and $10,000 a year for our top-notch universities, depending on the programs. But international students will pay $25, $30,000 because they don’t get the same level of subsidies that Canadian citizens will, which is totally natural. But universities suddenly started to realize that they could bring in lots more international students and make up for some of the funding shortfalls that every institution is facing. 

DUBNER: And these are students coming primarily from China, and some India?

TRUDEAU: India, China, and a few other places. The problem is that that has then turned around and put a lot of pressure on local housing in university towns, which pretty much all our towns are. And it’s also decreased the quality of education and caused a rash of mental-health issues, including suicides in international students that we’ve seen over the past few years. So as a government, we decided that we were going to curtail the number of international students coming in, and get that under control so — 

DUBNER: This is recent, right? These are new temporary caps

TRUDEAU: This is recent, this is just over the past couple of months, so that we can respond to the housing pressures and the issues around that.

DUBNER: What do the universities say to you? Because all of a sudden their budgets look a little bit less healthy.

TRUDEAU: Yeah, they weren’t very happy. Nor were the provinces, in some cases. But for us, the provinces were maybe not stepping up on controlling things the way they should have, to prevented us from getting into this. The other side of things are the temporary foreign workers. We’ll always need agricultural workers to do some of the jobs that Canadians don’t tend to do, and we have great programs with Mexico, with South America, and the Caribbean to bring people up for a few months, and then they go back, have their pockets full, and support their families for the rest of the year. It’s worked very well for many years. But there was a much larger wave of, you know, restaurants and convenience stores using temporary foreign workers in a way that didn’t necessarily make sense, that we’re now trying to get back into space. But the other thing is, we’re going to need more immigration in terms of healthcare workers, construction workers and skilled trades responding to the housing challenges we’re facing by building more supply, responding to the needs of an aging population that’s going to require more healthcare and needs more caregivers and nurses and personal-support workers. We will continue to be strong on immigration, but a little more targeted to make sure that Canadians still stay positive towards immigration, because it’s one of our greatest advantages in the world.

DUBNER: So I know that your housing prices in Canada, like in many large countries, like in the United States certainly, they’re all over the map. Some cities are very expensive and some places are very affordable. The problem is, often where you need immigrants to service the population, those places are very expensive to live for immigrants. So Vancouver and Toronto being, similar to, let’s say, New York and San Francisco. Back when Michael Bloomberg was mayor of New York City, he proposed admitting immigrants on the condition that they live in Detroit, that needed population. I’m curious, have you thought about connecting your immigration policy to where immigrants settle, specifically in less-expensive parts in Canada that would put less pressure on housing?

TRUDEAU: That is absolutely something we’re doing. And we see rural parts of the country that have, you know, an aging population where young people leave to go to the cities, and there’s need for an influx of new populations. We’ve seen some amazing stories. In 2015, when we welcomed in 40,000 Syrian refugees, which was a commitment we made to respond to the challenge, but also to show the world what positive benefits come from immigration, those families have settled not just in our largest cities, but in some of our small towns that have been incredibly successful. 

DUBNER: But I mean, is that directed? Is that policy or is that just the way it shakes out? 

TRUDEAU: No, it’s something that we have to directly create incentives and encouragements for. But we don’t and wouldn’t ever force someone to move to one place or another. If you’re immigrating to Canada, you get to go wherever in Canada you want. But we will create opportunities and jobs and growth and try and work with local municipalities and regions to boost that. But the challenge is bigger than just around immigration. The fact is in our largest cities, if you work as a nurse or an electrician or a police officer, you’re having to live way out in the suburbs. You can’t afford a place in the city that you actually work in. And that’s something we’re aggressively trying to turn around with investments in affordable rentals, affordable housing that is designed to respond to people actually being able to live in those cities. 

DUBNER: And in the new budget, I understand you are providing for the lease of public lands to private developers and so on. Is that right? 

TRUDEAU: Yeah. Well, it’s one of those things that you sort of look at — like we have Canadian Armed Forces armories in lots of our downtown cores that are beautiful old buildings, two stories, surrounded by 30-, 40- storey apartment buildings. Well, that’s a lot of empty space above the top where we could have a new armory or build on top of that armory or that post office. A single-floor post office in a smaller city could easily have, you know, 10 stories of affordable housing on it. It’s an idea of creating densification and livable cities in a way that is accessible.

DUBNER: Let me change the subject here. One of the starkest contrasts between your country and ours that I see is the way that you and other Canadian leaders have been outspoken and proactive in addressing your country’s past exploitation of its Indigenous people. In the U.S., it’s really barely discussed. Now, we do talk about slavery and that legacy a lot. But not very much on Indigenous people. I’m curious why you think there’s such a difference. And actually, there’s one issue I wanted to ask you about. I don’t know so much about this, but I know that a couple years ago, there was the claim of human remains having been found in unmarked mass graves at residential schools for natives. And, you know, your government responded very mightily. The flag was lowered over public buildings for several months. Parliament passed a motion calling on the government to recognize the schools as having committed genocide. But now it’s evident — and some people claimed it was evident back then — that those claims were false. The remains weren’t human. But you endorsed what turned out to be that false accusation. I’ve read that that may have been the sort of political misstep that was important for the decline of your public approval. Can you walk me through that issue?

TRUDEAU: Yeah. There’s a lot of things that aren’t quite right in that, and I’m happy to sort of straighten things out. First of all, Canada, for centuries, followed an assimilationist policy that was very much about marginalizing its Indigenous peoples. And not honoring the original treaties, where there were agreements that we would share the land and they would welcome us and teach settlers how to survive through our winters. And then in the name of progress and “higher civilization” in a colonial racist ideal, there was a complete delegitimization of Indigenous knowledge. And that happened for centuries.

DUBNER: Similar to the U.S., or was it different?

TRUDEAU: Similar to the U.S. How it manifested itself through much of the 20th century was something called residential schools, run primarily by churches, but funded and enabled by the government, that took Indigenous children out of their communities to “erase the native” from the child, to, you know, not let them speak their language, not let them understand their heritage, culture and their land. And that led to a legacy of intergenerational trauma that you still see now in homelessness, in addictions, and mental health challenges and economic outcomes that are so much worse in Indigenous populations than non-Indigenous. These residential schools usually had cemeteries beside them, because kids would die — some cases from abuse, some cases from the flu and untreated maladies. The conditions were very, very, very difficult.

DUBNER: There was a lot of T.B, going on around back then, yes? 

TRUDEAU: Yes. And terrible living conditions. And too many Indigenous families had experiences of their kids were taken away at the end of summer. And they were given a note the next year when they were supposed to come home. “No, your son or daughter died.” And they ended up in these graves. They weren’t mass graves, but they were unmarked graves, usually, beside schools that have now started to be recovered. So that is absolutely true. There are plenty of human remains, and families who still remember the broken-heartedness of having lost a great uncle or whatever when they were seven years old. And there’s a lot of work we’re trying to do to actually identify those remains or honor them in ways that are culturally sensitive. So that’s not — if I dare say — why I’m unpopular or less popular than I used to be. Canadians are very much aware of the responsibility we have. There’s perhaps a little bit of a disagreement of, you know, what — if we should be proud of our country, we should be waving our flag, we shouldn’t be leaning in on our mistakes of the past and saying that, “Oh no, we did terrible things.” We should just be, you know, unblemishedly patriotic about what a great country this is. That’s a view that I see out there. The right wing is a little more leaning in on that one. I think it’s really important to acknowledge the mistakes of the past, as a sense of validation of deep, deep intergenerational trauma. But it’s also really important to recognize so that we don’t fall into the same kinds of mistakes that were made in the past.

Coming up: why the vaunted Canadian healthcare system isn’t quite so vaunted anymore; we’ll talk about the one social program the U.S. has that Canada would like to copy; and why Justin Trudeau has always read, and continues to read, a great deal of fiction.

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Okay, let’s get back to my recent conversation with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau.

DUBNER: Let me ask you about your healthcare system, which is, in the U.S., famously wonderful. Although when you start to dig in, especially in recent years, you see it’s under significant pressure. So I’ve read that 6 million Canadians in a country of just over 40 million don’t have a family physician or other primary-care provider. You’ve got relatively long wait times for surgery and other critical treatments. E.R.s are overcrowded. Like the U.S., you’ve now got a very significant opioid crisis. How do you fix that?

TRUDEAU: Well, in Canada, our federal government doesn’t deliver health care to most Canadians. The armed forces and Indigenous people are an exception, but most Canadians get their healthcare through provincial delivery. So the federal government has always had a role of helping fund the healthcare systems across the country, as long as they are meeting the goals of the Canada Health Act.

DUBNER: But not run them. 

TRUDEAU: But not run them. The challenge, though, is we’re funding a big part of the provincial systems without any accountability on results, because the Constitution says they get to deliver. So one of the things that we did last year is I put a $200 billion package forward for healthcare over the next 10 years, which means that, yes, there are targets to hit on family doctors and the number of Canadians who have access to a primary-care physician, because that’s a huge entry point into it. More money on mental health, more money for supporting healthcare workers — better conditions, better jobs, more hires. But it’s all underpinned by better data, by a level of transparency and openness and accountability that’s going to be able to compare outcomes from one region to the next, compare outcomes within systems in a digital way that is going to drive innovation. Because if you can’t measure something, you can’t improve it.

DUBNER: What do you think when you watch what’s happening with the N.H.S. in Britain — which, again, beloved healthcare system by its citizens, but under massive pressure now. Is that sort of your nightmare scenario for the Canadian version?

TRUDEAU: There need to be improvements. But our healthcare system, with all its faults, is still there for people. Nobody loses their home, nobody goes into debt or bankruptcy because they get sick or have cancer. But there’s always more to do. Three things that the federal government had decided to do recently as part of this budget, and of the last year’s, on care and on affordability, is we’ve stepped up with the dental care program, which wasn’t part of regular healthcare. We’re also moving forward on free insulin, because when people skip their diabetes medication, the consequences for them, but the consequences for the health care system, are massive. And third, we’re moving forward on prescription contraceptives because we know too many young people are squeezed in this economy, and too many young women don’t get to pay for the pill or the I.U.D.s or whatever it is that allow for that family planning. And I’m an unabashed feminist and feminist government. So we’re making sure that women have the choice. And we’re covering prescription contraceptives.

DUBNER: My next question circles back to my pretend-advisor question about, “Hey, we need a lot more resources to carry out all these plans, how about using more of our natural resources to generate revenues?” — I want to know how concerned you are about debt. The opposition leader, Pierre Poilievre, in talking about the new debt in your budget, seemed to call you a pyromaniac, he said that you are “spraying gas on the inflation fire” that you lit. I don’t know too much about that, but it’s hard for me to think that you were responsible for inflation when the rest of the world is suffering the same thing. That said —

TRUDEAU: And worse than Canada. But yes, that said.

DUBNER: That said, what we’ve been talking about has often been circumscribed by a need for spending. Can you talk to me about balancing, about moderating those needs with the amount of debt that you’ll take on?

TRUDEAU: Yeah. I mean, first of all, the big difference right now between the conservatives in Canada and our progressive government, is that we believe there is a role for government to play. Government shouldn’t do everything, but it should be there to help make sure that the system works to give as many people as possible an opportunity to succeed. Whether it’s things like a national school food program, which the U.S. has had, but Canada didn’t have, that we actually brought in with this budget.

DUBNER: Finally, we found one social program that we beat you at!

TRUDEAU: Happy to learn on that, and draw on that. Or other things that we believe government has a role to play. So the dental care, the pharmacare that we’re talking about, the investments in healthcare, the supports for seniors, the housing approach we have. Childcare — $10 a day childcare. Those are all things that the conservatives say we shouldn’t do. And they talk about the need for fiscal responsibility. The problem is, like so many things that conservative politicians do these days, it’s actually a fact-free-based argument. Because Canada has the lowest debt-to-G.D.P. ratio in the G7. We are the third-largest economy in the world with a Triple-A credit rating on the international bond markets. The U.S. has it, but only because you’re a reserve currency, not because you’re so fiscally responsible. Germany has it, and then Canada has it. We have managed to have the lowest deficit in the G7. We came out of the pandemic with a quicker bounce-back on jobs. Yes, we added lots of debt during the pandemic, but the track of our deficit and the sustainability allows us to invest in people. For example, we are putting down $13 billion to draw in Volkswagen’s battery manufacturing gigafactory in southern Ontario. We beat out Oklahoma for it. The conservatives say, “Well, instead of engaging in corporate welfare, you should have just paid down the deficit and balanced the books quicker.” But I know that investing in an E.V. factory with 30,000 indirect jobs and billions of dollars in growth over the next 30 years in an industry that’s going to be super-important is the right kind of investment. So the contrast is not about whether or not we’re fiscally responsible, because we are. The question is, what are we investing in for Canadians and for the future?

DUBNER: Let’s talk about childcare, which you brought up. There is this plan, but I understand you’re not there yet. And I wanted to ask you about it in relation to your fertility rate. So, one reason countries want and need to bring in a lot of immigrants is because they’re not producing as many babies themselves. And Canada’s fertility rate is pretty low, substantially lower than the U.S. Ours is about 1.66. Now yours is 1.33, which really surprised me. And one argument, although I don’t know how strong an argument it really is, is that fertility rates do tend to fall when childcare is expensive or unavailable. So I’m curious how you see those two issues being linked, what you’re doing to make childcare more affordable, and if you have a good plan, if you wouldn’t mind if we steal it, because plainly we don’t.

TRUDEAU: Well, first of all, we do know to a certain extent the impact of childcare, because for 25 years, my home province of Quebec has had $10, $7-a-day childcare that is extremely effective. And I know anecdotally, you know, families of my generation all had lots of kids. I don’t know that it really affected the fertility rates, but it was an experiment that was extremely successful in Quebec. For five decades now, since a royal report on the status of women in the early 70s, the number one recommendation on improving the opportunities for women was childcare. And we’ve looked at various things. We brought in a Canada child benefit that cut child poverty in half. It’s a means-test benefit that puts hundreds of dollars tax-free in the pockets of low-income families every month, that has done massive things for ending child poverty and supporting kids. But it didn’t really help with the very high cost of childcare. It was the pandemic that actually allowed us to move forward on childcare. Because first of all, people understood what a hassle it is to have kids at home when you’re trying to work. Like, everyone suddenly had that universal experience that women had known for a long time. But also, the business community, looking at labor shortages, realized that okay, no, we need more women in the workforce. So there was a moment and we leapt on it, and first thing we did was cut childcare fees in half across the country, where we went from places that were like $70 a day down to $35 a day, at the time when the mortgage rates were going up because of interest rates, actually, saved a whole bunch of families’ bacon in a very, very real way. But we’re driving down towards $10 a day right across the country. Not every province is there yet. And part of the knock-on effects of that are, first of all, an increase in women’s workforce participation the likes of which we had never seen, just over the past year or so, as women no longer have to choose to stay home because if they go out and work, they can’t even afford for childcare with the salary that they have. So there’s that. But it also is leading to more jobs for primarily young women as early-childhood educators, as we’re creating greater opportunities in the care economy around that. 

DUBNER: What do those jobs pay, though?

TRUDEAU: We’re working on getting a proper pay grid up to $25 an hour and beyond. These are good jobs, but there’s still more work to be done to make sure that they are good careers

DUBNER: But it’s a catch-22, I guess, right? Because you want to provide affordable childcare, but you want to pay the people who are providing the childcare a living wage.

TRUDEAU: But the economic benefits of childcare are so positive for the overall economy that it’s worth subsidizing. But again, the ideological perspective from the conservatives is pushing back against it. There’s still the debate over it, but yes, by all means, please, steal this. It’s good for the economy, it’s good for women, and it’s good for kids to get their right start in life.

DUBNER: So, you legalized cannabis. Not you alone, but your administration. I’m curious what you see as the benefits of cannabis legalization and use, because it hasn’t been widely studied, especially in the U.S., where it’s still federally prohibited. So I’m curious if there’s an answer beyond, “Well, people were using it anyway, and the black market has a lot of negative effects, and so we just wanted to make a regulated market.” Which is a good economic argument. But what do you see as the benefits of use? And I’m curious if you use cannabis yourself.

TRUDEAU: It wasn’t an economic argument that we made and it wasn’t a, “Oh, people are using it anyway,” although those arguments did come into it. It was primarily a public health issue. Cannabis, as benign as it is in so many people’s studies and, you know, you can’t overdose on it and everything, it’s still a drug. And you certainly don’t want young people overusing and abusing it. Back then in Canada, it was easier to buy a joint than it was to buy a bottle of beer. So we said, okay, let’s make sure that we’re controlling the production, it’s not gangs that are producing it, Health Canada-stamped to make sure that it wasn’t cut with fentanyl or anything bad. It’s about a public health approach to say we’re going to be able to keep our kids safe, because at the point of sale now, there will be verification of age, and what goes into it will be healthier and safer for people. 

DUBNER: Maybe I missed your answer to that part, but what about you as a user yourself? Yes, no, maybe so?

TRUDEAU: I’ve tried it, but it’s never been my thing. I’m much more of a beer and bourbon kind of guy, even then not too much.

DUBNER: You can’t be prime minister forever, presumably.

TRUDEAU: I definitely don’t want to.

DUBNER: When you’re done, you’ll still be a relatively young man. You’re only 52 now, I believe. What do you think you would be doing right now had you not gone into politics?

TRUDEAU: I’d still be a teacher. And when I leave politics, I will look to teach again in one way, shape or form. Whether it’s reflecting on the intersection of technology and democracy and trying to shape the world that way. I’m ultimately a social activist who’s going to look to how I can have a positive impact on the world. I did it as a teacher. I’m doing it now as a politician. Whatever I do next, I will continue to try and have an impact on the world. But for now, I’m very much happy and focused on the job I have, and not thinking about the future too much. Except, the future for young Canadians that we’re trying to build.

DUBNER: Do you still feel that your Jesuit education and your father’s Jesuit education inform the way you think about what you do now? 

TRUDEAU: Oh, very much, very much. The rigor of the education I had, the intellectual honesty that is required of being true to your values and really thoughtful about how to articulate them, combined with my own personal faith. I still remain Catholic. And my relationship with God is something that is important to me in a way that is deeply personal. My faith is part of who I am, even though I probably haven’t done as good a job at passing that on to my kids as a good Catholic should. The world is changing. But for me, it’s part of the moral core of who I am.

DUBNER: You write in your memoir — really movingly — about becoming transfixed and immersed in reading fiction as a kid — and, somewhat to the chagrin of your father, what you were reading wasn’t quite what he wanted you to read — but how that habit stuck. I am curious, if you still read much fiction today? But what I really want to know is: can you make a good, succinct argument for why reading fiction at this seemingly late stage in our civilization is still important to stimulate our thinking or worldview in a way that other things cannot?

TRUDEAU: Well, I was a schoolteacher, so I have that answer ready. Getting kids to read stories is sometimes one of the first ways they discover empathy, because you have to see yourself in the main character to get any enjoyment out of the book. And being aware of how someone else thinks and feels about anything is a complete opening of the world. And the one thing I’m worried with my kids, with all our generation that are watching YouTube and TikTok videos and not reading as much, not immersing themselves in worlds that they can only see through their interior eye, is that we might be losing something around empathy that is exacerbated by filter bubbles and echo chambers and all those things that we have.

DUBNER: That’s a really good answer. 

TRUDEAU: But that’s not even my main answer. The main answer is, as a politician and as an adult, why do I continue to read massive amounts of fiction? Because story is the only thing that matters. How we tell the stories of our lives, how we tell the story of the world we’re in, the narrative of our lives, and the arc of those stories is still how we think. And it’s how humans are programmed and have been programmed to think for 200,000 years of oral tradition. The idea of story as the vehicle for existence is at the center of everything I have. And when I need to step away from the mounds of briefing notes and nonfiction that I’m forced with my work, I need to dive into story. 

So, what is the story of Canada at this moment? I’d be curious to hear your take. Our email is Here’s my take: Justin Trudeau is too polite to say so, but as more and more countries increasingly flirt with populism and know-nothingism, the sort of which has in the past led to mostly terrible things, he is standing firmly on the opposite side. In this regard, he is unapologetically liberal — maybe not quite “unapologetically,” because his politeness can seem like a preemptive apology. But this is where Trudeau stands and — for the time being, at least — where Canada stands as well. It was interesting to hear Trudeau call himself “ultimately a social activist”; that is not an admission most politicians care to make, from either side of the aisle. If you listen to this show regularly, you will know that I don’t often interview politicians, because they generally won’t answer your actual questions, and they aren’t willing to give straight answers. I would say that Trudeau was okay at answering my questions; and a lot of his answers, while not quite straight, did usually end up somewhere close to the intended destination. It is good to hear directly from people who are in a position of great power, and for that, I thank him for his time.

Also, I wanted to mention: in our previous episode, called “How to Pave the Road to Hell,” one of our guests misspoke when he was talking about an income cutoff for Medicare; he meant to say Medicaid. The fact that this guest is a Nobel Prize-winning economist is not an excuse; we should have caught the error. Thanks to the many of you who did catch it, and wrote in. We edited that portion, and republished the episode.

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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Alina Kulman and Zack Lapinski, with engineering help from J.P. Davidson in Ottawa. Our staff also includes Augusta Chapman, Eleanor Osborne, Elsa Hernandez, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Jasmin Klinger, Jeremy Johnston, Julie Kanfer, Lyric Bowditch, Morgan Levey, Neal Carruth, Rebecca Lee Douglas, and Sarah Lilley. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; the rest of the music this week was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow Freakonomics Radio on Apple PodcastsSpotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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