Obama pushes back against fear, isolationism in Montreal speech
Published Tuesday, June 6, 2017 4:12AM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, June 7, 2017 8:46AM EDT
Former U.S. president Barack Obama offered his trademark message of hope in Montreal Tuesday, telling a sold-out audience that global trends of isolationism are “understandable” in moments of historic change, but they can be defeated by listening and finding common ground.
Obama’s wide-ranging speech touched on the threat of climate change, problems with online “tribalism” and the widening global gap between the rich and poor.
And while Obama made some thinly veiled jabs at the current U.S. administration, his speech came short of calling out Donald Trump by name.
“In an age of instant information, where TV and Twitter can feed us a steady stream of bad news -- and sometimes fake news -- it can seem like the international order we’ve created is being constantly tested and that the centre may not hold,” Obama told the crowd.
“And in some cases that leads these people to search for certainty and control, and they can call for isolationism or nationalism. Or they can suggest rolling back the rights of others.”
Obama said that other points in history have led to similar tensions, such as the industrial revolution or the period following the Second World War.
The answer, Obama said, is “to replace fear with hope.”
“That’s the spirit that we need right now. Because if we begin to doubt ourselves, if democracies begin to doubt themselves and all that we’ve accomplished, if we begin to question the very real gains that have been made over the last several decades, and we violate our principles because of fear and uncertainty, then we can’t expect the progress that is just now taking hold in many places around the world to continue.”
He added: “Complacency is not the character of great nations.”
Obama applauds Canada
Obama also underlined great strides that the world has seen in the past decade: overcoming the 2008 global recession, ending Ebola, signing the Paris Climate Agreement.
“In Paris, we came together around the most ambitious agreement to fight climate change. An agreement that, even with the temporary absence of American leadership, will still give our children a fighting chance,” he said, drawing loud applause from the crowd.
Obama also commended Canada as a leader for supporting immigration and celebrating diversity.
“It’s important for us to establish processes to make sure that we reaffirm that we are nations of immigrants, that it creates dynamism in our economies, that it strengthens rather than weakens us,” he said.
“You’ve done a good job of that in Canada, and you should be congratulated for that.”
The next generation, Obama believes, understands the importance living in a pluralistic society.
“Although racial and religious discrimination remain a stubborn part of most societies, they’re no longer accepted as right or just. And our next generation, my children and ours, they embrace diversity like never before.”
Confronting misinformation and finding ‘common ground’
Obama highlighted five priorities that he says must be addressed.
- Building a high-tech economy that “works for everyone”
- Combating climate change
- Sustaining international alliances to fight “failed” and “rogue states”
- Supporting immigration
- Addressing how people consume information
On that last point, Obama confronted growing concerns of how information -- and misinformation -- can be spread online.
“We’re in an environment where we are only accepting information that fits our opinions rather than basing our opinions off the facts we receive, and evidence and reason and logic,” Obama said.
In one of his more pointed allusions to Trump and increasingly polarized U.S. politics, Obama said: “We’re going to have to find a way to push back on propaganda and cultivate independent journalism and listen to those with whom we disagree and work hard to find common ground.”
“And that’s especially true for us who’ve had the privilege to serve in elected office,” he said.
The American political system isn’t perfect, Obama said, adding that the country should address low voter rates and the way big money influences politics.
“Those of us who lead democratic governments and are making the case for democracy abroad have to set a good example at home,” he said.
‘The future is on our side’
There were also a few light-hearted moments. Obama cracked jokes about loving Montreal because of “the high percentage of Michelles here.” When congratulating the city on its 375th anniversary, Obama took a stab at a French accent.
“So, bonne anniversaire?” he said tentatively. “My French accent is terrible.”
The 44th U.S. president has kept a relatively low profile since leaving the White House in January. The Tuesday speech marked his first ever visit to Montreal and his first trip to Canada since his presidency ended.
Obama said he plans to spend the rest of his life as an engaged citizen working for causes he believes in through the Obama Foundation. In his closing remarks, he urged his audience to become engaged, too.
“The bottom line is: democracy is hard. And progress does not always move in a straight line. And its gains are often fragile if we as citizens are not tilling the soil and maintain that democracy,” he said.
“I believe that the future is on our side and I believe there is not a challenge on the planet that Americans and Canadians can’t figure out if we’re working together.”
Obama addresses Trump on Paris, his support for Macron
Following his speech, Obama sat down with Sophie Brochu, the president and CEO of the Quebec energy provider Gaz Métro, for a question-and-answer session.
While his address didn’t mention Trump by name, Obama was asked point-blank what he thought about Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement last week.
“Obviously I’m disappointed with the current American administration’s decision to pull out of Paris,” he said.
“But all that work that we did is now embedded in decisions that are being made by companies all around America and all around the world. So it’s not as if Walmart is now going to suddenly reverse itself. They’re going to continue to build on the clean energy they’ve already invested in because it saves them money and it’s good for their bottom line.”
Brochu asked Obama about his decision to release a video during the French election voicing his support for Emmanuel Macron, who went on to win the presidency.
“I thought things would be a little bit more quiet for me after I left office for at least a year,” he said.
“I felt it was important for me to express my views on that particular election given the choice that the French people confronted. And I think that President Macron has enormous potential as a vigorous young leader who has new ideas but affirms the extraordinary results of the European Union and the European project.”
After Michelle Obama’s rousing speeches in support of Hillary Clinton during the election, some speculated that she may have a future in politics. Brochu asked Obama if any members of his family might follow in his footsteps.
“Well I have some very talented nieces,” Obama said. “But if I took a survey of Michelle, Malia and Sasha, it probably won’t be them. Now who knows, the girls may change their mind. Michelle won’t change her mind.”
Obama delivered his speech to a sold-out crowd of 6,000 ticket holders at the formal event, hosted by the Montreal Board of Trade.
The crowd was a who’s-who of business leaders and politicians from Quebec and across Canada. Premier Phillippe Couillard, Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, former U.S. ambassador Bruce Heyman, federal Heritage Minister Melanie Joly and Minister of Transport Marc Garneau were among the attendees.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted a photo of himself and Obama sharing a private dinner in Montreal after the event.
Prime minister Justin Trudeau having a "private dinner" with former President Barack Obama in Montreal— Genevieve Beauchemin (@CTVBeauchemin) June 7, 2017