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Susan Delacourt: Greetings from Ottawa — Justin Trudeau reaches out to random Canadians

Susan Delacourt: Greetings from Ottawa — Justin Trudeau reaches out to random Canadians
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Raymond Muise, an 81-year-old retired electronic technician living in Dayton, N.S., was catching up on news online last week when his phone rang and a familiar voice said: “Happy New Year.”

It was Justin Trudeau, calling about a letter Muise had written to the prime minister after General Motors announced the shutdown in Oshawa late last year. For the next 25 minutes, Trudeau and Muise spoke on the phone about everything from the future of the auto industry to the lack of transportation options around nearby Yarmouth, N.S.

“It was a good experience for me and I hope it was a good experience for the prime minister,” Muise says. “I don’t remember any other prime minister doing this and I commend him for it.”

The prime minister has been doing a flurry of phone calls to random citizens over the past couple of weeks and has another session planned next week after he shuffles his cabinet .

While a lot of attention is being paid this month to the series of town-hall meetings that Trudeau is holding across Canada , these phone calls are a lesser-known method of trying to keep the prime minister in touch with people outside the political bubble. It’s really the opposite of mass communication — a form of niche marketing, you might say, by this prime minister.

However effective this one-vote-at-a-time approach may be, Trudeau and his team believe they won the election outside the bubble in 2015, and this ramping-up of town halls and cold calls can also be seen as early rehearsal for the 2019 campaign.

The calls don’t come totally out of the blue — as it was with Muise, Trudeau makes them in reply to Canadians who have written his office with concerns.

But chances are that the letter-writers aren’t penning their notes with any expectation of hearing personally from the PM. Their notes land in a huge pile. Last year, Trudeau’s office received 321,000 e-mails and 23,000 paper letters.

“I was a bit tongue-tied at first,” Muise confessed about his initial reaction to the Trudeau call. But soon enough, the two men were chatting away about the issues raised in Muise’s letter and Trudeau was especially interested in how the shutdown of the Yarmouth ferry service in the 1990s (under a previous Liberal government) had hurt the community. The prime minister had a lot of questions, Muise said.

How did it compare to the version of the PM we see at the town halls? It was more interactive, said Muise. “He wanted to delve a little deeper.” Muise figures that his letter made it to the list because he had constructive suggestions, such as retooling the GM plant to produce much-needed infrastructure for isolated communities. “Maybe he was surprised I wasn’t complaining,” laughed Muise, who did vote for the Liberals in 2015 (and now definitely will again.)

I asked Muise whether he felt Trudeau was rattling off talking points; a common criticism of this prime minister. No, Muise said, it was a real conversation, though “he can be long-winded, but so can I.”

Trudeau isn’t doing these calls in reply to simple fan mail, his office says. And while they wouldn’t give specific examples of times when the conversations have become heated, “I wouldn’t say it’s unheard of,” said Eleanore Catenaro, a spokesperson for the PM.

The recipients of these prime-ministerial calls are chosen on the basis of the concerns they raise and the opportunity they present for Trudeau to have a “real” conversation about issues on the political agenda.

Last week, for instance, Trudeau talked to Muise and another man with thoughts about the GM shutdown, a mother with concerns about marijuana legalization, and a man in Red Deer with some strong views on the faltering Alberta economy. The man in Red Deer ended up inviting Trudeau to dinner, Catenaro said.

The inspiration for this telephone outreach by Trudeau was Barack Obama, who had a policy of reading 10 letters a day from the piles of correspondence sent to his White House. This “10-LAD” policy, one Obama official explained in an article last year, was essentially an underground communication tunnel between the president and his constituents. “It’s this dialogue he’s been having with the country that people aren’t even aware of,” Shailagh Murray, a communications director with the Obama White House, told the Guardian last year.

Trudeau has tried to do at least one phone session each month and has done roughly 20 in total since he became prime minister in late 2015, with a few dozen citizens. On average, the calls last about 10-15 minutes, so his conversation with Muise was one of the longer ones. (The shortest one was a student on his way into an exam. Imagine being the student who got to boast that he had to brush off the prime minister to get his school work done.)

Muise says he only told one friend about the Trudeau call immediately afterward. “I wasn’t sure anyone would believe me,” he said.
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