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 following through requires ability, 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, 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’s why unrehearsed, small gestures speak louder than great deeds, Plutarch would say.
The distinction mattered to the ancients, who believed the essence of a person matters more than their 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, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has 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, and he promised them truth and reconciliation.
Along with the promises, there has been no shortage of symbolic action. Trudeau says he’s remorseful for the treatment of Indigenous people in residential schools. He chose the first Indigenous governor general; he chose 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, B.C.
Two things stand out from the beach vacation. First, Trudeau’s office launched a holiday with “truth” in the name with a lie: The PMO covered up the beach excursion, saying Trudeau was in Ottawa for “private meetings.” Hiding the beach vacation shows some awareness of the political sin.
Second, the holiday that 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 of his vacationing choice assigned to the day by saying he had made phone calls, made more apologies, given Indigenous people the holiday and cried with them.
On his way to Tofino, he chose to fly over Kamloops rather than accept an invitation to meet with Indigenous leaders there. 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 2019, Trudeau mocked Indigenous women for daring to ask in protest about the mercury poisoning of water in her Grassy Narrows community.
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 protesters paid to attend the posh fundraising gathering for the benefit of his Liberal Party.
The footage shows the party faithful loudly cheering Trudeau’s wit as the security detail whisked away the women.
Seconds later, a male voice cried out: “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 Trudeau repeated his thank-you.
These two unrehearsed and seemingly minor situations stand in contrast to Trudeau’s scripted words and symbolic actions. They show a face (no reference to makeup intended) of Trudeau that Jody Wilson-Raybould would easily recognize.
Trudeau 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.
But for all the grand pronouncements, it’s 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’s up to them to put Trudeau to Plutarch’s test.
Marco Navarro-Genie is president of the Haultain Research Institute and a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. He is co-author, with Barry Cooper, of COVID-19: The Politics of a Pandemic Moral Panic (2020).