Speaking to a sold-out crowd of about 6,000 in Montreal last night, former U.S. President Barack Obama never called out his successor by name, but made a handful of pointed references to the administration of Donald Trump — drawing hearty applause each time he did so.
The Toronto Star described the scene at the Palais des Congrès on Tuesday as “laid out for a rock star.” Dignitaries, politicians, business leaders, artists and Olympic sprinter Bruny Surin sat in the audience for the 70-minute show.
Obama got things going by saying, “The world is at an inflection point” and is “riven by old divisions and fresh hatreds.” He warned, “If we begin to question the progress we have made over decades and we violate our principles because of fear and uncertainty… we are inviting in people who say democracy doesn’t work, that restrictions on the press are necessary and that intolerance and tribalism and organizing ourselves along ethnic lines are the answer to today’s challenges.”
He turned to progress that was made during his eight years in office, and specifically the signing of the Paris Climate Accord — which Trump pulled out of just last week, drawing the ire of many. To great applause, Obama said, “In Paris, we came together around the most ambitious agreement in history to fight climate change, an agreement that even with the temporary absence of American leadership will still give our children a fighting chance.”
In another not-so-veiled reference to the current (part-time) White House resident’s stance on immigration, Obama said, “I believe we cannot unwind integration. I don’t think we can pull up a drawbridge.” Openness to immigration, he said, is “fundamental to who we are. You look around Montreal, you look at my hometown of Chicago, that’s who we are.” Cue strong applause, to which he added, “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, strengthens us rather than weakens us and upholds our tradition of lawfulness.”
Fake news/alternative facts got a look-in too. “We’re in an environment where we are only accepting information that fits our opinions rather than basing our opinions on the facts that we receive — and evidence and reason and logic,” Obama lamented. The Canadian audience loved that one, to which the ex-president added with a wry smile, “By the way, that’s been part of our prosperity — the Enlightenment — and we should continue to promote those values.” He carried on, “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 those of us who have had the privilege to serve in elected office.”
He allowed that there are “flaws” in our democracy that “have to be addressed.” People who lead democratic governments “have to strive to set a good example at home… If our citizens’ expectations are not met… then they will try anything and they’ll turn to populist or nationalist or even authoritarian movements.”
The bottom line, Obama summed up, is that “democracy is hard and its 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 maintaining that democracy.”
The good news? “I am convinced the future does not belong to strongmen.” The liberal international order, “based not just on military power or national affiliations, but on principle, on rule of law, on human rights, on individual freedoms, on empathy, on understanding across cultures — that’s our only choice. Those of us who believe in those values and believe in democracy have to speak out with conviction. We have to listen, we have to acknowledge imperfect information. We dont have a monopoly on wisdom, but we have to speak on behalf of those things that we know are true and are right because both the facts and history are on our side.”
The former president has been on a global speaking tour in recent weeks, with stops in Italy, Germany and the UK. After his speech last night, he dined with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.