Trudeau State Dinner Brings Civil Society In from the Cold

Sierra Club Canada Foundation volunteers and staff don’t do what we do because it’s easy.

We know our work matters. And every once in a while, we get an indication that it’s appreciated. Last week, that message came from the highest level of the new government in Ottawa.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomed United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to Ottawa for a flurry of public appearances and announcements that signalled Canada’s re-engagement with the world.

On Thursday evening, Trudeau hosted a state dinner for the Secretary General in the Grand Hall of the Museum of History.  The Prime Minister’s Office invited civil society to join Mr. Ban for dinner. Youth and Aboriginal people. Representatives of environment, international development, mental health organizations and more.

Participants came from across the country to share the evening with senior civil servants, ambassadors, staff from the Prime Minister’s Office, Cabinet ministers and several former prime ministers, including Joe Clark and Jean Chrétien. I think everyone had an opportunity to speak one-on-one with the Prime Minister and his wife.

At the reception before the dinner, the conversation was open and informal. Perhaps most notably, the change in tone was reflected by the Commissioner of the RCMP who was engaged and engaging, friendly and open with everyone. The tone of collegiality was beyond inspiring.

We were assigned seating for the dinner, and it was clear the organizers wanted us to mingle across areas of interest. And we did. At my table was a Supreme Court justice, a youth mental health advocate, a PMO staffer, and several representatives of Aboriginal organizations. It was a non-stop cascade of learning and networking, as well as laughing and fun. I know my work at SCCF will be better for it.

No one I spoke to had ever attended an event like this. Among the civil society representatives, there was an unmistakeable sense that the format was about inclusiveness and breaking down barriers. We also got a first-hand look at the genuine, mutual respect and friendship that has developed between the Secretary General and the Prime Minister. In his remarks, the guest of honour was uplifting, hopeful—and warmly personal in his comments about the PM.

As for the civil society reps, it’s hard to express how excited we were at the very obvious change in tone in Official Ottawa, and we are optimistic about what it implies for the days and months ahead. The PM is saying that we’re all in this together. Many of the people in the room had never before heard that message from a federal leader.

When the evening ended, many of us were too excited to stop…so we gathered at a café across the street from the museum for a post-mortem. (Okay, a bit of an after-party.)

We talked about how to move civil society agendas for sustainability, equality and justice forward, now that we’ve entered an era in which we’re actually welcome to do so.

While we won’t always agree with government decisions (nor will they always agree with ours), we are hopeful the relationship will be built on mutual respect and understanding. Because it’s time. Because it’s overdue. Because it’s 2016. (That one never gets old.)

What a gust of sweet, spring air on a bitterly cold winter evening.


Diane Beckett
Interim Executive Director
Sierra Club Canada Foundation