NEW YORK — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faced pointed questions about his government's cuts to foreign aid spending Thursday at a star-spangled conference meant to showcase his credentials as an international agent of change.
Trudeau's appearance at Global Citizen Now, a gathering of world leaders, celebrities and activists focused on advancing sustainable development internationally, was to be a platform for new federal funding to promote women's rights.
But moderator and former CTV anchor Lisa LaFlamme grilled the prime minister repeatedly about his government's latest federal budget, which reflects an overall reduction in development spending of about 15 per cent.
"That is $1.3 billion that is just gone from the organizations that rely so heavily on it," LaFlamme said. "How, first of all, do you justify that?"
Before 2019, the Liberal government in Ottawa committed to making steady annual increases in humanitarian aid, "and we absolutely have," Trudeau responded.
The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Russia's invasion of Ukraine last year and other crises around the world, including in Afghanistan, resulted in outsized one-time spending, he said.
There's likely to be more humanitarian disasters before the end of the fiscal year that will demand Canada make additional commitments, but "the baseline continues to go (up)," Trudeau said.
"We spiked it massively because of the pandemic, because of various crises that we had to respond to," he said.
"We will continue — as Canada always will — to be there (for) punctual crises … we will continue to be there because we are committed to international assistance focused on empowering women and girls."
From there, Trudeau segued into what he'd come to New York to talk about: a five-year, $195-million investment — plus $43 million every subsequent year — in women's rights advocacy around the world.
He said the program, Women's Voice and Leadership, has helped more than 1,500 organizations since it was launched in 2017. That far exceeded the original target of 400 groups, who receive the assistance without strings.
"We know that these kinds of initiatives — defending women's rights from that grassroots community level, led by women, impacting other women — is one of the most powerful ways of effecting change."
The NDP's women and gender equality critic, Leah Gazan, fired off a missive Thursday that chastised Trudeau for cutting funding to women's shelters in Canada.
"He has a moral obligation to support women internationally and here in Canada. He must do both," said Gazan, who accused the government of slashing funding by $150 million.
"A true feminist government would never turn their back on any women, whether in Canada or around the world, during such a critical time of need."
Eventually, the conversation in New York turned to abortion rights, which have been under legal siege in recent months in the U.S. — a chance for Trudeau to mark a contrast between his Liberals and the opposition Conservatives.
The U.S. courts have played host to seismic shifts in access to abortion over the last year, most notably the Supreme Court's decision last June to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that established federal abortion rights.
Advocates had feared that a legal stalemate over access to the so-called abortion pill, mifepristone, would end much the same way before the high court opted late last week to maintain the status quo — for the time being.
The U.S. Department of Justice is fighting a Texas court decision which, if allowed to stand, would effectively rescind the Food and Drug Administration's 23-year-old approval of the drug.
"Oh my God, when do we get to stop having to re-litigate this every, every time," Trudeau said as he characterized his reaction to the latest ruling.
"Women are still having to stand up for basic rights that should have been and have been recognized long ago."
He noted how during Joe Biden's speech to Parliament last month, the president "had to admonish" Conservative MPs who failed to stand up and applaud the importance of women's rights.
"There's no place where we're not seeing attacks on rights that one would have hoped we could be taking for granted now."
The perils facing abortion rights in the U.S. demonstrate that even the most basic rights must be defended with "constant vigilance," said Kirsten Hillman, Canada's envoy to Washington and the first woman to occupy the post.
"Human rights, women's rights, security of individuals and all kinds of minority rights around the world — these are things that we can't take for granted," Hillman said earlier Thursday outside the United Nations.
"We see in the United States that once rights are attained, you can't take them for granted. You have to continue to make sure that you're building on them and reinforcing them."
Trudeau began his first full day in the city with a visit to the UN, where he met briefly with Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley to talk about one of their shared passions: advancing sustainable development goals in the global south.
The two leaders also hosted a meeting of the UN panel they co-chair together: the SDG Advocates, a group of international activists and experts committed to accomplishing a daunting list of ambitious sustainable development goals by 2030.
"Whenever there's a situation of real crisis, the natural human instinct is to fold inwards, hunker down and hope the storm passes by," Trudeau told the meeting as it unfolded live on a UN sound stage.
"Well, this storm will not pass us by unless we actually reach out to each other and work together. And that's where the SDG goals are so unbelievably important."
On Friday, Trudeau will speak to the influential Council on Foreign Relations, making his case for Canada as an attractive trade partner and investment destination, especially after last month's visit by President Joe Biden.
Business leaders and private-sector observers alike are pressing Ottawa to get busy on streamlining the regulatory process for Canada's nascent critical minerals sector as the demand for green energy kick-starts a new 21st-century gold rush.
That is "absolutely a priority," Hillman acknowledged Thursday, adding that Canadian industry currently enjoys a competitive advantage over its U.S. counterpart.
"From where I stand in Washington, what I hear from American industry is how much faster we tend to do it than they do."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 27, 2023.
James McCarten, The Canadian Press