Former U.S. president Barack Obama urges Canadians to hope in ‘dark age’

Former U.S. president Barack Obama urges Canadians to hope in ‘dark age’

OTTAWA — He didn’t mention Donald Trump by name, but he didn’t disappoint them and told them what he thought about all that anyway.

Former U.S. president Barack Obama told a Canadian audience that the world may be a dark place since he left the White House, but its natural upward momentum can be corrected through a positive story of tolerance to counter the “primal” narrative of populism that has taken hold around the world.

“I left the office cautiously optimistic,” said Obama, sparking laughter among the 11,400 paying attendees at the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa on Friday night.

“I know why you all are laughing.”

That was as close as Obama came to confronting the politics of the man who followed him to the White House. Wearing an open-collar white dress shirt and dark grey suit, Obama sat answering questions for about an hour from Tobias Lutke, the founder and CEO of the Ottawa-based commerce company Shopify.

It wasn’t a real journalistic interview, but when asked how optimistic he felt as he left the presidency, Obama answered like he often did in that setting: with a long, grim essayistic sweep punctuated with hope.

“I believe the long-term trajectory of humanity is in a positive direction,” he said. “But you get dark ages before the Renaissance.”

“You get World War Two and 60 million dead before there’s a post-World War Two order that stabilizes societies.”

The world, he argued, has never been healthier, wealthier, better educated, more tolerant and less violent than right now.

But it’s an age of political and social disruption where technology is gorging us with information and no one can agree on what constitutes the truth so a coherent debate can ensue, he said.

“It’s indisputable that things have gotten better. But in that march of progress we had the Holocaust, and we had Jim Crow and we had the Killing Fields. So we cannot be complacent.”

He said an “ancient story” that has appeared time and again throughout history is back and it is very “primal.”

“It focuses on us and not us — it’s tribal. It’s a zero-sum contest between people. And a strong man appears who is going to protect all of us from them,” Obama said.

“That kind of politics has gotten traction, that story has gotten a lot of traction around the world … it’s not unique to any particular country.”

Then came his prescription: “That, I think, has to be combated with better stories because I think there’s a better story to be told about human progress — it’s inclusive and it’s hopeful and it is generous and it is kind and is based on science and facts and not fear.

“We have that in our capacity, but I think we get complacent.”

With that, Obama capped an hour in front of an audience that welcomed him like a rock-star with a standing ovation.

“I do have a little bit of a love affair with Canada,” he said as he took the stage at an event where tickets cost from $75 to well into the hundreds of dollars.

Since Obama’s presidency ended in January 2017, he’s become a big name on the paid speaking circuit, and appeared at a similar event in Calgary in March.

Obama offered a rambling and reflective view of the world since leaving the presidency, and high praise of the ingenuity and entrepreneurship that drives economies.

He fondly recalled his first trip to Canada in 2009 and his initial discussions with then Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper to combat the Great Recession. Obama called it a “a fairly intense conversation about how we were going to avoid Armageddon.”

There were fond reflections of raising his two daughters, Malia and Sasha, and unabashed praise for his wife, Michelle.

As social media and the technology behind it evolves and becomes more powerful, society needs to have an important conversation about what constitutes “baseline truth,” he said.

“The Fox News viewer has a completely different reality than the New York Times reader,” he said.

Obama garnered applause when he called for a re-think of how young people are educated, to teach them critical thinking, and “experiential learning.” An education system with a blackboard and boring teacher may have been good to teach kids to work in a factory or an office in the past but that is no longer adequate.

The visit came one day after U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence was in town on behalf of Trump, who is decidedly less popular in Canada than the 44th occupant of the Oval Office.

Trump has yet to pay a solo visit to Ottawa but his appearance as part of the larger G7 leaders’ summit in Quebec last year plunged Canada-U.S. relations to a new low. Tweeting from Air Force One after departing Canada last year, Trump called Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “very dishonest and weak.”

Former Newfoundland premier Brian Tobin, who was also a federal Liberal cabinet minister, said Friday’s talk contained a warning not to take for granted “all of the privileges we enjoy as citizens in this global community.”

“It’s a wake-up call from Obama,” Tobin said, “done gently, but done very effectively.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The central zone experienced a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases Thursday, rising from 454 to 508 active cases over the past 24 hours, with 10 people in hospital. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)
Alberta government makes request to Canadian Red Cross for field hospitals

The Alberta Government has examined the possibility of needing help from the… Continue reading

Workers were busy getting a tall crane in place Thursday morning for the construction of the new courthouse in downtown Red Deer. The facility will include modern technology and replace the existing courthouse upon completion expected in spring 2023. Photo by Paul Cowley/Advocate staff
Work on Red Deer Justice Centre progressing

Construction of the new courthouse in downtown Red Deer was visible Thursday… Continue reading

The City of Red Deer is including $1 million in its 2021 operating budget, just in case Westerner Park’s pandemic cancellations continue and it needs more support next year. (Advocate file photo)
Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance responds to a question during a news conference Friday, June 26, 2020 in Ottawa. Vance is ordering his troops to be ready to pick up COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. and Europe on short notice, and prepare to help distribute the doses while responding to floods and other emergencies. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Defence chief says CAF will be ready after ordering COVID-19 vaccine prep last week

OTTAWA — The Canadian Armed Forces received formal orders last week to… Continue reading

Geoff Neville poses for a photo with his sons Casey, 3, left, and Ryder, 6, in this undated handout photo. Geoff Neville is a rotational worker in Newfoundland and Labrador who works in a mine in Nunavut for 14 days in a row and then gets 14 days off to come home and see his family. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Geoff Neville
‘I’d love to be home:’ N.L. rotational workers facing bullying online

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — As Geoff Neville waited this week in a… Continue reading

Dan Cochrane, senior pastor at CrossRoads Church. Contributed photo
CrossRoads Church closes its doors for two weeks after staff member tests positive for COVID-19

CrossRoads Church made the decision to cancel in-house services for two weeks… Continue reading

Nancy McInerney, Kevin Martin, Olds Mayor Michael Muzychka, Chelsea Carey and MLA Nathan Cooper pose for a photo during the ticket launch for the Grand Slam of Curling Champions Cup in Olds from April 29 to May 3 in October. The event has been rescheduled for 2022. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
Olds misses out on Champions Cup again, event penciled in to return in 2022

They say waiting is the hardest part for curling fans in Central… Continue reading

File Photo
Sylvan Lake Town Council squashes mask bylaw

The bylaw did not make it past first reading, after a 4-3 vote defeated the motion

Mikael Kingsbury, of Canada, trains during the FIS Freestyle World Cup skiing competition Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020, in Park City, Utah. Kingsbury will miss moguls races for the first time in his World Cup career after suffering a back injury in training on Sunday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Jeff Swinger
Canadian moguls star Mikael Kingsbury out four to six weeks with back injury

MONTREAL — Canada’s Mikael Kingsbury will miss moguls races for the first… Continue reading

Detail of James Wilson Morrice's "LaPlage."
James Wilson Morrice canvas outperforms at auction with more than million-dollar sale

A canvas by Montreal-born artist James Wilson Morrice exceeded expectations with a… Continue reading

Bank buildings are photographed in Toronto's financial district on Wednesday, June 27, 2018. International comparisons suggest Canadian financiers are oiling the wheels of the fossil fuel industry at a far greater rate than their peers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Tijana Martin
‘Canada really sticks out:’ Studies show banks not so green on climate change

International analyses suggest Canadian financiers are oiling the wheels of the fossil… Continue reading

Goals galore for Ronaldo, Giroud, Neymar in Champions League

Goals galore for Ronaldo, Giroud, Neymar in Champions League

Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins is seen at a media availablity to introduce new pitcher Shun Yamaguchi in Toronto on January 15, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
Jays ‘prepared’ if things pick up on free agency and trade fronts this off-season

Jays ‘prepared’ if things pick up on free agency and trade fronts this off-season

Shaquille Murray-Lawrence, left, and teammate Taylor Austin are shown during training in Whistler, B.C., in this undated handout photo. Montreal Allouettes running back Shaquille Murray-Lawrence is used to pysching himself up to sprint down a field, evading a crush of muscled men the entire way. But mentally preparing for his latest venture required bracing for a whole new set of anxieties. As he got ready to hop in a bobsleigh for the first time, Murray-Lawrence knew he'd be zipping down an icy track faster than cars are allowed to travel down most highways. Murrary-Lawrence, 27, is one of three CFL players who joined the national bobsleigh team after the league canceled its season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Shaquille Murray-Lawrence
Sliding into a new sport: CFLers turn to bobsled after football season wiped out

Sliding into a new sport: CFLers turn to bobsled after football season wiped out

Most Read