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Obama muses on political division, unity and Canadian culture in Halifax talk

Former U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the Scotiabank Centre in Halifax on Nov. 13, 2019.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the Scotiabank Centre in Halifax on Nov. 13, 2019. - Michael Creagan

A relaxed-looking Barack Obama regaled a Scotiabank Centre crowd of more than 9,000 people with folksy and past-presidential wisdom Wednesday night.

“Obviously, I’m living proof that you don’t have to be rich, influential,” Obama said of the requisites to be a leader or to be president of the United States. “I was a mixed kid born in Hawaii and … I think it’s fair to say that if you had lined up every six-year-old in America and said who’s got the best odds of being president of the United States, it wouldn’t have been me back in 1967.”

Sharing a huge stage and a pair of armchairs with moderator Dianne Kelderman, CEO and president of the Nova Scotia Co-operative Council that was instrumental in bringing him to Halifax, Obama talked about balancing independent thought while co-operating with others.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to Nova Scotia Co-operative Council CEO Dianne Kelderman at the Scotiabank Centre in Halifax on Nov. 13, 2019.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama speaks to Nova Scotia Co-operative Council CEO Dianne Kelderman at the Scotiabank Centre in Halifax on Nov. 13, 2019.

“I tell (young people) to worry less about what you want to be and worry more about what you want to do,” Obama said. “I think a lot of people go into public service just in terms of I want this office, I want that job, and don’t spend enough thinking about why.”

Obama said he benefited from not having had childhood aspirations of being president.

“If you know why you are doing what you are doing and have some inner compass and vaules, it helps you to be open to hearing and listening to other people and other perspectives because

you don’t always have to feel constantly threatened if somebody feels differently than you do.”

He said polarization has taken a dangerous turn in U.S. and other democracies around the world.

Obama said adversaries have to realize “we have more in common than what separates us.”

The 'spirit in Canada that is unique'

- Michael Creagan
- Michael Creagan

Making his first visit to Halifax and Atlantic Canada, Obama said he has never fretted about Canada-U.S. relations.

“I have to confess, and I speak for Michelle as well, we’re just suckers for Canadians,” the 44th president of the United States said to a round of applause.

“There is a spirit in Canada that is unique and I think worth feeling very good about. The people are still modelling the kind of civility and tolerance and thoughtfulness that is required for the maintenance of democracy and I hope that continues.”

Obama joked about Canada’s modest population and its great land mass.

“It’s easier to be nice when you can stay pretty far away,” he said. “The other thing that I told my staff is that part of the reason Canadians are such wonderful people is because if it is this cold, you need to be nice just in case your car gets stuck. ... That’s just my theory.”

Interest in Obama

Kendra Gannon, a Grade 11 student at Citadel High, could not contain her excitement to be among the more than 2,000 youth in the audience to hear from the man who occupied the Oval Office from 2009 to 2017.

“I’m here to see Obama and I’m really excited about it and my mom is really jealous,” said Gannon. “I go to school at Citadel and I’m only 16 and I’m going to see Obama.”

Gannon earned her ticket by submitting a short essay about herself to a competition co-sponsored by the The Buddy Daye Learning Institute and Business is Jammin’ that provided free Obama tickets for black youth aged 16 to 30..

“I never would be able to hear what he would say except on TV, but that’s politics in the States. It’s so cool that he is here in Halifax to hear what he thinks about the world.”

Tickets for the sold-out event ranged from $325 in the lower bowl to $115 in the upper bowl. Obama, 58, took the stage for an hour-long conversation with Kelderman after a musical showcase that featured DRUM, a production that tells the story of the arrival, settlement and struggle of the Canadian founding cultures through the lens of First Nations experience.

'Democracy has to be nurtured'

- Michael Creagan
- Michael Creagan

Obama touched on a couple of key issues, particularly the modern-day assault on global democracies.

“Democracy has to be nurtured,” he said. “It just doesn’t happen on automatic pilot.”

Obama said anti-democratic trends are being fueled by citizens feeling distant from those in charge. He said immigration should be viewed as a healthy thing but consideration has to be given to people who are confused and worried about maintaining their own identities in the wake of an influx of people with different cultures.

Another concern for Obama is the climate crisis.

“If you are still in denial about the science around this, you’ve got to read a little bit,” he said.

He said his worst day in office was the devastating loss of 20 children and six staff in the Sandy Hook school shooting of 2012 in Connecticut.

“Babies, basically,” said Obama, who spoke at a memorial two days later with the parents in attendance.

“It was heart-breaking and what made it more difficult was, if you ask about one of my biggest frustrations during my tenure as president, was the inability for me to get congress to respond in any meaningful way to that tragedy and the constant flow, this drumbeat of mass shootings that took place.

“The degree to which we now make easily accessible weapons of war, where you can buy semi-automatics that have nothing to do with hunting a bear, caribou or moose for a winter’s provisions is something that does not make sense. My inability to move the resistance of that small but highly organized faction within the United States was an anguish to me because I saw myself in those parents and I only imagined what that might have been like for them.

“Bad day.”

Obama urged youth to lend society their voices, their participation and their efforts and to learn how to persevere through setbacks.

“You are going to make mistakes and that’s OK as long as you reflect and learn from them. A second piece of advice is that it is important for young people to be idealistic, to question, to challenge the status quo but I also think it is important for young people to listen and not to feel as if the essence of activism is simply judging and labelling others and hashtagging about it.

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