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Canada

Obama in Montreal: Youth, climate change discussed in hour-long talk

It was only a few minutes into his address in Montreal when former U.S. president Barack Obama was asked a question that would reveal the underlying theme for his wide-ranging discussion.

It was put to him by Jean-François Gagné, co-founder of Montreal’s Element AI, before 12,000 people at the Bell Centre Thursday evening.

“What makes you optimistic these days?” Gagné, the night’s moderator, asked.

“Young people,” Obama answered, without hesitating.

Whether speaking about climate change, the economy, the state of online discourse or the state of democracy at large, Obama often tied the conversation back into today’s youth and the future that awaits them.

“This generation coming up behind us, they are incredibly sophisticated, incredibly idealistic, innovative, comfortable with diversity and welcoming of new ideas,” he said to applause. “When you spend time with them, you are inspired and energized.”

For a little more than an hour, Obama weighed in on the day’s most pressing topics with thoughtful and detailed responses. But he also didn’t shy away from the odd joke or two.

“It’s good to be back in Montreal, although July is nicer,” he told the crowd as he arrived on stage, mentioning the snow on his way in. When later asked about a possible Expos return given the time he’s spent in Washington, where Major League Baseball moved the team in 2005, Obama laughed.

“Expos, too late, but how about the Raptors?” he said. “You may have to just root for basketball for a while.”

After Gagné brought up how an estimated 500,000 marched against climate change in Montreal this September, Obama said the science is now “too overwhelming” for anyone to deny.

“There’s no longer a dispute on this, the question is how do we respond,” Obama said. “It is no longer possible for us to simply stop the warming of the planet. … But we still have time to make big moves and take big steps to address the issue.”

He praised Swedish teen Greta Thunberg, who led the march in Montreal, for galvanizing so many young people around the issue.

“For young people, you need the moral urgency of a Greta,” he said. “But there is some utility to talking to old people about the different challenges, aspects and unintended consequences to this so you can build a broader coalition to help move this forward.”

Obama never mentioned U.S. President Donald Trump, but said Canada is in a great position to show how countries can respond to the issue.

“The more good examples we have,” he said, “the easier it is for leaders in bigger countries like the United States or China to hopefully take some of those examples and apply them.”

The event was organized by the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal. Around 2,500 youth got to attend for free.

Near the end of the talk, Obama was asked if he had any parting advice for them.

He said some of the “enormous challenges” society faces can seem overwhelming at times, but to not forget the world has also never been wealthier, healthier, better educated, or more tolerant.

“It’s not a given, history does not just go forward, it also goes backward,” Obama said. “But it should give us hope. We have solved big problems in the past. … The question then becomes what can each of us do to continue pushing that boulder up the hill and further the causes we believe in.”

jfeith@postmedia.com

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