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Trust and Canadian Leadership

Josh Zanin

“I took a deep breath and lifted my dad off the couch. I was shocked at how light he was. I carried him to the bathroom and sat him on the toilet to remove his clothes. I helped him into the shower, but his legs were too wobbly to stand, so I eased him to the floor of the tub, where he crumpled up over his crossed legs. Embarassed, he tried to make small talk as a diversion.”

In his new memoir published last week, federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh shared this — and much more — about the point when his father hit rock bottom in his debilitating struggle with alcoholism.

The book is a raw account of Singh’s collected trauma and challenges – of the profound impact his father’s struggle with addiction had on his family, of sexual abuse he faced at the hands of a martial arts instructor, and of repeated acts of prejudice aimed at his race and religion. It’s a lot to reveal. The public reaction, though, was heartening. Despite a polarized political arena, politicians from across the aisle offered their praise and support.

Showing vulnerability and transparency like Singh did isn’t just profoundly human. There’s a practical element to all of this, too. Simply put, this level of honesty and vulnerability builds trust. And we need more of it.

Trust is the oil that keeps society running smoothly – so the rapid decline of Canadians’ trust we saw this year should give us all pause. In equal measure, political leaders aiming to make positive policy change and corporate leaders aiming to retain consumer confidence should both consider what they can do to arrest the slide.

Fresh public opinion data from Proof’s new 2019 CanTrust Index sheds some insight on the top tangible actions organizational leaders can take to build trust. Being accessible and communicating openly ranks second highest (at 70%). Similarly, top leadership traits that build trust are being honest (91%) and acting with integrity (86%).

For Jagmeet Singh, opening up was one important positive step, but it’s just the first of many more he’ll need to take before October’s election. Building on that trust, translating it into public support and channeling it further into electoral success are next on the list.

For a Canadian leader who’s faced his share of challenges since taking the helm of his party 18 months ago, that’s no small feat. According to the data, Singh’s trust figures sit at 18% — the lowest of the four federal party leaders measured, and a drop of six points from his 2018 score.

That may seem dismal, but the numbers and Singh’s own strengths offer a glimmer of opportunity for NDP leader to build a connection with voters.

Those who watched Singh during his hour-long broadcast interview with Paul Wells of Maclean’s in January would tell you that – far and away – his most passionate, articulate answer was on electoral reform. The governing Liberals have been burned on that file, abandoning their 2015 far-from-shy platform pledge to do away with traditional first-past-the-post elections. Meanwhile, the data shows that only 52% of Canadians trust our electoral system to be fair and only 47% trust that it adequately represents their votes. Recent referendum results on electoral reform in British Columbia (38.7% supportive) and Prince Edward Island (nearly 49% supportive) show that there continues to be a group of Canadian voters hungry for that change. With the Liberals having ceded that ground and the Conservative vision of a Triple E Senate dashed over a near-decade in office, Singh may be the best-positioned federal leader to speak to Canadians on the issue.

There’s a cold political reality in all the data that also needs to be considered. Growing Canadians’ trust in Singh isn’t just important for New Democrats fighting to chart a path to a strong election outcome. To defeat Trudeau, the opposition NDP and Conservatives need to eat away at the incumbent Liberals’ support from both the left and the right, respectively. The combined numbers – including those that show falling trust in Trudeau – suggest there may just be a trail to be found towards a change in government. For the NDP, the finish line on that particular path likely comes with an increased seat count. For the Conservatives under Scheer, the end of that same road leads to government – but only if support for Singh and his party grows.

The transparency Singh demonstrated in sharing his story is just one example of how a Canadian leader can build trust. But it goes beyond politics and earning the confidence of voters. Whether SNC Lavalin or Facebook, Huawei or Volkswagen, the CanTrust Index gives all leaders a playbook for building trust with Canadians. For Canadians’ sake, let’s hope they study up.