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Obama's Winnipeg visit marked by humor, hockey references

Barack Obama on Monday sat for an interview with Michael Burns, president and CEO of the Princess Margaret Cancer Center. (Photo courtesy of Tinepublic Inc./Dwayne Larson)1 / 2
Obama answered a series of questions about his time in office and the current state of American politics. (Photo courtesy of Tinepublic Inc./Dwayne Larson)2 / 2

WINNIPEG—Barack Obama on Monday visited Winnipeg to share his thoughts on his time in office and the current state of American politics.

Though never mentioned by name, the Trump administration emerged as the clear subtext of Obama's hour-long conversation with interviewer Michael Burns, president and CEO of the Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation.

About an hour before Obama took the stage Monday evening at the Bell MTS Place in downtown Winnipeg, a long line of attendees snaked through the city's skywalks as they waited to enter the arena.

The sold-out event, sponsored by the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, brought in a total of 13,500 people to see the 44th president of the United States, according to Alana Cuma, the chamber's executive vice president.

Obama's characteristic speaking style — long bits of speech interrupted by frequent pauses — was on full display. Speaking on the Winnipeg Jets' home turf, Obama was at turns self-effacing and thoughtful throughout the interview. The former president's conversation also included humor and hockey references aplenty.

"You should be accustomed by now to these pauses I have," Obama said. "It's this weird way I talk, which is why people are able to imitate me on late-night comedy shows."

Winnipeg Free Press editor Paul Samyn kicked off the event with famous one-liners from past presidents, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln.

"Over the past century and a half, the words of presidents have frequently been on our front pages," Samyn told attendees. "Their speeches, their press conferences, their interviews, and yes, even their tweets, have made headlines because the words of a president matter."

Later, as Obama answered Burns' questions about his first term in 2009, the former president said he came into office with "sort of old-fashioned enlightenment values of paying attention to facts and reason and logic" — a response punctuated by thunderous applause.

"That sounds too easy," Burns said jokingly.

"I know. Shocking," Obama replied.

The former president also said that "integrity" was one of the most important character traits in his staff.

"By the time we got into office, we had weeded out the mercenaries and the ... folks in it for the money or appointments or business. They just weren't there anymore," Obama said.

The former president also spoke about a sense of uncertainty pervading societies around the globe. During times of uncertainty, Obama said, people tend to "fall back on tribe."

"The world is now grappling with how do we create a global community that appreciates our differences and our unique cultures but also recognizes what we have in common. And that's a difficult thing," he said. "Right now, I think what you're seeing is the more ancient tribal suspicions coming to the fore. And some of that is because people feel scared and uncertain about the future."

But before he delved into politics, Obama opened the conversation by noting he had a chance to meet the Jets' owner Mark Chipman, a UND alumnus. Obama also made some joking remarks about the Chicago Blackhawks, whose captain Jonathan Toews played for UND.

"My Blackhawks are in last place, but our captain is from Winnipeg. ... So, thank you, Winnipeg for that great gift to the city of Chicago," Obama said.

Toward the end of the conversation, Obama talked about creation of a new Obama Foundation venture aimed at addressing social issues around the globe.

"As I was prepared to leave office, I was 55 years old, so presumably I would have a third act," Obama said. "And I had to ask myself, what was my highest and best use?"

The former president said he hopes the new venture will serve as a "university for social change."

He recalled telling his wife Michelle, "Instead of just building a library and looking backwards, let's create a hub that is training the next generation of leaders at every level."

"If we train them, give them skills and support. ... then they're the ones who are going to carry forward the solutions that we so desperately need," he said.

When asked whether he would consider running for office in Canada, Obama jokingly said pursuing any elected position again would put his marriage in danger.

"I know many of you think that the reason I didn't run for a third term (as U.S. president) is that the U.S. Constitution prohibits it, but it was actually Michelle more than anything else that dissuaded me," Obama said.

As for an appointment to the Canadian Senate?

"Maybe just in July," the former president quipped.

Daniel Gurevich, a Winnipeg resident who talked with the Herald after attending the event, said the interview was "a nice mix of (Obama's) views on politics, his views going forward, alongside some humor and a little bit of levity in there, too."

Gurevich said he would have liked to have heard some more discussion on economics, but acknowledged the speaker "only had so much time."

Dan Niepow

Niepow covers social and community issues for the Grand Forks Herald. Before joining the paper, he worked as a magazine writer and editor. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he currently resides over the river in East Grand Forks, Minn. To reach Niepow with story ideas, send him an email at or call him at (701) 780-1110. Follow him on Twitter @dniep.

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