FOR THOSE keeping score at home, Justin Trudeau got blindsided for the second time on his cross-Canada town hall tour.
The first time was in Halifax, when a couple of 19-year-old students lured him in by asking for a selfie (which is like asking Willie Nelson if he would like a brownie) then ambushed him in mid-pose with a question on indigenous rights. The prime minister appeared to swallow his gum, figuratively speaking.
The second came last week at an elementary school in Winnipeg, where a child asked: “Why did your dad give everyone in Western Canada the middle finger?”
She was referring to the Salmon Arm Salute of 1982, when Pierre Trudeau, vacationing in B.C., flipped protesters the bird from his rail car. That’s the difference between Justin and Pierre. Junior appears to crave Canadians’ approval. The old man didn’t give a damn who liked him, which made people like him more.
I saw Pierre in Kamloops once as a kid. It was 1972, a year after the “fuddle duddle” scandal (seems so quaint now) in which he was accused of mouthing the words “[bleep] off” at an opponent in Parliament. With the electioneering Trudeau taking questions at a packed high school auditorium, reporter John Pifer stepped up to the microphone and asked: “Do you think it proper for a man in your position to be using obscenities in the House of Commons?”
Trudeau fixed Pifer with a death stare. “Nobody actually heard me say anything in the Commons,” he replied. “They saw my lips move. Some people thought my lips moved like this.” He then clearly mouthed the offending phrase at Pifer.
I expected my mother to march up on stage, grab Trudeau by the ear and drag him off to the closest washroom for a mouthful of soapy behaviour-modification therapy, but no, she just stayed in place while the crowd cheered like it was Buck A Beer night at the Legion. Yet 10 years later and 100 klicks down the CP Rail line in Salmon Arm, he was vilified for flashing the finger.
This is what happens when prime ministers risk contact with the ordinary Canadian: They take their chances. Jean Chrétien caught a cream pie in the face in Charlottetown in 2000, four years after the famed Shawinigan Handshake in which he waded into a Quebec throng to choke a protester. A year after refusing to shrink from a rain of rocks and bottles hurled by Montreal separatists in 1968, Pierre Trudeau had a banana bounce off his noggin while addressing protesters in Vancouver.
Better to eat a banana than end up with egg on your face, though, which is what Justin risks every time he walks into a school gym and gets kneecapped by an 11-year-old. Can’t respond by throttling youthful questioners, either (though having their parents audited might be on the table).
Which raises the question: Is it worse for a politician to risk embarrassment from an unscripted question or to avoid the questions altogether?
The latter approach didn’t help Stephen Harper, who would go to extraordinary lengths to stay in his bubble (or, perhaps, his bat cave in the Peace Tower, where he would sleep upside down, in a suit). It ticked people off that whenever he came to town, the only ones who knew where he was going were party insiders. He appeared distant, unwilling to listen to unwanted voices.
Canadians like their leaders accessible, accountable, to at least appear to be one of the people. Chrétien, a guy in a $6 haircut running the world’s ninth-largest economy, was treated with affection even after his legacy was tainted by scandal; by contrast, high-falutin’ Michael Ignatieff led the Liberals to their worst defeat ever.
In his autobiography, Paper Boy, Stu Keate, the former publisher of the Victoria Daily Times, wrote of trying to hunt down Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent for an interview in the 1950s. It wasn’t hard: Keate just knocked on the front door of the PM’s Quebec City home and, finding it unlocked, walked in and left a message on the hall table. “A simple thing, perhaps, but so damned Canadian that I had to ask myself: Was there any other country in the world where such a process could be repeated?”
No, and there’s not a chance that it could be repeated in the Canada of today, either. Not sure it would be wise to aim bananas or cream pies in the prime minister’s direction, either.
It’s still acceptable to make him eat crow, though.
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