IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN Groundhog Day, but this wasn’t just another town hall as Justin Trudeau wound up his cross-Canada tour at Nanaimo’s Vancouver Island University on Friday.
After entering the packed gym to a mixture of boos and cheers, the prime minister was heckled loudly by a few committed critics. Those who wouldn’t shut up got hauled off — one by her arms and legs — by the police. Any mention of pipelines brought a chorus of dissent. A woman threw what appeared to be a water bottle in Trudeau’s direction. A scuffle erupted as the prime minister was driven away. At one point, it appeared a Nanaimo city council meeting was about to break out.
Give this to Trudeau: He shows up, and he doesn’t hide.
Previous prime ministers rarely strayed this far west outside of election campaigns. Every time Jean Chrétien visited B.C., somebody got pepper sprayed. Stephen Harper came on occasion but was the bubble boy, so shielded from ordinary people on his super-secret Vancouver Island visits that he might as well not have been here.
Trudeau? He announces he’s coming two weeks in advance, invites the public, then marches into a buzzsaw.
Staff from the Prime Minister’s Office said other events on the town hall tour have been raucous, but not this raucous. It got so bad that the chief of the Snuneymuxw First Nation, Mike Wyse — on his first full day in office, poor guy — felt compelled to intervene and ask a couple of the most persistent hecklers to show some respect. They didn’t listen.
This dragged on until an exasperated Trudeau asked the crowd: “Who thinks it’s time for them to leave” and the offenders were voted off the island by a massive show of hands. The crowd might have been overwhelmingly against the prime minister on the Kinder Morgan pipeline, but it was overwhelmingly with him on respectful discourse.
That was the big takeaway from the Nanaimo event: The more abuse Trudeau took, the more sympathy he got. Even with passions running high over the pipeline question, people were willing to cut him some slack, recognizing he was taking a chance just by appearing at such an unscripted event.
They were keen for the opportunity to engage, too. The first person in line arrived at 3 a.m. By the time doors opened at 9, thousands were queued up. When the event finally began almost three hours later, 1,700 were squeezed into the VIU gym, but many others were turned away.
When the volume got turned down, it went well. Trudeau fielded questions on subjects ranging from North Korea, to the persecution of Baha’is in Iran, to, of course, the pipelines. A man afflicted by cancer told the prime minister of the need for cheaper pharmaceuticals. A thoughtful question from a woman who believes the controversial restrictions of Ottawa’s summer job program infringe on her freedom of religion drew a thoughtful answer from Trudeau, who spoke of trying to reconcile his beliefs as a Catholic with his duty to uphold individual rights.
It would have been good to hear more. Bill Cranmer, hereditary chief of the Alert Bay-based ‘Namgis First Nation, came hoping to grill Trudeau about fish farming. “It’s a huge concern to us. It’s killing wild salmon. It’s killing herring,” he said before the event.
It was Cranmer’s father who in 1921 hosted a then-illegal potlatch that resulted, infamously, in the arrest of scores of people off northern Vancouver Island as far-off Ottawa tried to force top-down assimilation on Indigenous people. The symbolism would have been telling had Bill Cranmer been given a voice on Friday, but in the end, Trudeau only answered fish-farming questions from others. “I was disappointed,” Cranmer said.
Who knows when he’ll get another chance to ask? More than two years into his mandate, Trudeau has lost much of his new-car smell. How long will the prime minister remain eager to open himself up this way?
Canadians like their leaders accessible, accountable, to at least appear to be eager to mingle with ordinary people. Want to find John Horgan? Go to a Shamrocks game. Want to confront Chrétien? Careful, he might throttle you.
It has its risks, though. Chrétien caught a cream pie in the face in Charlottetown once. After Trudeau was asked to pose with a couple of girls for a selfie (which was like offering honey to Winnie the Pooh) last year, they ambushed him with a question about Indigenous rights. He looked like a deer in the headlights.
But at least he showed up and answered their question.
Jack Knox is a born-and-raised Kamloops lad who once worked at the Kamloops Daily News. He is now a columnist with the Victoria Times Colonist. Since joining the Times Colonist in 1988, Jack has worked as a copy editor, city editor, editorial writer and editorial page editor. Prior to that he was an editor and reporter at newspapers in Campbell River, Regina and Kamloops. He won the Jack Webster Foundation’s City Mike Award for Commentator of the Year in 2015.
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