This piece is neither for or against Stephen Harper and the Conservatives. It’s simply a behind-the-scenes take on a surreal campaign trail experience from the eyes of a community reporter.
It’s like attending a highly organized, ideological rock concert.
From the moment of entry, everything is tightly controlled at Stephen Harper’s Burnaby visit. There’s a check-in table for media where Cornelia Naylor and I are asked for official accreditation. I wonder what that looks like, as I fish in the depths of my purse, and fail to find, the business cards I brought specifically for these people.
Some attendees are getting wrist bands, but reporters are given a card to wear around their necks, similar to a backstage pass except we’re not allowed to actually go anywhere. We’re politely herded into a back room with other reporters to await security.
The local reporters and photogs discuss recent layoffs, newspaper closures and buyouts. Joanne, a friendly radio reporter who works night shifts, knows the campaign-trail routine. Mornings are for announcements, and Harper will only answer five questions. Evenings are for rallies, which is what we’re attending, and there are no questions at all. She’s now heard several speeches and is hoping for something new and different.
A travelling crew of national media arrives, bussed in like roadies. There are big guys with camera gear, some speaking French, many looking like haggard travellers.
Everywhere, there are security men with short haircuts and curly cords behind their ears. Not one is wearing a tie, Cornelia notes, which sparks an impromptu discussion on the security risks and choking hazards of ties.
Things now feel less like a rock concert and more like an international travel security scenario. Everyone piles their bags and gear on the floor to make things easier for the sniffer dog and the police. Joanne says we have to take our shoes off, too, and for four long seconds I believe her.
Bags are cleared, and we wait another 15 minutes or so before we’re ushered outside and through a side entrance to what I call the main stage: a room full of invitation-holding Tory supporters, facing a choir-like arrangement of younger, fresh-faced fans. The reporters are in a special pen at the back of the room. (It’s actually called a pen. I’m not making that up.)
I am getting rather excited, rushing like a hen back and forth in my pen, because the local Tory candidates are here, live and in the flesh. Under normal circumstances, I am not allowed to interview them directly without sending questions to their handlers first. I start plotting an escape, but the stern security staff seem to sense my agitation and are staring me down. I’m pretty sure I’ll have to reckon with them if I leave the pen.
Finally, about 45 minutes after our initial arrival, Harper is in the building. Grace Seear, the Burnaby South Tory candidate, takes the microphone to warm up the crowd. Then comes the main act: Harper himself.
Stephen Harper in campaign mode is different than the Harper I’m used to seeing in question period or regular highly staged media events. Campaign Harper is more upbeat, less scripted. He’s not wearing a tie or a jacket, and his sleeves are rolled up, like he’s ready to get to work saving Canada. He keeps addressing the crowd as “friends” and actually appears quite approachable, except for that part where we’re not allowed to get anywhere near him or ask questions. I can’t help but think how every little detail is deliberate. Nothing is left to chance.
The 20- to 30-min speech went like this: The world is a scary, uncertain place, and Canada is an island of stability. But there’s a catch, friends! You must vote Conservative to keep it that way. The Other Guys think they know how to spend your money better than you do, and they plan to raise taxes and run up deficits.
When Harper hits key points in his speech, the choir behind him waves “Protect Our Economy” signs in unison. I’m looking around, wondering who’s giving stage directions but decide this must have been covered in rehearsal.
The speech builds into a crescendo, and Harper takes on a folksy tone reminiscent of the Vinyl Café’s Stuart Mclean, which is odd, because I’m pretty sure Harper’s not a CBC fan.
“On Oct. 19, every single vote is going to matter. Every single vote to protect our economy will make a difference to your family, to your business in your community, to your job. And so, friends, now is the time to spread the work from here, in this room, to the families and seniors, to the factory workers and farmers, to the coffee shops, and the taxi cabs, (he’s really laying on the Stuart Mclean thing here) to the small businesses and the shop floors and the office towers, to all, everyday Canadians, everywhere across the country who work hard and pay their taxes and are trying to get ahead. Lower taxes, balanced budget, more jobs. We have a vision for our country, for the next four years, for protecting our economy, our future, our Canada, proud, strong and free. Let’s work 35 more days and see it through, merci beaucoup.”
Cue the music. The crowd chants “four more years,” and in true rock star fashion, Harper disappears.