SUDBURY — When I overheard talk about Justin Trudeau showing up to his Thursday morning press conference by canoe, I assumed it was in jest. Arrival by watercraft has an infamous history in Canadian politics, as Stockwell Day can attest, and while Trudeau solos a canoe with aplomb he’s not above a maritime pratfall: Just two years ago, while trying to insert himself into a kayak, the man went arse-over-teakettle into the Pacific.
But then Trudeau strutted past the assembled reporters, wearing outdoor trousers and a PFD, toward the Lake Laurentian Nature Chalet. (Insert “canoe storage’ joke here.) And a few minutes later, out he came, around a little point, paddling toward us in a red fiberglass canoe. After noodling around for a while he was joined by some local youths and they headed out a bit into the lake, a drone buzzing overhead. No doubt you’ll see the footage before this campaign is done.
And then, safely ashore, he announced a new commitment to land, water and wildlife protection and — I am not kidding — a new investment in camping. The Liberals want to “ensure that every young Canadian, by grade eight, is taught the skills to camp.” A new “Experience Canada” program will help “75,000 lower-income families spend up to four days in one of Canada’s national or provincial parks every year,” the backgrounder document explains, offering “a travel bursary of up to $2,000 to experience places across the country from Killarney, Banff, Gros Morne, and the Cape Breton Highlands.”
The government will “partner with Via Rail to make these opportunities accessible and affordable,” despite Via going nowhere near any of those places and being of precisely no use as long-distance transport for anyone with less than a teacher’s or politician’s worth of vacation time and the patience of a pope.
So, let’s be clear: This is bananas. Imagine telling a lower-income family you have $2,000 to help them out, and then revealing that they have to use it camping.
The only thing more absurd might be the fact that had Andrew Lawton, a research and journalism fellow at the True North Centre for Public Policy, shown up and asked for media accreditation, he would have been denied. As if only the most highly credentialed journalists from the most august and established organs could be trusted to report on camping subsidies.
Lawton has been a fairly well-known broadcaster in London, Ont., a columnist for Global News and a contributor to many other outlets. My impression of him is generally that of a polite, harmless contrarian, albeit with some impolite blots on his copybook for which he has apologized. Yet the Liberals denied Lawton accreditation for an event in Brampton, Ont., on Sunday, and again at each successive event he showed up at this week in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland and then back in Ontario.
In Thunder Bay on Wednesday night, security even removed him from a queue of people hoping to attend as members of the public. On Thursday, Zita Astravas, the Liberals’ head of media relations, apologized unreservedly to Lawton for that incident and said he was welcome at future events as a member of the public. But there has been no good reason offered for denying him accreditation to individual events, or to join the tour proper.
Candice Malcolm, another True North fellow, tweeted an email from Astravas saying that “media accredited by the (Parliamentary) Press Gallery in Ottawa are welcome to submit requests (to join the leader’s tour).” That would account for my presence on the bus, and my colleague Christie Blatchford’s before me: I’m not a member of the press gallery, but six National Post journalists are. True North can’t claim that; other Liberals suggest it’s not a media outlet at all, but … something else. It’s not a credible policy, in any event: Presumably the Liberals wouldn’t turn away Chatelaine or Le Figaro or The New York Times if they wanted to book passage on the Liberal tour, despite their not being accredited on Parliament Hill.
Parties can accredit whoever they want, of course, but it’s an especially bad look for the Liberals to be privileging legacy media outlets when they’re so keen on doling out cash to the ones who traffic in print journalism. The other parties seem to be conspicuously more welcoming, too.
Other than to make a point, there’s not much reason to chase the bus down the highway or the plane down the runway. At a rough count, in the five days I was on the campaign, Trudeau answered roughly four per cent of the questions journalists put to him for 15 to 20 precious minutes a day. Signing on is spectacularly expensive, and in an era of straitened resources I’m far from certain it’s money well spent.
But Lawton made that point, and made it well: The Liberals aren’t interested in subjecting their record and their leader to unfamiliar scrutiny. Voters can and should judge them for that accordingly.