LITTLE HARBOUR, N.S., and FREDERICTON — There are certain situations where it’s impossible to be cynical about politics, where it’s possible to imagine everyone is in it for the right reasons and differences can be resolved for the greater good without anyone getting stabbed in the back. Music helps, in my experience. During the 2011 campaign I tagged along with Elizabeth May on a whistle-stop train tour. At one stop in eastern Ontario she was met on the platform by an environmentalist oompah band. They were terrific. It was perfect.
Such scenes are rarer when it comes to the major parties. So much more is at stake. But I had a similar reaction on Thursday as Andrew Scheer’s media bus pulled up to the Little Harbour Community Centre in Central Nova, where local boy-turned country music star George Canyon is trying to reclaim the MacKay family seat for the Tories — four years after Sean Fraser helped the Liberals sweep Atlantic Canada.
From a city boy’s perspective, we were in the middle of nowhere. Cell phone service was non-existent. Both sides of pitch-black Little Harbour Road were thick with parked cars; people had clearly come a ways for cake and coffee, to chew the fat, to kvetch about Trudeau — to enjoy a room full of “familiar friendly family faces,” as Peter MacKay put it in introducing Canyon. (Peter’s father Elmer, MP for Central Nova for 12 years, was also on hand.)
As we entered, young fiddler Katie Aucoin and her brother pianist Pierre were bringing the house down. In lieu of Scheer’s unbearable power-rock campaign song, he was led to the stage by a bagpiper. It was friendly, upbeat, folksy as all get out. Talking to reporters later, MacKay was happy to describe Fraser, another local boy who came home to serve his community, as “a great guy.” I’ll remember it as a high point in what has been a woefully dreary campaign.
Conservatives are clearly giddy at the prospect of what would be a thoroughly unlikely victory. Scheer’s party might not think so should he fail to become prime minister in the coming weeks, but even busting Trudeau down to a minority would be a historic achievement. As many deep and gangrenous wounds as Trudeau has inflicted upon himself, Scheer has clearly exceeded expectations as a campaigner (though leading 32 per cent to 31, according to CBC’s poll tracker, isn’t exactly spectacular).
Speaking with reporters, MacKay kyboshed in as many ways as he could a Globe and Mail report that he was preparing a leadership campaign should Scheer fall short. And MacKay went further, arguing the Conservative party and the conservative movement has forever left factionalism behind: No more Red Tory vs. Blue Tory, no more PC vs. Reform. “A newer generation of Conservatives didn’t live through those divided times, and so I don’t think that those cleavages are there,” MacKay argued.
Peter MacKay introduces Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s campaign stop in Little Harbour, Nova Scotia, Oct. 17, 2019.
It certainly seems to have survived Maxime Bernier’s apostasy: His People’s Party is polling perilously near zero per cent, and the Scheer campaign rubbed it in Friday afternoon with a raucous rally in Saint-Georges. Still, lasting unity would be a neat trick. Take Quebec, for example. Twenty-five years after the conservative movement tore itself apart over the question of Quebec’s special status, Scheer is promising Premier François Legault everything short of the Charlottetown Accord: More control over immigration and culture, a single tax return, a new official languages tribunal.
“I absolutely believe that Conservatives acknowledge that les Québécois form une nation dans un Canada uni,” Scheer said on Friday at a Fredericton brewery, quoting the Conservatives’ 2006 motion in the House of Commons. “That’s something that our party supported, and there are principles that flow from that.”
Indeed there are. But we should recall that Conservative support for Québécois nationhood came not from the grassroots or after long reflection, but out of nowhere, as a classic Stephen Harper tactic to one-up both the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois. Many Conservatives at the time assured confused partisans that it was “purely symbolic.” It was nothing of the kind.
Conservatives believe in decentralization for all provinces, Scheer hastened to add — but let’s get real. Blaine Higgs, the Tory Premier of New Brunswick, was on hand to call a spade a spade.
The party certainly seems to have survived Maxime Bernier’s apostasy
“I spend a lot of time … meeting with colleagues out in the West, because I feel there’s a national interest there,” Higgs told reporters. “I don’t see the same national interest in Quebec, and that’s the sad part. They need to be part of it, because they benefit too from being part of the country.”
Asked whether Quebec is being treated like “the favourite child right now,” Higgs responded: “Well, not ‘right now’, it’s been a continuous thing. It’s been forever, really.”
Politics never fills you with optimism for long, least of all of when Canada’s premiers get together. Scheer was played out of the Little Harbour Community Centre by endless iterations of his insufferable campaign song. Outside, a local alcohol enthusiast demanded a Radio-Canada reporter explain his insistence on asking questions in French. “In English!” someone bellowed at the same reporter in Fredericton.
It’s the same country as ever, in other words, and arguably as divided as it has ever been. When this dreadful campaign is over we need to put some coffee on, stock the bar and book a fiddler.