Dispatch from the Front Line: Conservatives behaving badly
Also on bad comms, thin CVs, and a free bike.
Happy weekend, Line readers. Summer, alas, is drawing to a close. Sigh. This means it’s time for a quick programming note from us, to give you all a sense of what’s ahead. We will continue on our lighter summer publication schedule next week, and skip the dispatch next weekend — barring any huge breaking news stories next week (please, News Gods, don’t do that to us, we have to get our kids ready for school), we will instead run our next dispatch after Labour Day, and resume normal publication from that point on, with our next break not planned until Christmas/New Year’s. That means our usual rate of five (or so) articles a week, so to our freelance contributors, get writin’! It also means our full dispatch is going back behind the paywall. Freebies, you have been warned!
By most measures, this should have been a successful week on the world stage for Justin Trudeau. He played host to both the Chancellor of Germany, Olaf Scholz, and the Secretary-General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, at a time when the most significant geopolitical crisis since 9/11 is playing out in Ukraine.
The Russian invasion implicates Canada in any number of ways — our long-standing commitment to Ukraine itself, our membership in the NATO alliance, our reliance on a stable, rule-governed world order — but instead of highlighting Canada’s contributions to all of these, the two visits only underscored how ineffectual we have become.
That was most obvious with the visit from Stoltenberg, who was treated to a tour that included a visit to the RCAF base at Cold Lake, and a meet-and-greet with troops participating in Operation Nanook in Nunavut. Trudeau clearly wanted this to showcase our investments in NORAD and in Arctic security, but the message was undermined somewhat by Stoltenberg, who took the opportunity to remind Trudeau (and reporters) that Canada was still a long way off the NATO target of a defence budget of two per cent of GDP.
But as important as Arctic security is right now, with both the Russians and Chinese showing clear interest in controlling the pole, more relevant at the moment might be the potential for Canada to help with Europe’s growing energy crisis.
That seems to have been the prime motivation for the visit from Scholz. As everyone now knows, Germany deeply screwed itself and endangered all of Europe by tying itself to Russian gas. Ukrainians are now paying the dearest price for Germany’s actions, but as winter approaches, many countries are going to start to feel the pain as the combination of sanctions and Russian gamesmanship starts to bite.
That’s a cost that Europeans should be willing to endure, at least as far as Boris Johnson is concerned. The soon-to-be-former prime minister of the United Kingdom made his third visit to Kyiv since the invasion, walking the streets of the capital with Zelenskyy as Ukrainians celebrated their independence day and Russian rockets rained down across the country. In an address, Johnston acknowledged that while Brits are “paying in our energy bills for the evils of Vladimir Putin, the people of Ukraine are paying in their blood.” He asserted once again his rock-solid support for Ukraine, and promised that “the United Kingdom is with you and will be with you for the days and months ahead, and you can and will win.”
Meanwhile, over in Canada, Olaf Scholz came to visit clearly hoping that Canada might help dig him out of the deep hole into which Germany has dug itself. Scholz is scouring the earth for quick and reliable supplies of natural gas, a commodity that Canada has oodles of. The problem is, we have no way of getting it to Europe, since we’ve made a point of refusing to build the infrastructure needed to do so. Could we do so? Trudeau hemmed and hawed, saying there would have to be a “business case” for the government to approve the construction of an LNG export terminal on the east coast of Canada, even as he was making it clear no such approval would be forthcoming.
Instead, Trudeau tried to make the visit about climate change policy and clean energy, talking about the prospect of Canada supplying Germany with hydrogen. The two leaders even toured the site of a non-existent wind-to-hydrogen facility near Stephenville, Nfld., and signed an agreement for Canada to start shipping hydrogen to Germany by 2025. Which is to say, Canada offered nothing that could help with the current crisis in Europe; indeed, you might say we offered nothing at all.
For the most part, this is just business as usual for Canada. For decades now this country has lived in a global security imaginary that is completely disconnected from both geopolitical realities and our place in those realities. In reasonably peaceful times, our national Walter Mitty routine doesn’t really matter; our friends and allies allow us our helpful-fixer/great-convenor conceits while declining to invite us to the big people table where the big decisions get made. We don’t offer to help, and in return, no one asks us to.
But now the world finds itself in a position where it actually needs Canada. Or more accurately, it needs what is sitting in the ground in Canada, what we can grow in it, or what we can dig out of it. The world needs food, energy and minerals. We have tons of it, but we’ve made it clear we’re not keen to develop it.
Germany has taken a great deal of well-deserved grief for its decision to trade in its nuclear reactors for Nord Stream 1. In refusing to develop our own resources, resources which could support the energy independence and security of our allies, is Canada any different?
Late last week, too late to add to our weekly dispatch, came news of the latest appointment to Canada’s highest Court: Justice Michelle O’Bonsawin of the Ontario Superior Court. The first appointment of an Indigenous person to the Supreme Court. One might have thought that this would be universally lauded. And, indeed, little (although some!) public criticism has been aired. But lawyers are unlikely to criticize a judge who may hear their future case. And if we compare the response to the rapturous praise that greeted last year’s appointee, Justice Mahmud Jamal, the first person of colour on the Court, the response has been, uh, muted. Maybe it’s the summer.
But your Line editors think her thin c.v. is the likelier reason.
Before we go further, let’s admit that neither of your Line editors are lawyers. But some of our best friends are! So allow us to channel some of their whispered concerns.
True, there is no one “right” way to have a career that results in one becoming a Supreme Court judge. But generally those who serve on the highest judicial office in the land have had some combination of the following four paths:
Stars at the bar, being counsel in dozens of important cases, including at the Supreme Court itself (see Justices Jamal, who appeared before the Supreme Court alone more than 30 times, and Suzanne Côté);
Rising to the top of government (see Justices Andromache Karakatsanis and Malcolm Rowe);
Becoming renowned for one’s academic contributions to the law (see Justices Russell Brown, Sheilah Martin, and Nicholas Kasirer); and/or
Excelling as a lower court judge, particularly the intermediary appeal courts (which can be said of all the judges on the Court, with the exception of Justice Côté).
Justice O’Bonsawin’s c.v. is beyond thin by these metrics:
She’s litigated fewer cases at any level of court than many lawyers with decades less experience. She’s never appeared as counsel before the Supreme Court in an appeal. She worked in-house at Canada Post before becoming General Counsel of an Ottawa health care conglomerate.
She lacks any government experience at all.
She’s never published a peer-reviewed article. Despite citing her Ph.D. thesis as one of her five greatest writing accomplishments, she has embargoed not only the thesis but the abstract.
No one believes that she was the, or even a, star of the trial court. Our friends tell us that she is the first judge to have “skipped” the appellate court on her way to the Supreme Court in over 59 years. Not even two months before her nomination, the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned her for making a very basic legal error regarding the application of the Charter. Her experience in criminal law, which the Court desperately needs, is confined to her few years on the trial court and is a far cry from the 38 years of experience Justice Michael Moldaver (her predecessor) had as a criminal law judge and lawyer.
Is appointing an Indigenous jurist important in a very profound way? Of course! Are there institutional barriers that impede many Indigenous Canadians from having the typical c.v. of a Supreme Court judge? To be sure! But many others were closer. The name that your Line editors hear most often is U of T prof John Borrows. Yet he was ineligible because he doesn’t speak French fluently. He is bilingual (speaking Ojibway), but that’s not the right kind of Laurentian bilingualism for this government.
Plus, this hasn’t actually been the news cycle victory for the Liberals that they hoped. Yes, they got some good headlines. But “Liberals appoints first X” isn’t exactly news the way it was seven years ago. And the usual suspects are already asking for more. Perhaps fearing that Justice O’Bonsawin will be perceived as satisfying the need for Indigenous representation, Bruce McIvor has posited that the Supreme Court be expanded to 11 seats, three of them being reserved for Indigenous persons. This is, of course, impossible, as it would require a constitutional amendment (okay, so it’s practically impossible), but it indicates a certain type of activist will never be appeased.
An important final note: Justice O’Bonsawin could be great. She was born and raised near Sudbury and her first language is French. That’s a good thing from the perspective of regional as well as ethnic diversity. Despite having gone to Laurentian University, she is very much not of the Laurentian elite. Though we fear she could be a Harriet Miers where there isn’t the ability to institutionally push back on the appointment, a more hopeful precedent may be Sandra Day O’Connor. Justice O’Connor also had a thin c.v. when Ronald Reagan made her the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. And she did just fine. So we wish Justice O’Bonsawin the best, and would not be shocked if she thrives in the role. The background buzz of her announcement, though, struck us as interesting. We will be watching to see what happens next.
This comment will probably only make sense to our most devoted regular readers, but both Line editors Gurney and Gerson have been chuckling to themselves these last few weeks, wondering if we’ll have anything to write about other than Alberta’s zany UCP leadership race and the slow-motion career catastrophe overtaking RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki. Don’t get us wrong: these are both important topics, and we know that Line readers — the smartest, best-informed and best-looking readers among the Canadian public — share our conviction that we need to stay on these topics.
But, gosh, like, writing about the same stuff over and over gets tiring, you know?
We took the week off Alberta. We just didn’t have it in us. But the Lucki story just keeps on keeping on. In recent weeks, we’ve updated you on Lucki’s comments to Parliament. This week, she was appearing before the Mass Casualty Commission, the federal-provincial board investigating the horrific 2020 massacre in Nova Scotia.
And man, Lucki is not good at this.
By “this,” we mean two distinct things.
The first this, sadly, is “her job.” Lucki is not good at her job. As Line editor Gurney noted on Twitter this week, the reporting coming out of the MCC’s proceedings was so terrible for Lucki that it does not need editorializing. It can just stand on its own and be more damning than anything we could come up with. So, rather than editorialize on it, we’re just going to quote from the Globe’s Greg Mercer.
RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki told a public inquiry into the 2020 Nova Scotia mass shooting that there have been no reforms to the national police force in the more than 28 months since the deadly gun rampage, despite a series of problems exposed by the Mounties’ response to the violence.
In her testimony, Commissioner Lucki said she couldn’t directly answer questions about why the RCMP’s national headquarters hadn’t acted upon requests from the Nova Scotia RCMP for a formal review of the police response to the shooting. And she also didn’t respond directly to questions about why the force hasn’t made any improvements — particularly in areas such as policy, staffing in rural areas, equipment and cadet training — that could help prevent another tragedy from happening.
Reminder: that’s from a news report. That’s not a withering column. It just reads that way, because the facts are that bad. Your Line editors don’t expect miracles when it comes to overhauling and reforming large, entrenched institutions. But zero changes in 28 months? Lucki only able to say that the RCMP leadership is monitoring the inquiry? She should be fired for that alone.
The other part she’s bad at, of course, is what we’ve all seen for ourselves she’s bad at already: communication. Hell, even Lucki herself agrees she’s not a great communicator — she’s acknowledged she mishandled the controversial teleconference with local RCMP officials, the call that led to accusations of political interference. Again, your Line editors are reasonable people. Not every good manager or leader is a good communicator. Communicating clearly and effectively is a very particular skill that not everyone has. That’s fine. Some people can be trained. Others can’t be, so they need someone in their inner circle who can communicate for them. Either works!
Lucki is apparently pursuing a “none of the above” strategy on that front — we refuse to accept that she could have been comms trained and remain this bad at it. This week’s highlights included complaining that she was tired of all the questions about political inference (we’re sure that garnered a ton of sympathy at the inquiry into the murder of 22 people) and that the allegations of political interference have been overblown. Here we’re quoting again from the Globe’s Mercer (he’s been doing fantastic work on this, folks):
[Lucki] played down the allegation [of political inteference] on Tuesday. “It’s becoming very politicized as far as I’m concerned,” she said. “It wasn’t as big as you’re making it out to be. I’m trying to explain myself seven different ways to Sunday, and it’s very frustrating.”
It … it wasn’t as big as it’s being made out? It was just medium political interference to benefit the Liberals’ political goals by interfering into an investigation into a massacre? Modest interference? Negligible interference? Or hey, maybe we’ll just channel the PM: maybe it wasn’t undue interference?
We repeat what we’ve been saying in recent weeks: this isn’t a shades of grey thing. This is really simple. Political interference in ongoing criminal investigations to benefit the party in power is a no-no, period, full stop. This is bright red line stuff. The end. Lucki doesn’t get it. Which is another reason she needs to resign or be fired.
We repeat this, too. She’s bad at her job.
Zooming back to Canada, we at The Line do try to keep tabs on what is happening in the wilder fringes of the Conservative movement. All the more concerning as the fringes are creeping ever closer to the centre like some kind of persistent fungal infection. Three items crossed our path this week.
The first, from federal Conservative leadership candidate Leslyn Lewis, who compared by implication the Nuremberg Code provisions protecting bodily autonomy to, uh, COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
Others, including Scott "Saney McSanerson" Aitchison, have already stepped in on this one so we don't feel the need to add much beyond: wtf? We at The Line have been skeptical of vaccine mandates, too but, Jesus. Of course, of course drawing any kind of comparison to the atrocities of the Holocaust to a still-voluntary vaccine mandate demonstrates a wild lack of historical perspective. Lewis hasn't shied away from this kind of thing in the past — playing footsie with WEF conspiracy theories for example, which is why she remains a deeply fringe candidate. For now.
Meanwhile, to get a feel for just who some of these conspiracies are playing to, get a look at this video.
It features a "warm welcome" from an Alberta resident who screams at the deputy PM and calls her a traitor. Of course, the usual Liberal suspects jumped on the clip, denouncing it and demanding that Conservatives should do the same.
Now, needless to say, there is nothing wrong with condemning terrible things when they are terrible. Such actions are generally good for the soul. And, in fact, several prominent conservatives, including Alberta premier Jason Kenney have done as much (not that it earned the beleaguered politician any credit among his critics.)
However, we cannot help but observe a degree of shared delusion at work here, with both senior Conservatives and senior opponents of the Conservatives having a very exaggerated sense of how much control said senior Conservatives are exercising — or even capable of exercising — over the current state of anger.
This is just some random dude in Calgary; why should Conservatives of any stripe feel compelled to condemn shitty behaviour from randos yelling obscenities at politicians? To do so implies that they are directly responsible for explicitly inciting this behaviour. Thus, apologizing for it or condemning it plays right into a Liberal political narrative.
While — as noted above — we are observing a dangerous veering from consensus reality among leadership contestants, that's a long way from direct incitement. Further, we would note that Angry Albertans yelling nasty things at Liberal politicians is hardly some kind of new phenomenon. In these parts, it's practically a genre of political rhetoric.
Also notable is that the clip was posted by Without Papers Pizza — a company that made a radical transition over the course of the pandemic; from respected hipster pizza joint in a trendy Calgary neighbourhood, to anti-vax passport activists who became reviled in their neighbourhood, and beloved as folk heroes among the far-right set.
The restaurant is now permanently closed. "We told the @cityofcalgary to shove that vaccine passport up its ass, then they shoved it up ours. Fighting for freedom ever since," reads its Twitter bio. Scroll through and you can see just how far down the rabbit hole these guys fell in the wake of COVID.
The anger is real, friends. And it's taking people to some very dark places. So while the video and nastiness directed toward Freeland is awful and of course shouldn't happen — let's also recognize that sometimes randos like this aren't well. They're not in good places, and they aren't thinking clearly. Courting people like this as potential supporters is dangerous ... but so is playing off of them. All of it feeds into this self-reinforcing polarization cycle that emboldens that very fringe, which creates incentives for politicians to feed into their concerns, which ratchets up the attention, which creates more calls for condemnation and so on and so on.
For the Conservatives, the risk is obvious: they’ll get eaten by the monsters they wrongly think they’ve tamed. For the non-Conservatives, the danger is in mis-categorizing the anger, and responding in ways that are either unhelpful or actively make things worse. We can agree that all politicians and public figures should be trying to lower the temperature. But we are damn skeptical that many of them won’t try to exploit the anger, instead, thus making it worse.
Lastly on our radar of decline, we note this little news item. Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre took flak after a photo surfaced of him shaking hands with Jeremy Mackenzie, the founder of a group known as “Diagolon," which is either an extremist group tied to potential acts of anti-government violence, or some kind of dark meme-lord meatspace shit post.
Anyway, the usual suspects jumped on the pic, calling on Poilievre to condemn the group. Poilievre's response was pretty textbook, but notably muted.
"Over the course of my campaign I have shaken hands with literally tens of thousands of people at public rallies. It is impossible to do a background check on every single person who attends my events ... As I always have, I denounce racism and anyone who spreads it. I didn’t and don’t know or recognize this particular individual.”
A few things we will note. This is very obviously true. Lots of people attend events with politicians and shake their hands. They are not vetted. Whatever. Likewise, there are lots of pics of Liberal and NDP politicians appearing in pictures with unsavory characters and, frankly, we don't care about those stories, either.
We're not quite sure why anyone should have expected Poilievre to recognize a not-particularly well-known fringe livestreamer on sight. (We have read up on these groups and some of the individuals; we wouldn't have known him on sight.)
Further, we give Poilievre enough credit as a politician to believe that if he were some kind of secret Diagolon fan, he'd had enough sense not to let himself appear in a photo with Mackenzie. If Mackenzie were on intimate terms with Poilievre or his team, he wouldn't have to Kool-Aid man a public event.
We do note, however, that Poilievre has resisted the urge to abase himself with apologies and condemnations over the matter. We don't read into that some kind of implicit support for Mackenzie or his group, however. Rather, we think it's of the same flavour as the incident with Freeland noted above. When you respond to your political opponents' demands for condemnations and apologies, you are giving those opponents the power to set the narrative. If Poilievre did come out with some kind of abject statement, the second-day headlines would read something like "Poilievre distances himself from extremist." In other words, an apology would have the opposite effect of the one he intended. It would imply guilt, suggesting that the pair were close in the first place, and that Poilievre, thus, do something to distance himself.
Instead, Poilievre is shaking the whole thing off and letting the Laurentian Consensus crow about it as much as it likes. In doing so, he's denying the media and his political opponents the power to set the narrative agenda. He's also demonstrating to his own followers that he doesn't care about those gatekeepers — and, in fact, actively holds them in contempt. (See, also, his hits on Global reporter Rachel Gilmore.)
Poilievre wants "the media" to overreact to his populism; to deride him as a racist extremist. He's planning for this. Not only will this generate him additional publicity, but he can then use this overreaction to turn the tables by running against the waning credibility of the media itself. And as far as we can tell, his supporters absolutely love this kayfabe. They're eating it right up; meanwhile the media and the like are baffled, as if they can't quite figure out why Poilievre won't hew to the script.
Bluntly, it's because he doesn't have to. This is a strategy. Poilievre is playing a game, here, and he’s winning it, largely because a lot of you still don’t get it it. The confrontations and hostility are a choice he’s made, and it’s working. And the more you huff and puff, the better and faster it’ll work. Sorry, guys. Poilievre understands you a lot better than you understand him — and we suspect better than a lot of you understand yourselves.
We don’t want to spend more time on the Lisa LaFlamme story because, bluntly, there’s not much more to say. CTV executive Michael Melling is now on leave — as well he should be given the PR disaster that befell the company on his watch.
And then there was this:
Which was the clearest indication to us yet that the LaFlamme story is now thoroughly played out. When a corporation is playing to your scandal to sell cheeseburgers, it’s done.
Lastly, we at The Line want to give a quick thank you to one of our subscribers. We will not name her — because we don't want to embarrass her without her permission. Your Line editor Jen Gerson, being absurdly cheap, was scrolling through Facebook Marketplace in search of birthday gifts for her kids when she ran across a pink balance bike for $10.
So, she sent the owner a note offering to purchase it.
Fellow mom responded: "Are you the Jen Gerson the line? If so, you can have this for free" Gerson thanked the woman, but refused and offered to pay. She was met with: "You shut your mouth. I’m going on holidays tonight. If I leave it by my garage you could grab it at your leisure? Would that work?"
The happy subscriber further added: "Thanks for “The Line”. I love it. I love not agreeing and yelling at my computer. I love different perspectives. But, mostly I love the snark!
I’ll happily keep subscribing!"
Gerson reluctantly agreed to take the bike for free — or to make her husband drive down to take the bike for free — and will list it as an in-kind donation, she guesses. But she wanted to take the opportunity to note a few things; firstly, that this was a quintessentially Albertan transaction. Albertans are often the best people, and Line subscribers better still. Albertan Line subscribers are, therefore, the best of the best.
[Matt sits back, arches eyebrow at the screen]
Secondly, she wanted to share this because it brought warmth into her cold, cold heart and made her thankful for all of you. We expect Gerson’s toddler will love the bike.
Okay! That’s it. Have a great weekend, friends. Thanks for the bike!
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: firstname.lastname@example.org