Dispatch from the Front Line: Don't ask, don't tell the PMO

Also, OMG!, and the untouchable François Legault

We at The Line ended a long week staring agog and aghast at Katie Telford, the prime minister's chief of staff, who was interviewed by members of the Standing Committee on National Defence over her knowledge (such as it was) of the sexual misconduct allegations made against now-retired Army general Jonathan Vance.

Vance, until recently the chief of the defence staff, the highest position in the Canadian Armed Forces, was accused of sexual misconduct by a female subordinate in 2018, but nothing came of it because, well, hey, Telford explained. Life is complicated. Right?

We don't really have the emotional wherewithal to summarize the entire proceeding at length. Suffice it to say that nothing new was learned. Telford's defence continues to be the same as the ones offered by other Liberal officials — they knew there was an allegation of some kind, but not what the allegation was. And they were clearly content to leave it that way for three years. The problem for Telford, of course, is that Global News already obtained documents showing internal emails among senior staff openly discussing "sexual harassment" allegations against Vance. We accept that Telford and other high mucky-mucks didn't know the details of the allegations, but if they didn't know that they were related to sexual misconduct, their ignorance was a product of a deliberate, sustained multi-year effort. 

Share The Line

Our official opposition wasn't exactly draping itself in glory either, alas, which might explain why they remain a distant second in the polls. The Tory MPs on the committee clearly had their battle plan, and they were sticking to it: they wanted to know why Telford hadn't told the PM that there had been allegations of some kind against Gen. Vance, or who had made that decision, if not her. We know that they wanted to know this because they asked her this 50 or so fucking times. And each time she just declined to answer, offering up some word salad instead. Yet the Tory MPs just kept going in again and again, like infantry marching into machine-gun nests in one of the dumber battles of the First World War. We assume their strategy was to create memorable soundbite moments of Telford refusing to answer, or maybe trip her up into a gotcha. But the Tories spent so much time repeating the one question Telford had already made manifestly clear she was not gonna answer that they didn't ask a way better question: what the hell are women in the armed forces supposed to react to the fact that their government knew that there were sexual misconduct allegations against Gen. Vance, and that they just sat around and waited for him to retire three years later?

Look, we weren't born yesterday. If we were, we wouldn't be as exhausted as we are. (Though probably roughly equally as frightened of sudden loud noises.) We know that there is a political desire for the CPC to link Trudeau himself to the scandal. But there was a bigger, more profound scandal laying right before their eyes — everyone in the PMO and the senior levels of National Defence knew there were unanswered questions about Gen. Vance and they were all A-fucking-OK with that. For years. The right questions to ask weren't what Trudeau knew, and when, or who chose to tell (or not tell) him this, that or the other thing. The only relevant question is how these people could dare look any female member of the military, or any of their loved ones, in the eyes. 

The PMO and senior defence officials knew. For three years. They didn't know everything, but they knew enough to know they should know more. No one cared. So Gen. Vance stayed in command, and oversaw the military's efforts to, uh, root out sexual misconduct and end impunity among high-ranked abusers.

That's what the CPC should have been asking about, and that's what Canadians should be angry about. But they didn't, and we aren't. And that's why nothing's gonna change.

Meanwhile, is there a politician in Canada more invincible than Quebec premier François Legault? A Leger poll conducted on behalf of the Journal de Montreal, released Friday, has Legault’s CAQ leading with the support of 46 per cent of decided voters. The provincial Liberals are second with 20 per cent, while Quebec Solidaire scored 14 per cent. The once-mighty Parti Québécois gained the support of only 12 per cent of decideds. Legault’s invincibility becomes even more striking when you look at satisfaction with the government, which, at 69 per cent is nearing USSR-levels of public approval. 

So what gives? Hasn’t Quebec had a miserable pandemic, leading the country in per capita cases and absolute numbers of dead? Well yes, but as Norman Spector is fond of saying on Twitter, Quebec might have been the class dunce of Confederation for the first two waves, but that’s old news. 

All politics has a deep what-have-you-done-for-me-lately character to it, and that goes quadruple during a pandemic. Quebec has come through the third wave relatively unscathed while Alberta has leapfrogged to lead the country in total cases per capita. And Quebec’s vaccine rollout has been top notch (by Canadian standards anyway), with a clear and well-communicated vaccine strategy backed by a well-executed booking system. Quebecers now lead the country in first doses, with almost 40 per cent of the province having been jabbed. 

But something more than just near-term pandemic success explains Legault’s popularity. He has found the sweetest spot in Quebec politics: taking on immigrants and the anglos, and making the feds hold his coat while he does it.

Take, for example, the late-April ruling on Bill 21, which bars public servants from sporting religious symbols. Justice Marc-André Blanchard made it clear he didn’t like Quebec’s so-called secularism law, and did what he could to carve out some constitutional exceptions to it. But the Superior Court judge had to concede that Bill 21 was basically constitutional — A notwithstanding clause in a charter of basic rights and freedoms will do that for you. 

Meanwhile, Legault continues to capitalize on growing concerns about the status of French in the province. Whether it’s musing about banning the common greeting Bonjour/Hi, questioning the bilingual status of West Island municipalities, or contemplating capping enrollment at anglo CEGEPs, Legault is putting the squeeze on anglophones and their institutions.

How much public support does Legault have? Well, the provincial Liberals are desperately trying to match him, promising to create a “roving action team” to “encourage” Montreal shopkeepers to speak French. Meanwhile, the Parti Québécois wants to simply extend Bill 101 to CEGEPs. 

As for Ottawa, despite his earlier boasting Trudeau doesn’t seem inclined to take his “A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian” act to his home province. No-one Ottawa-side seems keen to take on Bill 21. Meanwhile, a proposed modernization of the Official Languages Act that was tabled in February would see its main job as defending and protecting French both in Quebec across the country. 

Given all this, the real surprise isn’t that the CAQ is at 46 per cent in the polls, it’s that it isn’t a dozen points higher. 

Lastly, a little dollop of media news that wrongly escaped our mention last week. Overstory Media Group announced itself a few days ago, and given the ambition and scope of the organization, other local media behemoths may wish to keep an eye open. As they sleep. Backed by former Daily Hive Editor-in-Chief Farhan Mohamed, and Victoria-based tech money man Andrew Wilkinson, OMG is clearly trying to colonize the community news space left largely abandoned by mainstream media retrenchment.

So far, OMG notes that it owns 10 brands, including the Capital Daily, Burnaby Beacon, Vancouver Tech Journal, and the Fraser Valley Current. It does not plan to stop there. According to its press release: “We aim to expand across Canada and the U.S., with plans to launch 50 community brands and hire 250 journalists by 2023.”

Indeed, already the organization has posted almost two-dozen jobs in various mid-size to small markets. The strategy is so classic, it’s basically a retro refurb. Local, independent outlets cater to their communities; OMG owns the brands and pays the journalists a salary, while centralizing tasks better suited to money men with scale, like business development, and advertising.

Our words of caution are two-fold. First, hiring this many people in media at one time is going to be a challenge. That may seem odd for those of you following the many, many rounds of layoffs that have occurred in this industry. Surely we must be awash in hungry hacks! But once journalists leave the cult, they generally don’t come back. The game is brimming with promising, entry-level talent; but the thin patch of earth sustaining mid-career and above journalists is home to a dwindling, cold and bedraggled band of survivors. Water water everywhere, but not a drop to drink. OMG can poach from existing outlets, but that requires more than a starting wage. At the payscale they are offering, this organization is going to need to be able to mentor the team it hires.

Which brings us to our second cautionary note; Daily Hive was a content farm. There’s nothing wrong with that, and Mohamed seems genuinely committed to building a stable of quality, community papers, and, hey, bully for him. Meanwhile, Wilkinson also seems to have good intentions, but he has no apparent background in journalism. We at The Line have generally found that people who come into this industry without spending some time in the trenches often don’t understand just how much expense and time are needed to build a quality brand. Media outlets that are not led by journalists can often win clicks, but they struggle to build credibility. This is not an insurmountable problem — and we are already fans of the Capital Daily — but it looks like an organizational blindspot for OMG from our easy seat on the observation deck.

(Meanwhile, journalists who have that credibility are often far too risk-averse to invest it projects that are entrepreneurial and ambitious, too often preferring to stick to what they imagine is the safe, status quo play. But that is a dispatch for another day.)

The OMG guys appear to have a sense of mission, and money. It will be fascinating to watch if that’s enough.

Round up:

  • On Tuesday, we began our week with an angry Michelle Remple-Garner, who was rightly horrified by the confusing advice on the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson adenovirus-based vaccines to come out of the NACI. “It doesn’t take much to see divide between the haves and have nots in the “preferred vaccine” narrative. According to the government, you should wait for the good stuff if you are an affluent Canadian in a suburban area with a stable, work-from-home job, don’t have kids in school, and can afford to have everything contactlessly delivered to your doorstep. You should take the “less desirable” vaccine if you are working class and live in a crowded hot zone, work in crowded or public-facing environments, live in a multigenerational house, and care for children attending in-person school.”

  • Then the brilliant Kevin Newman weighed in, noting that the real risk to our third-wave pandemic response was burnout. “The virus is proving it is far from exhausted or finished with us. It is adapting and exploiting our weaknesses, and primary among them is our burnout. If we don’t find a way to hand this off, my fear of a relentless pandemic could be all too real.”

  • Freelance journalist Matthew Alexandris tried to spread some calm on all this hyperinflation chatter. In a Flipping The Line, he took writer Meaghie Champion to task for her fears about government debt and monetary supply.

  • Lastly, Jen Gerson spells out her Case for Optimism. As tempers flare and accusations fly in the last days of the plague, she notes: these are, indeed, the last days. With vaccination campaigns gaining pace, there’s every reason to be optimistic that COVID-19 is almost over.

Well, that’s all for us this week, friends. A reminder, that the more of you pay for a subscription, the more time we can devote to putting together your favourite newsletter. If you like what we do, please support us.