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Why Harper Wants You to Know He Loves Hockey

And Tim's coffee and the military. I do, too. So why does every PM photo op feel so wrong?

Kai Nagata 6 Oct

Former CTV News Québec City bureau chief Kai Nagata is The Tyee's Writer in Residence. A version of this piece translated into French is available on Kai Nagata's blog Freedom 24, here.

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Harper shakes hands with an Edmonton Oiler at a visit to Rexall Place.

The Winnipeg Jets chose an uncanny way to unveil their new jerseys this summer. Normally when you see the ramp come down on the back of a Hercules military transport plane, it's uniformed pallbearers that emerge, their steps measured, a flag-draped coffin carried between them. Canada has watched this ramp ceremony 157 times in the past 10 years.

Except this time, it was hockey players. Four hearty men, also wearing uniforms. A fighter jet centred on their chests over a maple leaf, ringed by insignia reminiscent of the Royal Canadian Air Force. When I saw the ramp come down, I had a sudden vision of Rick Rypien, Wade Belak and Derek Boogard, walking out arm in arm. I thought of Bob Probert, his brain scarred by all the blows he took to the head. I saw Max Pacioretty ragdoll off the turnbuckle, limp before he hit the ice. Nathan Horton, strapped unconscious into a stretcher. And I thought of Sidney Crosby, our wounded hero, and wondered if he'll ever play again.

I watched those hockey players stroll out of the Hercules, square-jawed, and wondered how long it will be before we see Fehr, Stuart, Antropov or Ladd motionless on the ice. I watched them pose in front of CF-18 fighter jets, only a stray elbow away from becoming another casualty. And I thought, Stephen Harper must be loving this.

Snapshot: Harper loves hockey

The prime minister and I are actually quite similar. Or at least, we share a number of related interests. I suspect we like them for different reasons, but the parallels are there. Lifelong friendships have been forged on less.

Stephen Harper and I both really like hockey. As a kid, I played for the Britannia Bruins in East Vancouver. We were possibly the worst minor hockey club ever, but I loved to play. Our knock-kneed squad was cobbled together out of future convicts, French-immersion nerds, kids from the First Nations housing projects, and wide-eyed recent immigrants. I remember the day Big Eric Ming scored his first-ever goal, at the end of a long, frustrating year spent learning to skate. It was a bit fluky, granted, but we dog-piled him anyway.

During the last federal campaign, Michael Ignatieff held a photo-op where he glided around on a frozen pond in London, Ontario, high-fiving kids and kicking up his heels.* This was curious, because we'd been told that Michael Ignatieff was not a real Canadian -- he was some kind of elitist, transatlantic academic who presumably couldn't appreciate simple Canadian pastimes like outdoor skating.

Ignatieff's rink stop was, in a way, a throwing down of the gauntlet to his opponent. Harper didn't take the bait, because, as his staff has quietly told reporters, Harper won't skate. This is disappointing, if only because Harper's communications team goes out of its way to set up photo ops proving the PM's commitment as a hockey fan. He even flew to Boston this spring to watch the Canucks get their butts kicked at the Garden. I get that. I would have done the same thing, if flights and tickets weren't so expensive. Instead I drove down on the first weekend, when the series was still in Vancouver -- so I could watch it at the bar with all the Boston fans. I even dressed up my pickup truck like a papier-mache Orca, much good it did us. Stephen Harper didn't wear a Canucks jersey to the Garden, but he remains, we are assured, an ardent fan of the game. We're even told he's writing a book about hockey. As a fellow fan, I start to wonder: Why is it so important to the Conservative message machine that I know how much Stephen Harper loves hockey?

Snapshot: Harper loves camouflage

It's not the only thing we have in common. Stephen Harper and I are also both big supporters of the troops. When I finished my undergrad in Vancouver, I volunteered for the army reserve. I was accepted into the infantry and transferred to a regiment in Montreal. It was just part-time while I went to journalism school, but I loved putting on that green, pixellated camo uniform. We'd come in on a weeknight and do wind-sprints and push-ups to warm up (or, if we were lucky, play floor hockey). Then we'd practice drill and stand at attention while a sergeant burned stray threads off our uniforms with a lighter and yelled at us. Once, we watched a slide presentation on the gory effects of IEDs. Another time, we had to take apart 9mm pistols and put them back together. I soaked it all in.

At Christmas, I won a turkey for charity at the regimental sports day, thanks to some lucky shooting with an assault rifle. I remember how proud my buddies were in "depot platoon." We were the embarrassment of the entire unit, the raw recruits who hadn't spent a summer yet being properly trained. Come to think of it, the guys reminded me of the kids I played hockey with, back in the day. Immigrants and misfits.

There were three brothers from Kuwait who joined up at the same time. One of them had a problem with "bear-marching," where he would swing his left arm and foot together at the same time, then his right, then his left -- like a bear on its hind legs. The sergeant would bellow his last name in frustration, and of course all three would freeze and the whole column would fall apart. It was hilarious. It never got old. There were guys and girls from Russia, Haiti, the Philippines, and old-stock Quebecois families too. One guy joined to keep on the straight-and-narrow after a brush with the law. Another joined while his brother was over in Afghanistan. I think we were all trying to prove something to ourselves -- about how tough we were, or maybe how much we loved our country.

When I started to get work at the CBC, I was taken aside by a wise, thoughtful sergeant (the same guy who sighed in exasperation when I forgot to take out my earrings). He told me that he'd heard me on the radio and I wasn't terrible. But I couldn't do both. So, reluctantly, I made a choice. I got drunk one more time with my platoon buddies, and then I walked away to serve instead at the public broadcaster. I never did get to find out if I had what it took.

Stephen Harper never made that choice. Unless his biographers have missed something, the prime minister has never volunteered for military service. When he gives speeches in Afghanistan, he does like to be photographed playing the warrior. He dresses up in tactical-looking outdoor-wear, complete with flak vest, helmet or Ray-Bans as the occasion warrants.

Snapshot: Harper loves Horton's

The PM and I also share a fondness for the coffee chain known to my iconoclast grandfather as "Horton's." As Poppa once put it, "I like it because it's consistent. You know what you're getting." Indeed from Revelstoke to Red Deer, Saint John to Saguenay, I can say my grandfather is right about it being predictable. But I actually like the coffee. And, for that matter, everything else on the menu. I actually have my own Tim's card and red insulated mug. (It fits perfectly in the cupholder of my little Ford.) I've sipped Tim Hortons in eight different provinces, in snowstorms and heat waves, in rain, sleet, riots, and news conferences, and I'm still not sick of it.

Stephen Harper gets it. He's the same way. In fact, he wastes no opportunity to be photographed holding that brown paper cup -- or even, on special occasions, a ceramic Tim's mug. Stephen Harper's coffee loyalties are clear. He's not of the latte-sipping elite. He may indeed have grown up in Toronto. He may be a university economist, and a classically trained pianist. He may not entirely love beer. But by heaven, he loves his ubiquitous, Canadian coffee chain. Just like me.

In Harper's hands, these three things are intimately connected -- hockey, soldiers, and Horton's. Soldiers love hockey, and soldiers love Horton's. That's why Harper stopped at Horton's in Kandahar. Horton was a hockey player, and hockey players love Horton's. Like Sid the Kid, who was a Timbits player in Cole Harbour long before he scored Canada's gold medal-winning goal. The game, the troops, and the coffee work together as an image set, one so powerful you need only one subtle reference to unlock a whole flood of emotion.

For me, hockey means mom taking me all over the city trying to find second-hand equipment to fit the family budget. I remember being six years old, worrying how expensive my chosen sport was, choosing consignment skates with worn blades and strapping on someone else's brittle, yellowed pads. Hockey means dad driving me to the rink at five in morning, sitting in the bleachers in a tuque, marking exams with gloves on.

When I hear politicians talk about the army, about courage and bravery and sacrifice and serving Canada, I remember trying to explain that to my parents, trying to explain why I wanted so badly to wear that flag on my shoulder. At the same time I remember shooting pool with a dear friend, trying to talk him out of going to Afghanistan.

Tim's coffee isn't quite so complicated. It reminds me of being a little kid, riding shotgun in my grandfather's red F-150, listening to his stories. Or, years later, leaving my girlfriend's house in the early morning, stopping at the drive-thru and watching the windshield fog up in the rain. These are happy memories for me.

The politics of hockey and military in a coffee cup

So why do I feel ill at ease when I see the Conservative Party invoke hockey, soldiers, or Horton's? Because those symbols are a bridge between values and experiences that I hold dear -- and a vision of Canada that is strange and unfamiliar to me. The reason the manipulation is so obvious is because it's poorly done. If the Prime Minister were a coffee-fuelled hockey dynamo with a couple of service medals, it would seem much less strange that he bank on these experiences as a way of building fellow-feeling with the electorate. The way he is, it comes off as forced. The fakeness smacks of cynicism, and that cold calculation reminds us what lies behind the symbols.

Hockey does two things very well. It serves as a symbolic stand-in for political struggles, and it also distracts from them. Take the Summit Series -- Canada versus Russia, 1972, in the middle of the Cold War. Like the warring Hellenic nation-states that would call a truce for the duration of the Olympiad, Canada took on the enemy in a mock battle, a consensual contest bounded by boards and blue lines. My friend Andrew Pink explores similar themes in an arresting series of oil paintings called Cold War. If hockey wasn't political, we wouldn't have cared when Ryan Kesler taunted the Canadian team. And it wouldn't have tasted so sweet when Sidney Crosby five-holed Ryan Miller in overtime. That day, the water pressure in the city of Edmonton might not have dropped at the beginning of each intermission, as hundreds of thousands of hockey fans flushed simultaneously.

Hockey is where we prove that we're not American, even as it distracts from two things: that in a real fight, America would still crush us -- and that no matter how fast we are on skates, we will not escape our neighbour's gravitational pull if it collapses. We play the same game on a regional level -- Montreal's French Catholics versus Toronto's Anglo Protestants, or the sibling rivalry between Calgary and Edmonton.

In each case, the hype is just a distraction from our symbiotic relationship with the opponent. The fact is that Edmonton needs Calgary, Ontario needs Quebec, Canada needs the U.S., and the West needed the USSR in order to achieve domestic political goals. Hockey doesn't matter, and yet it does -- to politicians dependent on a discourse of "us" versus "them." What goes on at ice level is insignificant. The real work is happening in the stands.

The military is the natural extension of that team mentality. Hockey players hide concussions for the team. They blow out joints, play with broken fingers, and lose teeth for the team. Soldiers lose legs -- or lay down lives. It's no coincidence that both the U.S. and Canada trooped out flag-carrying veterans during the Canucks-Bruins series. Nor is Don Cherry's excitement about the boys doing us proud over in Kandahar. Don Cherry also endorsed Conservative Party candidate (now minister) Julian Fantino, and hung the mayoral bling around Rob Ford's neck at his investiture.

Cherry's political leanings are no surprise. "Rock 'em Sock 'em" is actually a pretty good description of the military's new role under the Harper government. It's accepted wisdom in the ranks that our peacekeeping days are over. I'll say that again. We are no longer in the business of peacekeeping. You do not ferry little girls to school in a Leopard tank. F-35s are for making craters, not digging wells. We are now in the business of kicking ass. Where? Wherever our allies may need us. Why? To protect our interests and those of our allies, especially the allies who build expensive, lethal toys. But to run those toys, you still need operators willing to kill and die for something. So the task of defining that "something" becomes very important.

When my grandfather volunteered for the RCAF (before it was stripped of its regal status) the "something" was relatively simple. If he didn't sign up to fight, Hitler was probably going to come to Canada and bayonet his mom. This time around, we're the aggressor. I'm not comparing us to Nazis. But we are literally in other peoples' countries, ferreting out their resistance fighters, accidentally killing civilians, all the while trying to export political theory.

It's very tricky indeed to cast ourselves as the threatened party. In order to do so, we need a simplified cultural identity -- an "us" that encompasses the broadest possible plurality. We also need an enemy, an outsider, a "them" to defend from. Next we need a powerful system of symbols, easily tapped into. A deep set of cues, accessible through cultural shorthand -- a code, if you will, that "we" understand and "they" don't. Finally, we need to practice until the reactions become reflex.

The Canadian coffee chain is as good a place as any to start looking for the "something." That creamy, sweet coffee is like glue, binding together warm feelings about family, work, and play. The Tim Hortons marketers know their game very well -- for the Conservatives, it's more a case of letting the experts do their job. Did you see that Tim's ad during the Vancouver Olympics, where the immigrant dad goes to the airport to meet his family? He brings little snow suits, because they've never seen winter before. Guess what he hands them to drink on their first day in Canada. (If you haven't seen it, it's well worth watching.) That's what the Prime Minister is trying to tap into when he holds that brown paper cup. When the rim rolls up, no matter what it says, we're already winners. Whether lucky enough to be born here or accepted at the border, we live in a precious place that's worth fighting to defend.

Last August, Stephen Harper's personal spokesman leaked a strange story to reporters. The Russians (remember them?) had sent a pair of Tupolev bombers to probe Canadian air defences, flying within 50 kilometres of our sovereign arctic territory. Exchanging grim, steely glances (familiar from the Battle of Britain, or perhaps the rebel X-wing hanger before the attack on the Death Star) the valiant Canadian pilots scrambled their antiquated CF-18 jets and sliced across the frozen sky. Caught off guard by the readiness of our warriors, the Soviet interlopers abandoned their reconnaissance mission and snuck back to the motherland, presumably to lurk and plot. Coming more than two decades late, it was an idiotic scenario to spin as a threat. That didn't stop the networks from running breathless reports. Bemused officials from both air forces explained later it was a routine occurrence. Like if your next-door neighbour ran a lawnmower along her side of the fence. But the PMO's attempt to frighten us with Cold War symbolism is only part of a broader pattern.

When Harper's ministers insert words like "barbaric cultural practices" into the citizenship study guide -- a document that promotes to new Canadians a career in the armed forces -- the same dynamic is at play. When Canada remains the only country in the world not to request the repatriation of its citizens from Guantanamo Bay, the same dynamic is at play. When the Conservative campaign accuses opponents of going soft on boat people, the same dynamic is at play. There is an "us" and there is a "them," and if we don't act aggressively to seal our borders, they will invade us, overwhelm us, and destroy us. This is made all the more nonsensical by the Conservatives' chumminess with China -- probably the one foreign power it would be most reasonable to worry about.

We are all Canucks, we are all rioters

Hockey, then, is a way to keep our warrior reflexes honed. It's also a way to teach binary thinking, coupled with a particularly primitive model of conflict resolution. It also affords great opportunities for politicians to practice their jingoistic combat rhetoric. In Vancouver this year, Premier Christy Clark and Mayor Gregor Robertson leapt on the chance to hype the playoffs -- even re-lighting the Olympic cauldron. Together with marketers and sportscasters, they wound the elastic of fan expectations about as tight as possible.

Then destiny failed to deliver and the promised Cup was once again denied. The warrior reflexes kicked in -- not those of the Sedin twins, but those of the fans. When thousands of young people unleashed weeks of pent-up postseason energy on the police, each other, strangers' cars, downtown shop windows, et cetera, the response was predictably hypocritical. The same politicians who had invoked hockey's capacity to unite "us" suddenly wailed that the people sacking their own city were actually "them!" They were anarchists, or suburbanites, or well-organized criminal gangs: anything but patriotic hockey enthusiasts, the kind of people who pay hundreds of dollars for licensed Canucks jerseys.

Like Jason Li, the 17-year-old caught on camera gleefully taking a hockey stick to the Bank of Montreal. Suddenly the young air cadet was no longer one of Don Cherry's "good Canadian kids," he was an enemy combatant. When he later came to his senses, Jason stumbled through an endearingly confused YouTube apology, trying to rationalize his indulgence in these barbaric cultural practices. "I was caught in the moment, the heat of the moment, and with mob mentality, and I made a mistake which I will truly regret." It sounds almost as if he was brainwashed.

Those riots were an ugly glimpse into the power that is harnessed when a crowd of people is tricked into caring about something that is actually meaningless. Imagine if this potential energy could be controlled, focused, and directed. That's why Harper likes hockey. Not because he understands the thrill of chasing down a puck, or the skill involved in deking out a defenseman. He loves hockey because we love hockey.

*Story updated at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012.  [Tyee]

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