Harper's North Van Appearance: Boring for a Reason

As is often the case, the nonverbal content of the event was the important part.

By Crawford Kilian 7 Apr 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a surprise visit to North Vancouver's Seycove Secondary School on Tuesday morning. It was to announce improvements to the Canada Student Loan Grant program, but the students listening to the PM in the school gym were just the backdrop. Meanwhile, some local federal candidates used the occasion to launch their campaigns at the school entrance.

As is often the case, the nonverbal content of the event was the important one, not the tepid little good-news item he'd come across the country to recite. The messages I drew: Harper wanted to get out of Ottawa on the day the Mike Duffy trial started, and the local federal opposition is far from ready to take him on.

Word about the event circulated by email the night before, but as flashmobs go, the protesters at the school's entrance were few -- no more than 35 or 40. Some brought banners and placards and gamely recited slogans when asked to do so -- just as some of them had likely been doing since the 1960s. Somehow, "Hey hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today" resonated more in those days than "Defeat Harper, defeat Harper" did today.

Harper's security people likely outnumbered the protesters. They included uniformed police, beefy men in tight suits, and much better-tailored men in dark suits and wires down their necks. Guarding all the school entrances, the men with wires greeted passers-by with a friendly "Good morning."

Vehicle traffic, always heavy around Seycove at the start of the school day, was increased by numerous media trucks, shiny black Escalades with tinted windows, and trucks bearing still more uniformed police. Some drivers honked support for the protesters (or for the police -- it was hard to tell).

Meanwhile, candidates were using a portable sound system to introduce themselves to the protesters and media at the entrance. They included the NDP's Carol Baird Ellan, running in Burnaby North-Seymour and Carleen Thomas in North Vancouver. Lynn Quarmby of the Green Party was there as well as a couple of talkative Marxist-Leninists -- one of whom served as impromptu MC and chant leader.

The candidates' impromptu remarks were certainly more sincere than scripted talking points, but they were talking points nonetheless: Kinder Morgan, pipelines, Bill C-51. The fewness of their followers suggested rudimentary organizations, at least on short notice.

The absence of the Liberal candidate Terry Beech implied either still less organization, or a team too sophisticated to waste its time. No doubt the Conservative candidate for the new riding of Burnaby North-Seymour, Mike Little, was in the school to hear his leader's announcement.

Incumbent Conservative MP Andrew Saxton (who will run in North Vancouver this time) arrived in an SUV with his name all over it, inspiring a chorus of boos from the protesters. Undiscouraged, Saxton was quick to report the PM's announcement on his website.

Run-through of a campaign script?

The Prime Minister evidently slipped onto the Seycove campus via a footpath to the rear of the building (unless he arrived unseen in one of the Escalades), and was soon ensconced in the school gym. He was introduced by Industry Minister James Moore and Andrew Saxton, parliamentary secretary to the minister of finance. As shown on CBC streaming video, the students sat in the gym bleachers behind the PM, who was facing the cameras and a number of listeners who had presumably been invited.

Apart from a perfunctory thank-you to the school's students and staff, Harper took little notice of the students. After some general self-congratulation about how well Canada had survived the crash of 2008, he announced that the Canada Student Grants program will now cover job-training programs as short as 34 weeks, down from 60 weeks.

The students, some mysteriously wearing white hardhats, offered perfunctory applause but their expressions, like Harper's, ranged from bored to apathetic. This must have been a letdown for them after all the fuss and wired suits.

Most of the students, after all, will be off to Capilano University or Simon Fraser University or the University of British Columbia after they graduate; grants to pay largely for programs at private career colleges will not much reduce their impending post-secondary debt loads.

The assembled media asked a couple of perfunctory questions about Mike Duffy, not about the grants program, and Harper replied with a perfunctory bilingual "case is before the courts."

What the media didn't ask was why the PM had bothered to fly across the country to announce a very minor goody for a very few students. Did James Moore and Andrew Saxton need the scrap of media exposure this non-event would trigger? If so, does that mean that even in right-wing ridings like the North Shore and Port Moody-Westwood-Port Coquitlam, Conservatives feel insecure?

Or is this just a preliminary run-through of the 2015 campaign script, with the curtain going up on the real political theatre only after months more of rehearsals at non-events like today's?

If so, the opposition understudies out on the street had better rehearse more than just the same old tired chants and slogans.  [Tyee]

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