The Old Man and the Stairs: A tale of civic bureaucracy and the public sphere

When grumpy-old-man cum guerrilla civic activist, Adi Astl, decided to take on City Hall–or rather, give up on City Hall–by building a set of stairs into to a local park recently, he could hardly have imagined that he would end up as something of an international folk hero. Astl proudly showed off his handiwork to local news crews and journalists earlier this week in a park near Toronto’s Islington and Bloor neighbourhood. Astl clearly believed he’d simply addressed a simple problem with a common sense, inexpensive solution; I suspect the rest of us believed this was a quaint local story with a lot of a libertarian bent that made for some fun local news. After all, this genial 73-year-old had managed to do for $550 what the City claimed it couldn’t do for less than $65K. Turns out, the story resonated on a whole bunch of levels. Big Bad City said the stairs had to go, citing public safety, (but everyone knows that means they’re worried about liability), and suddenly a bit of local-interest fluff was national and then international news. This was the stuff of archetypal narrative-making: a kindly grandfather up against the evil bureaucracy of the Official City.

I first heard about the matter on the Young Urbanists League’s (YUL) Facebook page on July 19. It didn’t strike me as much of a story, but I wondered in the comments why the city couldn’t just put up a “use at your own risk” sign, rather than going to the effort of tearing the stairs down. Seemed easy enough. After all, Toronto is built on ravines, and all over the place there are unofficial spaces that get re-jigged for human access by locals. No big deal.

In fact, the episode reminded me of how my neighbours in my own East York hood had done just that just a couple of years earlier. There is a school directly on the other side of a ravine space at the foot of our local street. It goes without saying, people don’t want to have to go all the way around up to the main street and back down in order to access the school and the public park that is attached to it on the other side of the swampy wild space. So people threw down old tires and planks of lumber to make a shortcut which is easier to traverse. Occasionally city crews would come by and clean up the space, but within weeks the gerry-rigged footpaths would reappear.

As fate would have it, one day a city crew and a bunch of trucks showed up, and a few hours later the formerly wild terrain had been weed-whacked, and some railway-tie frames filled with gravel and wood chips were left in place. The footpath was not wheelchair accessible, and there was certainly no lighting nor handrails. There was a sign hung on a nearby fence that stated the path was not maintained, as it is a natural ravine,  and warned users to proceed at their own risk. Since I used the path daily, it was a welcome improvement. I tripped on the ties a couple of times because the nature of ravines is to constantly be moving, but it was way better than getting soakers and having to grab onto tree roots in order to get up the awkward hill.

That day when the city finally relented and gave the ravine crossing its rustic makeover, I happened to be writing a paper for a conference for the Canadian Association of Theatre Researchers (CATR), and I was re-reading Michel De Certeau’s famous 1980 essay, “Walking in the City” from his book The Practice of Everyday Life. De Certeau begins by looking down at NYC from the 110th floor of the World Trade Centre, imagining himself to have an objective view of the city, its streets, and the people passing through. But what he sees from that Icarus-type vantage point is simply the official city, the city organized by city planners and maps and buildings. To understand the city, he needs to walk in it with the other walkers, and by walking re-write it—that is, live it. The idea of stability here is exposed as a visual fiction propped up by the past; what is revealed is a quotidian fluidity enacted by city dwellers, who both accept and subvert the official spaces of the city. “Its present invents itself, from hour to hour, in the act of throwing away its accomplishments and challenging the future” (91). De Certeau contends that city walkers make use of the imposed structures of city planners (i.e. roads, maps, bylaws), who necessarily function by the fiction of wholeness, but a city’s walkers/voyeurs are constantly re-writing what has been traced/recorded/mapped. Things like informal footpaths and shortcuts eventually make themselves part of the official vernacular of the city form. For De Certeau, walking and its subsequent official mapping, using the city, creating footpaths, which eventually all become part of the official city, are all part of the paradoxical discursive act of ‘local authority,’ “a crack in the system that saturates places with signification” (106).

When the city crews left my local hood and its newly-minted footpath, I was a bit thrilled to note how right De Certeau had actually been. So my response to the Old Man and the Stairs story these many years later was mostly a shoulder shrug. This story was exactly about the discursive activity of cities. Really not a big deal at all.

As much as I hate to admit it, I was clearly wrong about the not-a-big-deal part. Within hours this story seemed to be preoccupying social media. For me that means the pundits, politicians, and other political nerds in my twitter and FB feeds. I follow people from across the political spectrum, and it turns out everyone seemed to have an opinion on this one. What was going on, I wondered? Why do people care this much?

Well, part of the answer is the very archetypal aspect I mentioned above. The other part has to do with the libertarian bias of the original story by right-wing Toronto Sun writer Sue-Ann Levy. Her article is rife with Levy’s well-known anti-union, anti-big-government rhetoric. The problem is that when the likes of CTV picked up the story, they only partially corrected for the bias. Mayor John Tory, in the way only he seems to be capable of doing it, managed to irritate both the right and left with his official statement on the matter: the libertarians thought he should have shaken Astl’s hand and had his back against the evil City unionized bureaucrats; the progessives felt he’d thrown city workers under the bus. Still, the mayor echoes many who are “not happy that these kinds of outrageous project cost estimates are even possible.”

When I look back at the original (public) YUL post that introduced me to this story, I see that lots of people who are actually trained in these types of city planning activities quickly wondered what practical and structural issues would call for such a high cost to replace what was basically a piece of rope and some paving stones that someone had bashed in place. My friend Josh Hind (@joshuahind) who has project managed some of the biggest entertainment events for the city, including the 2015 PanAm games main stages, provided the most useful hypothetical breakdown of why that might happen that I’ve seen so far. Meanwhile, citizen-journalist, Shannon McKarney (@zchamuseems to be the only reporter who actually cared to look at the stairs themselves. While mainstream outlets were focused on Astl’s personal story and his archetypal struggle, these two citizen journalists were looking at the physical structure itself and its meaning. Michael Laxer also posted a story on the Left Chapter blog, and there are more expert opinions in the comments about the possible physical requirements for the ravine space Astl try to tame.

What effectively happened was a battle between the storybook narrative and the practical considerations that the likes of Hind and Mckarney noted, and it’s this dialectic that managed to scoop up a lot of thoughtful people and sent the story into the digital viral stratosphere.

“When you use ‘common sense’ as your argument, you’ve lost. ‘Common Sense’ is a battle cry from those who don’t wish to interrogate their possibly faulty assumptions.”

In an exchange with Hind, I argued “The 65 – 150K thing is ridiculous. Common sense isn’t always wrong (though it very often is). This was some kind of weird performance art that expresses a frustration with a type of civic bureaucracy, which I guess is doing its job because I’m talking about 8 stupid steps in Ebobicoke on FB. If indeed there is an accessible entrance to the park 120 paces away, then all those infrastructure costs are disingenuous. Then they don’t need all that lighting and grading.”

After I wrote that, I spent a fretful, sleepless night thinking about what I’d said–over what I considered a silly fluff piece to boot! I wasn’t worried about bickering with Josh–it’s what we do, and it’s part of the fun of our friendship, and performative frustration part is pretty much the basis of this essay. But oh, that “common sense” remark bugged me. When you use “common sense” as your argument, you’ve lost. “Common Sense” is a battle cry from those who don’t wish to interrogate their possibly faulty assumptions. They use it for, oh pick your favourite issue right now: Gender neutral bathroom? ‘Everyone knows there’s only two biological sexes, it’s common sense.’  It basically means that you’re not sure why you think you’re right, but your gut says so, so there. But that simply cannot good enough. And it’s not to say that our impulses and gut reactions don’t matter, because they do, a whole lot. Common sense reactions by non-specialists should not be dismissed out of hand; especially in this situation, citizens are really asking for more information.

“Somewhere in the debris of the social media bickering, the hot takes, and the multiple points of view, we’ve described to ourselves the city we want.”

Lots of people, including the mayor and Astl’s city councillor, Justin Di Ciano, all agree with what is likely a popular sentiment: $65 – 150k for a simple set of access stairs to some allotment gardens? WTAF?! There is such a general distrust of “professionals” and “experts” in our culture, and yet, when someone gets hurt there’s a hue and cry for more regulation on the most mundane of things. I can see why those of us who understand the importance of our experts and professionals have an urge to speak up and remind the rest of us of what they do. It also made a lot of sense when Hind said to me that he was disappointed “to see otherwise progressive people fall over themselves to get on the ‘$65K is crazy’ side of the argument without even considering why the estimate is high.” But the patronizing tone that has emerged in some of the conversations around this story is troublesome, and does little to create trust between non-specialists and experts.

My point is, we should see conversations that erupt like this one has as a productive part of citizenship. I think this is what De Certeau means when he says ” Far from expressing a void or describing a lack [the discursive practice of living the city]… creates such. It makes room for a void. In that way, it opens up clearings; it ‘allows’ a certain play within a system of defined places” (106). Somewhere in the debris of the social media bickering, the hot takes, and the multiple points of view, we’ve described to ourselves the city we want. I’m not certain it’s particularly clear yet what that city looks like, and I’m not sure I’d be ready to jump on a bus cobbled together by someone’s retired great uncle. But some old dude wanted to be able to walk up and down a hill to access his allotment garden this week, and somehow a lot of the world cared. Chalk one up for grumpy old men.


EDIT JULY 23: added link to Left Chapter Blog.





Andrea Horwath and Why Black Was Not the New Orange.

Every day during the 2014 Ontario election I checked the news first thing in the morning. And almost without a miss, there was some new whacky turn of events. From the get-go this election was a head-scratcher! Why on earth, most of us wondered, did the NDP leader, Andrea Horwath, choose to defeat a very progressive budget–one that most NDPers would have embraced? Why, we all mused, would she risk giving up her status of holding the balance of power in parliament? Strategically, it seems to make no sense, and most commentators have surmised that Horwath experienced some fit of hubris that led her to think she could somehow defeat this government and come out on top as some sort of populist. But that’s not what I witnessed. On the face of it, this episode seems a mystery. I certainly did not see a woman possessed with a hunger for power. Indeed, at every step she seemed bewildered and unsure of where exactly to pitch her party’s position. Occasionally, Horwath seemed self-possessed and eloquent, but mostly she appeared listless and to be making it up as she went along.

After the debate, I suggested in one of my posts that Horwath looked like she was dressed to attend a funeral. Horwath seems to favour dark colours in stark contrast to Kathleen Wynne who embraces bright colours and bold prints. If you see Wynne on the campaign trail or during a news story, I can guarantee you someone will ask me, Did you see what Wynne was wearing?! She’s by no means a fashionista, but she is a woman who loves colour and loves to reflect her personality through her clothing (although, I think her stylists failed her as well on debate night). I suspect that since Horwath isn’t a size 2 she’s fallen into the unfortunate group of women who believe they have to wear dark, solid colours in order to appear “slimmer”–or, indeed, she may not wish for people to be commenting on her clothing at all. Of course all of this is fair enough, but when politics is almost as much about personality and likability as they are about policy, a little bit of colour would have helped her an awful lot here. To me her choice of sombre attire almost everywhere she went was a sad foreshadowing of the election results ahead. She looked and sounded lacklustre, and it was uncomfortable to watch. But I still wonder whether more was going on than meets the eye.

There is no doubt that the choice to bring down government at this time was a curious one, and I actually did not expect it to come about over that particular budget. But if we view the situation more closely, it becomes more evident why Horwath felt she needed to make the move she did. I think we owe this past election to the strategists on Wynne’s Liberal team. If we think about it, Wynne had a very flimsy mandate to continues as premier. The party is wracked with those gas plant scandals; they were a minority government; and typically when a new leader takes over a party they seek a fresh mandate through an election. It’s obvious that Wynne could not be seen to be the one to trigger such an event–she carried too much baggage from the McGuinty government. But she really did seriously need to have a proper mandate, either by being whole-heartedly backed by the NDP or by winning a fresh election. Horwath’s back was against the wall, and she was stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. How long could she get away with supporting a Liberal government and still be taken seriously? But how could she realistically vote down such a progressive budget? I have no idea what the inside scoop on this one is, but my guess is that her strategy team assumed that between Hudak’s unpopularity and Wynne’s scandal-ridden party, another minority government would be inevitable, and Horwath could reasonably still continue to hold the balance of power and still save face about propping up an almost-invalid Liberal government. It didn’t work out that way, but I’m not sure that she had a lot of choice in the matter.

Consider declining your ballot, coz 100 years ago I wouldn’t have been allowed to vote in the June 12 Provincial Election.

I’ll admit, I’m a big enough nerd about this stuff that I find voting to be an emotional event. Ontario Elections is using electronic scanners this year, so it’s not quite as romantically analog as putting your ballot into the ballot box, but I still found myself “verklempt” by the gravity of that moment when I voted last week in the advance poll. I’m partially so emotional because I always remember that my great-grandmothers were born without the right to vote in Canada, and certainly no woman could have enjoyed my right to vote just 100 years ago. Women in Ontario got that right in 1917.  I don’t want to be overly romantic about this. The history of the Canadian women’s suffrage movement is, in fact, complex and fraught with White racism and a push for prohibition, but progress happens in baby steps.

The upcoming Ontario provincial election has a lot of people seeing… well, no colour at all when it comes to party branding. Every casual conversation I have with friends and acquaintances includes a discussion about how much everyone hates all of the parties and their leadership. Like I said, I voted already in the advance poll for my riding’s NDP incumbent, and I’m happy with my choice. In my case, the Westminster System is working properly. I have a well-respected MPP, Peter Tabuns, who also happens to have a really awesome Liberal candidate on his heels. The Liberal, Rob Newman is also a decent and engaged candidate, so I happen to live in a “good” riding, where there’s a choice and a proper election happening. My vote is for the local MPP and not the provincial party. But not everyone–even some of the most politically engaged people I know, have such a lucky choice this time around.

A lot of people are feeling utterly dismayed, and I’m hearing some people muttering about not voting at all. This is highly alarming to me. Since it’s such a moving experience and one of my rights that I value dearly, I cannot fathom not exercising that right. So if you find yourself in this position, please consider DECLINING YOUR BALLOT. Indeed, yesterday’s Huffington Post posted this article on how one might go about that. As well, Steve Paiken–best known as the host of TVO’s The Agenda, and also the country’s go-to major political debate moderator, mentioned in his closing remarks after the lacklustre Ontario debate that one could decline her ballot if she wasn’t happy with any of the choices. So there’s a bit of a grass roots movement happening around this issue.

In Canada, we have a formal mechanism that allows us to express our dissatisfaction with all of the political party choices. We can formally decline the ballot. You’re probably starting to hear about Section 53 of the Ontario Elections Act by now:

Declined ballot

53.  An elector who has received a ballot and returns it to the deputy returning officer declining to vote, forfeits the right to vote and the deputy returning officer shall immediately write the word “declined” upon the back of the ballot and preserve it to be returned to the returning officer and shall cause an entry to be made in the poll record that the elector declined to vote. R.S.O. 1990, c. E.6, s. 53.

If you really feel like you have no choice this time around, please still exercise your right to vote. Just not bothering to vote at all does indeed send a message, but it’s impossible for us to differentiate between the simply not-engaged and the enraged. Your “boycott” would be indecipherable. On the hand, destroying your ballot simply results in your vote not being counted. Ironically, in that case, your attendance at the voting poll would include you in the overall voters turnout statistic. So say your most hated party wins a minority government (another minority is most likely this time round), your destroyed vote won’t go to any one party, but the statistic will show a higher voter turn-out. By destroying your ballot you would be indirectly saying that the party in power was in fact the will of the voting population. So formally declining your ballot is by far the best choice if you honestly feel that you cannot bring yourself to vote for any of the parties on the menu this time.

Please do exercise your right to vote. It’s important, even if only to register your disgust.


A brief moment of mourning for the lost art of the local candidates’ debate

There’s nothing that will burst your bubble more quickly ,when you’re practically obsessed with an election, than to attend a local all-candidates meeting. I spend A LOT of time on social media, following the local candidates and the provincial leaders, and I interact with all kinds of folk, from journalists to small-town, 0ne-issue activists online. I presently volunteer for my riding’s NDP incumbent candidate for the provincial election, Peter Tabuns–he is one super-well-loved guy! For fun, I sit around sipping wine with my friends over BBQ’d goodies, while we discuss the latest election news. So you could hardly be surprised that I kind of just assume that–well, if not exactly a majority– lots and lots and lots of people eat, think, and drink elections while they’re on.

I know they don’t. But I always fantasize I’ll find my ilk at the all-candidates meeting. But then you show up and there’s 10 people there, or more candidates than there are audience members. I actually didn’t even know about my local #TorDan meeting until two days ago. AND DID I MENTION I VOLUNTEER FOR THE INCUMBENT?! Something weird has happened over the past 20 years or so. People stopped being engaged, and everything, AND I MEAN EVERYTHING  has become about spin, marketing and the look. And hey, there’s no one person more interested in those things than me! But the very strength of the Westminster parliamentary system is that it is, in fact, quite democratic. It may not be the best system for today’s Canada, but it does have mechanisms in place for a very democratic process. Still it needs to be activated and participated in in order work properly.

So the local candidates’ meeting is where you get to have your voice heard. People say that politicians don’t care about them? Well that’s the point of our system. So that there’s someone there in the midst of the parliamentary chaos who can at least recognize your face. They exist to represent you, whether or not you voted for them. They are one step away from the leadership of the country or province–indeed, they are part of that leadership. But you do actually need to show up and let them know you even exist! We get so confused with so much American media that we can easily forget that we don’t vote for the leaders of our province or country; we vote for our local representative. I can’t argue that it’s the best system for today, but it’s actually really not so bad if you take advantage of it. Think about it. If you introduce yourself to your local candidate, you are only one degree of separation from the leader of the province or the country. That’s a pretty good deal.

Alrighty. So enough of that soap boxy stuff. Speaking of soap, as I said, my little bubble is appropriately burst. I went to my local all-candidates meeting tonight. I was a few minutes late, but I didn’t think it would matter, given all the thousands of people that would be packed into the gymnasium, who would possibly notice?! So there I was clop-clop-clopping in my awesome vegan Australian heels, while one of the candidates was answering a question. Everyone turned to look. I mean, there were maybe 25 people at best in attendance. I sat at the back feeling like a major jerk.

The Candidates were perched on uncomfortable-looking school-chairs up on one of those awesome mid-20th-century proscenium arch stages. I figured I couldn’t actually be all that late since only three of the candidates was actually on stage. But then I realised that the others just weren’t coming, including the Conservative Naomi Solomon and the Green candidate Rachel Power whose nomination form I signed because I so want a Green presence in the province. I was there to support my candidate Peter Tabuns, the NDP incumbent, and I was pleased to get to see the Liberal candidate Rob Newman, who is a terribly likable fellow. The third guy was from the Canadian’s Choice Party–they seem to think they’re American, and keep referring to themselves as the Independent party. Anyway, his name is John Richardson, and he is every bit a cowboy. I’m so glad I went to this meeting just for him!

Without getting back on my soapbox, let me just say that this was just the kind of theatre I love. Richardson answered every question lobbed his way by standing up, slumping to one side after hiking up his belt and heaving a great sigh. I can’t tell you how endearing I found this gentleman. He has a hint of John Wayne in his cadence, and of course, he came in knowing that anyone who would bother to show up for this type of a meeting is probably not going to vote for him anyway. But he answered the questions, with that heaving sigh, and the OBVIOUSNESS that such a true conservative was never going  to go for such and such or whatever. But hey, he wants to abolish post secondary tuition, which does cause me to prick up my ears. Of course, he is a conservative, so he’s thinking in ROI–and so other conservatives should really lend an ear here. Unfortunately, Richardson is a true fiscal conservative, so the cost of free tuition would be paid for by pretty much taking the state out of every social institution we tend to hold dear in Canada. For instance, he doesn’t feel that the state (or province) should be in any way involved with child care. You know this schtick. Richardson pretty much had the same approach. He just came shy of saying “Ditto” to every question. But he was a good sport. And I’m fond of him.

The Liberal candidate is an eminently likable fellow. He’s that guy when your BFF texts and says she’s met “the ONE” that you hope she’s talking about. He was decked out in some nice relaxed-fit jeans and a well-pressed, casual, button-down cotton shirt that appropriately mimicked the colour of a fresh-burst early-summer cherry. Rob Newman actually might give Peter Tabuns a run for his money. Unlike the affectation of boredom that Richardson sported, Newman has the energy of someone who really digs politics, and he does have a reasonable expectation of winning the riding. He really wants this gig for realz. And his enthusiasm was palpable in every answer he gave. He has an earnestness that I’m inclined to like. And he’s smart. I think he handled some of the questions tonight better than Wynne did during the Big Debate–but the stakes were lower for him, so I don’t want to overstate things. He did come up with a rather innovative idea over the course of the evening. I’m not sure where or if it will stick in a Liberal platform, but he floated the idea of a capital gains tax break for non-home-owners. It was a bit of sideways response to a concern about the lack of affordable housing in our riding, but he segued into the idea with some pretty awesome skill. I was, as usual, trying to tweet with my god-awful Samsung Galaxy Note 3, so I almost tuned out of this topic, since it had been covered earlier in the evening. But then, BAM! Rob drops the tax-break bomb. It’s an interesting idea that would take the rabid desire for home ownership out of the equation for a lot of people who are just trying to save for their old age. It is a rather ingenious fix to the overheated housing market–would that help affordable housing… that’s not so clear. But I am taken–although not convinced–by Newman’s desire to take some of the fervid obsession off of housing as a retirement savings plan.

As I said, I’m volunteering for Peter Tabuns, so I can’t likely be as objective about him. I took a lot of time and talked to lots of people before I chose who to volunteer for. I didn’t take the choice lightly–in fact it was a sobering choice. I don’t see myself as a lifelong NDPer (although I normally tend to vote that way). So to me Peter is a statesman. When I met him, I felt like I was in the presence of someone who has seen a lot of the world. He has been in the trenches. His performance tonight was like a pro playing in an off-season tennis match. Genial and friendly, but truly out of the other guys’ leagues. Honestly, he was a little bit boring from a certain standpoint, but only because he understands the mechanisms of parliament and local politics so intimately that his answers to questions tended to be process and policy based.

On the other hand, I do keep hearing from people that they never see him or hear from him. I’m not sure how to remedy that. I do know that Rob, Naomi and Peter have been pounding the pavement pretty hard and that they all have campaign offices in the hood. So if they haven’t managed to get to you, then please do drop by their offices to get to know them. I’d be happy with any of the three as my MPP. I went for Peter for the reasons I’ve stated. I think Rob is a gem, and I hope we get to keep him around. Naomi is obviously a long shot, but is a really lovely person from what I can tell so far…. and I hope I’ll get to know her more.

I tried my best to live-tweet with my god-awful Samsung during the meeting. If you’re interested, check out the #TorDan on twitter. Please do comment below and I’ll do my best to answer questions.





In the Ontario Debate, it wasn’t the leaders’ stylists who won the day.

During the one and only candidates debate for the present Ontario provincial election, the twittterverse went a little wild. And since a broadcast debate is, for all intents and purposes, a visual platform, it didn’t take long for those of us watching to get right at critiquing how awful the thing looked.

Well, the set was lacklustre at best, but okay. Its designer used a monotonous tone of lavender and grey that the leaders’ stylists curiously at best chose to mimic, and in the NDP’s case, chose to completely ignore! The Toronto Star’s movie critic (huh? Oh well, everyone’s a critic!) said that” The set looked like it was dressed by the same colour-blind trolls who made the Coxwell subway station.” I don’t entirely agree. In fact, the palette would have worked well as a backdrop to each of the parties’ colours. I’m not sure it’s fair to blame the set, when it’s the stylists who failed to make use of what they were given. Kathleen Wynne looked like she was meant to fade into the background, so much so that all we could really see were her curiously flailing hands and those god-awful horn-rimmed glasses she insists on wearing (she desperately needs different frames! cf my first post.)

Someone joked on twitter that Hudak looked like he was auditioning for the role of an undertaker. Again. Don’t get where that dude was coming from. I took one look at Horwath and thought, Is she going to a funeral after this?! This set was practically screaming for the hipster-friendly colours of the NDP, and Horwath’s stylists sent her out in black? I’m utterly baffled by Horwath’s people’s choice. During the establishing shot, I almost thought the set had been designed in the NDP’s favour. I can’t understand why they didn’t optimize this opportunity. Costume–I mean, attire means a lot more than people seem to realise!

Not surprisingly, within nano-seconds of the debate’s moderator, Steve Paiken, announcing that this debate had been uncharacteristically light on time (!!), [and he followed up with the directive that we should all vote even if we choose to decline the ballot (whoa subtext!)], partisan tweeps were claiming that their candidate had “clearly” won the debate. The TV spin continued on the panels that followed the debate, so it was hard for an innocent bystander to get a sense of who might have “won”. I think maybe the consensus on this one is: “none of the above.” The suffered murmurs amongst my progressive friends was that Hudak had won. I’m not so sure that’s true. But he did do the least worst–or something to that nature. I think part of that sub-conscious win can be ascribed to his costume–erm, attire. There’s not a lot guys can really reasonably do in this situation, and Hudak’s team did… well, okay. He sported a dark suit and tie that almost matched the dominant lavender of the set. This is an effective use of colour. Where Wynne faded into the set, and Horwath just blatantly rejected all colour, practically screaming, “I’m no fun!”, Hudak complemented it. The use of colour created a subconscious sense that he “belonged” or was an essential element of the evening, connected naturally to his surroundings. Costume designers pull this trick all the time in theatre and film design. It’s not an accident, and the je ne sais quoi sense about Hudak winning the debate has something to do with this.

I’ve got more on the debate in progress. Please stand by….


Canadians and Australians all sound alike anyway…

Oops! It seems that BBC can’t tell the Canadian accent from the Australian one. The Huffington Post recently posted this article where a BBC graphic reveals that the BBC might be a little confused about Canada and Australia’s leadership:

To be fair to the BBC, it was probably easier when Australia had a Prime Minister who was a whole different gender. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but the two Prime Ministers do look an awful lot alike. They even part their hair the same way and wear similar spectacles.

English: Stephen Harper, Canadian Prime Minister

English: Stephen Harper, Canadian Prime Minister (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Would the Real Stephen Harper Please Stand Up?!

Things have not been pretty in Ottawa lately. The senate scandal is dogging the Conservatives; there’s been some mud-slinging at Justin Trudeau for accepting speaking fees; and even Tom Mulcair seems to have “Dukes-of-Hazzarded” himself across Parliament Hill one day!

In an earlier post, I examined the performances of both Mulcair and Harper during question period. And there’s no doubt that both men were putting on well-studied performances. Interestingly, someone mentioned in passing to me that Prime Minister Harper seems to be some sort of a sociopath. But if you agree with my previous post, Harper’s fidgety performance on the first day of Mulcair’s line of questioning would certainly belie that notion. Still, Harper rarely seems to show any emotion in public, and often seems staid and awkward even. It’s a stance that does not increase his likeability outside of his base.

Someone on his communications team seems to want to change some of this. In the midst of the rising heat over Senator Duffy’s “gift” of $90,000 (CAN) from Harper’s chief of staff, Nigel Wright, a YouTube video appeared and quickly went somewhat viral–well, in the political circles I follow. It even made the mainstream news.

The video was shot the night before the last election and reveals a side of Harper that most people don’t really know about. He is seen doing various comedic impersonations of past Conservative and Reform leaders, including Brian Mulroney, Joe Clark and Preston Manning. Some found it mean-spirited, but many were surprised to see this side of our Prime Minister. Most pundits were a bit skeptical about the timing of the appearance of the video of course. It was a naked attempt to divert attention away from the dirty little scandal that continues to unfold in the senate.

Harper also made Canadian history when he (or at least a staff member) live-tweeted the recent cabinet shuffle. He also tweeted about his visit to Britain and Ireland when he attended the last G8 meeting. In this tweet, he appears drinking his own brew of Guinness. This did not end up being without controversy either, but it should be interesting to watch over the coming months how the Conservatives make use of these social media tools to offer up another face of our seemingly inscrutable prime minister.

Transparency: When Politicians Get Nekkid! (Part 2)

In my previous post, I wondered about how female and male nudity plays out for politicians. And I have to admit, where female nudity is sexualised, or even just viewed as artistic, I think male nudity plays out as comic relief within the political topography. There’s not really a lot of examples to pull from, of course, in Canadian history. We tend to be a culture that prefers to stay out of the bedrooms and goings-on of our public leaders–disappearing videos of certain alleged crack-smoking mayors notwithstanding. We also love nothing more than to poke fun at our politicians, and we love, love, love the ones who play along.

The popular TV shows This Hour Has 22 Minutes and The Rick Mercer Report are two vehicles that not only rabidly poke fun at politicians, but also encourage them to poke fun at themselves. So of course when Mary Walsh showed up at Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s home as Marg, Warrior Princess, and Ford reacted by calling 911, many of us watching found him ridiculous. We practically demand that our politicians have a sense of humour here in Canada.

rick mercer and bob rae skinny dip

Still from The Rick Mercer Report:

So a few years ago, when Rick Mercer invited Bob Rae to go fishing and discuss his candidacy as leader of the Liberal Party, Rae, who seems always to be a good sport, readily agreed. The segment is about 6 minutes long and picks up on the old Canadian stand-by joke about Canadians being northern fishing hicks. The Red Green Show was one of the longest-running Canadian series, and this theme was the mainstay of that show and was itself a riff on The Red Fisher Show. It’s also one of the one of the highest-grossing fundraising vehicles for PBS in the US where the show is super popular. [Full disclosure: I worked for the series for 12 years.] It stands to reason that fishing in the north somehow or another tickles our collective Canadian funny bone.

Rae is a seasoned politician, and he certainly has a keen understanding of Canadian sensibilities and clearly he has a great sense of humour, which probably comes with having so many years under his belt as a politician. But to me there is something eminently likeable about Rae. If you follow him on twitter [@BobRae48 ], you will get a sense of his personality. He reacts to world events with gravitas and keen understanding. He’ll also offer up play-by-play commentary on his favourite sportscasts, peppered with the occasional “Wahoo!” which always charms me to no end. So perhaps it’s not so surprising that at the end of the Mercer segment, when Mercer complains that they haven’t captured “that one memorable moment,” Rae offers up a hilarious solution–a skinny dip with Mercer!

Rae occasionally tweets about his sartorial deficiencies, but he certainly caught our eye with this–ahem–fashion choice. But to keep on track here. What are your thoughts? Could a female politician take the same comedic tack? Is it possible? The two examples I’ve offered up are 14 years apart. Could they be interchanged today or is male nudity something to laugh at while female nudity is still sexualised?

Transparency: When Politicians Get Nekkid! (part 1)

I recently quoted outgoing cabinet minister Steven Fletcher’s tweet, where he opined “I am a Conservative. I am a Traditionalist. I wish I left Cabinet in the traditional way—with a sex scandal!” Of course, in Canada politicians almost never get in trouble over sex scandals. Sure, there was the little brouhaha over Maxime Bernier’s dalliance with Julie Couillard who had known ties to The Hells Angels. But then you kinda have to reach back to the ’60s when the Munsinger Affair happened. There’s even some old joke about if American scandals involve a politician’s hand up a skirt, a Canadian scandal will involve a politician’s hand in the till.

And certainly, this seems to have proved true in Canada’s senate lately. By the look of things, more than one senator has had his or her hand in the cookie jar, and there appears to have been even more shenanigans going on with the Prime Minister’s chief of staff and Conservative Senator Mike Duffy. It’s not looking good for the government nor the senate at the moment.

Transparency has been the political theme of the day recently in Canada, so in that light, I thought I’d talk about a couple of politicians who literally bared all.

Kim Campbell, Canada’s first and only (so far) female Prime Minister, was a bit of a maverick politician. With roots in the wacky Social Credit party from BC, Campbell went on to be recruited to run as a Progressive Conservative for Vancouver Centre. She was a cabinet minister for Indian Affairs and Northern Development and then was Attorney General of Canada. She’s a lawyer and was a lecturer in poli-sci at UBC before all of that. So there’s no arguing that she’s a plucky outspoken upstart. She always speaks her mind, which in recent years, is something I’ve come to admire in her. I haven’t shared her political views, but as a woman political leader and role model, I think she’s someone to remember.

If you follow this blog, you know that I’m particularly interested in how women are treated about their image in the media, and Ms. Campbell, certainly created something of a controversy when a portrait of her (taken by Barbara Woodley) was released in 1992. The photo was actually taken in 1990, by Woodley, for a book on prominent women. Campbell had just picked up her Queen’s Counsel robes when Woodley arrived to take the photo. They were trying to figure out what Campbell should wear, when they both decided perhaps she could have her shoulders bare and just hold up her new robes.

By ’92, though, the landscape had changed, and then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was rumoured to be stepping down and Campbell was a likely candidate to run for the PC leadership. The photo also happened to be exhibited that year in the National Art Centre, and it  eventually appeared on the front page of the Ottawa Citizen. That’s when the minor controversy exploded. I remember it well. I thought the photo was quite attractive and artistic, but Campbell’s bare shoulders were quickly sexualised and she was accused of being an attention monger. She was and has always been an outspoken person, and she certainly walks to the beat of her own drum. But somehow showing a bit of feminine skin was seen as somehow degrading to her office and her authority.

Campbell is one of those politicians that I bemoaned about in my previous post. She has a tone and timbre that allows her to play in the boys’ club, and it’s an ability that I always felt disallowed me from ever thinking of entering that ring. So as a very young woman, I appreciated that she could both be feminine and a strong woman who could lead a country. It was dismaying at the time that the reaction to the photo ended up being so negative–even from the NDP, as Campbell recalls in this video interview for the CBC.

I wondered then and now how a male politician would have been treated. Even the thought of a bare-shouldered male politician holding up his robes makes me giggle, so I’m as bad as everyone else. My next post will look a bit closer at that topic.