Seventeen years ago today, my colleague Rob Benzie reminds me, Canada had its first Flag Day -- which prime minister Jean Chretien marked by putting a chokehold on a protester at Jacques Cartier park.
I have become convinced that everything we need to know about modern politics, or at least the kind we're living with today, was foretold in the events and the reaction that day. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, took careful note of how things unfolded and is applying some of the lessons today.
First, let me back up:
As Benzie noted in his tweet to me, the reporters dispatched to that Feb. 15, 1996 assignment were grumpy. It was cold outside, the event was a heavily choreographed affair -- part of a series of post-referendum efforts by the Chretien government to talk up Canadian patriotism and the flag. This particular strategy felt a bit hokey; more marketing than substance. Most of the reporters on the risers that day were far more interested in what the Chretien government was drafting by way of legal response to the near-loss by the federalists in the referendum a few months earlier. We were hoping Chretien might give us some hints.
In the crowd was a group of protesters, angry about cuts to employment insurance (sound familiar?). They were determined to disrupt the event and Chretien, eyes masked behind sunglasses, kept turning his head in their direction while the speeches carried on. Once the event was over, he leaped into the crowd, as he liked to do, to shake some hands. It didn't take a mind reader to see that he was irked by the disruption of the event. One of the protesters, Bill Clennett, got in his way, and ... well, the rest is documented.
Most of the reporters on hand that day, yours truly included, were not close enough to see what happened. We found it hard to believe that the Prime Minister really had manhandled a member of the public. Many of us were convinced that if it was true, the consequences for him would be serious. His wife, Aline Chretien, was also of the same mind, we later learned.
So we all went back to the National Press Building, where most of us were based, and waited to see the film from Global News. Sure enough, the proof was there. Some of us wondered aloud whether Chretien would have to resign.
How wrong we were. The PMO artfully put out the story that Mr. Clennett was a separatist; that Chretien was still rattled after the incident with the intruder at 24 Sussex a few months earlier. The CBC interviewed me about what I saw; I said something reasonably mild about how Chretien seemed to be out to prove something when he jumped in that crowd, and the Globe and Mail (where I worked at the time) was inundated with calls of support for what Chretien did. Way to take on those separatists and those lefty protesters!
Okay, so step now into the present day. While our current PM hasn't physically put anyone in a chokehold (thank goodness), he does recognize that the public will rally around strong-arm politics. The average voter today doesn't have much patience with the tut-tutting media and stands up and cheers efforts to put them/separatists/protesters/unions/the left in its place. Meanwhile, the media still keeps being surprised by the power of demonstrations to disrupt events (Occupy, Idle No More, etc.) Most of the political events that take place today on Parliament Hill are a mix of everything on display on the first Flag Day -- a combination of hokey, marketing-intended, staged events, with a heavy dose of patriotism. And the only thing that makes them interesting is the rare, visceral reaction or outburst in the midst of the scripting.
It's not just Conservatives who benefit from this bare-knuckle brand of politics either. A 40-year-old Liberal backbencher earned credibility last year by literally knocking out a senator from Quebec.
So let's raise a toast to Flag Day 2013 and its power, 17 years ago, to predict the future. And if your path is crossed by a man in a wooly hat, feel free to take matters into your own hands.