How the press gallery misread the country’s reaction to elbowgate

Ruth Ellen Brosseau

If denizens of Canada’s Parliamentary Press Gallery used the Victoria Day weekend to visit with family and friends back home, they will have noticed a vast gulf between their impression of elbowgate and the views of citizens at large.

Gallery reporters pounced on Prime Minister Trudeau’s gaff with alacrity rarely displayed during the dark decade of Harper. CBC reporter Catherine Cullen pronounced it “clearly the worst day this prime minister has had in office.” Many early reports ignored the role of the NDP in provoking the confrontation, and failed to indicate Trudeau’s elbowing of MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau was inadvertent—though the video makes this incontrovertible.

One-sided initial accounts were followed by editorials condemning Trudeau and declaring his honeymoon over. At Maclean’s, Paul Wells called his behaviour “loutish,” a “hissy fit,” and worse than anything Harper ever did in the House. (To his credit, Wells was one of the first to note the NDP were “buttering the bread of their grievance a yard thick.”) Aaron Wherry wrote that Trudeau’s misstep reflected such “character traits” as “impatience, impulsiveness, bravado, pugnacity.” He suggested it might become symbolic “of something deeply wrong with the Trudeau government.” Writing in The Guardian, the normally moderate Stephen Maher called Trudeau’s behaviour “thuggish.” And on it went.

Perhaps Parliament Hill regulars discounted the NDP’s juvenile jockeying to keep Conservative Whip Gord Brown from taking his seat because such stuff and nonsense is so commonplace in the House, but the public is not so jaded. In a widely shared blog post, NDP supporter Rob McCaghren of Nanaimo wrote:

Watching Tom Mulcair and his caucus create a wall of bodies with which to block Conservative whip Gordon Brown from getting to his seat for the vote on bill C-14 was like watching a clique of jocks blocking the new kid from getting to his locker. Or the shy kid from getting out of the washroom. It was weird, passive aggressive, and horribly childish….

While I can’t say PM Trudeau was in the right to cross the floor like he did, I absolutely understand why he did. Seeing this display of prepubescent posturing, he walked over, took Gordon Brown by the elbow, escorted him through a crowd of grown adults acting like children, and sent him on to his seat with a pat on the shoulder so the vote could go ahead. The way I saw it, it was a gesture of assistance–the NDP acting like brats, grinning and smirking while blocking the path between a whip and his seat, and the Prime Minister of Canada–an elected leader of the country who has the task of leading–comes over and puts an end to their silliness by getting Brown to his seat.

Press gallery reporters have been chafing under the PM’s extended honeymoon. They don’t like Justin nearly as much as the public does, and some were overly eager to take him down a peg.

In any case, Trudeau responded with a string of increasingly abject apologies for his odd behaviour, which is what the public wants in such a circumstance, while tone deaf opposition MPs milked the episode with quavering voices and offensive attempts to conflate the events with the deadly serious issue of violence against women.

Given the sexist slime that rains down on young women caught up in such events, I’m reluctant to criticize Brosseau. She has been an exemplary MP whose work and determination put the lie to the classist, ageist derision that greeted her accidental election in  2011. That makes it doubly disappointing to see her embrace the role of victim.

The best summary of the public reaction I’ve seen came in a public Facebook post by Cape Bretoner Molly Johnson:

1.  In Grade 9, my class and I travelled to Ottawa to see Parliament. We sat in on Question Period and I remember very clearly that we fourteen and fifteen year olds who could barely sit still were decidedly more mature than those on the floor. Parliament is not a civilized place. It could be, it should be, but for the most part it’s a bunch of bickering children. I’m fairly certain this is common knowledge, just it would seem, not to the Parliamentarians themselves.

2.  At Whole Foods one time, I was collecting a stack of baskets from under a register, and as I stood up and turned with them (perhaps a bit too exuberantly) I smacked an unsuspecting customer right in the chest. Being the sort of person whose default is to say I’m sorry regardless of who is at fault, I obviously apologized immediately, asked if she was okay, the whole rigamarole. As far as I could tell, she was pretty unscathed, but immediately saw she might benefit from my mistake. She demanded a manager and cried bloody murder about me till they gave her free parking or groceries or something. The first time I apologized, I absolutely meant it—I definitely didn’t intend to hit her. Funnily enough, the longer it went on, the less sorry I felt.

3.  Sitting on the subway one day, a person close to me got up abruptly, their bag swung wildly, hit my face, and sent my glasses flying onto the floor. They exited the car none the wiser, I eventually found my glasses, and despite feeling a bit disgruntled, carried on with my day. Two pearls of wisdom from my youth: Accidents happen + Don’t cry over spilt milk.

4.  There are actual people with actual problems in the world.

5.  For the first time in a long time, I see qualities in our Prime Minister which I know in myself, for better or for worse. I much prefer this to anything else currently on offer (except for Elizabeth May, she da bomb). I definitely prefer it to the soulless backroom dictatorship of one Stephen Harper. How wonderfully normal that our Prime Minister has recognizable emotions. How refreshing that he would take ownership of his actions, even when others share the blame. If I was Trudeau and this was my worst day in office so far, I’d pop some champagne.

I doubt Trudeau is popping champagne, but Wednesday’s fracas damaged him less and the NDP more than media coverage suggests.

The men and women who report on Parliament need to get out more.