Sketches: Inside the Belly of the Beast
by Darren Stewart
The Costumed Activists and The 22 Minute Assault
The first time I interviewed a cabinet minister one-on-one was during the launch of the Liberal election platform last November. In a conference room in a posh hotel in downtown Ottawa, Jean Chrétien spoke in bad French and worse English for 15 minutes about Liberal values, while his cabinet ministers, their aides, and an army of reporters looked on.
Shortly after the event a crowd of costumed activist dressed as various endangered species appeared at the door, but were blocked by security. The International Fund for Animal Welfare had rented a room for the night and had come down together in a nearby elevator.
A few flashes went off and there was a patter of chuckles as the animals were led away. They had intended to confront Environment Minister David Anderson and the Prime Minister for calling the election early and destroying the endangered species legislation that was at the time in its second reading in Parliament. Chrétien had scurried out with his pack of RCMP plain-clothed muscle as soon as he finished speaking, but Anderson was still milling about.
I approached him, introduced myself, and launched into an interview about the endangered species legislation's premature death. After a few minutes, Anderson's press secretary pulled him aside and whispered in his ear. Anderson looked up sharply, surveyed the room, and whispered back. The secretary turned to me and said, "get ready to wrap this up. You won't get any warning," and scurried off.
I continued the interview, but Anderson was visibly nervous and distracted, looking elsewhere, looking worried. Suddenly the camera crew from "This Hour has 22 Minutes" was sprinting toward us, waving me away. I stood to the side as Anderson was accosted.
"Mr. Anderson, you used to be fisheries minister, now there's no fish. Explain," said 22-minutes star Greg Thomey.
And so it went: the questions were nonsense and Anderson was stuck for something clever to say each time, though he tried to keep things fun and light. His press secretary hovered, trying to give him hand signals, and circled like a boxing referee, ready to step in and stop the sparring if things got out of control. By the time 22-minutes was done with him, the bedraggled minister was no longer interested in speaking with me, and sauntered off looking dejected. For the record, the piece made it on T.V. in a heavily edited format. I didn't see myself on the skirmish that aired.
One day a reporter from Southam let me in on a hot scoop. He dropped a stack of papers on my desk and let me look at them for a second.
"What do you make of this?" he asked, with a wily smirk.
The papers were printouts of E-bay pages. Stockwell Day had recently posted his notorious black and red wetsuit on E-bay, complete with autograph. The reserve bid, or minimum price, was $200. He would give the money to a breast cancer research charity. Sadly, my associate's story didn't go very far. I thought it would. His editors disagreed, though his story was printed in a few papers in the Southam chain.
A Manitoba-based vegetable supplier ended up buying the autographed wetsuit for about $600 (a similar suit unautographed would be worth about $120) and offered it as a prize for a raffle for those who donated to the Winnipeg Harvest Food Bank. The suit was given to a lucky couple during a Canadian Football League game. The couple told a Canadian Press reporter that they planned to give the suit to yet another charity. By press time, I was unable to track down the final destination of the suit
The Press Conference
This week Stockwell Day held a press conference and everybody went, thinking it would be an important announcement about uniting the country's right wing parties. Instead, Day announced that he would remortgage his house and give $60,000 to Alberta tax payers. Albertans recently footed his $800,000 legal bill in a defamation case against an Alberta lawyer.
The room was packed so I watched live on T.V. upstairs with a small crowd of reporters, too busy to be downstairs but too curious to let the event pass without scrutiny.
Stockwell Day apologized publicly for the first time, and broke down into tears three times. Each time, the press gallery, watching on T.V. upstairs, erupted in laughter. Each time the laughter was cut off sharply as Day regained his composure and began to speak again.
As soon as Day finished and welcomed questions, the reporters downstairs were upon him, and ruthless. It has never been clearer to me that the Canadian press institution has decided en masse that they loathe this guy.
"I'm just not getting this. Why are you apologizing NOW and not TWO WEEKS ago Mr. Day?" somebody shouted out in a sneering tone.
"What about the rest of the money paid in Alberta, Mr. Day?"
"Tell us: what EXACTLY are you apologizing for? You still haven't told us."
"If you knew it was wrong in the first place, then WHY did you do it, Mr. Day?"
Day was squirming, desperate, obviously wondering what he had to do to get any respect. All he'd done was speak out, early in his political career, against a lawyer for defending a known pedophile. Now he was mortgaging his house and dropping a huge wad of his own cash and being torn apart by the media for it. The reporters' contempt was not veiled-thinly or otherwise.
The bludgeoning went on too long.
Conversation between two veteran reporters overheard in the press gallery:
"You've been here just as long as me (20+ years). Have you seen anything like this?"
"No. This is weird. Leave it to Stockwell Day," head shaking, staring at the screen. "Weird."
"Do you actually think the party won't find some way of reimbursing this to him? He's not going to pay a cent of his own money."
"Do you really think so", pausing, looking at the screen. "That would be leaked and he would end up looking worse. Maybe he actually is going to pay."
I watched in awe, not knowing whether it was appropriate to feel sorry for Stockwell Day that day.
It reminded me of a keynote speech I'd seen a few months prior with Dan Savage, the famous gay sex columnist from Seattle. The speech ranged from bizarre and explicit sexual content, to dissecting and criticising the mainstream media to U.S. politics vs. Canadian politics.
One of Savage's lines resonated: "George W. Bush is nothing to watch. You guys have Stockwell Day!? Who is that guy? He's a real freak! I'd love to live up here."
Darren Stewart's day job will, this month, involve hovering in a helicopter over the ice floes of Newfoundland and watching baby seals be bludgeoned to death; which he will write about here.