My problem is it’s been nearly a year since the election and I still don’t know about 90 of these people,” I said to a veteran Liberal MP as his colleagues filed out of a hotel ballroom in Saguenay, north of Quebec City.
“I have the same problem,” the MP said.
Bonding was easier when the Liberal caucus didn’t even have 40 members in it. Now there are 182, and they are meeting amid the farms and fjords of Quebec’s Saguenay region to prepare for the fall sitting of Parliament. The one in which, they keep telling one another, the hard decisions will need to be made.
In the meantime, being Trudeau Liberals, they have team-building games. GUESS WHO, reads a sheet distributed to MPs as they arrived at the Delta Hotel. The rest of the sheet contains tidbits from the biographies of the 40 Quebec Liberal MPs. You have to guess which is which. Well, you don’t, but Liberal caucus members do.
“I was in a popular Quebec boyband.” That’s Peter Schiefke (Vaudreuil-Soulanges), who can still be found on YouTube, in a video from the 1990s, soulfully kissing a girl in a bikini as a member of InMotion.
“When I was young and didn’t speak much English, when tourists asked me for direction I would always say, ‘Just go straight ahead’ every time. Who knows how many tourists ended up in the wrong place . . . .” That’s Stéphane Dion. I feel like more Liberals wish they had known this anecdote when they were picking a leader in 2006.
It’s not all fun and games. If you know where to look, there are warnings against hubris everywhere. Half the caucus is staying at the Montagnais, down the street, where in 2002 an earlier generation of Liberals wrapped up a summer-long orgy of infighting and petty rivalry that marked the long prelude to a decade out of power.
It was at the Montagnais that Jean Chrétien, facing a rebellion from a party that had followed him to three consecutive majority governments, announced he would retire from office — in 18 months. Paul Martin had eagerly sought the resignation, had no idea what to do about the long fuse attached to it, and spent hours figuring out what to say. That was a fun meeting to cover.
This one is more businesslike. It is also vastly harder to get into. Hundreds of RCMP and Sûreté du Québec officers formed a cordon around the Delta on Thursday, more than I’ve ever seen for an event like this, far more than seemed warranted by the desultory clot of worried milk farmers who took turns reading speeches about trade policy to one another through a bullhorn.
But these days, if you wonder why security is heavy, there is probably a reason, and inside the layers of security the Liberals are in good spirits. Despite the steady drip of stories documenting questionable spending practices by Trudeau cabinet ministers. Liberals are pretty sure the rules will be fixed and the stories will go away. They had better see to it.
Justin Trudeau’s speech to the caucus before their lunch break was at least partly theatre for the scribes, who were allowed in to hear it, but his message was designed to fit this long twilight-summer moment between triumph and trouble. It’s getting late to celebrate a victory now nearly a year in the past, and the prime minister chose to urge his troops against complacency.
“In just the first two weeks of August last year, we had more than 73,000 conversations with Canadians across the country by going door-to-door. That’s impressive. But in all of 2016, we’ve had only 12,000 conversations with Canadians. Not only can we do better, but we must.”
One notes that today’s Liberal party counts these conversations, even now. But Trudeau’s point was not only about volume. “We should be proud of what we’ve accomplished, but never satisfied. After all, there is always more work to be done.”
Such as? “Climate change.” Climate change? “If we want to grow the middle class in Canada and ensure it prospers, we must prepare the transition to clean growth. And the path to that transition goes through innovation.” Trudeau mentioned water treatment in Nova Scotia and public transit in Montreal. “We make these investments, not because we want to, but because we must.”
Got it. “Let’s get back to basics. Knock on doors, meet with Canadians and listen more than we talk.” Later Thursday, the MPs had a boat cruise. Friday some will go kayaking. They will miss those moments when politics comes rushing back in.
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