Disaster and politics can be a volatile mix
A worker can be seen on the second floor of the damaged Algo Centre Mall in Elliot Lake on June 23, 2012. (Courtesy of Paul Kazulak)
In the spring of 1997, the Red River Flood hit. It was truly the flood of the century.
It was a terrible disaster, the worst to hit the people of Manitoba since the early 1800s.
Three people were killed. Half a million acres were flooded. Nearly 30,000 Manitobans were evacuated from their homes and damage costs reached close to $1 billion.
The flood was massive and officials were clearly overwhelmed. To cope, Manitoba’s government called in the armed forces, the RCMP and the Department of National Defence.
Now, at the time, I was three provinces away, in B.C. I had made the foolhardy decision to run as the Liberal Party candidate in North Vancouver where I lived. The Grits hadn’t won the riding in a generation, and the Reform Party MP had money and incumbency on his side. But I figured that with a solid national campaign and a lot of luck I might eke out a win.
Calling an election during the midst of the Manitoba flood was a mistake, I felt, but it wasn’t my decision to make. So the campaign kicked off.
One sunny day, I approached a door in a North Van apartment building. Behind it, my clipboard told me, was an elderly couple, longtime Liberal voters. I knocked. A kindly older woman answered the door. Before I could make my pitch, this is what happened.
“I know who you are, dear. You don’t have tell me,” she said, smiling sweetly. “And we think you and Mr. Chretien should be ashamed of yourselves, calling an election while the poor people of Manitoba deal with that flood. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I croaked.
“Good,” she said, and closed the door. And that was precisely the moment I knew I’d get my keester kicked, beaten decisively by a Reform Party candidate the Canadian Press called an “elf.”
Beaten by an elf. That unpleasant (but educational) doorstop encounter came back to me recently in the sad aftermath of Elliot Lake mall collapse.
Everyone in Canada knows about the catastrophe that has been unfolding in Elliot Lake, midway between Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury, in Ontario’s North. It has been a terrible, terrible tragedy. People have died, and many have been hurt.
Unfortunately, some in the media and in the political opposition have been looking for someone to blame in Elliot Lake. They’ve suggested Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and Prime Minister Stephen Harper should have hustled up there right away. To do what? We know not. But McGuinty and Harper have been lambasted by some for not travelling to Elliot Lake.
Jean Chretien, as I recall, travelled to Manitoba during the ’97 flood. “An infamous PR disaster,” the Montreal Gazette later intoned. A “photo opportunity stunt,” declared the Vancouver Sun. “Appalling insensitivity,” said the Edmonton Journal.
However, in the end, Chretien still won a majority — albeit a reduced one. Some of his western candidates (like, um, me) certainly paid a price. But the Liberal leader ended up with more seats in Manitoba than any other party.
The paradox, I remarked to my campaign team at the time, is this: If you don’t go to the site of a disaster, you’ll get hammered for staying away and being insensitive. And if you travel to the site of a disaster, you’ll get hammered for coming for a photo op and therefore being insensitive. You can’t win, in other words.
The best people to determine what politicians should or shouldn’t do are the people of Manitoba, or the people of Elliot Lake, or wherever. If they say come, you come. If they say stay away, you stay away.
In situations like Elliot Lake, or Manitoba, it’s the people on the ground who are the boss. What they say counts most.
Not anyone else.