Raimey Gallant is putting on the record the question she wanted to ask Stephen Harper at a G8/G20 forum Monday but couldn't because of a process she believes was so stage-managed as to be insulting.
The 30-year-old student from Winnipeg's Red River College wanted to talk to the Prime Minister about the environment. She wanted to ask about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and she even censored herself by making her question a little tamer in hopes it would be picked. It didn't happen.
About 120 students from across Canada participated in the 45-minute session, which was moderated by Senator Mike Duffy, a former broadcaster. Not one question on the environment was asked and a question on the G8 maternal health initiative did not include any mention of safe access to abortion.
Rather, the majority of questions dealt with the economy and the post-recession recovery - an issue that Mr. Harper says is the focus of his caucus and cabinet. One student even asked Mr. Harper what he likes best about his job.
Anything beyond the economy, including issues frequently covered by the national media, is a "sideshow," the Prime Minster said.
"The whole sideshow thing, I think that insulted me the most," Ms. Raimey told The Globe today. "I was really upset by that. I find it extremely insulting because we are Canadians, too, and these issues are important to us. If our Prime Minister thinks they are sideshows - I mean this isn't a government of one."
And so what was to be a frank exchange of ideas between Canada's next leaders backfired on the Prime Minister. The story that's emerged from the session is one of tightly controlling the message as it seems the questions were submitted in advance to the Prime Minister's Office. PMO officials, however, deny they rewrote or reworked the questions.
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff jumped on this during his speech at a fundraising dinner in Toronto last night. "I ask you to dwell on this scene," he said. "A prime minister of Canada not being able to have unscripted conversation with young Canadians. … Don't you find it disappointing? I find it disappointing that the prime minister can't meet Canadian young people and take unscripted questions."
Calling the scene "pretty weird stuff," Mr. Ignatieff said it goes to Mr. Harper's character, who is "so insecure that he has to control everything including the unscripted encounter with his fellow citizens."
Ms. Gallant, who concedes she is not a Conservative supporter, has been in Ottawa for several days as part of the G8/G20 National Youth Caucus. Like other participants, she was asked to submit questions last Friday for the Monday. Here's what she proposed:
"In light of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the reluctance of the companies involved to accept responsibility, what new control measures for oil drillers will the Canadian government put in place to reduce the risk of oil spills in Canadian waters, and ensure the continuance of our marine ecosystems and the sustainability of our fisheries?"
She said she tried to put an "economic slant" on it, hoping that it would be answered. But it wasn't to be.
She wasn't the only one disappointed, either. Two students interviewed by Le Devoir, who did not want their names used, told the Quebec newspaper the questions they posed to the Prime Minister were re-written by his team.
They pointed in particular to the lone question on maternal health. "The initial question included mention of abortion but it as rewritten to remove the controversial passage," one of the students indicated, suggesting it was altered by the "people in Stephen Harper's office."
For her part, Ms. Raimey doesn't believe questions were rewritten by PMO officials, but she does believe the Mr. Harper's officials had the final word over which questions were asked. As a result, she says she doesn't want to continue her involvement in the youth forum.
With a report from Liem Vu in Toronto