Sean Michaels is the author of the novels Us Conductors, which won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and The Wagers.
It is day nine of the 2021 federal election campaign and the leader of the New Democratic Party is laughing as a woman explains to him how to win. We are in a board game shop in Montreal – “we” consists of me, the leader, his pregnant wife, and 25 miscellaneous aides, clerks, reporters and security staff. He said he wants a new game, so the employees are going through the motions, holding up boxes and explaining the rules for each. The campaign is 36 days long and this is how the leader is spending a chunk of one of them – not hammering out policy or meeting with economists, but visiting Villeray, buying dice.
Every four years – or fewer – we try to decide what’s important: is it what’s in our politicians’ hearts? What’s inside their heads? Or what’s published in their platforms? Would we rather elect a good person or a smart person or a heartless moron with a rigorously costed budget? Usually, we don’t seem sure. So we send our politicians around the country, we put them on TV, and we let their images and speeches and natural charisma buffet us around. It’s a terrible way to choose a leader and also, inconveniently, the best method we have.
The leader of the NDP is smaller than you’d expect. He is broad but not tall, possessing a fully three-dimensional beard and kind, quick eyes. Today he’s wearing white sneakers and an untucked button-up shirt, an aquamarine turban that instantly makes him one of the most recognizable politicians in the country. He is consummately thus – at ease with onlookers, generous with strangers, primed at any time to pronounce a prepared remark. His great weakness is that you can tell the lines are canned – he’s not so gifted that the politicking passes unnoticed. “Will you need a receipt for that?” the board-game clerk asks. “Yes,” he replies, and everyone laughs again, because of course he will – this is work, this is theatre, and everyone knows it, as the coins spill out of the leader’s hands and over the counter.
Politics isn’t abstract. It isn’t the pure exchange of ideas, debates by floating heads. State power is backed by physical violence and coercion, and its agents must move through this same space. Our leaders have bodies, with respective shapes and smells, and the way these bodies move discloses something of their minds. As the NDP leader walks around Villeray he poses with board games, ice-cream cones, locally brewed kombucha. He meets and holds people’s eyes. Whenever a shopkeeper tries to offer something on the house he argues gamely back and forth, like my zaidie used to do when my uncle tried to pick up the tab at the Mandarin. For a politician, every interaction is a calculation. Everything’s an arithmetic of impact, affect and downside risk.
Earlier in the day, at a news conference on climate action, the atmosphere is that of a community BBQ, intergenerational and merry. But it strikes me that this is a workplace. The man with his picture on the side of the bus is many of these people’s boss – a boss they seem to like. He pledges an end to fossil fuel subsidies – speaking without notes, alternating between languages – utterly contrived but also, in a sad way, more real. Once the cameras are running, the leader seems almost relieved. That he can do away with the artifice of the board game store. That he can make his motives explicit, and pretend a little less.
On another morning, the leader of the Conservative Party strides to a lectern accompanied by an ear-splitting sizzle of EDM-spiked rock ’n ’roll, like the music from an unwelcome Facebook ad. We are in a barren ballroom of the Intercontinental Hotel. It is 9:30 a.m. The only spots of colour are four Canadian flags. Everyone’s in blacks and military blues, their Conservative-branded masks pulled taut. There are so many grown-ups, I think. (I am 39 years old.) Men and women in suits, arms folded. Only the leader wears sneakers. Like the leader of the New Democrats, the Conservative leader is surprisingly small. He wears a ring on each hand. He is friendly and also stern. He reads from a teleprompter and something in his tone recalls the cadence and inflection of former U.S. president Barack Obama. This does not seem like an accident. He claims, “We are putting gangs on notice.”
This Conservative leader is not like certain other recent Conservative leaders. When he describes economic recovery, he mentions mental health. When he discusses violent gangs, he talks about giving their members jobs. He is cheerful. But when a journalist asks him about child-care agreements, the answer he gives does not conform to the question. When that journalist repeats the question, he gives the identical response. A second journalist steps to the mic – again with the same question – and again the same response, nearly verbatim, totally ignoring the query. The guile. I notice that whenever the leader speaks in French, the Obama in him falters. His tongue betrays the ruse.
Back across town, in Hochelaga, the leader of the New Democratic Party is handing out poutine. Is this pandering? Coming to Quebec to give out poutine? Yes, it is. Everyone’s in orange hats and aprons, blue sanitary gloves. There’s a food truck and a pair of white plastic tables, with potted plants and antibacterial gel. Why the plants? Because the function of this event is not to actually feed people: It is to convey the playfulness, good nature and implication of the leader whenever these images are broadcast. Plants communicate good taste, health and the environment. Eventually the leader tells us it’s time to sing a song. The words are “osez ensemble,” an NDP campaign slogan; the tune is Olé Olé, a Montreal Canadiens hockey cheer. According to superstition, this cheer should never be performed except when you are absolutely certain you will win.
The leader of the Bloc Québécois has a very thick neck. He is walking toward Jean-Talon Market in dusty shoes and polka-dot socks, with the gait of a nervous prizefighter or the survivor of a skydiving accident. He has a slight limp. If he were a dog he’d be a bulldog and he has described himself as the “guard-dog” of Quebec. It does not appear that anybody likes him – that is, anybody in his staff or among the area candidates. They treat him as you would treat a very smart, very strong, very vicious dog – a dog that is also your boss.
I do not think he trades on being liked. “If it’s good for Quebec, we’ll vote for it; if it’s bad, we’ll vote against,” he has said. I live in Quebec. I am grateful for the way the leader of the Bloc Québécois defends the virtues of this province and disappointed by the way he denies its faults. Today he talks about the importance of “buying local,” reading from folded graph paper. A fuzzy microphone has been thrust into his face. When he is asked about the other parties he responds with indignation about how the leader of the NDP thinks that all Quebeckers are racist. He really seems to believe this – not just that the rest of Canada believes that Quebec is racist, but that Quebec is not. That somehow, unlike any other principality on Earth, it has slipped the shackles of prejudice, bias and tribalism.
The leader of the Bloc Québécois leads us past towering cans of maple syrup, bushels of tomatoes, corn. He talks about how he knows this neighbourhood very well – he lived here for more than 10 years. He orders an ice cream, which he does not eat. He uses the facilities. Later, the leader stamps off back toward the campaign bus, journalists in tow. We have been walking for five minutes before he recognizes we have been heading in the wrong direction.
Canada’s official leaders’ debates are a unique exercise. Is there anywhere else in the world that expects its major political figures to debate in their second language for 120 minutes? It can be instructive – even revelatory – to see the machinery of rhetoric laid bare. For a speaker’s evasions to be rendered as awkward as their pronunciation of séquestration du carbone.
I am understandably excited. Upon arrival at the Canadian Museum of History, a photographer holds the door for me. I grin behind my mask. “Let’s go straight to the bar and skip this [crap],” he says.
Later, I stand among veteran journalists and wait for the leaders to arrive. The principal site of interest is a rainbow in the sky above the museum. It’s presumably an omen, but of what – and for whom? The reporters are bored, they are tired, they must stand here for hours – literally hours – owing to rules around the police cordon. Demonstrators from the Peoples’ Party of Canada have finally stopped shouting “Liberté!” Now they’re blasting Bob Marley. There are five anti-trans rights protesters, with grey faces and empty eyes. A journalist in a royal-blue suit characterizes the calling to which he has dedicated his life: “sitting outside of meetings where important things are happening, waiting for people to come out and tell us nothing.”
Even before the broadcast begins, the atmosphere in the debate hall is frosty. The leader of the NDP flexes his shoulders. The leader of the Bloc Québécois wiggles his hips, dances on the spot. He looks like a grenade that needs to go off. The leader of the Green Party prepares her notes. Every podium is equipped with a red pen and a blue pen, like a bad metaphor for electoral choice.
At the end of each debate, there’s a scrum – a moment when each leader must face the press directly, taking questions about what has just transpired. Oddly, in order to participate, journalists are obliged to miss the last 15 minutes of each debate – we get taken away together, past an explosives-sniffing dog. The scrums themselves have an odd dynamic, like an old couple’s fumbling attempt at BDSM: twerpy journalists pose assertive, even aggressive questions; the politicians quietly listen; then, as soon as they leave the mic, the politicians say whatever they want.
It only actually works when the politicians have nothing to lose – when they can answer honestly, as the Green Party leader seems to. “I’m here to educate, not to participate in confrontations,” she says with a disarming stare. I can feel a ripple of respect moving through the throng of hacks, but also a certain embarrassment. As much as the journalists admire her candour, they scorn it, too.
Eventually a lonely figure arrives at the top of the escalator. The leader of the Liberal Party moves alone through the late-night shadow. He is tall but slight, narrow-shouldered; he seems diminished from his knockout days and there is something ascetic in his manner. His dark eyes move around the room in search of a willing object, but I can’t tell if he’s really looking – if he sees or hears anything here through the cloud of what’s inside his mind. He looks preoccupied. The leader of the Conservative Party has said the Liberal leader “is in favour of division”; this is false. He said “he likes to blame everyone but himself”; this is true. But our country’s voters do not reward self-reflection. If the leader of the Liberal Party has regrets, or doubts about himself, he is – for the moment – too afraid to name them.
For most of this scrum, the leader operates on autopilot. Every statement ends with the same ponderous freezeframe-face, as if he is modelling for a terracotta bust. This is the familiar dodge and weave – a politician’s calculations. But when he is asked a question by a reporter from The Rebel, the leader’s eyes flicker. Something comes over his face. On screen later you could mistake the change for theatrics, or temper, but standing before him – not two metres away – I see something different. Relief. Here at last is a moment that requires no calculation. Here at last is a moment when the leader may tell the truth. Bluntly, briefly, he can be the person he once believed himself to be – adamant and good.
But then it passes. Nobody believes that truthfulness can win an election. We lack the imagination.
The member of Parliament for Papineau, Que., turns away and strides toward the elevator. He will go up or he will go down, who can say.
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