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Protesters wait for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau to arrive at a campaign event in Bolton, Ont. on Aug. 27, 2021.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The moment every politician lives for is to be the object of an unfair personal attack. If possible, it should be vicious; ideally, it will involve his family.

The performance that follows is to a script dictated by decades of tradition. The politician meets the assembled press, the picture of dignity and resolve. “Say what you want about me,” he says, his voice hoarse with emotion. “But leave my family out of it.”

Such moments, alas, are rare. Political parties are usually scrupulous to keep the blows just low enough, without conferring upon their opponents that most priceless of political advantages: victim status.

So the enterprising candidate must be alert to opportunities arising from outside the political arena. Take, for example, the mobs of enraged anti-vax lunatics that have heckled and abused the Liberal Party Leader at campaign stops in rural Ontario.

That the mobs’ behaviour – seething with rage, chanting obscenities, some uttering racist slurs, even threats – was appalling is not in dispute. There is no excusing this conduct, or the hatred from which it springs.

But if you don’t think the Liberals spotted an opportunity in this – a heaven-sent, life-saving opportunity – you must be new to this game. Indeed, Liberal partisans were fairly gushing with excitement at the opening this presented: a chance to change the subject from the thousands of Afghan nationals Canada abandoned after the fall of Kabul, or the callousness of calling an election in the middle of it, or the sour and sullen tone of the Liberal campaign.

Almost immediately the Leader offered himself before the cameras. His performance was note-perfect, mixing equal parts resolve not to be intimidated with compassion for the fears of the protesters. Sympathetic media portrayed a “defiant” Justin Trudeau refusing to “back down.” Liberal message-trackers weighed in online, straight-faced, on the urgent imperative of voting against this sort of thing, as if the entire election could be transformed into a referendum on … on ...

On what, exactly? Unruly mobs are not unknown in Canadian elections. If there is a particularly unhinged quality to the anti-vaxxers (joined by an equally unhinged contingent, as the CBC reported, “angry over the federal government’s ban on flavours in smoking cessation devices”) Mr. Trudeau is hardly their only target.

The same sorts of people have launched the same sorts of fevered protests in other countries, and against other leaders. (And not only political leaders: bar owners have reported the same harassment and threats.)

More to the point, none of the other major party leaders has sided with the protesters; all of them made a point of denouncing them. So exactly how does a vote for the Liberals, in particular, “send a message” of opposition to such forces?

Liberal partisans have an answer to that. If the Conservatives didn’t actually organize the protests – though some were willing to go there – they surely, um, encouraged them in some way. Doesn’t a Conservative ad feature a brief shot of a boxer? Or – as if that weren’t evidence enough – hasn’t Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole opposed making vaccines mandatory?

Yes he has. So has the Leader of the Bloc Québécois. So has the Leader of the Green Party. So had the Leader of the Liberal Party, until about five minutes ago; earlier this year, Mr. Trudeau had said he opposed vaccine mandates as “divisive” and inequitable. But that was before the election call, and his strategists’ advice that he could make such divisiveness work for him.

Opposition to vaccine mandates, as opposed to the vaccines themselves, is a perfectly mainstream position. It’s not one I share, but it does not deserve association with the sorts of people harassing the Liberal Leader. For that matter, neither does vaccine hesitancy.

It’s fair to say that the Tories have a history of flirting with the populist right. (I should know: I’ve written at least a dozen pieces criticizing them for it.) It’s also true that the vaccine-hesitant are disproportionately represented among their supporters. And it’s certainly true that a subset of these have been radicalized, part of a general climate of unreason fuelled by social media.

But to jump from this to blaming the Conservatives for the Ontario mobs, or to conjure out of them a threat to democracy on the scale of the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, is unworthy and overwrought. This is not the U.S., and Erin O’Toole is not Donald Trump. Indeed, his whole campaign is based on dragging the party in the opposite direction, toward the centre. That’s why they’ve been rising in the polls.

There is only one party that stands to profit from the attacks on the Liberal Leader. And yet I have no qualms in saying the Grits had nothing to do with them.

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