The warnings seemed dire. In July, two months before the federal election campaign officially kicked off, BuzzFeed News and the Toronto Star reported that Canada’s Communications Security Establishment had identified foreign elements who were attempting to influence voters. After Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, was Canada next to fall victim to a co-ordinated campaign of misinformation and toxic chaos?
Well, the joke is on those foreign elements! Because it turns out that we Canadians are quite capable of messing up our information ecosystem all on our own! Here’s some of what we learned on our way to the polls:
Front-runners run away from questions. Updating a page from Stephen Harper’s 2015 playbook, when the Conservative leader limited media travelling with him to five questions a day, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau spent the first few days of the 2019 campaign simply not taking any questions. He also failed to show at the first (albeit unofficial) English-language debate, and ignored an invitation from the Munk Debates to participate in a foreign-policy debate.
Sometimes, foreign interference is a good thing. For the first week, it looked as if the campaign was going to be a sleeper. Then, on Sept. 18, New York-based Time magazine dropped a bombshell, reporting that Mr. Trudeau had worn brownface to a 2001 Arabian Nights gala for West Point Grey Academy, when he was a 29-year-old teacher.
The dam broke: That evening, Mr. Trudeau told reporters he also wore blackface as part of a high-school talent show performance of the Jamaican folk ditty, Banana Boat Song (a.k.a. Day-O). The following day, Global News published a grainy video snippet of Mr. Trudeau from yet another blackface incident, which he explained was a costume day at a whitewater rafting company in Quebec, where he worked in the early nineties.
Maybe we shouldn’t have as many debate moderators as national party leaders. How nice are we Canadians? The only official English-language debate was a tire fire in part because organizers thought it was more important to include a moderator from each of the sponsoring media organizations. Some were fine, others really not so. And the free-for-all segments, in which the leaders simply yelled accusations over each other, felt like a preschool play date where someone forgot to bring the juice boxes.
Just let the French run everything. The French-language debate proved a model of modern democratic discussion, in part because it was moderated by Radio-Canada’s Patrice Roy. Worried about a fractious Parliament? Just make Mr. Roy the new Speaker: He’ll keep everyone in check.
Journalists shouldn’t sue the people they’re covering. (Duh.) Less than two weeks before the end of the campaign, the CBC’s legal department filed suit against the Conservative Party to prevent its use of a few snippets of news coverage in a partisan mash-up ad. Worse, the CBC’s high-profile anchor Rosemary Barton and parliamentary reporter J.P. Tasker were part of the suit, until blowback prompted them to withdraw their names. The campaign may be over, but you can bet the Conservative Party – which sent a fundraising e-mail to supporters shortly after the news of the suit broke – will have a long memory.
Daisy Group leader helps a conspiracy bloom. Political operative and Toronto Sun columnist Warren Kinsella, who runs the Daisy Group communications consultancy, breathlessly amplified a baseless allegation about Mr. Trudeau, suggesting The Globe and Mail was going to report the Liberal Leader had left his teaching position because of an affair. Ezra Levant of Rebel Media jumped in, tweeting: “Huge sex scandal brewing for Justin Trudeau.” When The Globe story didn’t materialize – because there wasn’t one – Mr. Kinsella continued to beat the drum on Twitter, feeding a conspiracy that suggested the Liberals had obtained an injunction to stop its publication. The story hopped the border, seized on and embellished by the Buffalo Chronicle, a website that traffics in disinformation.
Two weeks later came a Globe story that Mr. Kinsella probably enjoyed a lot less: that the Conservative Party had hired his company to secretly kneecap the People’s Party of Canada. After a storm of criticism, Mr. Kinsella deactivated his Twitter account over the weekend. Thank heaven for small mercies.