Riding the wave of a Tory turnaround

Stephen Harper struts out of his Tory-mobile.
Stephen Harper struts out of his Tory-mobile.

I knew I had a spectacular show ahead of me the minute I hit the Toronto highway.

A slogan was scrawled broadly on the back of the blue cube van that was speeding along Allen Road towards Highway 401 West: “Stand up for Canada.”

I chuckled to myself. What bizarre luck for me to have turned onto the road directly behind the campaign vehicle of Lewis Reford, Conservative candidate for Toronto-Central.

No question about it, I thought, checking the time. I bet we’re both heading to the same destination: Mississauga’s International Centre, just east of Pearson International Airport. If I’m going to do this, I figured, I might as well make the plunge now. I pulled up behind Reford and floored it.

In mid-December, Maclean’s reported that in the first week of the federal election campaign, an analysis of seven major daily newspapers revealed that Conservative party leader Stephen Harper received the most negative coverage of the four main party leaders. By the second week, however, the Conservatives had pulled a 180-degree reversal, becoming the party with the most positive coverage.

Tailgating Reford at 140 km/h, I was a journalist hot on the scent of blue Tory blood.

Headed to my first—and thus far, only—Conservative rally, I was about to witness, first-hand, the makings of a coup.

Little did I know that I was on my way to just one of the strategically crafted, tightly managed stops on the Conservative campaign trail that would turn Harper into a well-oiled, policy-spewing machine. On that frigid December afternoon, mere days after the election call, the polls indicated that many Canadians—those who were paying attention, anyway—still thought he was a clanky automaton.

My instincts about Reford’s destination having proven solid, I arrived without having to look at a single road sign. Carefully navigating the enormous parking lot, I stopped to ask an attendant if it mattered where I parked.

“Where you headed?” he asked.

“Aviation ballroom,” I replied.

The fifty-something gentleman, bundled in a gigantic parka and knit toque, smiled.

“You know, dear, the Conservatives have just conceded to the Liberals.” He pointed the way.

I blinked. “Thanks kindly,” I replied, departing without explaining I wasn’t just another party faithful.

When an election is on, everyone’s got an opinion, I thought. Following his directions, I turned the corner.

Nestled in the fresh snow were three or four dozen Conservative election signs, decorating the Centre’s entrance. A blue Christmas—who’d have thought?

Inside the building, I wove through groups of supporters, young and old, many donning buttons and T-shirts and clapping thundersticks. I eventually found my way to an opposite entrance, where police and two men holding expensive camera equipment stood, waiting.

A woman bustled over, closing her cell phone with a decisive flip.

“Alright, he’s coming,” she said. “Take your photos, but stay out of the way. Let Mr. Harper enter first.”

I swiftly followed the photogs outside. One guy was from the Toronto Sun, the other from the Brampton Guardian. I told them I had never attended a campaign rally before.

“This rally is seriously just a photo-op,” the Sun photog told me. “It’s all about getting good media play.”

We shivered.

The bus came into view. We aimed our cameras, peering through their slightly frosty lenses.

Click, flash. The obligatory nod and wave. Click, flash.

Harper and his team hurried inside. We hurried after them.

Suddenly, the lights went up and the music went down. John Tory, leader of the Ontario PC party, stepped on stage.

“When you listen to the people, they are starving for government that is founded on hard work and on honesty and on integrity and on accountability,” he told a cheering crowd. “That is the kind of government that Stephen Harper would lead, because that is the kind of person Stephen Harper is.”

The DJ turned up the dance music and two double doors swung open. The crowd went wild.

I watched Harper make his grand entrance, shaking hands and kissing babies. Then he took the mic, rhapsodizing promises, bashing the Liberals and peppering his speech avec un peu de français.

“Standing up for Canada, that’s what we’re going to do,” he said. “First by providing a new government that will clean up corruption, and then by taking positive action on the real priorities of ordinary working people and their families.”

“Ste-phen, Ste-phen,” the crowd chanted. The dance beats again began to pump.

It was then I decided to make my move. I jumped off the media platform, ducked under a barrier and pushed my way through the supporters, to the front. The last thing I did was toss my tape recorder into my left hand, freeing up my right.

“Mr. Harper,” I crooned, grabbing his hand and shaking it firmly. I don’t remember if he held on or let go, but I managed to capture his attention for but a moment.

“Queen’s Journal,” I introduced myself. “What message do you have for Queen’s University students, for all University students?” I stared him dead in his 46-year-old baby blues, expectant.

“Uh, Queen’s University?” he paused. “Well, we’re going to be helping with the cost of books and, uh, helping with student loans, so those are two things we’ve committed—all across Canada,” he replied. I waited, hoping for more.

“Great, thank you,” he said. He was off.

So there you have it, a Conservative rally in a nutshell—which the Toronto Star later pegged at 350 attendees. That was Harper’s message for us, fellow students—at least, in that brief, unexpected, awkward moment. Make of it what you will. If the man does become prime minister, I’m glad I shook his hand just once. And I bet he’ll be glad he got his media play.

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