Pick any synonym for gob-smacked and you will probably find it on the crib sheet of adjectives commentators across Canada now enlist to describe Justin Trudeau’s decision to wear blackface in public at least twice in his privileged, white-man’s life.
But, in the Maritimes, where the federal Liberal Party enjoys only the slimmest margin of electoral approval – compared with its Conservative, New Democrat and Green counterparts – no particular word match seems sufficient to convey the emotional chop of the political waters, though ‘mirthless forbearance’ comes pretty close.
According to my own straw poll, many are “shocked and appalled,” or “stupefied and disgusted.” Some are “horrified and staggered;” others are “scandalized and outraged.” One, apparently, is even “startled” – as if by an unexpected weather report predicting that gale-force umbrage will pelt the prime minister’s “sunny ways” parade all the way to Parliament Hill.
Interestingly, though, just as many down here appear almost grimly reflective. If Trudeau manages to demonstrate that he does understand how his actions have deeply wounded the very people he professes to protect and support, and severely eroded the nation’s trust in him as the land’s highest office holder, some are even willing to use a word like “forgiveness.”
Of course, that’s a big ‘if.’
Halifax Chronicle-Herald columnist Jim Vibert captured the sentiment cogently when he wrote, “The sad but undeniable reality is that the Liberal leader does not meet the standard against which his own campaign asked Canadians to measure the fitness of candidates from other parties.”
The question now, of course, is how Trudeau credibly achieves that very standard after he has already come up so spectacularly short. Are there training camps for the morally precarious? Who offers conditioning for political fitness in this country?
Don’t look to party mechanics in this or, indeed, any neck of the woods. Their job is not to remind their chosen ones that the measure of leadership is in the quality of character. They don’t care about – or, apparently, investigate – a candidate’s past missteps, as long as they believe that ancient mistakes can always be spun. The political apparatchik’s role is to consolidate power quickly and maintain order by whatever means necessary.
This was certainly clear in some parts of Nova Scotia during the most recent, pre-blackface, Trudeau scandal.
Last month, federal ethics commissioner Mario Dion left no doubt that the prime minister violated conflict-of-interest regulations during the SNC-Lavalin/Jody Wilson-Raybould debacle.
To his fellow citizens, the prime minister offered this unconvincing apology: “Taking responsibility means recognizing that what we did over the last year wasn’t good enough, but I can’t apologize for standing up for Canadian jobs because that’s part of what Canadians expect me to do.”
In response, the Toronto Star reported, Dartmouth-Cole Harbour Liberal MP Darren Fisher said: “He’s (Trudeau) got the best interests of all Canadians (at heart); he’s shown that steadily for four years.”
Sackville-Preston-Chezzetcook Liberal MP Darrell Samson added: “We need to move on.”
Meanwhile, Halifax Liberal MP Andy Fillmore merely shrugged, “The prime minister speaks for himself. I think he did a good job of speaking for himself.”
It’s fair to say that one reason why the federal Liberals adore the Maritimes is that this old-style party discipline still rules most of the roost down here.
Less consistent and predictable, however, is the region’s electorate which is – with each passing year and every newcomer who settles here – increasingly diverse. It’s no longer as likely as it once was to roll its eyes and call a national scandal just another bad day. It needs just a wee bit more to flesh out a proper answer to the question: What the hell happened?
By every reasonable standard outside overt criminality, wanton violence and intentional abuse, this disgrace is about as disheartening as they get in Canadian politics. And while Maritimers are, by and large, a forgiving bunch, trust is just as precious a commodity here as it is anywhere else in Canada.
If Justin Trudeau doesn’t know this about the Maritimes by now, then call that yet another lesson the 47-year-old prime minister must learn about human nature and the limits of forbearance.
Alec Bruce is a Halifax journalist who writes about business, politics and social issues, and editor of Troy Media Partner news site The Bluenose Bulletin.