There are pros and cons to a national leader appearing at a natural disaster. For every act of goodwill, someone will question the motive behind this visit. For every bead of sweat on the brow, someone will wonder if he or she wouldn’t rather be somewhere else.
By and large, the positives far outweigh the negatives.
That’s why Canadian leaders often appear at natural disaster sites to raise a community’s spirit and give them hope.
Former prime minister Jean Chretien’s visit to Kelowna after the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park fire, for instance, was just as meaningful as former prime minister Stephen Harper’s 2013 visit to Calgary and southern Alberta after the horrible floods. (Harper’s wife Laureen, who grew up in the region, rolled up her sleeves and participated in the cleanup.)
But in most cases, the Liberal or Conservative prime minister of the day had no interest in being the main focus of the story. It was the event, community and tragedy that mattered most.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau just changed the channel on that long-held perception. He did what most would have believed unthinkable: he caused a public relations nightmare by participating in a relief effort at a natural disaster.
Last weekend, Trudeau and his young sons were in Constance Bay, Ont., to visit one of several flood zones in the Ottawa-Gatineau region. Volunteers were filling sandbags because massive rainfall had dangerously increased the local water levels. The PM and his offspring pitched in and filled sandbags, too.
Great. He was doing exactly what a leader should do in this situation. If it had continued, he would have been praised for his participation.
That’s expecting way too much from this prime minister, however.
After 15 or so minutes of filling up sandbags, Trudeau started taking photos with military personnel and volunteers. This led to a tense conversation (caught on video) with a self-identified volunteer apparently trying to help someone save their home.
“You know how long you’ve held up people picking up bags?” he asked the PM. “I’ve been waiting in line down the road for 30 minutes while you’ve been here soaking up the rays.”
He blasted Trudeau for participating in a “photo-op” and said, “While you’re here, no one can pick up sand. You held people up, all the RCMP and security held people up.”
Trudeau turned around and spoke to him. The volunteer was visibly irritated, but he listened and pointed out “he was with a guy who was a staunch conservative” who said if the PM “would actually do work, he’d change his vote and vote for you.”
The PM apologized for the delay and acknowledged the “frustrations with security” he experiences “every day of my life.” The conversation broke down, but not before the PM told the volunteer that his point of view was “unfriendly and unneighbourly.”
This was obviously a difficult situation. Tensions and emotions were understandably high. Nevertheless, Trudeau didn’t handle this exchange with the volunteer very well and shouldn’t have made that comment at the end.
The PM has had to walk back several comments over the years and he should do the same here.
Above all, Trudeau shouldn’t have been involved in a photo-op during a natural disaster (or brought his young sons, for that matter). Even though he’s been nicknamed the “selfie PM” with good reason, what would possess him to smile and laugh for the cameras at a flood zone with people’s lives, homes and businesses hanging in the balance?
Some have regarded this incident as silly, small and meaningless.
I disagree. Trudeau’s intentions may have been good to start but he made it all about himself at the end.
It shows a great deal about his character and leadership – and what it sorely lacks.
Troy Media columnist and political commentator Michael Taube was a speechwriter for former Prime Minister Stephen Harper.