From time to time people talk about meeting celebrities. I suppose I’ve met my share, but the one story that everyone always wants to hear is the day Stephen Harper shook my hand and called me a liar.
Six or seven years ago I was a journalism student at Centennial College, which produces a weekly community newspaper called the East York Observer (online it’s the Toronto Observer). I was working on a four-month project about Ontario provincial politics, and Progressive Conservative Leadership Convention –the one that picked John Tory as leader– was held in East York, so I obtained press credentials. It was quite a show, even though the party was so broke at the time that they couldn’t even afford bottled water for their convention. A couple of Liberal MPPs were there, handing out bottles of water with anti-Tory labels. It was a lot of fun.
Anyway, my parents are both Conservatives, and I knew the next day they were going to ask me who I met. I shook Ernie Eves’ hand. I shook John Tory’s hand. I forget who all was there now: A lot of Tory leaders, obviously. Stephen Harper, the leader of the Federal Opposition at the time, was the keynote speaker. I knew they would want to know that I met the leader of the Federal Conservatives.
I was there with a couple of other students, and they both snickered at my ambition to shake Harper’s hand. I didn’t care. I got into the circle of fawning adulators gathered around him when he stepped down from the podium. Everyone had placards hanging around their necks identifying them as party faithful. Mine was a bright orange card that says Media, along with my name and publication. His guards were frowning at me furiously, because I looked young enough and stupid enough to think I might be able to ask a question in what was essentially a Conservative Party-only rope line.
Three times he goes around the circle, passing me by each time to greet the people to my left and right –even reaching over my shoulder at one point to shake the hand of someone behind me. Finally, after five or six minutes with me standing right in front of him, he deigns to shake my hand. It was a good handshake: Firm, with a double pump. You could tell he had a lot of practice. Then his eyes drift down to my neck card and he freezes there, not letting go of my hand.
“So, Toronto Observer, eh?”
“Yep!” I say. I wasn’t with the Star or the Sun or the Globe or the Post. I was just a student, but I was still pleased the Progressive Conservatives had given me press credentials for their convention.
“Is that a real paper, or did you just make that up to get in here?” He laughs.
“No, no. It’s a real paper,” I say, smiling. It was a bit of a put down, but my paper only had a couple of thousand readers. I was fine with him treating it lightly.
The smile leaves his face, he looks me square in the eye; then he says, “Because it sounds like you just made that up to get in here.”
I felt like asking for my hand back. Talk about people skills! Yeah, buddy: I faked a media pass to crash a leadership convention. Thanks!
Now I’m not anti-Tory. I’ve voted Conservative federally a couple of times now. I’m also not anti-Harper, although that’s a popular sentiment at the moment. I think it takes a real leader to run a minority government as if he had a super-majority, and he’s done that. His party has dominated Canada for five or six years now, and that’s largely his doing. I respect that, and I think it’s been good for national unity to let the Conservatives from out West take a hand at the tiller –especially after the Liberals started thinking of themselves as the natural ruling party and imploded spectacularly after the long knives came out during the Chretein-Martin feuding.
Still, I don’t think Harper is comfortable around people. He shook my hand and snubbed me, when I had done nothing to him. He didn’t know me from Adam, and he didn’t know if I was in the process of launching a career in journalism that would see me covering his politics. He just reached out and slighted me for no reason. That’s the thing I took away from meeting the future Prime Minister of Canada. He just didn’t care.
Six months later I had a four-month placement at the National Post laying out pages for the front section. I loved it, and the experience cemented my desire to work in the newspaper industry. Still, there were some peculiarities about working for the national right-wing paper of record. When you’re writing a headline, you had to spin it. You couldn’t write, “Martin triumphs” if there was a way to say, “Harper almost wins.”
I told my Harper story to my co-workers, and they all had a good laugh about it. Whatever their paper’s politics, newspaper people are individuals, and most of them weren’t Tories. Their job might lean to the Right, but their views were all over the spectrum. A photo came in over the wire service: Harper had gone to the Calgary Stampede and tried to dress up like a cowboy. I have no idea how his handlers ever let him pose for the cameras wearing that ridiculous getup. We would never be allowed to run such a picture, but one of my colleagues saw this thing and called me over. “Print this off,” I was told. “This is gold!”
Alas, I don’t have my copy of it anymore. The poor scan you see is the best the internet has available. I cherish that photo, though. I view the embarassed look on his face as fair compensation for the day he shook my hand and called me a liar.