Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Last Generation: Notes From the 2006 Campaign Trail

Deep in the bowels of the Southwest, on the periphery of the Eastern Townships, ferments the outpost of Florence, Ontario. Locked in the grips of the heathen County Kent, its mangled two storey skyline of 300 souls is only eclipsed by an unsightly temple of sorts – the local agricultural hall. The hall itself is a vestige of rural Canada. The Queen assumes her rightful place above us all, staring down at her children in all her regal regalia – a serene moderator to the muttering below. It was here I found myself tonight on assignment attending what would be the second Federation of Agriculture sponsored gathering of the swine concerning the noble seigneury of Lambton-Kent-Middlesex – a sprawling sack of outback locales as big as Prince Edward Island, minus the tearoom jockies and Angus MacLean populism.

It is often said that people west of the Mandaumin possess a vague repulsive physical quality about them – oft cited is the belching valley air which turns the moonlight a hearty copper colour. But these people of the southeast, God help them. It was as if the good lord himself had descended the golden escalator with his saintly staff and struck them thrice for good measure. Farmers all I noted. Not the happy sort featured on old re-runs of Road to Avonlea, but rather the kind with creases for cheeks and bullion for teeth caps. Hard-boiled by years of languishing toil, these were a species separated from the rest of mankind by at least two generations. A place only summarized as being a time warp to 1931. Two-day power outages may paralyze the rest of North America, yet are a matter-of-fact triennial occurrence here. With 5.3 people per square kilometre and a population declining by 8% every five years, the great dust bowl and their clearances are in full swing here, and I at the ganglion.

One glance around the crowd and I knew them all. Half lived by the obligatory fire and brimstone while the rest unabashedly settled in routinely for pints at the local den of debauch. It was truly a spectacle of damnation. And here we sat on primeval fold-up chairs discussing soybean yields and cultivators in the heart of Dawn-Euphemia waiting for agrarian salvation at the hands of soothsayers and other assorted retrogressionists. For my troubles, I was squeezed between the Mayor of this god forsaken place and a toothy urchin doubling as a campaign agent, both bastard conservatives of the progressive sort, retelling vintage era yarns of the glorious days of Diefenbaker and the like.

By any definition, this was a rural happening and an agricultural love-in deep in the heartland. With only 2,369 souls spread out across sparse flatlands the size of the entire Island of Montreal, a gathering of this magnitude was cast-iron trouble. The locals were surly animals by nature and in no time talk turned to rock bottom commodity prices and spiralling energy costs – most claimed to be destitute and most likely are. All that was needed now was to insert some small-town glad-handing politicians into this self-righteous home of the annual Canadian tractor-pull extravaganza and inanity was bound to arise. In cue with the rest of the crowd, I sipped on my Dasani of Vodka preparing for a night of the inevitable. If there was to be a clever debate somewhere in this drawn out election, I was certain it would take place here at the Agricultural Building in Florence, Ontario.

The swine entered from stage left and sat uncomfortably at card tables hastily assembled on the front stage. The elder of the bunch, the Conservative entrant, was a smug, miniscule squeamish balding man with grit for hair and aviator glasses for style. Assured in his victory, this mayor of a peripheral London suburb sported a casual suit reminiscent of Reagan’s 1980 triumph. Identifying himself endlessly as one of us people, (a farmer - and small businessman - apparently) he struck me as an amalgam of all the finest in 19th century hucksterism and I immediately disliked him. The Liberal on the other hand was bland in that corporate inconspicuous Liberal sort of way. A seasoned municipal councillor from the hapless Town of Wallaceburg I understand. Rounding out the roster were the urbancentric NDP and Green Party candidates and the ever popular Christian Heritage Party – whose fervent ‘heritage’ remains a quaint oddity of these parts.

And so it began, and within five minutes I was appalled. It was like a scene from some demented episode of the Andy Griffith Show. I’ve never seen such debaseness and waste. The Tory lad opened with a loud guffaw which was immediately followed by an off-colour retort from the Liberal chap. I sucked on my Dasani and wondered how the hell I ever found myself here, a hundred kilometres from civilization in the dead of winter…

But it was Uncle Beverley who stole the show. The inaudible rants, the smarmy dismissals, the excruciating pauses; I wouldn’t be surprised if the man was sauced. Now here was a true Southwestern Ontario politician! I hadn’t heard such off-handed brusqueness at one of these carnivals since the Beaubien had derided French Immersion as wasteful in the battle of ‘99. While offering nothing in the form of coherent discourse, his antics reminded me why cabinet ministers from these parts are as rare as the Talfourd Albino Turtle... but then again, 'he's one of us' as we were reminded ad nauseam. It’s a good thing the Uncle turned down an appearance on Rex Murphy – it would have been merciless. If he wins this one as all polls project, Harper is guaranteed some excellent damage control opportunities, and I some future fodder. His only saving grace is that he is a man of the cloth.

In the end it was a foul and distasteful affair. Among the spectators, there were no fisticuffs, no requisite tomfoolery; just quiet resignation. Unlike generations of old, Dawn-Euphemia and the rest of rurality have changed. No longer is large corporate power the real threat as advocated by populism of old, but rather the populism of new reigns with a focus on the ominous role of big government. Disband the co-operatives, the marketing boards and the support programs. Poverty these days arises from a lack of effort, not circumstance or international markets.

Over the past decade, the local schools have closed; the far-off hospital scaled back. Social services are non-existent and local volunteer service groups are dissolving. This night from the pulpit, suck it up and sell out was the message. There are no plans for deliverance, only continued ceaseless decline. This land is damned. Use your mobility rights enshrined in the Constitution, get a real job, and for god sakes, become productive members of the new Canada. After all, you can come back in forty years when you’re a pensioner, too fucking frail to walk and in need of an iron lung; cheap land and only an hour by ambulance to mediocre medical care.

It was a sad-sack mix of promises and guarantees I’d heard at a dozen of these swine gatherings before. Not since the glory days of Lorne Henderson and Ralph Ferguson have I witnessed a hint of nobility on the stump on the Lambton Plain. This offering in fact faired worse than most. Among the talking heads, there was no discussion and no real disagreement – just disjointed canned ramblings based entirely on party doctrine and HQ communications drivel. The slick Conservative read from prepared statements I’m sure penned by the crass Tom Flanagan himself. Regardless, the messages from all sides were indistinguishable despite sustained prodding on behalf of the meddlesome ‘constituents’. These were party-men to the death. Nothing more than a sorry pool of vile bent on serving to sully the loincloths of constitutional democracy; bagmen for disconnected public relation machines all of them. So much for local representation.

I’m sure identical to every other goddamn all-candidates meeting in every riding across this political wasteland dubbed English Canada.

And so we all filed out and suffered the long drive home.

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