Politics

Christie Blatchford: In a Quebec rodeo town, Trudeau proves he’s still a dangerous opponent

SAINT-TITE, Quebec — In this entirely enchanting part of Quebec, not far from Shawinigan, there is a little slice of Alberta – home of the biggest Western fair in the country east of Calgary.

The town’s regular population of almost 4,000 bloats with 600,000 visitors over the two weeks of the Festival Western St-Tite. Most people wear cowboy hats, proper boots, shirts that do up with snaps – or at least one thing from that list. The carny smells – beer, horse dung, poutine, hot dogs, cotton candy – are the same as at the Stampede.

It is not a regular cross-section of Quebecers who come to the fair, but rather, as a reporter colleague and native child of the area says with some delicacy, a particular constituency, more small-C conservative, even rough-around-the-edges.

It ain’t Justin Trudeau’s natural turf, in other words, yet there he was Saturday, plunging fearlessly like a maniac into big clumps of people, weaving past food stands and bouncy castles and horse drawn carts as his sharp-eyed security detail swallowed hard and scanned the crowd for sinister faces.

If they saw any, they have better eyes than I do. But for a group of men who booed and gave the thumbs-down to his bus near the entrance to the grounds, the Liberal Leader was invariably greeted by those tell-tale signs of successful celebrity spotting — spontaneous warmth and cheeks flushed with pleasure at the sight of him. Everywhere, people eagerly shook his hand or did the Quebec double-kiss. Dozens and dozens asked for selfies and got them.


Justin Trudeau greets supporters at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019.

Chris Wattie/Bloomberg

It was the first day Trudeau was pressing the flesh and meeting ordinary people, as opposed to the organized supporters he met on the first three days of the campaign, where pep rallies and stump speeches were the diet.

This was him at his best, and it wasn’t just his celebrityhood, either.

At a Tim Horton’s in Saint-Felix-de-Valois, about an hour from Saint-Tite, Trudeau went from table to table with the local Liberal candidate and his 10-year-old daughter, Ella-Grace.

At one table, he met Sylvie Martel, who asked for a picture and promptly burst into tears. Her husband Peter Klepieck came to Canada from Germany in 1956.

Her tears were those of the grateful Canadian – grateful that the man she loved was able to emigrate here, that they built a good life together. Perhaps he was the first prime minister she’d met, so he was the recipient of her being able to finally thank someone important. Klepieck told Trudeau that when he was working in Montreal, he often shook his dad’s hand.

Trudeau sat down and stayed with the couple for a relatively lengthy time; he was kind and his face serious as he listened to Martel and comforted her. He embraced her before he moved on. She burst into tears again.

Another man, Claude Labbe, told Trudeau to “not give up” on Quebec’s controversial Bill 21 – which prohibits some public servants, including teachers, from wearing overt religious symbols such as the hijab, and Labbe was clearly against the law – and to stand his ground.

(Trudeau’s is weakly held ground, in that he says he’s opposed to it, but that the federal government won’t intervene, at least not just now, in a court challenge against the bill.)

“Listen,” said Trudeau, “in a free society, we don’t legitimize discrimination. Quebecers respect individual rights.”

To Andre Huet, who was sitting at another table, Trudeau said, “We can be a proud Quebecer and a proud Canadian and there is no contraction.”

Another man, Pierre Berthier, showed Trudeau a framed black and white photograph of him, with his dad, about 45 years ago in a Montreal suburb.

“Oh my God, is that you?” Trudeau gasped. He turned and looked at Ella-Grace.

“Look, it’s grandpa!”

On the way out of Tim’s, he posed for a picture with a group of the store’s employees.

Throughout, he was natural, relaxed and absolutely lovely with those he met.

It’s le weekend. There were no announcements. There was no media scrum. There were no ritualistic, scripted encounters with devout Liberals.

There was just “Justin” (as with most things, his name is best pronounced the French way), a father spending a curious day with his little girl (solemn and beautiful and on her best behaviour, Ella-Grace nonetheless puffed out her cheeks with relief as they left the Tim’s) meeting a bunch of strangers, and loving every minute of it.

This is the Trudeau the other parties should fear. This is the guy the other leaders must envy. He’s so good at this, and this matters.

cblatchford@postmedia.com

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