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'COVID-19 was the wild card'
In this edition: covering a pandemic election, who will run for Speaker, the Legislature resumes, the NDP requests a recount in Davenport
Happy Monday. Welcome to POLICORNER — your insider’s guide to Canadian politics, policy, and power. It will be a busy few weeks around Queen’s Park and in Ottawa. What will you be watching for? Send us a note.
PROGRAMMING NOTE: During the federal election, we published POLICORNER each week. It has been fun, but beginning on Monday, October 18, we'll be publishing the newsletter on a bi-weekly basis. We’ll continue to take you inside the corridors of power, and don’t worry — if there’s any breaking news and scoops, we'll send out a special edition to keep you in the loop.
In this 10 minute read, David Thurton and Alex Boutilier speak to newsBeyond on their experience covering a pandemic election, who will run for Speaker of the House of Commons, the Ontario Legislature resumes. Plus, Annamie Paul resigns and the NDP requests a recount in Davenport.
It was an election like no other in recent memory — a grim fourth wave in parts of Western Canada, a record-breaking estimated cost of $610 million, a campaign marked by violence and vandalism, and a result similar to that of the 2019 election, which reduced Justin Trudeau's Liberals to a minority. For journalists, it was an election of uncertainty amid a pandemic that changed the way they did their jobs.
newsBeyond sat down with Alex Boutilier and David Thurton to discuss their experiences covering this pandemic election, political accountability, and the growing polarization of Canadian politics.
Alex Boutilier has covered Parliament Hill for the Toronto Star since 2013, while occasionally writing about his “first love,” national security. Boutilier, who has reported extensively on the Conservative Party, spent the last three days of the election with Erin O'Toole on the campaign trail. David Thurton joined CBC News’ Parliamentary Bureau in early 2019, where he has covered the internal turmoil within the Green Party. Thurton started the campaign with the Green Party in Toronto. He then joined Jagmeet Singh’s NDP on the third week, before returning to Toronto to cover Annamie Paul’s headquarters on election night.
Inside the newsroom before the election call
“You’re looking at the newsroom,” Boutilier, sitting at his dining room table, said at the start of the conversation. “We didn't have the same kind of camaraderie that comes with being in a newsroom. We were all isolated, mostly in our homes. I've been to the office four times since the start of the pandemic. So, you didn't really have the same sort of atmosphere and information sharing that you would normally get in the lead up to an election.”
Covering an election campaign in pre-pandemic days
Thurton explained that “not every job during an election is just following the leaders.” “If you're not assigned to follow the federal leaders, it's like any normal day in a newsroom,” he said. “You begin the day reading the news. Then, you're going into your morning pitch meeting at around 9 AM. We're usually out by 10 AM because the leaders try to get in front of a camera pretty early in the day. So by noon, the leaders would have spoken and you have a good idea of what story you're going to write.”
Most networks have journalists rotating throughout the campaign, according to Thurton. “At the CBC, they usually don't leave you on a campaign for the whole four or five weeks. You begin on a Monday and put your luggage onto the bus, train, or plane. You’ll get your press pass, you get acquainted with the people who are on the bus.” “Sometimes, we have two reporters that usually staff campaigns: a radio reporter, a TV reporter, and you're both doing online if necessary,” Thurton said.
A journalist’s day on the campaign normally begins “with some sort of campaign announcement,” Thurton told us. “Then, there's an afternoon event that you go to while working on your story, or answering questions from your news desk. It’s a mix of traveling and working.”
“You have to be comfortable working in unglamorous situations,” Thurton warns. “You can get motion sickness very easily, and you have to quickly overcome that or take a lot of Gravel,” he adds. “It's a lot of fun. It's a lot of tough work. It's probably not the best way to do journalism because you're tired, you're stressed. You're in a bubble.”
COVID-19 precautions on the campaign trail
“COVID-19 was the whole wild card of all of this,” Thurton said. “Every morning, you took a rapid COVID-19 test. Thankfully, all of us were negative. I don't think we had any positive cases, at least with the rotation that I was on. There were lots of sanitizer, lots of wiping down your equipment, and the only time you weren't allowed to wear one was when you were eating. Two journalists would not sit together on the bus. All journalists had to be fully vaccinated as well. That was a requirement that all the campaigns were enforcing.”
Boutilier explained that there wasn’t a considerable difference on the campaign trail compared to the House of Commons. “Honestly, I didn't notice a whole lot of difference once I got out on the campaign trail,” he said.
Access to politicians during the COVID-19 pandemic
“Politicians notoriously don't answer questions,” Thurton declared. “It’s really important as reporters that we work together when we're doing press conferences, because [the politicians] have honed and developed a strategy where they avoid answering the question, and they answer the question the way they like it, and so it sometimes doesn't serve the public really well.”
Thurton’s strategy to getting answers? “Press them and be persistent, but not aggressive. Always be kind. Use courtesy. Ask the question again, ask it a different way. Be upfront.”
Boutilier said access to politicians hasn’t changed much for him given his experience covering the Hill. “I detest scrums. I don't enjoy that exercise whatsoever. I would much rather have a quiet word with a junior staffer at the back of the room rather than talk to the leader who's going to tell me nothing.” “I'm not so cocky about my talents as a journalist that I think that I'm going to be the one who finally pushes the Prime Minister off message,” Boutilier added.
A rise in toxicity in Canadian politics
Boutilier says his experience covering the far-right for six years makes him “a little bit more familiar than most” with hate mail. However, he says the emails he receives “pale” in comparison to what his female colleagues receive. “The vitriol and hatred directed towards women journalists and women journalists of color are such that the hate mail that I receive doesn't even register compared to what they get on a daily basis publicly.
“I will say that I have noticed that the dialogue in Canadian politics has taken quite a dramatic turn towards the angry. We as journalists can't shy away from that. That's something that we have to understand in a more meaningful way than what American journalists tried to do after Trump was elected. Yeah, it's getting tough out there. This is going to be with us for a long time.”
What should media organizations do? Boutilier says “organizations need to support their journalists, and to make sure that their journalists are doing okay. Especially their female journalists.”
Thurton says he “certainly notices it” with his other colleagues. “As journalists, we are not perfect, we make mistakes, we're not above criticism, we're not above accountability. But to be threatened with rape, to be threatened with violence, to be racially assaulted each time you open your inbox is unacceptable.”
The highlight of the federal election campaign
“There were notable turning points,” Boutilier said. For him, it was when the Liberal campaign become “more aggressive and violent” because he was “pulled off of the Conservative beat.”
“Me and my colleague Grant LaFleche ended up doing a pretty significant amount of work over the weekend, delving deep into Telegram and some of the internet subcultures that we're helping to organize these protests. Professionally, that would probably be the highlight of the campaign for me.”
For Thurton, the highlight was a documentary he produced for CBC’s The House “about the fight to win Toronto Centre.” “To understand the issues and get a front seat to the issues that voters care about, I found that really eye-opening,” he said.
Covering the turmoil in the Green Party
Thurton, who spent months covering the turmoil in the Green Party says he doesn’t take “any joy in the turmoil that I’ve seen or uncovered.” The election of Annamie Paul as the first Black woman and Jewish woman to become a leader of a federal party was “historic,” he added. “As a Black person who doesn't necessarily see himself represented in Ottawa, it was hard to cover and see how the party was responding over the last couple of months. But as journalists, we have to cover what we’re hearing from both sides.”
Boutilier’s watch-list — the fate of O’Toole and national security
“Because of what I cover, I'm obviously most invested in whether Erin O’Toole stays or goes,” Boutilier told us. “We saw with Andrew Scheer in 2019 that once things start happening, they happen rather quickly,” he explained.
“There have been a lot of significant developments in the lead up to the campaign, over the course of the campaign, and after the campaign on multiple national security fronts,” Boutilier added. “I don't think that we do a good enough job in Canadian media of explaining to people why they should care about this stuff. So you know, that's also on the backburner.”
Queen’s Park is back — a throne speech, party priorities, and a new Deputy Speaker
MPPs returned to Queen's Park today after a months-long break with a throne speech detailing the priorities of Premier Doug Ford’s government, various legislative priorities and, an upcoming vote on a new Deputy Speaker.
“The ultimate goal is avoiding future lockdowns”
Avoiding future lockdowns is the province’s "ultimate goal," according to Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell, who delivered the government’s 30-minute speech which promised to “support [Ontarians] every step of the way.” The speech highlighted the province’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the “historic investments” made to support the healthcare system — including the development of the Cortellucci Vaughan Hospital.
“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, your government has been guided by the latest science and evidence when making decisions,” the speech said.
On vaccine passports, the government explained the “struggle to strike the appropriate balance between long-established rights and freedoms and the need to do what is necessary to protect lives.” “Your government did not make the decision to require proof of vaccination easily,” Dowdeswell explained.
On economic recovery, the province committed to “an economic recovery that is fueled by economic growth, not painful tax hikes or spending cuts.”
The party priorities — childcare, health care and COVID-19
Ahead of the resumption of the Legislature, the parties made their priorities clear.
The Liberals plan to push for a $10-a-day child care deal with the federal government and 10 provincially-funded paid sick days.
The NDP is focused on a plan for “safe schools,” mandatory vaccinations for health and education workers, and legislation which would create safety zones around hospitals and small businesses “to protect people from anti-public health harassment.”
The Greens will focus on the climate and housing crisis, “improving working conditions and pay” for healthcare workers and education.
The Deputy Speaker — Nicholls out, Walker in
In our first edition, we told you about the Opposition parties’ push to replace former PC MPP Rick Nicholls as the Deputy Speaker. Now, the government is poised to act on these demands by introducing a motion tomorrow to appoint PC MPP Bill Walker as the Legislature's Deputy Speaker.
Walker, a former healthcare executive was first elected in 2011 and previously served as the province’s Associate Minister of Energy before being shuffled out of Cabinet in mid-June. He will replace MPP Nicholls, who was removed from the government caucus after refusing to be vaccinated.
While it is expected to pass, it remains unclear whether the Opposition parties will support Walker’s nomination. newsBeyond has learned that the NDP was notified by the government about Walker’s nomination earlier this afternoon and is reviewing it. The Liberal Party did not respond to a request for comment.
The race for the Speaker’s chair begins — Rota is running, Godin is considering
Newly-elected MPs will have to elect a Speaker as their first order of business when the House of Commons reconvenes, and we have some news on the race for the Speakership of the House of Commons.
Speaker Anthony Rota intends to seek re-election as the Speaker of the House of Commons when Parliament resumes. Rota’s office confirmed the news to newsBeyond in a statement late last week.
Conservative MP Joël Godin is considering a second run for the role, his office confirmed to newsBeyond. Godin ran in the previous Speaker’s election and told iPolitics in 2019 that he believes he is the “best choice” because he “can work with other MPs in the other parties.”
WHO ELSE MIGHT RUN: NDP MP Carol Hughes is expected to run. She served as the assistant Deputy Speaker since December 2015 and ran in the previous Speaker’s election with the support of her caucus. Liberal MP Alexandra Mendès, who served alongside Hughes as assistant Deputy Speaker since 2019 may also be interested in running. Green MP Elizabeth May told reporters following her resignation as Green Party leader in 2019 that she’d be interested in running for Speaker after the next election. The offices of Hughes, Mendès, and May did not respond to a request for comment.
PERKS OF THE POST: Upon election, the Speaker receives an additional $85,000 on top of their base salary of $178,900. A private residence near Gatineau Park and a private apartment on the Hill are provided.
Annamie Paul has “begun the process” of stepping down as Green Party leader, after finishing fourth in her riding of Toronto Centre. “When I was elected into this role, I broke a glass ceiling. I didn't realize that when I did, the shards would fall on my head, leaving a trail of broken glass that I would have to crawl over,” she said. More from Paul.
NDP candidate Alejandra Bravo has requested a recount in Davenport after Elections Canada reported an update that narrowed the difference between Bravo and Liberal incumbent Julie Dzerowicz to 76 votes. In an email released to party members, Bravo said “after hearing from many of you about a number of issues that occurred on election day and during counts,” the decision to request a recount was “was made to ensure the democratic integrity is upheld in the federal election in our riding.”
“After counting the special ballots, including mail-in ballots, two days after the election, the vote split was reduced to 165. Then on Monday of this week, our scrutineers met with the Returning Officer and other campaigns to verify the election results and the numbers changed again.”
PC MPP Lindsey Park is out as the Parliamentary Assistant to the Attorney General after she “misrepresented her vaccination status.” In a statement on Friday evening, Government House Leader Paul Calandra confirmed that all PC MPPs are vaccinated and said that Park will remain in caucus after providing proof of a medical exemption.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he will name a new cabinet later this month, and plans to bring back the House of Commons “before the end of the fall.” Speaking to reporters at a vaccine clinic in Ottawa, Trudeau confirmed his “intention to form the next government,” and said that Chrystia Freeland “has accepted” his request that she remain as the country’s Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister.
Ontario is making COVID-19 vaccines mandatory for all in-home staff, support workers, students, and volunteers working in the province’s long-term care homes by November 15. The province says “vaccination rates of staff in many homes are not high enough” and “staff who do not have all required doses or a valid medical exemption by the deadline will not be able to enter a long-term care home to work.” More from the Ministry of Long-Term Care. Here’s what long-term care advocate Dr. Vivian Stamatopoulos — who was phoned by Minister Rod Phillips — had to say:
WHAT WE’RE READING
WASHINGTON POST: “Key findings from the Pandora Papers investigation” by Washington Post Staff
TORONTO SUN: “PM spends Canada's first Truth and Reconciliation Day on vacation” by Bryan Passifiume
TORONTO STAR: “Annamie Paul told me to stay silent. But now I must say something” by Elizabeth May
CBC NEWS: “Trudeau's got a cabinet to build — and this time, it'll be harder” by David Cochrane
Last week, we asked for the name of Ontario’s Finance Minister. If you guessed Peter Bethlenfalvy, you’re correct. Bethlenfalvy previously served as the President of the Treasury Board and was appointed Finance Minister following the resignation of now long-term care minister Rod Phillips over a trip to St. Barts.
ANSWER THIS: Name the newly-elected MP who defeated former Minister Maryam Monsef in Peterborough-Kawartha. We want your answers! Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.