It wasn’t about left versus right. It wasn’t about serving up a powerful digital cudgel for those seeking to bludgeon Justin Trudeau’s Liberal brand to oblivion.
It wasn’t really about politics at all, according to the activists who planned and provoked the prime minister’s disastrous confrontation Wednesday night in front of a downtown Toronto audience of core Liberal supporters.
Their goal wasn’t to feed the hyperpartisan beast such a tasty, virally shareable morsel so that everyone could feast upon Liberal arrogance. All they were looking for — the only thing they really want — is justice for the people of Grassy Narrows, a community that has seen 50 years of federal governments come and go, Conservative and Liberal alike, without a single one of them ever “doing the right thing” for Northern Ontario’s longest-suffering victims of mercury poisoning.
But one day, nearly half a million views and one official Trudeau apology later, the engineers who delivered the 45-second video clip — in which Trudeau responded with glib sarcasm as protesters hijacked the donor-only gathering, telling them again and again, ‘Thank you for your donation’ — found themselves scrambling to steer attention away from what they regard as the sideshow of Trudeau’s reaction and back upon the actual issue.
“Liberal arrogance became the story – and so now we’re all really trying to turn the story back where it actually belongs, with the focus on Grassy Narrows,” said Mark Calzavara of the non-partisan Council of Canadians.
Calzavara was the person holding the cellphone camera on Wednesday night inside the 17th-floor ballroom of the King Edward Hotel – and simultaneously, he was shouting down Trudeau, demanding the Prime Minister follow through on his government’s pledge to fund a $17-million treatment centre for Grassy Narrows victims.
But the telltale encounter had actually been months in the making. Earlier this winter Calzavara and his co-strategist, David Sone of the Free Grassy Narrows campaign, began plotting fresh ways to amplify their message. They settled on a strategy of audacious infiltration, aiming to burrow inside gatherings where they are least expected – and upon loudly exposing themselves, to broadcast it all in real-time on Facebook Live.
“I starting getting emails at a frantic rate and 99 out of 100 are basically spam. But then I saw the message about Trudeau coming to Toronto to speak to party donors. I messaged David right away and we decided, ‘This is the one.’ We had three days to pull it together.”
Calzavara recalls how the Stephen Harper campaign team went to considerable lengths to vet attendees of political gatherings, hoping to weed out message-busting protesters.
By contrast, Trudeau’s Liberal Party made it remarkably easy. Though most published reports suggest the protesters entered after forking out donations $1,500 apiece, that wasn’t the case. The Laurier Club – the donor arm of the Liberal Party – has a handy payment plan. So Calzavara and his partner-in-confrontation, Grassy Narrows ally Lana Goldberg, signed up for the first monthly instalment of $125 each, intent upon cancelling all future payments after the event.
The Liberal Party’s media notice, sent to reporters in advance of the event, actually emphasizes the point, saying, “The Liberal Party of Canada has committed to the strongest standards in federal politics for openness and transparency with political fundraising events, and is challenging other parties to do the same.”
There’s always a risk of arrest in such direct action at events so rife with RCMP protection. Calzavara said this one was planned so that Sone and his group of about 20 actual Grassy Narrows survivors were outside the building on King Street, a safe distance from whatever might ensue in the confrontation upstairs.
“We agreed to handle the confrontational stuff on behalf of the Grassy folks for lots of different reasons – but one is that Aboriginal protesters, overall, tend to get treated differently. In this case, Lana and I were gently ushered out of the room but that isn’t always the case,” said Calzavara.
They struck immediately, almost the moment Trudeau stepped out with microphone in hand. Goldberg led the way and as security closed in, Calzavara followed up – it is his voice you hear, from behind the camera, shouting the question in personal terms to the Prime Minister. “If it was your family that’s been waiting 500 days – if it was your family suffering from mercury poisoning – what would you do? Would you accept it? Mr. Trudeau, for 500 days you have not kept the commitment.”
Calzavara explains that in the final seconds of the clip, the jostling you see was triggered by an older woman – presumably a supporter trying to protect Trudeau – trying to “rip the camera out of my hand.”
“I didn’t expect that! But it was just a flash reaction. I try to stay cognizant of the fact that if you are doing something that is raiding the energy of the room, you can’t know how people will react and you should expect things might get weird.”
Weird – but also pointless. The protest world has transformed thanks to platforms like as Facebook Live, which let the cat out of the bag in real time. Even as the woman was grasping, the damage was already registering online – beamed directly to the Council of Canadians Facebook page. And soon thereafter, onto the Free Grassy Narrows Twitter feed, where “it really went into the stratosphere.”
Trudeau was still speaking to donors as the disastrous clip began to catch fire. Minutes later, as The Star caught up with Sone, Calzavara and the smattering of protesters outside the hotel on the north side of King Street East, all were hunched over their phones, watching and rewatching the clip with increasing excitement as it gained momentum online. Often such efforts result in as few as a dozen viewers. This one, obviously, was different. And as it took off, the protesters who triggered were still trying and make sense of Trudeau’s response. What was he thinking, they wondered?
“Trudeau’s usual protest-management strategy is to say, ‘Thank you, that’s an important issue, thank you for sharing your thoughts – and yet here he was like a windup doll, standing in a room full of donors and repeating over and over, ‘Thank you for your donation.’ I really can’t imagine what he was thinking,” Sone told the Star on King Street.
If there was any political imperative behind Wednesday’s protest action, it was informed by concern that Trudeau is already in trouble – and by extension, time is fast running out for this government to deliver on the pledge made 500 days ago by then-Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott.
“Who knows what will happen in October with the federal elections?” said Sone. “It would be devastating if this were to become one more broken promise to the people of Grassy Narrows. Something like this, that’s 50 years overdue, should not be hanging in the balance on the popularity of this government.”
One day later – with the story focusing more on Trudeau than Grassy Narrows and an apology from the Prime Minister already in hand — Sone declined to comment, asking instead that reporters speak with senior tribal leaders in a bid to steer emphasis back toward mercury victims.
Calzavara, for his part, was actively doing interviews with similar intent, trying to remind people what this is really all about.
“In a few minutes I’m about to go on air with a right-wing media personality who is known for Trudeau-bashing. I had a look at her feed and I didn’t notice a single thing on issues relating to First Nations,” said Calzavara.
“So she’ll want to talk about Trudeau’s arrogance but I see this as a wonderful opportunity to try to get her listeners to understand the 50-year history of Grassy Narrows being ignored by everyone from Joe Clark to Brian Mulroney to Jean Chrétien o Stephen Harper till now. There’s lots of blame to go around and this is a chance to reach people who won’t normally listen to us.
“If people are focused on the fact that Trudeau said something flippant and rude and had to apologize, we’ll take it. That’s just reality today. But the much more important story here is the actual issue of Grassy Narrows. And making sure that federal action matches the words.”
Mitch Potter is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @MPwrites