Although the year is far from over, I already have my nomination ready for the silliest thing said by a Canadian politician in 2017. The award should definitely go to NDP leader Thomas Mulcair for demanding that the prime minister’s principal secretary Gerald Butts disavow his “friendship” with Trump strategist Steve Bannon.
Steve Bannon is of course yesterday’s news. Recently asked to leave that dysfunctional island known as the White House like some spurned Survivor contestant, some might say that Mulcair’s comments are dated and irrelevant.
This is not the case. They capture our nation’s obsession with Donald Trump. Despite our general dislike for the man, we all seem to be searching for ways to make Canada part of the Trump soap opera.
Canada seems to be suffering from a kind of Trump envy.
The Bannon-Butts story is a perfect example. The genesis of it was a The New Yorker’s profile on Bannon. A little rambling, it contained the usual analysis of Bannon’s role in Trump World. Buried within it was a passing reference to Bannon’s supposed “friendship” with Butts, who he apparently speaks to “regularly,” along with a slightly inaccurate description of some tax policies advocated by Trudeau that Bannon apparently wanted the Trump administration to copy.
Despite the rather routine nature of the article, it was red meat for the Canadian chattering classes. Leaving the impression that The New Yorker had published a People–Magazine-like exposé of a Butts-Bannon bromance, a debate began over the appropriateness of someone so close to our prime minister palling around with someone known for his far-right, even borderline-racist, views.
Enter Mulcair. Speaking loudly enough to be heard from his high horse, he demanded that Butts “stand up full-square and say: ‘No, this is no friend of mine. I’ll have nothing to do with it.’ ”
You can’t make this stuff up.
First, anyone who has spent any time in politics knows that Butts and Bannon are probably not what the rest of the world thinks of as friends. I doubt that they call each other when their favourite Gilmore Girls rerun is playing or when they need a lift to the airport.
No, I imagine that, despite their ideological differences, Butts and Bannon hit it off and stayed in touch. Their conversations may have veered into more general topics and there might have even been a degree of warmth. They are both intensely busy people and although The New Yorker claims that they talked “regularly,” I doubt it was very often or for very long.
I, for one, am pleased that officials within the Canadian government are cultivating channels of communication to the White House. And as to Bannon’s sinister views, I hate to tell Mr. Mulcair, but Canada needs to engage with all sorts of governments, including those worse than the current US administration — it’s called foreign policy.
Although a non-story, it is easy to understand why it generated so much interest. Trump is the biggest story on the planet and Canadian journalists and opposition politicians know that the easiest way to gain the public’s attention is to try to find a Canadian angle — no matter how peripheral.
But it goes beyond that.
Let’s face it, Canadian politics seems so boring these days. It lacks the wonderful black-and-white nature of the current American scene where anyone criticizing Trump can rise to a level of self-righteousness that is truly awe-inspiring.
Beware, there is something dangerous about our Trump obsession.
More and more, discussions about Canadian domestic issues seem to be viewed through the lens of contemporary American politics. Sure, we need to understand the US perspective when discussing trade, foreign affairs and defence and no one is denying the huge cultural influence that the US has on our nation.
But Canada is a different country.
Our efforts to reconcile with our Indigenous Peoples is a very different challenge from the struggles that the US is having on matters related to its African-American population. We have a different immigration system. We have a very different approach to dealing with hate speech, including different laws. Our domestic environmental challenges, as well as the framework within which we address them, is different. And the list goes on.
These matters need to be dealt with in a typical Canadian way: Lots of compromise, incrementalism and, dare I say it, federal-provincial discussion. Very different from the United States. Even our conservative movements behave differently — understanding Newt Gingrich or Ted Cruz is not going to help you understand Andrew Sheer or Patrick Brown.
President Trump apparently told his Mexican counterpart that when it comes to Canada, “we don’t even think about them.” Although he was referring to trade, I am certain that this is their prevailing general attitude.
Maybe, every once in a while, Canadians could demonstrate a similar disinterest toward our neighbour to the south when thinking about issues here at home.
John Milloy is a former MPP and Ontario Liberal cabinet minister currently serving as the Director of the Centre for Public Ethics and assistant professor of public ethics at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, and the inaugural practitioner in residence in Wilfrid Laurier University’s Political Science department. He is also a lecturer in the University of Waterloo’s Master of Public Service Program. John can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @John_Milloy.