Control. I could feel it bearing down on me the second I stepped through the gates and presented my accreditation to a guard inside the booth that marked the entrance to Harperstan.
I was now inside the hulking complex of the Toronto Transit Commission and its sprawling web of warehouses and garages on Bathurst Street that, to accommodate a press conference, had been transformed into the type of militarized zone beloved by Harper— complete with police officers and guards from the PM’s own security detail, out in force to prevent anyone from straying off track.
I was tasked with finding out more about Conservative Senator Don Meredith, his illicit relationship with a teenage girl, and what vetting process the PM had used to select him for a senatorial role.
My inquiries were, superficially at least, quite unrelated to Harper’s official reason for being in Toronto on June 18 alongside with Finance Minister Joe Oliver and Mayor John Tory. Harper and Oliver had come to Toronto with a campaign-trail pledge to offer funding for improving public transit in Toronto— up to one third of $7.8 billion in ‘SmartTrack’ funding.
But Senate scandals and infrastructure investments will be only two of many factors that decide the outcome of the Oct. 19 federal election.
“This way please,” a police officer said, directing reporters from the front booth across a paved lot to a desk manned by an attractive blonde staffer, who handed out press tags and vetted our questions.
Next, journalists were directed into a holding area set up in the TTC workers’ canteen, where I caught a whiff of fish and chips from the kitchen area.
For the next hour, groups of reporters from different outlets, CTV and Global News alongside Chinese and Portuguese-language media, chatted amongst themselves.
Roughly 30 minutes before media were allowed into the main warehouse where Harper was due to speak, all media were ordered to lay their equipment – tripods, film cameras, and kitbags – on the floor for a security check.
Two loud barks announced the sniffer dog’s entrance, led by a security guard in a navy blue uniform. Dog and guard scoured over tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of press equipment for signs of explosives.
While everyone’s camera gear was scrutinized, a female official walked amongst the Toronto press corps, handing out press releases— in both English and French— detailing Harper’s upcoming SmartTrack funding announcement. She had run out of English copies by the time she reached me.
Media were then led into the main warehouse where chairs and a podium had been set up and reporters were made to stand behind a cordon behind the seating area, between the TTC’s buses and streetcars. I stood beside a brown heritage tram from the 1920s. It reminded me of the one inside Vancouver’s Old Spaghetti Factory restaurant.
Journalists couldn't approach Joe Oliver or PM Harper. Nor could we approach any of the guests who had been invited to hear the PM speak. After Harper made his speech, only three media outlets were allowed to ask one question each.
Notably absent from this line-up was the Toronto Star, who had broken the story about Don Meredith’s misconduct just 24 hours prior.
Once Harper left the podium, I attempted to follow him, as he slipped behind a crowd of dignitaries. Catching a glimpse of him beside the curtains, I tried approaching him to ask him about the Meredith scandal.
“Sir! You can’t be here,” a Harper handler said, directing me back towards other members of the press.
Before leaving, I told her I had a quick question for the PM, but she said that speaking with him would not be possible.
“All questions can be emailed to the PM’s office,” she said.
I followed the other reporters out the back of the building and into an open lot. I knew that Mayor Tory was holding a media scrum, but there was a little confusion over where he would hold it exactly, before a police officer stationed at the exit motioned me back inside.
Between the TTC’s parked streetcars and buses, a cheerful Mayor Tory arrived to greet the press.
I was still determined to get PM Harper on the record. I returned to the seating area where the Prime Minister had given his speech, in a final bid to ask him about Don Meredith, or at least to speak with other dignitaries about their thoughts on increased transit funding.
Once again I was intercepted, this time by a bearded, smartly-suited guard, who politely but firmly explained that media were no longer welcome in Harper’s presence.
“This is a private event, sir," he said.
“If I stand behind this line, could you ask guests to come talk to me?” I tried, pointing to the yellow line next to my feet.
“All guests are under the understanding that this is a private event from here on,” replied the guard.
I was welcome to join the media scrum asking Mayor Tory questions about SmartTrack, he said, indicating that it was now time to leave Harperstan.
“The exit’s through that way, sir,” said the guard, directing me down the passageway to a backdoor.
I walked back out the main gate, past the booth marking the border between Harperstan and the rest of Canada.
On to the Republic of Trudeau
My next stop was over 50 km away in Stouffville, where Liberal leader Justin Trudeau held an impromptu Main Street walkabout with local people, drumming up support for Markham-Stouffville’s Liberal candidate, Jane Philpott. Philpott is running for the first time in the upcoming election.
A whole block was cordoned off for pedestrians only and a carnival atmosphere reigned as crowds of local people clustered around street stalls selling hotdogs and burgers, momentarily sheltering under store awnings from a torrential downpour, before Trudeau himself emerged from Philpott’s office.
Instead of security guards with sniffer dogs, Trudeau was flanked by an army of local Liberal volunteers in red T-shirts, including teenagers and people old enough to be their grandparents, all of whom fanned out to sign up new members.
Trudeau eagerly plunged into the crowd that included local media taking photos. He posed as teens snapped selfies with him, and proud moms and dads holding young children got their pictures taken with him. He chatted easily with anyone who managed to get close enough in the midst of the rock-star-style throng.
Here in the Democratic Republic of Trudeau I could talk to the people who'd gathered to see him, a cultural departure from the strict policies of Harperstan.
“I’m quite surprised that this is so normal. He came, he’s walking the streets, there’s no security. If there is any, they’re very good at hiding it,” said local resident Nancy Norris.
She predicted a win for Trudeau come Oct. 19, describing the leader as “very accessible,” compared to Harper.
Her fellow local, Carey Yeoman, was also pleased to see Trudeau walking the streets and listening to ordinary people, describing him as well-versed in national and international politics.
She blamed Harper for giving Canada a poor international record during his tenure as Prime Minister.
“Hopefully having Trudeau at the helm can reverse some of that damage,” said Yeoman.
But Jim Miller took a more nuanced view, saying that while Harper “tends to stay very shielded from the public,” he also would do a walkabout like this during his election campaign.
“Even he would be shaking hands,” Miller maintained.
Returning home that night I was greeted by another dog, my uncle’s black lab Tessa, who wagged her tail and licked me delightedly. Definitely no explosives in my camera.
I reached into my pocket for my press tag and draped it around her neck. A little memento of my time in Harperstan.