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Stuart Thomson: Reporters should take Poilievre’s combativeness as a challenge

Commentary

One of my best memories from journalism school was when John Baird visited for a Q&A session and had the time of his life.

Baird was the infrastructure minister and in the early stages of rolling out the government’s economic action plan, a massive stimulus program designed to jolt the economy out of the doldrums that followed the Great Recession.

He stood in front of 30 or so bright-eyed journalism students, all keen to pin him down on something or another, and ripped us to shreds one by one.

When it was my turn to ask him a question I had already seen several of my classmates go down in a blaze of glory so I wrote out my question and tried to find the exact wording that would stump the minister.

I asked him if he was worried about cost overruns or scandals arising from this massive blast of infrastructure spending and before I’d finished my sentence Baird cut me off.

“Do you have any examples of what you’re talking about?” he said.

I groped for examples and came up with a newsy U.S. scandal about a “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska. That allowed Baird to pontificate about the differences between the U.S. system and the Canadian one and my question mostly went unanswered.

To be entirely truthful, I considered it a victory. I got out of there alive without looking too stupid.

At the time, it felt like a reality check. Baird’s performance seemed like a preview of what life would be like if I reached my goal of someday covering politics for a living.

Don’t ask a lazy or unfocused question, I told myself, because these people will absolutely pounce on you.

But strangely, those responses from Baird were some of the most intense I’ve ever seen in journalism. And to be clear, Baird had a smile on his face for much of it. He was just having fun in a low-stakes situation.

I have seen reporters get extremely heated with politicians and other public figures, sometimes to a degree that I considered unprofessional or excessive. I’ve also seen flashes of ire behind a politician’s eyes in response to my questions, but it always subsides into a calm and measured response.

Until Pierre Poilievre came along, anyway.

When Poilievre cut a reporter off mid-sentence last week to clarify an accusation that he was “dog-whistling to the far Right,” it brought me back to that day in journalism class.

Poilievre asked who was making that accusation and when informed by the reporter that it was unnamed experts, he asked which ones. After a brief back-and-forth, Poilievre told the reporter that her question was based on a false premise and seemed, to him, like a “CBC smear job.”

Up until that last part (it wasn’t even a CBC reporter), Poilievre seemed to be on solid ground. If he is to respond to accusations that he is either an extremist or courting extremists, it seems perfectly reasonable to ask for an example or some evidence.

But of course, like anything in politics, it shouldn’t just be taken at face value.

For Poilievre, the short-term benefits of this strategy are obvious: his supporters dislike the media and it’s fun to watch him take on reporters like this. Clips of Poilievre raking journalists over the coals are especially popular on YouTube.

The long-term benefits are harder to see, though. Poilievre has been undergoing a “softening” of his image lately, and these prosecutorial exchanges seem to conflict with that. Swing voters usually don’t like argumentative people, even if they are right (and sometimes especially when they are right).

The other effect for Poilievre might be that reporters start doing what I unsuccessfully tried to do once I realized Baird was going to interrogate me. I put a little more effort into my question and I started to think about my strategy for getting a good answer.

It’s easy to see why most politicians don’t argue with bad or lazy questions, though. Instead, they nod sagely, as if they are impressed with it, and then rumble through their talking points. Pushing for a better question actually makes their job harder.

As it says in the Bible, and in every NFL training camp since time immemorial, iron sharpens iron. Poilievre may be inadvertently forcing reporters to think twice as hard about their questions and their story premises, pushing them into a little more research than they may otherwise do and generally making his life more difficult.

It’s also worth considering that the social media world, and the way it divides us into ideological tribes, provides bad incentives to reporters the same way it does for politicians. For a journalist courting a left-wing audience, sparring with Poilievre is valuable, the same way heckling Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would be for a journalist seeking a right-wing audience. These tribal social media incentives tend to be contrary to the health of our democracy and its institutions.

It also puts more emphasis on the process of journalism than its result. Because scrums and interviews are such a big part of a journalist’s day, and because they can be exciting, adrenaline-pumping moments, it’s easy to put too much importance on them.

Of course, it’s vital to get politicians on the record, and to report on it when they don’t answer our questions, but the key mechanism for accountability is not the question screamed at a hapless politician or its tepid response, it’s the news stories that get written afterward.

Most big scandals start off with a “no comment,” or a talking point, or a flimsy denial“The allegations in the Globe story this morning are false.” and the bickering in the scrums isn’t even a footnote.

There is a temptation among reporters to see any kind of pushback or criticism as an assault on our role in the democratic process. We should be careful about that. It’s worth considering that the kind of spirited exchanges we’re used to seeing in question period might be good for us in scrums and interviews.

And anyway, the YouTube content will be great.

Caroline Elliott: Unilateral Indigenous decisions can’t be allowed to override democratic principles

Commentary

When the Líl̓wat Nation and the N’Quatqua First Nation announced a unilateral five-week closure of Joffre Lakes Provincial Park with no notice, it was despite the fact that they had no legal authority to do so. Nonetheless, the B.C. government’s response was to quietly acquiesce, posting that the popular park was “currently inaccessible” and dispatching park officials to turn hikers away.

This follows years of policies that have increased decision-making powers for Indigenous governments and sought agreement on the management of public lands. However, as in any pluralistic society, the interests of different parties often differ and agreement cannot always be reached.

This is where democratic principles come into play.

In a democracy, competing interests are balanced by elected decision-makers. This means that through our chosen representatives, we have a say in the rules we live by. We have a role in electing those who make decisions on our behalf, and we hold them accountable in subsequent elections, helping ensure they act in our interests.

Popular rule demands inclusion, and unfortunately Canada has historically fallen far short of this standard. Women did not have the right to vote until about 100 years ago. For Asian Canadians, it was 1948, and only in 1960 did Indigenous Canadians get to vote without conditions.

Such exclusionary practices were deeply unjust, but even the gravest of past wrongs cannot justify circumventing fundamental democratic principles today. It’s imperative that the principle of popular rule remains intact even when we look at ways to address injustices or achieve other worthy goals.

The B.C. government’s adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples four years ago is exactly this kind of well-intentioned initiative, with troubling consequences that are more obvious in cases like the Joffre Lakes closure.  

The Declaration was cited by the Nations in their notice shutting down the park, including its provision that Indigenous people have the right to participate in decision-making in matters that affect their rights. This provision itself is not problematic from a democratic perspective.

Indeed, the Supreme Court of Canada has made it clear that there is a duty to consult and, where appropriate, accommodate Indigenous groups affected by government decisions. However, it has not established a veto for Indigenous groups, and in cases of dispute, has instead left room for governments to proceed with decisions justified by the broader public interest.

This is generally consistent with democratic principles because there is an accountability relationship between federal/provincial decision-makers and the citizens (including Indigenous people) who elect them. Not everyone will agree with every decision, but they do get to reward or punish their representatives at the ballot box.

This is not the case in a scenario where Indigenous groups make unilateral decisions that affect the broader public, since over 95 percent of British Columbians who are not Indigenous have no role in electing leaders of those communities. In fact, Indigenous people themselves have no ability to select the leaders of the 200-plus Indigenous communities in B.C. other than their own. When one combines non-Indigenous and Indigenous British Columbians from communities other than the one making a given decision, it is troubling to see a lack of an accountability relationship with about 99.9 percent of the population.

In this way, Indigenous and non-Indigenous British Columbians alike may increasingly find themselves subject to decisions made by leaders they cannot hold accountable. More concerningly, if we are to accept the premise of the Joffre Lakes closure, this may become the case across the vast majority of B.C.’s land area.

The Joffre Lakes closure was done on the basis of the park being within the Nations’ traditional territory, where title has been asserted but not proven, as former B.C. Deputy Minister of Energy and Aboriginal Law expert Robin Junger has pointed out. While Aboriginal rights are protected by the Constitution, this does not give Indigenous groups the right to act unilaterally without consideration of the public interest, especially in cases where title has not been established.

If the position of the Nations is that the assertion of title confers the right to prohibit access to public spaces, then it should be noted that 95 percent of B.C.’s land mass is claimed as unceded traditional territory by one or more of the province’s 200-plus Indigenous groups. If unilateral action is deemed an acceptable response to inevitable disagreements, it is fair to ask what would prevent such action not just in other parks, but in relation to any public (or even private) lands across B.C.  

Speaking on this issue, Indigenous lawyer Hugh Braker is quoted as saying: “I respect the right of First Nations to do in their traditional territory what they wish,” and “I think we should do more of that in British Columbia.” It goes without saying that over 200 groups arbitrarily doing “what they wish” on 95 percent of B.C.’s land, in the absence of any democratic relationship with over 99.9 percent of the affected public is a recipe for serious strife.

This can be further extrapolated to the natural resource sector, which is crucial to B.C.’s economy and thus significantly affects the broader population. The Declaration requires that states must work with Indigenous people to obtain their “free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources.”

Again, meaningfully seeking input from Indigenous groups is entirely consistent with democratic principles and is already required by the courts. However, the requirement for Indigenous consent raises concerns, since reaching agreement will not always be possible.

If this standard had been applied, for example, to the Site C project, it would never have been built. It is not a stretch to see how scenarios like Joffre Lakes could set a precedent that decisions affecting the vast majority of B.C.’s land may be made by bodies with no democratic connection to those affected. The B.C. Minister of Mining’s comment that, when it comes to First Nations, “our approach to natural-resource development must be done in collaboration and partnership with the rightful owners of the land” suggests a wide interpretation of the concept of title that makes this scenario all the more likely.

B.C.’s original bill adopting the Declaration was passed unanimously in 2019, with all three parties in the legislature saying it would not in itself immediately affect existing laws but rather serve as a guiding framework according to which the law will be gradually re-defined. Despite the initial fanfare, it will be these less-exciting measures that will change the law itself, and careful attention must be paid to how that takes place.

The legitimacy of our governance system is founded on the democratic principle of popular rule: that “the people” are the authors of the rules that bind them, through an accountability relationship between governors and the governed. The Joffre Lakes situation is a warning that, no matter how well-intentioned reconciliation initiatives are, bypassing this simple principle cannot be justified.