Review: Travellers At The Crossroads

Mark Bourrie, an award-winning writer, sees Ottawa as a kind of ancient parable where three harried travellers stumble into each other at a crossroads: one is a Prime Minister, cynical and conniving; the other is a press gallery, weak and self-pitying; the third is an indifferent electorate. Each turns to the other and cries, “Aha! It’s you again.”

Kill The Messengers is funny and unnerving. Bourrie takes aim at all three with a sniper’s precision. The result is the gutsiest account of contemporary Canadian politics to come out of the parliamentary press gallery in a generation. “A new kind of controlling, arrogant and often vindictive government has emerged since the 1980s and is getting more emboldened and entrenched,” he writes; “What’s the point?”

An illustration: In the 2011 campaign a teenager from London, Ont., Awish Aslam, attended a Conservative rally to hear the Prime Minister speak. Aslam was studying political science and attended other leaders’ rallies, too. It was a bad mistake.

A Tory rat patrol ran background checks and discovered Aslam posted a souvenir photo of her and Michael Ignatieff on her Facebook page. The 19-year old was spotted by two RCMP officers, had her name tag torn up and was escorted from the hall, distraught and near tears. “Typical,” reported CBC-TV’s Terry Milewski; “Everyone had to preregister and show ID before being allowed in to hear Stephen Harper.”

The hall was filled with reporters, but no TV camera captured the scene; networks had paid for a single pool camera that remained focused tightly on Harper at the podium. Televising images of teenagers being hauled out of a rally by RCMP bouncers was verboten.

“When Harper was elected in 2006 the media was already very, very sick,” Bourrie notes. “Isolating and delegitimizing the media and its role in Canadian democracy would be easier than it could have been at any other time in recent Canadian history. The stars had aligned, the media was hobbled, and now, if possible, Harper and his people would push it to the fringe of Canadian politics. At least it wouldn’t be alone: scientists, parliamentary watchdogs, and pretty well anyone else who could get in the way would be out there, too.”

Bourrie is almost unique among Parliament Hill journalists. He is a gifted writer; he seeks no favour from officialdom; and he lets the chips fall where they may. “Instead of being watchdogs, most of the reporters on Parliament Hill are ciphers, unable to do much more than get reaction to issues that are, for the most part, manufactured by political parties for their own benefit,” he writes. Kill The Messenger names names. I won’t recount them here. Buy the book.

In this true-to-life parable Ottawa cultivates a mystique of competence – as if voters cared – though cabinet can’t appoint a Supreme Court judge without getting sued, and the finance department once doubled the tax rate on credit unions by mistake. Ministers needlessly antagonize judges, climatologists, Elections Canada, premiers, trade unions and members of their own caucus, and reporters entertain each other with amusing Tweets. “Most ‘news’ is not news at all,” Bourrie concludes.

To read Kill The Messenger is to experience a strange euphoria. As weak and distracted and cynical as we are, it’s invigorating to know somebody still publishes books like this, and somebody still writes them.

By Holly Doan

Kill The Messengers: Stephen Harper’s Assault On Your Right To Know, by Mark Bourrie; Harper Collins Canada; 340 pages; ISBN 9781-4434-31040; $32.99

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