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CHAPTER 2: THE HOPE-MONGERS
“My name is Rachel Notley and I’m running to be your premier.”
It was the Alberta NDP leader’s opening line at every forum, rally, and truck stop during the 2015 Alberta election campaign. Much more than a mantra, this was a declaration. Clear, concise, and accessible, Notley seemed to speak directly to each person in the audience. Five months later Justin Trudeau assumed a similar style, with his “sunny ways”shining over the dour aura of Stephen Harper during the federal election. Notley’s optimism placed her directly apart from the pessimism of her main opponent, Progressive Conservative leader and premier Jim Prentice. The campaign pitted a dynamic Notley riding a horse called hope against a gloom-laden Prentice, astride a nag named doom.
The election was supposed to be an easy sprint to the finish for Jim Prentice. Yet it was Notley’s flawless run that energized the province and propelled the NDP to victory. A generation of youth born under an unending PC government, first elected in 1971, suddenly felt empowered. No longer a detour to the past, the voting booth became a door to the future.
“[The PCs] were no good at politics,”Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi told the authors. “They talked about their great ground game, but they didn’t have a great ground game. They didn’t have an air game. They’d gotten a bit sclerotic around this.”At their peak the Tories excelled at both. Identifying their supporters during their door-knocking and canvassing constituted their good ground game. Their mass media advertising, including ads targeting specific groups, plus the leader’s tour and its attendant media coverage, formed the solid air game. As David McLaughlin, a former federal Conservative chief of staff, states in the Globe and Mail: “The air war is to persuade voters. The ground game is to identify voters. The two [get] together in what is known as GOTV — get out the vote.”1
Nenshi noticed that the PCs had failed to keep their volunteers “excited and engaged on the constituency level. They’d gotten very complacent, even though they still have got a great base. Add to that a leader who couldn’t connect an air game with the majority of Albertans, there was no way they could win that election. It was all a façade by the end.”
A Tory rout had seemed unfathomable only a few months earlier. Going into the election, Prentice was the most popular leader in the province and absolutely, unalterably sure of what he was doing. After easily winning the Progressive Conservative leadership on September 6, 2014, Prentice quickly distanced himself from former premier Alison Redford and her government. Sworn in as the sixteenth premier of Alberta on September 15, 2014, Prentice declared: “As of this moment, Alberta is under new management. This is a new government with new leadership, new voices and a new way of doing things.”
On October 27 the Prentice team appeared invincible, as “new leadership”brought a PC sweep of four by-elections, three in Calgary and one in Edmonton. Looking back at that triumph more than a year later, some senior PCs felt the victories “went to Jim’s head.”He appeared to believe a thirteenth straight PC majority was preordained.
The new premier’s confidence soared again when he engineered the most remarkable mass floor crossing in the history of Canadian politics. On November 24, 2014, Wildrose MLAs Kerry Towle and Ian Donovan joined Prentice and the PCs. Wildrose leader Danielle Smith seemed shocked by the apparent betrayal. “I suspect they’re going to be in for a bit of a rude awakening on the other side,”she said.
Then Smith herself stunned the province — and enraged many conservatives — when on December 17 she crossed to the PCs, taking eight other Wildrose MLAs with her. Only five MLAs were left behind to guard the flame of this right-wing Official Opposition.
“It is my sincere hope that you will join us and encourage your fellow members to come together under Premier Prentice’s leadership,”Smith wrote to the Wildrose executive committee.2 She was not only leaving, but counselling the party to vote itself out of existence. Wildrose was supposed to vanish with gratitude after Smith abandoned all her former colleagues. She genuinely admired Prentice, and to her, the floor crossings seemed simply a coalition of like minds — not the traitorous betrayal many Albertans would perceive.
Prentice’s “new way of doing things”was immediately blasted by people at every point on the political spectrum. Never had an Official Opposition been so decimated by a premier and his party without benefit of an election. The MLAs who stayed with the Wildrose caucus bitterly painted the crossings as a personal back-stab and a betrayal of democracy. Their leftover caucus was now equal in number to the Liberals, each with one more seat than the four-member NDP caucus.
The floor crossings suddenly gave the legislature two parties vying to be the Official Opposition. A day after Wildrose appointed Calgary MLA Heather Forsyth as temporary leader, Speaker Gene Zwozdesky ruled that the party would keep its Official Opposition status. Zwozdesky, himself a Progressive Conservative, was unwilling to hand Wildrose its legislative death sentence.
Few were surprised when Liberal leader Raj Sherman stepped down as leader on January 26, 2015. One week later, veteran MLA and former leader David Swann assumed the interim role while Sherman remained an MLA until the election call.
Prentice thought he had folded the right-wing opposition under his wing and decimated Wildrose as a viable opposition party. The Liberals, also-rans in Alberta since the first Liberal government was defeated in 1921, appeared as weak as they’d been since the heady days of Laurence Decore’s leadership in the 1990s. Prentice had every reason to gaze happily at a legislature where his government was utterly dominant.
At that point, however, dangerous perceptions were already taking shape among the voters. Wildrose was momentarily on the ropes, but the gravest political damage would be to the PCs. The floor crossings blurred their identity and infuriated many party loyalists who wanted nothing to do with the more right-wing opposition party. Many other voters simply felt it was undemocratic, as well as ethically wrong, for so many MLAs elected under the banner of one party to join another, especially after negotiations that were kept completely private.
WHILE THE PCS and Wildrose were already conducting merger talks in deep secrecy in mid-2014, Rachel Notley was running for the leadership of the NDP. She impressed many people from the start with her warmth, humour, and conviction. On October 18 a triumphant Notley was handed the mantle by retiring leader Brian Mason.
“I’d just become leader, and I thought as soon as the leadership is over, I’m going to get a rest. Then, literally three days after I was elected leader, Prentice made this comment,”Notley recalls. He had urged voters to compare his record to that of other premiers — language that sounded suspiciously electoral. “I went back to my office and said, ’Did you hear that comment? It’s suddenly different. The guy is going to call the election in four months, not sixteen months. So we’re not getting our break.’”
Notley notified her election committee and broke the unwelcome news. “We accelerated our candidate search and all our preparation and all that work, which allowed us to be better prepared than the other opposition parties. But how could the Wildrose possibly have been well prepared? How could the Liberals be well prepared? Losing their leaders, it was craziness.”When Prentice dropped the writ, the NDP was as equipped as it could be for a snap election. “We were the only opposition, the only one who announced we were running for government. That was us.”
The PCs had always seen one use only for the provincial NDP: it was a handy tool to split the left-wing vote and keep the Liberals away from power. If the NDP seemed especially weak, the PCs were always happy to pass on some extra legislature funding to keep it viable. The one thing they never imagined was that the New Democrats would threaten their government.
But now the NDP was suddenly the only party that seemed predictable and stable. People began to take a serious look at Notley. Her personal story resonated with many Albertans; her father, Grant Notley, had been leader of the NDP and one of the most respected politicians in Alberta history. He had been killed in a plane crash in 1984, exactly thirty years and one day before his daughter succeeded him as leader of the party he helped create.
Largely oblivious to these factors, Prentice was laying the groundwork for a PC budget and a spring election by preparing the province for hard economic times. He employed the old PC strategy that had worked for every premier since Ralph Klein — essentially, running against the record of his own party and painting his regime as something entirely new, even though the only real shift was in the premier’s office. But this line was wearing thinner with each election. Alison Redford, preaching the same doctrine of internal transformation, had pulled off a victory in 2012 only because mid-campaign “bozo eruptions”tainted Wildrose. It was inevitable that one day the voters would hear all the PCs’ self-criticism as a reason to defeat the government rather than reform it once again. Prentice himself was cultivating the ground for his own defeat.
The danger escalated when Prentice suddenly seemed to blame regular Albertans, not just the government, for the sorry state of provincial finances that had been brought on by escalating deficits even in boom times for the oil and gas industry. “We all want to blame somebody for the circumstance we’re in,”Prentice explained to CBC Radio’s Donna McElligot on March 4, 2015. “In terms of who is responsible, we all need only look in the mirror. Basically, all of us have had the best of everything and have not had to pay for what it costs.”3
Considering that the Tories had been at the helm for forty-three years, the suggestion that the voters were somehow responsible for the government’s fiscal plight ignited a storm of criticism. Within moments Twitter erupted and a new hashtag went viral: #PrenticeBlamesAlbertans.
Opposition leaders blasted Prentice. “That is a profoundly insulting comment to all Albertans,”Notley declared in the legislature. She immediately showed her gift for catching and reflecting exactly what the public was thinking. “I think there is no question that what this has revealed is an incredible level of arrogance. If this is what the premier will say to Albertans now, before an election, heaven forbid what he’ll say after an election.”4
Prentice was forced to retreat from that comment, but he continued to preach that economic decay required public sacrifice. Every move he made on this front, however, was an admission that the PCs had failed to deal with the province’s main structural problem, overreliance on oil and gas. When he tabled his document of doom on March 26, 2015, many Albertans reacted as if a skunk had been dumped at the door.
The PC budget contained fifty-nine new taxes and fee hikes. The 10 percent flat tax was gone, replaced with progressive increases for those making more than $50,000 per year. A health levy, linked to income over $50,000, would top out at $1,000 per family. Taxes were to jump for alcohol and gasoline, while fees rose for mortgages, land transfers, and land registry searches. Public-sector jobs would drop by two thousand in addition to cuts in agencies, boards, and commissions. In health care and education, services would be rolled back and positions eliminated. Even with all that, a $5 billion deficit loomed because of the oil price crash. But Prentice promised to balance the budget by 2017.
As often happens when a government makes complex changes, the public focus turned to a detail that was relatively small but symbolically powerful.
Prentice pruned back the tax credit for charitable donations over $200, to 12.75 percent from 21 percent. But he left the credit for donations to political parties untouched at 75 percent, arguing that this was healthy for democracy. The contrast was devastating; the premier appeared to care more about his party than charity. Prentice took more than three weeks to consider his folly. “Today I need to admit that we’ve gotten one very important thing wrong in our budget proposal,”he admitted on April 21, 2015, after meeting leaders from the charity sector at the University of Calgary campus. He restored the 21 percent credit, but it was far too late. The damage to his image and party was palpable. He appeared to be the corporate man through and through.
This impression deepened dangerously with his obdurate refusal to raise corporate taxes by the slightest fraction, even though he was imposing many new levies on individuals. He held his ground despite the fact that 61 percent of Albertans supported an increase in corporate tax, while only 26 percent were opposed, according to a May 1, 2015, Leger poll conducted for the Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal.
No less a figure than revered former premier Peter Lougheed, who died in 2012, had believed the corporate sector wasn’t paying its fair due. He certainly didn’t want punishing taxes that destroyed jobs; generally speaking, Alberta is a very pro-business province. But Prentice’s hard-line stand created resentment. Voters saw in him a premier who not only thought they were responsible for government errors, but expected them to pay the entire bill while his corporate pals got off free. Yet Prentice still believed his budget would bring him decisive victory.
Election night — June 12, 2014 — was one of the most anticipated in Ontario political history. Because the public opinion surveys were all over the map, none of the so-called experts could predict with any certainty what was about to transpire. Millions of Ontarians would turn on their television sets that night with no clue as to who was going to win.
I got a taste of that uncertainty just a few days earlier. After taping an episode of The Agenda on TVO with the provincial finance minister and his opposition critics, and when the cameras were no longer rolling, I asked all of them what they thought would happen on election night. Michael Prue, who was running for re-election for the New Democratic Party in Beaches–East York, forecast another minority government for the Liberals. But Vic Fedeli, a rookie member for the Progressive Conservatives from Nipissing, was feeling so bullish about things that he saw a majority government for his PCs. The finance minister himself, Charles Sousa, whose rejected budget was the cause of the election in the first place, looked down, shook his head, and didn’t even dare predict. I confess I was taken aback by his apparent lack of confidence in the Liberal Party’s re-election prospects.
On the night of June 12, I anchored TVO’s live, four-hour, commercial-free election broadcast. It was the ninth Ontario election I’d covered. After eight elections, you’d think I would have a strong sense of what was about to happen. But I didn’t. Sources I’ve long trusted over the years were all saying different things.
Then the numbers started to come in. The Liberals quickly jumped out to a solid lead. Then they surpassed the all-important 54-seat count — enough for a majority government. And yet none of the other network “Decision Desks” was prepared to declare definitively that the Liberals had indeed won their majority. Everyone was just too skittish and lacked confidence to make the call.
But as the night wore on, as the Liberal numbers firmed up, and as the Tory numbers just fell flat, shock gave way to acceptance: Premier Kathleen Wynne had saved the Liberals’ bacon, and thanks to a remarkably efficient vote, captured a solid majority government with just 38.7 percent of the total votes cast. Not only that, she had broken the rookie curse.
Not since 1971 had Ontarians given an unambiguous victory to a first-time leader. In that case, a young 41-year-old rookie leader named William Grenville Davis inherited the PC mantle from Premier John P. Robarts in February, then enlarged the size of the PC majority in the ensuing October election. But for more than four decades after that election, no governing party had figured out how to transfer power from one leader to the next successfully. Until now.
The other big takeaway on election night in 2014 was how thoroughly Ontarians repudiated PC Leader Tim Hudak’s unadulterated, unambiguous, “small c” conservative agenda. Seventy percent of them voted against it. Since Bill Davis’s departure in 1985, and in almost every general election thereafter, Progressive Conservatives had abandoned the moderate, pragmatic centre that was such a feature of the 42-year-long Tory dynasty (from 1943–85) and had moved harder to the right. The result: just two election wins in nearly 30 years, both by Mike Harris (in 1995 and 1999). While true-blue conservatives interpreted those mandates as Ontarians finally embracing their inner Common Sense Revolutionary zeal, many other observers didn’t. They saw those wins as a reaction (maybe overreaction?) to an ineffective and unlucky NDP government — a “market correction,” if you like.
And so the 2014 election result crystallized for many what had become increasingly clear over the years. First, in Ontario, there is only about 30 percent of the population that embraces a hard right-wing agenda of deep tax cuts, an increasingly confrontational approach with unions, and a fervent dislike of government in general and the public sector in particular. Second, that right-wing core is simply not big enough to win elections.
The bottom line: it’s still Bill Davis’s Ontario.
That’s right. Almost three decades after he retired from a quarter-century-long career in politics, it’s still Bill Davis’s Ontario. Despite the influx of millions of people from faraway places, whose customs and religious practices are a million miles removed from the Christian town of Brampton he grew up in, it’s still Bill Davis’s Ontario.
Why write a book on a man who’s been out of public life for 30 years? For so many reasons, the first of which is, incredibly, Bill Davis has never sat down with an author to tell his life story for a book. So many lesser politicians have had their biographies written, and yet Davis has always refused. Part of that can be attributed to his own personal modesty, upon which his parents always insisted. “I’ve never been too attentive to my legacy,” Davis told me in 2015. It’s astonishing, particularly given his accomplishments. His tenure as premier was nearly 14 years long — he’s the second-longest-serving premier in Ontario history. He won four consecutive elections, something that hadn’t been done since before the First World War. Had he not retired from politics in 1985 at the height of his personal popularity, no doubt he would have won a fifth mandate as well. “He’d have wiped the floor with David Peterson and me,” acknowledged Bob Rae of that 1985 campaign Davis opted not to fight.
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau gets most of the credit for patriating the Constitution with an accompanying Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But it’s no exaggeration to say it never would have happened without Bill Davis, and this book will tell you why.
2014 Toronto Mayoral Election
Olivia Chow’s campaign for mayor of Toronto in 2014 was a classic front-runner’s campaign. She was faced with the dilemma of uncontrollably high expectations. Initially, high expectations raised her up, infusing her candidacy with what would eventually turn out to be false hope. In the end, her campaign began to crater when she could not meet those high expectations and the door was left open for another candidate to walk through.
The 2014 Toronto election was unique. (I shall delve into it again in Chapter 6, on the importance of research.) The mayor since 2010 had been Rob Ford, a former Toronto city councillor, who had been elected on a promise to reduce municipal spending, to “Stop the Gravy Train,” as he put it. Whatever that slogan meant, it catapulted him into office in 2010. By the midpoint of his four-year term, however, his mayoralty was in ruins. Ford had exposed himself as a drug abuser and alcoholic, given to embarrassing himself and his city by appearing in public repeatedly in what he would later describe as a “drunken stupor.” By 2013 a majority of Toronto voters had turned on him, and it was clear that the mayor could be defeated by almost any sensible — and sober — candidate. It was time for a change at city hall. As 2013 wound down, two-thirds of the voters were telling the pollsters they wanted a new mayor. This number did not change significantly over the next twelve months, and on October 27, 2014, election day, 66 percent of Torontonians voted for a candidate who was not named Ford.
For all of 2013, the public opinion polls, mainly conducted by Forum Research, showed Olivia Chow as the most credible of the potential non-Ford candidates. She enjoyed a commanding lead in the polls.
These polls included the same five potential candidates in the ballot question.
During 2013, Olivia’s lead over Rob Ford ranged from 3 to 17 percent in polls naming these five candidates. The race began to tighten when John Tory officially entered the race. That was on February 24, 2014.
We knew we had a challenge heading into 2014. Olivia was the leading candidate. In a choice between her and Rob Ford, she would win hands down. The polls told us that. The expectations for her were high. Way too high!
These public polls results did provide us with one large advantage. They discouraged other anti-Ford progressives from jumping into the contest. However, we sensed a larger problem could emerge at a later date because of the unrealistic expectations. Yet there was little we could do to reduce expectations. Forum Research (and some other research firms) kept publishing these numbers every month.
Focus groups results from early 2014 heightened our concerns. Voters knew very little about Olivia and her personal background. Most knew she was an NDP MP from downtown Toronto and the widow of Jack Layton. Many remembered her standing stoically by his coffin at his funeral. But they knew very little else about her. Few knew she had been a Toronto school board trustee or a Toronto city councillor and that she had a number of personal accomplishments from her previous political positions.
It became obvious that her polling numbers were being driven mainly by her high name recognition.
In an attempt to counter this situation, we decided not to run a traditional front-runner’s campaign. We started the campaign aggressively on all fronts so as to not look as if we were taking the outcome for granted.
We toured aggressively. She visited forty-four wards of the city in forty-four days.
We pushed out policy planks for the first six weeks — one or two every week.
We conducted a large direct-mail fundraising campaign.
Initially, things went well. John Tory had announced his candidacy in late February with few preparations in place. After four to six weeks, our focus group respondents were saying he was invisible and they were disappointed in his passive campaign. Chow’s aggressive policy statements had caught hold.
The focus groups especially liked her plans to improve bus service, to launch an after- school program for kids, and to provide help for small business.
Olivia maintained a solid lead in the public polling during April and May, the only change being that Tory had jumped into second place ahead of Rob Ford. The embattled mayor announced on May 1 that he was entering rebab for his addiction problems and would be postponing his campaign activities.
The results of the April focus groups were generally positive, although some negatives were creeping into the respondents’ descriptions of my candidate. As voters were exposed to Olivia, concerns about increased spending and higher taxes began to fester. Some respondents started to comment on her difficulty in communicating in English (her second language) and her weakness at times in explaining her positions clearly. A general sense began to take hold that she was not meeting the high expectations voters had had for her.
A public poll on June 6 had Olivia with a 12 percent lead over Tory.
On June 12, the Ontario Liberal Party, led by Kathleen Wynne, not only won a majority provincial government, but they took twenty of the twenty-two seats in the city of Toronto. The New Democrats, who constituted a major part Olivia’s power base, lost three of the five seats they had held in Toronto before the election. Worse, the NDP lost Trinity-Spadina, the provincial seat that coincided with her former federal constituency. It was a disaster for the NDP in Toronto, and we knew that these results
would not help her mayoral campaign.
The next poll showed the first downward shift in support. Her lead over Tory dropped to 8 percent.
Then Rob Ford returned from rehab on June 30 and rejoined the campaign. The public reaction was startling. People who could not say enough critical things about him a couple of months earlier suddenly felt sympathy for him. He had been through a rough experience, but he had acknowledged his problem, sought treatment, and cleaned up his act, and now he was back asking for a second chance. We were taken aback by the number of Torontonians who were prepared to give him that second chance.
If the provincial election took some initial wind out of Chow’s sails, the re-emergence of Rob Ford undermined the advantage she had enjoyed as the pre-eminent anti-Ford candidate. Suddenly, Ford, rehabilitated, was not the Darth Vader of municipal politics. He seemed to a number of people to be a stronger candidate than he had been before rehab. That unsettled the two-thirds of Torontonians who above all wanted to be rid of Ford. I began to sense the shifting mood of the public from a number of conversations with observers of the political scene and campaign volunteers. Although not everyone believed that John Tory’s policies were sound (as can be seen from the Toronto Sun cartoon criticizing his Smart Track transit option), he seemed to have grabbed the anti-Ford mantle.
Olivia said she was hearing the same thing on the streets from voters. She was an experienced politician, and while most Canadians tend to be kind, courteous, and gentle to political candidates whom they are not supporting, she had picked up on the shift in support.
We went into the field with a new poll of our own on July 10. The results were shocking. After leading all candidates for eighteen months, our poll had Chow trailing Tory by twelve percentage points. What had happened? In the space of just nine days there had been a net swing of twenty points against us.
What had happened? What could be done about it?
We conducted focus groups on July 21 and 22. Here is the aide-memoire I wrote at the conclusion of those groups.
Tory is seen by many as the non-Ford candidate with momentum.
Chow’s strength in the downtown has been neutralized by Tory.
The three policies initially proposed by Chow (improved bus service, expanded after- school programs and assistance for small business) remain very popular (as is the youth jobs plan) but most forget that they are Chow policies. Most do not know what her message is. Tory, while not seen as putting forward any policy, does receive some credit for his Smart Track transit plan.
Concern about Chow raising taxes and not being a good fiscal manager continues to exist.
There continues to be a desire for a pragmatic progressive mayor. Recent quantitative findings show a strong desire for investments to be made in communities and Chow is seen as the candidate most likely to make those investments. During these groups, respondents from across the city clearly say that while they like the policies proposed by Chow, they equally want a right-of-centre mayor to keep costs under control.
We never recovered from that dramatic loss in support over nine days in July. The next public poll, published on July 21, showed we were still ahead, although only by three points, but the poll after that on August 5–6 had us ten points behind Tory.
We lost the election on October 27 by 18 percent to Tory, and we trailed Doug Ford (who had taken his brother’s place on the ballot after it was disclosed that Rob was entering hospital for cancer surgery) by 11 percent.
Olivia’s inability to meet her high expectations had opened the door for another candidate to become the one to beat Rob Ford.
The pattern of her demise became suddenly clear, as though a dark kaleidoscope had just been turned. Everything snapped into focus then: the sharpness of the stars, the bowed outlines of trees, the expression on his face.
A blast of arctic air hit her with such force that it made her gasp and take a step back, breaking a crisp skin of snow. He moved forward, her partner in the same terrible dance. The air between them was charged, and out of the corner of her vision she saw something flash, as though the intent written on his face had become a tangible, physical force. She turned to flee into the shadows of the forest, but he caught the sleeve of her parka, then grabbed her by the throat. Impossible to twist away, though she railed and shoved. He swung her hard and the kaleidoscope turned again—filling her with a bright shower of sparks and then blackness.
Gradually she heard a distant clamour and something being dragged; that something was her. But what really bothered her was the bone-aching cold.
She opened her eyes and found herself staring up at tangle of stars. She marvelled for a moment at the emerald hue of the sky. How did she get here? Where was she going? The stars looked jittery. Not quite right. She felt like some lost explorer, painfully scanning from the Great Bear to Polaris, as though mapping the night sky would help pinpoint her location. But the stars would not stay still and it hurt to look at them. She turned her head away and saw instead the jagged silhouette of trees flashing past in jerky stops and starts. Snow and ice scraped against her cheek.
She felt herself lifted into the air and seated on something. A fence, perhaps. For one teetery moment, she balanced there, her arms hung loosely around someone’s shoulders like a sleepy child. Somewhere below her, the roaring grew louder. She was dimly aware of a tilting feeling, the needling scent of pine, and that she was slipping backwards. She lifted her head and their eyes met, a fleeting exchange filled with mutual surprise, and she remembered everything.
She tumbled backwards, kicking and clawing at the emptiness as she fell. Her panicked hands reached out to the swirling mass of northern lights above her, an undulating pattern that formed a last wordless message while the river below rushed up to meet her.
Prologue - December, 2014
If Charlie Hillier had known what the evening held in store, he might have done things differently. He wasn't one for melodrama, but he could have made a hell of a speech, flown into a rage, or maybe even broken something. Even a different outfit, which wouldn't have changed anything, would at least have allowed him to say he had done something to mark the end of his former life.
As it was, he had barely given a thought to his usual uniform of a dark suit, white shirt, and red tie when he dressed that morning. The tie was more burgundy than red, with dots small enough not to offend his conservative nature. The charcoal V-neck had been a last minute flourish, regrettable now that he was standing in the drawing room of the Swedish ambassador’s residence, simmering in the collective warmth of more than a hundred guests. They stood eating and drinking in clusters, all sheltered from a late December wind that whipped the snow against the frosted panes of the Rockcliffe mansion that had been decorated with just enough red, green, and gold to reflect the season without looking like a holiday store window. The competing scents of gingerbread and mulled wine added to the festive atmosphere, as did the spirited chatter that rose above the soft chamber music playing in the background.
Charlie stood at the edge of a knot of guests, half listening to the bow-tied man at its centre, but more concerned with the time as he checked his watch again and loosened his tie. He and his wife had been there for hours already, despite his hope for an early exit, which Charlie had been sure to mention several times on the short drive over from Foreign Affairs headquarters on Sussex Drive. She had seemed agreeable enough, and even mentioned feeling fatigued after a long day at the office. But Charlie had been to enough of these functions with her over the years to know better. Whereas he was content to put in an uncomfortable hour or two of face time and call it a night, Sharon LeClair-Hillier was a born networker. There was always one more peer to share the latest gossip with or an interesting new acquaintance to make from the up-and-coming set, and Charlie always seemed to find himself standing in an open doorway at the end of these occasions, like a department store security guard waiting for the last straggling shopper to leave at the end of a day-long sale.
But tonight wasn’t Sharon's fault. They had been well on their way to the front door twice, only to be derailed by one encounter after another. First, it was the Swedish trade attaché that they had first met a week before, at the British High Commissioner’s reception. Charlie couldn't resist internally assigning him the moniker of 'Swedish Meatball' at the time, and nothing in tonight’s encounter had changed his initial impression of Lars Whatshisface. The attaché was young and freshly posted, but surely the Swedish government’s outgoing briefing should have given him a better grasp of Canada’s economic fundamentals. He could perhaps be forgiven for not knowing about Canada’s wealth of medical isotopes, but softwood lumber? As for Lars’s claim of being a former Olympic biathlete, Charlie interpreted it as a transparent plea for attention, and an attempt to compensate for some shortcoming; possibly intellectual, possibly farther south. Poor Lars’s actual experience, Charlie had thought, looking up at the young Swede as he boasted to Sharon, was probably limited to waxing skis for the real athletes.
They had barely extricated themselves from the tiresome Lars when Charlie had found himself face to face with his former director, and, as the two men paused to talk shop, Sharon had slipped off and attached herself to the Swedish ambassador’s entourage. The last time Charlie saw her, she was in conversation with the Swedish number two, which meant she had a shot at the host himself and wasn’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future. That was almost an hour ago.
Charlie dabbed at his forehead with a paper napkin and finished the glass of wine in his hand. He had lost count after four, and the cumulative effect of the warmth, wine and hors d’oeuvres was contributing to a fatigue that was becoming oppressive. He wasn’t sure how much alcohol Sharon had consumed but, judging by her bubbly demeanour, he knew they would be leaving her Volvo overnight. At least they had nothing on tomorrow morning, he thought, glancing out at the fat flakes of snow falling outside the living room window. They would sleep late; maybe have a little early-morning romp to work off the hangover and put some steam on their frost-rimmed bedroom window, before the short ride over from New Edinburgh in his Honda. On the way back, they might stop off at that new brunch place Sharon had been talking about. It was a recipe for the perfect, lazy Saturday morning and as he stood there, he could almost taste the eggs Benedict.
A distant crash of glassware brought Charlie out of his reverie and, as he loosened his tie another inch, he tried to focus on the nearby conversation. The distinguished-looking man at its center was an architect, describing the various challenges he had faced in updating the structure of the heritage house in which they all now stood. Charlie was about to head off in search of his wife when he heard the man mention the secret passageways that had been uncovered when they started the refurbishment. Sensing the wave of skepticism among the huddled group, the architect gave an enthusiastic wave.
“I’ll show you, if you don’t believe me.”
He set off with his audience, an intrigued Charlie included, trailing behind him and led them out into the foyer and down the main hallway, following the curve of the staircase toward the rear of the house. He paused at a little alcove just to the right of the entrance to the kitchen, as his followers assembled in a pack around him and he placed his hand on a segment of wall paneling at the back of the alcove. With a theatrical flourish, he pressed on the wall and pulled his hand free to allow a door-sized segment of paneling to pop open as he turned to his audience.“Through here.”
The architect paused at the widened eyes of the gathered crowd, and sensed the vacuum created by their collective intake of breath – puzzling since he had yet to reveal the door to the passageway that lay at the rear of the closet. He turned to follow the stares and saw two half-naked figures, frozen in horror and entwined at the waist, standing side-on in the little closet. Lars’s big paws were buried in the flesh of the woman’s buttocks, his pants around his ankles. Her blouse and skirt had converged in a rumpled tangle around her midsection, and most of one breast, including a partially erect nipple, protruded over the top of a lacy bra. The minimalist, lace-trimmed triangle forming the other half of the set was dangling from her left foot, and if Charlie had any trouble recognizing her – there was an unfamiliar glow in her cheek - there was no mistaking the lingerie he had bought for her on their brief trip to Manhattan just a few weeks before.
Spotting her husband standing at the back of the gawking crowd, Sharon LeClair-Hillier’s guilty expression faded and her eyes narrowed as she addressed him in the tone she reserved for those rare occasions when he left the toilet seat up, or forgot to put out the garbage.
“Will you close the goddamned door!?”
“We spent many hours talking with girls and really listening to what they had to say. We wanted to find out how they see themselves, how they make sense of their worlds and how they are living—if they are thriving, coping or struggling (hint: it’s often all of the above). We wanted to understand their relationship to pop culture; we wanted to know what they think of social media, sexuality, the Internet and the changing world; we were curious to hear from them on social and environmental issues such as emerging technologies, poverty and climate change. We wanted to discover how these forces are shaping their experiences and concerns, and how they, in turn, are shaping these realms.”
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