In January 2013, I wrote a blog post on Tom Mulcair and the politics of Canadian masculinity. My basic thesis, premised on the seemingly reasonable, yet ultimately discredited, assumption that Mulcair would run for Prime Minister as “Angry Tom” from Question Period, was that the NDP had a real chance of winning the 2015 election because of the way English Canadians think about the masculinity of French Canadian politicians.
Anglos, and especially Anglo men, have accorded a special cultural role for prominent Quebecois politicians in our bicultural national political dynamic: they are permitted to express more aggression, physical violence and rage than Anglo politicians. Because middle and upper-middle class English Canadian masculinity remains entangled with Victorian ideals of reserve, continence and restraint, Anglo expressions of aggressive masculine behaviour has ambivalent, self-limiting effects on the national stage. The kind of physical aggression displayed by Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chretien or, most recently, by Justin Trudeau would be far more problematic and elicit far more criticism and concern if expressed by a politician of an equivalent class position coming from English Canada.
The roots of this double-standard are complex and multifaceted but it is worth noting that until half a century ago, Quebecois and Acadian Canadians were underserviced, unequal, racialized populations in this country, over-represented in unskilled, seasonal and migrant work, dominated by Anglo elites, and ruled by despotic, violent, theocratic regimes like Maurice Duplessis’ Union Nationale. (Indeed, one might want to rethink the politics of the niqab in Quebec in 2015 in the context of the province’s own experience of secularization and the role that religious dress played in that process.) In the US, a consolation prize for such historical wrongs is cultural permission to enact a more aggressive or macho performance of one’s male gender, including over-representation on the teams of the nation’s preferred professional gladiatorial sport.
Anyway, whether in Pierre Trudeau’s actions during the FLQ Crisis or his actions at the St. Jean-Baptiste Parade of 1968, Jean Chretien’s “Shawinigan Handshake” or pepper-spray remark, or in Justin Trudeau’s successful boxing match against Patrick Brazeau or his recent parliamentary gaffe, part of the appeal our French Canadian leaders have for English Canadians is that they are authorized, culturally, to participate in a more violent, macho, unproblematically aggressive masculinity than their English counterparts. In this way, one of the functions such leaders have is as people through whom voters, but especially male voters, get to vicariously participate in kinds of masculine behaviour, in which barriers of culture or power prevent them from engaging in daily life. And we need to place this understanding uppermost in our minds to understand the bizarre national debate that has been engendered by the events in parliament last week.
Last week, the Liberal government was attempting to rush some progressive legislation on end-of-life medical care through parliament. Whereas only the Conservative Party actually opposed the substance of the legislation, all opposition parties were upset that it was being rushed through the house without normal opportunities for MPs’ input. In response to this, NDP and Tory MPs used some venerable delaying tactics to slow the passage of the bill. In fact, these parties were so united in their concern over process issues around the legislation that they collaborated to effect this delay.
Visibly angered by these antics, the Prime Minister physically intervened, first by shouting at the NDP MPs who were failing to take their seats and then pushing his way through them to physically grab the Tory whip and drag him to his seat so that voting could commence. During the tussle, a small female NDP MP was elbowed in the chest, in an incident very similar to Toronto mayor Rob Ford knocking councillor Pam McConnell to the ground in 2013. Like McConnell, Ruth Ellen Brosseau had not been the intended target of the physical altercation but, as my friend Jeremy says, “accidents happen when people throw things.”
Almost immediately, the Speaker of the House and, to his credit, the Prime Minister himself, recognized that charging across the floor and inadvertently striking an MP in an effort to coercively manhandle another who protested “take your hands off me,” was all-out wrong. And so, the Speaker ruled that the PM had fucked-up and the PM apologized. To many of us, it seemed that the sorry, tawdry story of the most powerful man in Canada losing his shit was over.
But then, about a day and a half after the incident, it became clear that the story had entered a second, and far more unpleasant phase. My Liberal MP and several others began to suggest that Trudeau had been wrong to apologize, that he had been “set up” to elbow Brosseau in the chest and drag Gordon Brown to his seat because they were deliberately delaying a process. In this re-narration, Trudeau was understood to be a frustrated boss at a workplace with recalcitrant, attention-seeking employees who had provoked him, unjustly, into justly putting them in their place. It soon came to be suggested by many on social media that MPs moving slowly or standing still when a vote was being called was, itself, a form of violence and probably a criminal act. Soon a “defense of necessity” argument was being put forward that Trudeau was engaged in something like a citizens’ arrest in which we was heroically using his body to fight against “violent” opposition MPs engaged in an illegal act. And in all the social media posts and mainstream media comments pages I have read, this latter view comprises the overwhelming majority of opinion.
Now, many people are suggesting that this consensus around the fundamental rightness of the PM’s actions arises from high levels of support for the Liberal Party and a willingness to excuse any action by its very popular leader. In the minds of many of my long-time NDP friends, this is just the cynical old Liberals ginning-up public opinion in their favour, or people so attached to the idea of the PM being a “progressive” or “feminist” that they will justify anything he does. But this interpretation is inadequate and fails to answer some obvious questions:
- Why are so many NDP and Tory supporters still siding with Trudeau and against their own parties’ narratives of events?
- Why are Trudeau’s supporters not agreeing with Trudeau’s own interpretation of what took place and talking about what a big, generous, dignified man he is for apologizing so readily?
- Why are Trudeau’s supporters disbelieving the account of events offered by the Liberal Speaker of the House which is in accord, not just with that of the opposition parties, but with that of the Prime Minister himself?
- Why are Trudeau’s supporters not touting how progressive the legislation was whose vote was being delayed?
- And, most bizarrely, why are so many pushing a conspiracy theory in which the Tory whip was not colluding with the NDP to delay the vote but was secretly betraying his own party and begging Trudeau to help him to his seat, even though this entails disbelieving everything Gordon Brown has said both during and since the incident about what happened?
Perhaps we need to consider the possibility that this debate is no longer about partisan politics at all. Perhaps we should consider the possibility that this is about something bigger, more universal and more disturbing than the gong show that went on in parliament this week.
What if what matters here is not Trudeau’s function as Prime Minister but rather his function as a means of experiencing vicarious masculinity for English Canadians? Haven’t we all, white collar, blue collar, service sector, all of us been in some meeting at work where we wanted to get something important done and it has been stymied by attention-seeking asshats who want to slow everything down for their own stupid, self-serving purposes? Haven’t we all been working on a project that ends up being late because some asshole is deliberately dragging their feet for some bullshit reason? And haven’t we all wanted to shout at those attention-seeking, self-serving little shits to get out of our way?
Haven’t we all been at work and seen a co-worker standing next to their desk or their tools instead of getting on with the job? And haven’t we all wanted to shove them down into their chair or push their tools into their hands and just fucking make them get to work?
Aren’t we all too sick of bullshit, meaningless process at our jobs, slowing everything down and rewarding shitty, lazy people at the expense of good industrious people? And haven’t we all wanted to grab those lazy people and drag them along with us whether they like it or not?
On top of that, there are some less universal experiences that insecure young and middle-aged men have, like frustration at how they have to accommodate the sensitivities and bodies of young women, especially young women they feel were accidentally and unfairly promoted into their jobs? Is Ruth-Ellen Brosseau, the paper candidate who made good not the epitome of that, one of only two NDP MPs who increased their margin of victory in 2015 due to good constituency work but who continues to be dismissed as “Vegas Girl”?
At this point, what Trudeau and the other politicians in Ottawa say about this issue is now irrelevant. Our Prime Minister is not part of this debate as an interlocutor; he is part of this debate as a symbol, whose words are now irrelevant. Our national #ElbowGate conversation is about the expression of universal and widespread frustration with our workplaces, homes and civil society organizations, and our flirtation with increased physical force as a solution to what ails us.
Like most people reading this, I too have come home from meetings and privately expressed to my close friends or romantic partner about how much easier some meeting would have been if only people were allowed to hit one another more. But let’s remember why we have those no-hitting rules, no matter how much they inconvenience us.