Hall Findlay's 'class' remark echoes through Canadian politics

What it means to be out of touch

Martha Hall Findlay has apologized for her jarring outburst about Justin Trudeau’s privileged upbringing in last Saturday’s Liberal leadership debate. But her misstep is worth dwelling on a little longer if we see it less as an aberration than as a reminder of a tension running not far below the surface of Canadian politics.

“You yourself have admitted that you actually don’t belong to the middle-class,” Hall Findlay said to Trudeau from behind a podium in solidly middle-class Mississauga, Ont. “I find it a little challenging to understand how you would understand the real challenges facing Canadians.”

Her words called to my mind the way Stephen Harper framed, back when he was launching his bid for the leadership of the new Conservative party in 2004, how he was different from then-Liberal leader Paul Martin. “I was not born into a family with a seat at the Cabinet table,” Harper said. “I grew up playing on the streets of Toronto, not playing in the corridors of power.”

He was referring, of course, to the upbringing Martin enjoyed as the son of Paul Martin Sr., a heavyweight in the cabinets of King, St. Laurent and Pearson.  Not only had Martin grown up breathing air heavy with political influence, he went on to make a shipping fortune of his own after a running start as a young executive at Montréal’s Power Corp.

Yet Harper’s bid to portray Martin as an out-of-touch fortunate son never really stuck. Martin had his problems as a communicator, heaven knows, but his manner never conveyed a sense of entitlement. Tories fared much better casting Michael Ignatieff as an elitist, even though his dad was a diplomat, not a plutocrat, and Ignatieff was the author, quite literally, of his own worldly success. They caricatured Ignatieff’s intellectual credentials and, more importantly, his bearing—you just never forgot that the guy had titled Russians in his family tree.

This arbitrary aspect of how different politicians are vulnerable to charges that they are distant from ordinary life is missed by the loaded word “class” wielded so clumsily by Hall Finlay. It suggests wealth passed down for generations. That’s rarely the case in Canada. Justin Trudeau, for instance, isn’t exactly a landed aristocrat; his grandfather made the family fortune in gas stations. Even his entry-level political position wasn’t bequeathed to him. The Liberal party didn’t give Pierre Trudeau’s eldest a safe seat to run in. And Pierre didn’t leave Justin anything like an intact political machine.

B. K. Sandwell’s famous couplet goes, “Toronto has no social classes, only the Masseys and the masses.” That was long ago. Nobody doubts now that Toronto—and Calgary and Vancouver, Montreal and Halifax—have classes. Or that inheriting wealth is an easier route to insiderdom than growing up poor. But Ottawa is a capital where money doesn’t talk nearly as loudly as it once did. The party finance reforms begun by Jean Chrétien and accelerated by Stephen Harper have, by eliminating large individual and corporate (and union) donations, largely decoupled political clout and financial wherewithal.

Which makes it all the more dubious to suggest that income bracket predictably influences perspective on issues. Take Mark Carney, for example. He made a lot as an investment banker, earns plenty as Bank of Canada governor, and has negotiated a hefty (and somewhat controversial) raise for his move to the Bank of England. Yet this son of a university professor expressed support for the Occupy movement’s protest against income disparity, and sounded sincere on the point.

As the immediate backlash against Hall Findlay’s debate line suggested, any crude claim that those with lots of money just can’t sympathize with those who have less isn’t likely to fly. But an opponent’s experience can still be skewered as remote from the real world, whatever that might be.  These days a business background—especially small business—supposedly qualifies you sensible and grounded. Being a professor carries the opposite connotation. Being a lawyer isn’t what it once was.

A humble schoolteacher? That was Justin Trudeau’s pre-politics job, but it tells us no more about him than we learn when Harper is called an economist. What the Prime Minister really is and has been through his entire adult life, apart from a brief stint as a right-wing lobbyist, is a political professional.  But the last guy I heard casually, even proudly, admit to that designation was Chrétien. He got rich as a lawyer, too, but that didn’t alter his persona. His knack for reading an electorate was, like Harper’s, clearly honed by long experience in politics, both during campaigns and filling in the time between them.

If in some future election we discover that Hall Findlay was right after all, that Trudeau lacks instinctive insight into the middle class voter, then it won’t be because he’s upper class. It will be because he didn’t spend enough time, and devote sufficient close attention, to learning the ways of the political class that he hopes to master.