I should of realized it was a bad omen when the #51 bus I was on almost hit a car as it pulled out of St. George's Square on its way to deliver me to the Delta Hotel yesterday afternoon. My mission was possible: to listen to Prime Minister Stephen Harper as he rallied the local Conservatives for Marty Burke and report back on anything that might have been said that was of interest.
On the weekend, I registered on the event site. I didn't have a problem with this. It would make sense that any event with high interest and limited space might want to account for how many people they were expecting. I realize now of course - and part of me suspected before - that the intention was more cynical. But I don't like to apply sinister motives to the leader of my country, or the people that work for him, so I let it pass. My first mistake.
What I did not do, and this was my oversight, was apply as media in advanced. I called the number included in my confirmation e-mail from registering and asked the lady at the other end of the line how I might going about getting a press badge. She had no idea. Really. She then suggested I inquire at the event and that sounded reasonable. So there I was, on the bus, bus driver swearing at a reckless drive, and me looking forward to an evening worthy of a Politico.
So I get to the Delta, snap some pictures of the protesters, meet up with Rob O'Flanagan from the Mercury doing the same, and headed around to the back of the hotel, the only entrance into the venue. I headed to the registration table, which was manned about six different kindly seniors. I approached one man and gave him my name. He found me on the list and asked for my I.D. For (some) comedic effect, I took off my hat and glasses so my real life self could better approximate the picture on my passport. This all seemed on the up and up, so I was given my "Harper Here for Canada" sticker and sent on my way.
I headed over to the Media Table and explained where I was coming from. I was a freelance journalist and a blogger and I wanted to know if I could cover the rally as credentialed member of the press. I hadn't pre-registered as press, but it didn't seem to matter much to the people at the press table. The man there asked me what blog I wrote, and I said "Guelph Politico." "Yeah, I've heard of that one," he said. Pleasantly surprised, I said "Oh. Great." A security guy checked my camera bag and my book bag. I asked him not to judge me by the book I'm reading (for the record it's Patton Oswalt's Zombie Spaceship Wasteland). He laughed and finished his inspection, all was well. I asked the man if I needed one of the green press badges. I had the sticker, he said. I should be fine. Should have got that in writing.
I walked down the hall towards the ball room. At the end of the hall before the foyer, a long table was stretched across the hall so that you had to walk past two security guys standing on either side of a three foot open area between the wall and the end of the table. Not so fast, one of them said, where did I think I was going with my bags and my camera and my notepad? I explained the situation to the one guard that was closest to me, a tall, young man with a bald head who I will call Vince. Vince said I had to check in at the media table, which I had.
One of the event handlers soon appeared to see what the fuss was about. I again explained myself as he asked me questions about what "institutions" I wrote for. For the record, I'm not sure if Echo Weekly counts as an institution, and I know Politico isn't, but I nonetheless laid it all out for the stout brown-haired man who I will call Larry. Larry seemed unsure of me, and asked for my card. I said certainly, and handed him one of my plain white cards with black text identifying me as "Adam A. Donaldson Writer/Journalist" with my contact information conveniently located on the bottom. Still unconvinced it seemed, Larry asked me to wait.
A few minutes later, a woman with dark hair and wearing a black sweater came out to speak to me. I will call her Sandy. She asked me all the same questions again as she took me down to the media table. Once there she asked me if there was anyone at the event that could "vouch for me." I had seen fellow blogger Christian Conservative walking around and name dropped him (his real name). I then looked to my left and Rob O'Flanagan was standing right there. "He knows me too," I said. "He's Rob O'Flanagan from the Guelph Mercury." She considered this for a minute and asked me to follow her again. We stopped first at the Registration table where the man that signed me in remembered me. We then went down to the table at the end of the hall. She asked me to wait. Okay, I said.
Let's just say that time wasn't flying. I noted that it had been about 15 minutes since I first got to the Delta and I began writing everything I could remember about what had happened in those 15 minutes. The other security guard, an older man with salt and pepper hair said to me jokingly, "A good time to make notes, huh?" Yeah, I said without a sense of humour about the matter. And there was so much to write about.
A third handler approaches me now. I'll call her Becky and she was about my age with long, light brown hair. The problem, she tells me, is that they have no designation for bloggers in the press registration. (Incidentally, if I am the first blogger to want to cover a Harper rally, I'd like to get this confirmed ASAP and notify the gang at Guiness World Records.) I told her about how I called the number earlier that day and spoke to an unhelpful woman. That's weird, said Becky, because that number is for some man's cell phone. Well, I called that number and got an unhelpful woman, I repeated. She asked me if I wanted to cover the rally as media, and I said that I did, but I was also an interested citizen wanting to hear from my Prime Minister. She asked me to wait again.
Sandy returned some 10 minutes later. She said I was clear and allowed to enter. A wave or relief and excitement turned my ever blackening mood around. I walked up the security guards (gatekeepers by this point), Vince double-checked that I had been through security and that my bags were given the once over, I said I had and pointed back down to the media table. Okay, he said. Great. I was in the foyer. One more threshold to cross. Or so I thought.
I'm heading to the ballroom now, and may I add quite eager. A female security guard sees me coming and puts her hand up. Oh Lord, I thought, here we go again. From behind me I hear Vince say, He's okay, at which point I was free to enter. Inside the ballroom now, I felt like the worst was behind me, and in a way it was. Giddiness was returning, despite the half hour of explaining myself to half a dozen different people, I was feeling the buzz of a room full of politically active people. I may not personally agree with a lot of the Conservative platform, but I do understand how people can get excited about politics. And then there was Dave.
I headed for the media area as instructed. Not a new idea to me. I was at Stephen Harper's 2008 rally at Guelph Place for Gloria Kovach. There, as here, was an area at the back of the room for media, with tables for note taking and risers for unobstructed picture taking. This was my house, but not so according to Dave. I had to get out of there. Wait a minute, I said, I was told to come over here. I'm covering this for my blog, etc. This wasn't good enough for Dave. A young man in a dark blue sweater over a light blue dress shirt he acted like a tin-plated dictator of his own little fiefdom complete with uniform. (Sorry if that was bitter, but at this point I was at my wits end.)
As I left the media area, I saw Sandy out of the corner of my eye. I walked over to her and told her that I had been asked to leave the media area. She asked by who, and I pointed him out through the crowd. She told be it was okay, perhaps sensing my exasperation, and she walked back over to the media area saying that they were going to give me the V.I.P. treatment. If I can take a time out here, I really have to say that "Sandy" was quite nice in spite of everything. I ran into her after the rally was over and she apologized again, and I appreciate that. But back to before the rally. Sandy told Dave that I had been cleared and that seemed good enough for him. A few minutes later, another woman gave me a media badge to avoid any further difficulties. I smiled and thanked her.
So why did I write this tale of woe? Well, to my credit, I did wait a day to let the emotion cool and not go off like a Howitzer. And I do admit that I arrived without prior notification that I was covering the event as media. I would however like to be given credit for making my intentions clear from the start. I'm not some James O'Keefe misrepresenting myself to my political adversaries to get stories that are as much fictitious as they are factitious. I could have sneaked in my recorder and my Point-and-Shoot camera and pretended to be a Conservative supporter. But I didn't. I'm proud of what I do, and I always try to represent myself well.
And not to turn this into a partisan contest, but this is not my first election. I've covered every election in Guelph since 2006 for various media outlets: The Ontarion, Thecannon.ca, Echo Weekly. In 2008, I interviewed Stephane Dion and was invited to several press events with high profile Liberals. I've interviewed Jack Layton numerous times, and have similarly been invited to NDP events. Elizabeth May knew me by name the last Federal Election. Now, in 2011, I have sat down with the Green Party and NDP candidates, and am scheduled to interview the Liberal candidate tomorrow. Still, a week after I sent initial requests, I have yet to hear from the Marty Burke campaign.
I am not a fan of mass generalizations, but it's hard not to make conclusions on your own when the other side won't present evidence to the contrary. And the conclusion in this instance is that the Conservative Party isn't nearly as open and transparent as it likes to say it is. I would like to think differently, I would like to think what happened to me was an isolated case, but the evidence is mounting that it is not. As a blogger, I'm an X Factor. I get that. When a newspaper comes out everyday for 100 years, you know what to expect. Bloggers are random. They can appear anywhere, write anything, and post it from a place that might not be an office with a mailing address. I, however, do have an office with a mailing address, as I believe I told someone last night.
Overall, the experience was profoundly disappointing. As people all around the world struggle for a shred of democracy, it appears that we have our own democratic struggles here. I await word from Marty Burke's campaign to prove me wrong. In the meantime, take a look at this kid on Christmas morning.