By Richard Forbes.
It was as if it was scripted, a mere scene in a film depicting life in Ontario.
A middle aged man stands on the harbourfront in Owen Sound, his oversized Kodak camera slung over his polo shirt; he turns to the stranger beside him, seemingly compelled to make a remark as if under political obligation. “Well…” he says, “I guess if we’re paying for it, we might as well take a picture of it, eh?”
They nod, their eyes locked on the main attraction at the Maawanji’iding Festival: a enormous inflatable duck – the largest in the world – fresh from the splash it made in Toronto (which left at least one columnist calling for a permanent installation); its cute smile, seeding existential doubt in the shriveled, black hearts of fiscal conservatives everywhere in the province.
Eventually the stranger responds once he remembers his line: “That’s Wynne for you. Bribing us with our own money.” They chuckle as if on cue.
As far as street performances go, I couldn’t resist feeling the exchange had been unconvincing right from the onset. A mere atonement mutually for their indulgence.
Shakespeare reminds us all the world’s a stage, after all – and it’s no different in Ontario where many of us simply play the political role expected of us in public as a game of ritualistic outrage. It’s not conversation, it’s theatre. We say “thank you” when someone opens the door for us, we chew our food with our mouths closed, we refrain from littering, and we always share each other’s grumblings about the rain, the snow, and Queen’s Park. Doing anything less would be unneighbourly. Vote how you like in the privacy of your own voting booth, but it’s impolite – Ontario reminds us – to not follow the script.
As a point of interest, nonetheless, we can imagine how it might have sounded if the stranger hadn’t played along like a good citizen:
“I think the duck has been a smart investment for the province actually,” says the stranger confidently to a startled Ontarian. “The tourism ministry expects $2.3M in ancillary investments for local business as a result of the initial grant. Indeed the vast majority of the grant (more than 80%) is simply paying for security, marketing, and maintaining a staffed tugboat – not the duck itself.”
The festival-goer blinks incredulously, “but..but.. gas plants.”
“Everywhere the duck goes, it helps to generate interest for waterfront festivals, helping organizers exceed their attendance expectations,” continues the stranger nonchalantly. “Owen Sound’s mayor, for instance, has been doing media interviews about the duck in places as distant as the Kitchener-Waterloo region – and expects attendees from all across the Georgian Triangle.”
Adding, “plus, it’s cute.”
You wouldn’t think that, however, if the Ontario PCs had their way. From the very moment the $121,325 grant had been handed to Redpath, Brown’s PCs launched themselves into scrums to rail against the overspending. Points, however, to PC Deputy Leader Steve Clark for the pun, “quack economics” (responded to with “we’re not ducking any of these questions,” by tourism minister Eleanor McMahon.) Lazily enough, the Tories have linked the spending to hydro prices (for which they, not the Liberals, have no plan to ameliorate) and questioned what a duck has to do with the anniversary of Ontario. The latter point has us wondering how the PCs might feel about a giant inflatable bust of Egerton Ryerson as an alternative. No? Anyone-!? Perhaps not then…
The challenge before the provincial government in Ontario’s sesquicentennial year was harder than it may have appeared at first; in its preparations for Ontario 150, Wynne’s Liberals needed to accomplish the seemingly impossible: make us care. There was always going to be a risk the celebrations for Canada’s big birthday bash would greatly overshadow Ontario’s anniversary; our identity as Ontarians always takes a backseat to our affinity to Canada. It’s the opposite problem that our Quebec neighbors have, whose Saint-Jean-Baptiste celebrations regularly eclipse Canada Day, the weekend after.
Even in our anniversary year, the swag being sold on the waterfront in Owen Sound didn’t feature the gaudy Ontario 150 logo, but rather, the Canada 150 logo. We’re a province that hardly identifies with its red ensign flag (adopted haughtily in 1965 by the Robarts government as an act of revenge against Canada for dropping the red ensign.) Most of us would hardly think to call ourselves an Ontarian, the word almost seems foreign. If asked what our first premier was, many of us would guess correctly but only because – incidentally – there were two John Macdonalds (unrelated.) Our history, our icons, our province are not what’s closest to us as citizens. It’s not what defines or excites us.
And that’s where the duck comes in…
The big duck, an apolitical symbol – fun and engaging – was a clever novelty to drag residents to the province’s festivities. We weren’t going to come celebrate Ontario 150 for Ontario, but we showed up for the duck – and that’s a start.
Anxious for another bad news story, the Tories desperately wanted this ‘$200K rubber ducky’ story to be yet another misstep – something, anything to sink their teeth into, but it wasn’t. It’s hard to characterize the grant given to Redpath as anything other than a fine investment that exceeded expectations.
Certainly, it’s understandable the PCs are grabbing at straws. This month, pollsters from Innovative Research Group, have the Liberals finally closing the gap, 30-27%, with Brown’s PCs – after months of policy shifts, announcing a $15 minimum wage, a Toronto-Windsor HSR proposal, more worker entitlements for vacations and emergency leave, a balanced budget, a new pharmacare plan, hydro rate cuts, a foreign buyers tax, and a long sought after, Ontario Autism Program to the tune of $533M.
What the Tories are missing is that the Liberals aren’t making these gains on them because voters have forgotten past scandals, but rather because they’ve presented a compelling plan to voters, a way to run the province. In contrast, Brown’s PCs haven’t been presenting much of anything, either because their plans look too similar to Wynne’s, their ideological coalition is too precarious to permit policy announcements, or simply because they don’t have a plan at all! None of which are excuses. Making cheap digs at rubber ducks and spending expenses isn’t a legitimate pathway to government: it didn’t work for Tim Hudak, it didn’t work for Tory or Eves, it got stale about ten minutes into the Harris government – it’s not going to work for Patrick Brown.
Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).
When asked what ‘one does exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.