There is a guy collecting a paycheque (and presumably a pension) from the Government of Canada known as the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod. His sole function, near as I can tell, is to wear a frock coat and knock on the door of the House of Commons a couple times a year, as part of the elaborate dog-and-pony show that accompanies each speech from the throne. Salary starts at $96K. Apparently it's a hotly contested job.
There's an awful lot of this sort of thing in the Canadian government. There are florid preambles on every piece of legislation ("Her Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate and House of Commons of Canada, enacts as follows...") and weird rituals dictating how we inaugurate a new Speaker of the House (it involves dragging). There are elaborate hierarchies of importance dictating who can and can't sit beside each other at galas, and bossy instruction manuals decreeing which hack gets to use what title (governor generals: "Your Excellency, " mayors: "Your Worship"). I once attended a lecture from some bigshot Ottawa journalist who noted smugly that while American reporters stand up when their president enters the room, we egalitarian Canucks do nothing of the sort for our prime minister. Which is true, but at least women aren't expected to curtsy in Obama's presence, which is less than we can say for Canada's head of state.
The excessive pomp and pageantry decorating Canada's political institutions usually comprise little more than a snobby sideshow, but they're becoming an increasing embarrassment as our larger political culture grows steadily cruder. Like so much cheap cologne, Canada's is a system where flowery fragrance seeks to vainly mask a deeper grossness.
Justin Trudeau's latest ad, in which the 41-year-old leader of one of the western world's leading political parties appears wearing the sort of outfit a fratboy might toss on to take out the trash, was offensive not for any sartorial prissiness (if you want some of that, by the way, check out this column by my HuffPo colleague Daniel Portoraro), but because it reflected an unsettling lack of dignity for a supposed prime minister-in-waiting. For a man who's already benefited enormously from exploiting sex appeal for electoral benefit, now that he's a parliamentary leader, the least the guy could do is at least pretend he's got more to offer voters than the suggestive outline of his pecs. But then again, the Tories already declared J-Tru's body fair game in ads of their own, didn't they?
Left or right, bad taste flows in both directions. At the moment, the net's most popular anti-Harper website compares the Prime Minister's deeds to human excrement and no one thinks much of it. And look, here's a charming video of Brigette Depape -- the so-called "rebel page" who interrupted the most dignified date of Canada's parliamentary calendar to stupidly brandish a cardboard sign bearing an even stupider message -- in which she drops the s-bomb cheerfully and constantly, happily oblivious to any notion that political activists should possibly hold themselves to a higher standard.
But then again, why? Karen McCrimmon said the word during her speech to last month's Liberal convention, Bob Rae's barked it at reporters, and several politicians have yelled it on the floor of the House of Commons (though by Question Period standards that's pretty mild stuff).
Even when politics get positive it's crude. We're probably one of the few democracies on earth, for instance, where the official send-off for a leading national statesmen entails projecting footage of his skinny-dipping bare behind before thousands of onlookers, or where one of the most heart-warming anecdotes of a late local leader involves him telling a truly hideous joke about the defence minister's penis.
But that's the vulgar world of 21st century Canadian politics for you; a place where physical insults, ugly photos, and sexual gossip are the currency of argument, and blue humor, profanity, and lust the indicators of passion. Polite Canadians indeed.
You don't have to be a prude to find all this unsettling. In a country where politicians long ago mastered the art of compromising their ethics, values, and ideals, it was never much of a stretch to assume they'd eventually find ways to compromise personal dignity too. A nation whose leaders happily reject forbearance in office -- twisting truth as it suits them, refusing to resign when scandal strikes, bending democratic rules for personal gain, and arguing with brazen hypocrisy -- will soon eschew it everywhere else. And the Brigette Depapes of the world shortly after.
I've never liked the excessive English folderol that clutters Canada's parliamentary system, not only because its European roots are so thoroughly foreign to the North American experience (the seats in the House of Commons are said to be stationed "two sword lengths apart." When did Canada ever have swords? For that matter, when did we have "commons?") but also because they impart an unpleasant imperial aftertaste on the governance of a supposedly sovereign nation. If Gentlemen Ushers didn't already exist, we'd never create them -- so why even bother?
These days, however, it all troubles in a different way. There's getting to be something downright creepy about "honorable members" who cling ever-tighter to rituals of virtue when there's so little to be actually found.
Empty trappings of dignity hardly become a system whose actors exercise everything but.
Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay (left) is chased by Liberal MP Justin Trudeau in a motorized wheelchair during a wheelchair race relay on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 12, 2010. Twenty-five MPs and senators used a wheelchair for the day in support of the Canadian Paraplegic Association's Spinal Cord Injury and CPA awareness month.
Justin Trudeau trains at Pan Am Boxing Club in Winnipeg on Friday Feb. 1, 2013.
Justin Trudeau & co. making faces.
Justin Trudeau splits his pants while pushing the "scrum machine" in support of Prostate Cancer Canada in Toronto Thursday, July 21, 2011.
Justin Trudeau gets his geek on at Montreal Comiccon in September 2012.
Justin Trudeau has his moustache shaved off to raise money for the Judy LaMarsh Fund, that supports female candidates, at the Liberal Party convention in Ottawa on Saturday, January 14, 2012.
Justin Trudeau all dressed up for the Montreal Movember Gala in 2010.
Pierre Trudeau's sons, Sacha, left, and Justin, tackle their mother's paperboy in Ottawa in this undated photo.
Alexandre (Sacha) Trudeau delivers a right hook to his older brother Justin during a play fight in 1980 at Ottawa airport as the boys await a flight with the return of their father, then-prime minister, Pierre Trudeau.
Justin Trudeau strikes a pose with an adorable baby.
Justin Trudeau poses with his family on his 2010 Christmas card.
Former Liberal MP Ken Dryden, left, and Justin Trudeau play table hockey as they visit Sun Youth, a community organization, Monday, Jan. 14, 2008 in Montreal.
Then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau, left, watches as his 11-year-old son Justin swings on a chain during a tour of an old fort in the Omani town of Nizwa Dec. 2, 1983. Trudeau and Justin spent the day visiting the towns of Jebel and Nizwa 165 kilometres south of Muscat.
Justin Trudeau in Muskoka, Ont.
Liberal MP Justin Trudeau, centre, has his cowbay taken by his son Xavier, 4 years-old, while his wife Sophie Gregoire, second from left, holds daughet Ella-Grace, 3 years-old, while they attend the party's annual Stampede breakfast in Calgary, Saturday, July 7, 2012. This is the 100th anniversary of the Stampede.
Eleven-month-old Justin Trudeau, urged on by his mother Margaret Trudeau, crawls up the steps of an aircraft in Ottawa on Dec. 5, 1972 to meet his father, then-prime minister, Pierre Trudeau on his return from Britain.
Justin Trudeau dances with wife Sophie Grégoire before his speech at the Liberal showcase on April 6, 2013.
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, wearing what someone called his "Mandrake the Magician outfit," walks down the grandstand steps to present the Grey Cup trophy to the victorious Montreal Alouettes in this Nov. 28, 1970 photo.
Pierre Trudeau leans over to kiss an unidentified young lady to the seeming surprise of his recent bride Margaret. Trudeau and Margaret spent Saturday March 27, 1971 at maple tree farm here near Montreal at a sugaring out party.
Pierre Trudeau accompanies Margaret Sinclair, at the annual Governor General's skating party for members of Parliament in Ottawa Jan. 14, 1970.
Pierre Trudeau looks through the scope of his rifle while on a seal hunting trip in Baffin Island's Clear Water Fjord, July 29, 1968.
Pierre Trudeau shoes off his frisbee catching style while waiting to board his plane in Vancouver May 16, 1979.
Pierre Trudeau had no trouble keeping himself occupied during a break from a boat trip down the Northwest Territories, Nahanni River, Monday Aug. 4, 1970.
Pierre Trudeau takes a wary look at an ice crevice, decides to chance it and makes the leap successfully during a midnight seal- hunting expedition at Clearwater Fjord in Canada's Arctic, July 29, 1968.
Pierre Trudeau receives a kiss from his wife Margaret during a tour of St. Pierre, France, Aug. 1971.
Pierre Trudeau in Guayana 1974.
Pierre Trudeau sticks his tongue out to Canadian Press Photographer Peter Bregg during the 1972 election campaign. This photo was taken aboard the campaign plane where such antics were considered off the record. The photo was not made available until after the death of the prime minister
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau dances in Montreal Oct. 21, 1979.
Pierre Trudeau sprints away from a crowd of female admirers in Ottawa April 22, 1968. They surrounded him outside the Parliament Buildings on his third day in office.
John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono, meet with Pierre Trudeau Dec. 24, 1969 in Ottawa.
Pierre Trudeau looks on as Cuban President Fidel Castro gestures during a visit to a Havana housing project in this Jan. 27, 1976 photo.
Pierre Trudeau pretending to strangle himself with a tie given to him as he was presented with honorary membership in the National Press Club in Ottawa Sept. 17, 1968.
Pierre Trudeau amuses a group of people in Fortune while on tour through Newfoundland, Aug. 3, 1971.
Pierre Trudeau takes a ride on the Bluenose, Aug. 1972.
Pierre Trudeau works out at an Oshawa health club during a break in his 1968 election campaign.
Pierre Trudeau, with a garland around his neck and a Hindu greeting symbol in paste on his forhead, rides a camel Jan 12, 1971 in the village of Benares, India, where he dedicated a water well.
Pierre Trudeau kids around with a carnation while waiting for voting results at the Liberal convention in this April 7, 1968 photo.
Pierre Trudeau tries cracking a dog sled whip while visiting Baker Lake in the Arctic, March 10, 1970.
Saudi Arabian Oil Minister Sheik Yamani, left, and Pierre Trudeau, right, dance a traditional Arabian dance while camping out in the desert in Madein Saleh, Saudi Arabia, Nov. 18, 1980.
Pierre Trudeau, seen here taking part in Maori ceremonial dance in Wellington, New Zealand May 13, 1970.
Pierre Trudeau does a dance after his campaign bus broke down in Montreal June 6, 1968.
Wearing a "feather in his cap," Pierre Trudeau attended the official opening May 20, 1983, of an archaeological excavation in Hull, Que.
Pierre Trudeau, shown performing his famous pirouette during a May 7, 1977, picture session at Buckingham Palace in London, England.
Pierre Trudeau, in a moment of joy over patriation of Canada's constitution, preformed his now famous pirouette at Uplands Airport on April 18, 1982 following the Queens's departure for London after the 4-day state visit which climaxed with the proclamation of the Constitution Act.
Pierre Trudeau is saluted by RCMP Officer as he carries son Justin to Rideau Hall in 1973.
Prime Minister Trudeau and his then-wife Margaret leave the city's Notre Dame Basilica Sunday afternoon after the christening of their 22-day old infant Justin Pierre James, Jan. 16, 1972. Tasseled shawls kept the baby hidden from photographers and the 10-degree-below-zero weather.
March 1979 photo of the Trudeau children: Michel (front), Alexandre (Sacha) and Justin (rear).
It was a big day for Dad, but a long day for the three Trudeau children. Left to right, Justin, Michel and Alexandre (Sacha) Trudeau attended the swearing in ceremonies of their father Pierre Elliott Trudeau as Prime Minister March 3, 1980 at Government House.
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