ST. ALBERT, Alberta – Michael Cooper, Member of Parliament for this small suburban city and a part of Edmonton next door, is going to wake up to a big problem this morning that’s unlikely to go away any time soon.
Mr. Cooper’s problem is a microcosm of the troubles now facing the entire Conservative Party of Canada, and it has to do with the company its MPs were keeping yesterday in Ottawa.
The company they were keeping on Parliament Hill was pretty disgusting – that is, the so-called “freedom convoy” that increasingly obviously was organized by a cadre of far-right activists including characters distinguished by histories of white nationalism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and enthusiasm for the bizarre Qanon phenomenon creeping north over the 49th Parallel.
Yes, there were people in the convoy that made Canada’s capital city its terminus yesterday whose irrational fears of COVID-19 vaccines have left them worried about their “freedoms and their jobs,” as the Conservative Party damage-control messaging was putting it last night, but their Ottawa siege has become a platform for a considerably more unsavoury crowd.
As Gary Mason of the Globe and Mail put it on Thursday – well before the vanguard of the protest started showing up on the streets of downtown Ottawa – “as well-meaning as some of these people may be, it’s now clear that this demonstration has been hijacked by a fringe element that sounds an awful lot like the ‘freedom fighters’ and ‘patriots’ who gathered at the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021, and ended up storming the premises in a poorly organized coup d’état.”
The conduct of the mob on the Hill demanding the removal of our lawfully elected government and expressing its hatred for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau certainly belies the Conservatives’ excuses.
Protesters have been parking and partying on the National Cenotaph, displaying Confederate battle flags and Nazi swastikas, hanging their slogans on the statue honoring Terry Fox, bullying the staff of a shelter’s soup kitchen to give them free food, and, everywhere, displaying their ubiquitous motto: “F**k Trudeau.”
Yet supportively joining them were Opposition Leader Erin O’Toole’s MPs, shaking hands, mingling in what looked like an Omicron super-spreader event, tweeting out videos of themselves handing out cups of coffee, and doing impromptu TV interviews.
That’s where Mr. Cooper’s day, and possibly his political career, went awry: a quickie interview just before 11 a.m. in Ottawa with a CBC TV crew as some clown paraded in the background bearing an upside-down Canadian flag defaced by a Nazi swastika.
The reaction in St. Albert and Edmonton was swift and fierce.
“As Mayors of the two cities that straddle Member of Parliament Michael Cooper’s riding, Mayor @CathyHeron and I are troubled by a photo of MP Cooper that is being circulated with an upside down Canadian flag with a hateful symbol of a swastika on it,” tweeted Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi last night.
“This type of symbolism is never okay, but it is even more troubling as we just marked the anniversary of the Holocaust, and today, we remember the victims who lost their lives in the hate-based Quebec City Mosque attack five years ago,” Mr. Sohi said.
St. Albert Mayor Cathy Heron tweeted the same thread: “We want the rest of the country to know that MP Cooper’s presence at this rally in no way reflects the values of Edmontonians and St. Albertans,” she said. “Our communities are diverse, inclusive and welcoming – hate has absolutely no place here.
“Along with us, many other people are hurt by his behaviour and lack of judgement, and we call upon him to apologize not only to his constituents, but to the rest of the country as well.”
Needless to say, others were considerably less restrained in tone. The responses to Mr. Cooper’s coffee tweet yesterday are instructive.
“Very fine people you are supporting,” said my conservative-leaning friend and former neighbour Andy von Busse, in just one example. “Nazi and slavery flags, and parking on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Very fine people.”
This response obviously had Mr. Cooper worried enough to issue a statement last night condemning the guy with the flag and trying to absolve himself of any responsibility.
“Today I attended a peaceful protest in support of truckers and other Canadians defending their freedoms and jobs,” Mr. Cooper’s statement said.
“I did an impromptu interview with CBC. Moments later I learned from social media that unbeknown to me, someone with whom I’m not associated had been standing some distance behind my back holding a flag with an evil symbol on it. Had I seen the symbol, I would have condemned it, as I do now.”
“Whoever flew this flag is personally responsible for that reprehensible decision and should be eternally ashamed,” Mr. Cooper asserted.
“He or she does not represent the thousands of peaceful protesters who waved Canadian flags and acted responsibly,” he concluded. “I stand with them and will continue to fight for them.”
Does this mean he doesn’t stand with the voters of St. Albert-Edmonton who got vaccinated, socially isolated, and did their bit to responsibly bring the COVID-19 pandemic to an end?
And what do the past controversies that have dogged Mr. Cooper – like this one, and this one – tell us about his real convictions on issues that seem to motivate so many of the convoy protesters as well?
We are all judged by the company we keep. This is a lesson many Conservative MPs are now going to learn the hard way.