06.30.2012 09:09 AM

In tomorrow’s Sun, today: the politics of disaster

Everyone in Canada knows about the catastrophe that has been unfolding in Elliot Lake, midway between Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury, in Ontario’s North. It has been a terrible, terrible tragedy. People have died, and many have been hurt.

Unfortunately, some in the media and in the political opposition have been looking for someone to blame in Elliot Lake. They’ve suggested Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and Prime Minister Stephen Harper should have hustled up there right away. To do what? We know not. But McGuinty and Harper have been lambasted by some for not travelling to Elliot Lake.

Jean Chretien, as I recall, travelled to Manitoba during the ’97 flood. “An infamous PR disaster,” the Montreal Gazette later intoned. A “photo opportunity stunt,” declared the Vancouver Sun. “Appalling insensitivity,” said the Edmonton Journal.

However, in the end, Chretien still won a majority – albeit a reduced one. Some of his western candidates (like, um, me) certainly paid a price. But the Liberal leader ended up with more seats in Manitoba than any other party.

The paradox, I remarked to my campaign team at the time, is this: If you don’t go to the site of a disaster, you’ll get hammered for staying away and being insensitive. And if you travel to the site of a disaster, you’ll get hammered for coming for a photo op and therefore being insensitive. You can’t win, in other words.


  1. Yes, but you get hammered much more for providing an aura of insensitivity or detachment, ex George Bush and Hurricane Katrina.

    Surveying the damage from Air Force One is not what folks need.

  2. Philip says:

    Neither Harper nor McGuinty should be strung up for the accident itself. The decepit condition of the mall prior to the collapse, is the responsibility of both the owner and the Municipality of Elloit Lake. Where Harper and McGuinty should come under some scrutiny will be how the aftermath of this tragedy gets handled. At the federal level, spending cuts to existing heavy urban rescue units should be reviewed and perhaps cancelled. Provincially, it appears the the Ministry of Labour had a history of work stoppage files on the mall from contractor and subs who refused work due to safety concerns. While no mechanism exists to share those case files with the municipal inspection office, something along those lines should be set up as part of an early warning system.

    In this case, blaming the men at the top isn’t going to make things better or address meaningful changes. Making sure a broken down public space doesn’t kill and hurt again is the outcome we should look for.

  3. Brad says:

    Chretien didn’t get beat up for visiting Winnipeg during the flood of 97. People here were made because he called an election as soon as he got back to Ottawa even after seeing how bad the situation was

  4. Michael Reintjes says:

    A terrible incident indeed but frankly more people are going to be unfortunately killed on Ontario Highways this weekend. Is the Premier supposed to show up at accidents involving multiple deaths on the highway as well? I really don’t know what politicians can do in these incidents and frankly I wish they’d stay away.

  5. sean says:

    I thought Dalton did exactly what was needed. Calm, measured emotion, decisive. Its moments like this we are lucky he is Premier. Its the slow, drawn out policy side that needs a look over. EMO needs to rewrite its ERPs for these situations immediately and this needs to be part of the inquiry.

  6. Jason says:

    I look forward to reading this article. I’ve always enjoyed reading your editorials. They’re better than the racist drivel Margaret Wente produces and the archaic newpaper that condones her bigotry.

  7. Ken Klempner says:

    Who’s in charge? The municipality looks to the province. The owner’s do not have the resources to implement emergency services.

    The premier will have to answer (as he knows he will) to the ultimate question? why were the emergency services halted for a period of time? what bureaucracy impeded the savings of life. We know are told that both deaths were quick without pain…how do we then explain the ‘tapping’ that everyone acknowledged as someone alive?

    • Philip says:

      It’s pretty easy to determine who is in charge. The owner had a legal obligation to keep the building up to code, the municipality had a legal obligation to enforce the code. If the owner couldn’t meet his obligations, in regards to building maintenance, then he should have sold on. The mall owner didn’t have to provide “emergency services”, just make sure his building didn’t collapse on the public.

  8. Greg from Calgary says:

    I was in the military at the time of the flood stacking sandbags in Manitoba when the PM came by and threw some on for the cameras. Yeah, that part was a photo op but he was asking a lot of questions and trying to get a feel for what was happening. Did, he get a 100% feel, no. I didn’t, hell I was there for weeks and since it wasn’t my personal home threatened I couldn’t fully understand what the people of Manitoba were going through or feeling.

    But for me, I appreciated the effort, that he was there and he did care. I’s on my list of things I am grateful for about Mr Chretein.

  9. e.a.f. says:

    My concern when senior politicians go to a disaster, they are taking away from the rescue work. It is also expensive. Senior politicians need to be escorted around, security provided, transporation, etc. Unless they are there to help it is best they stay away & let people get on with the work of repairing the place.

    Unless its a national disaster where the “showing of the flag” might improve morale, it is best politicians stay away & just comment from a great distance.

    Chretien going to see the floods was appropriate. It was a huge incident & Chretien always did seem concerned in these types of situations. Harper couldn’t even fake it with acting lessons.

    As to McGuinty, he might want all the malls inspected, if they haven’t laid off all the building inspectors. Other provinces should follow suite. What happened in Ontario is waiting to happen in other parts of Canada. These malls are all of an age….

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