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Payette, Plante and McKenna showed grit, defiance and unmitigated joy: Harper

It’s been a pretty bright week for three women, and political watchers, amidst the Canadian November darkness.

I cannot remember a victorious politician exulting in her success in the manner of Plante — the wall-to-wall smile, the guffaws, the hands clasped above her head like a gladiator, writes Tim Harper.

Paul Chiasson / The Canadian Press

I cannot remember a victorious politician exulting in her success in the manner of Plante — the wall-to-wall smile, the guffaws, the hands clasped above her head like a gladiator, writes Tim Harper.

In the too often robotic, message track world of Canadian politics, three women in the past week have injected some grit, some defiance and some unmitigated joy into the arena.

This should be celebrated.

All three broke the unwritten, hidebound rules which can drag politics into that joyless, cynical realm that alienates voters and encourages them to change the channel.

One, a vice-regal, refused to pack her bona fides as a scientist and an astronaut into a trunk, like some type of intellectual blind trust.

One, a federal cabinet minister, refused to accept the rule that you should just take the media hits, turtle, and stay on message, even if those hits are sexist.

And one, a new mayor in Canada’s second largest city, gave us all a refresher on something lost — that politics can be fun.

The fact that Julie Payette, the country’s Governor General, is included among politicians in this trio, is, of course, what has caused her controversy in the past week.

Payette is not a politician. Nor is she a figurehead. She is a scientist who was speaking to her peers at the convention of the Canadian Science Policy Centre.

She spoke hopefully of a day when living and breathing science would be considered normal, not the world of geeks, before adding, “I am a geek, though.”

She called for decision-making based on data, evidence and facts that can be corroborated by others everywhere on the planet.

“Democracy and society have always gained from learned debate, whether it is political, scientific or economical,” she told the audience.

As my colleague Martin Regg Cohn correctly points out, she chose not to deliver an address from the welcome package for vice-regals. Riveting accounts of curling, hockey and Canadiana were not for Payette.

Did her message on climate change, evolution and the fantasy of horoscopes border on the haughty?

Perhaps, and her tone may need some moderating, but a scientist adding a little spice to a stultifying job of handshakes and smiles hardly means she would lose her objectivity if she must pronounce on a hung Parliament during her tenure.

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna reversed the politician-journalist role, turning on her tormenter, in this case a representative from Rebel Media which had dubbed her Climate Barbie.

McKenna is hardly the first politician to turn on a journalist. I have been on the receiving end more than once.

But when Christopher Wilson asked her about hydroelectricity, McKenna responded: “I just would like a commitment that you will not call me names. That you won’t talk about the colour of my hair, that you won’t make fun of me. The reason I am asking you not to do this is because I have two daughters. There are lots of girls who want to get into politics and it is completely unacceptable that you do this.’’

She never raised her voice, she never resorted to anger, but she was steely in her resolve.

Which brings us to Valérie Plante.

Her Montreal mayoral victory was indeed a metaphorical broom to the buttoned-down male elite, but it was her reaction to the win that will stay with voters, both at home and across the country.

I cannot remember a victorious politician exulting in her success in the manner of Plante — the wall-to-wall smile, the guffaws (she doesn’t just laugh), the hands clasped above her head in the means of a gladiator who had vanquished a daunting foe, the eyes closed in the rapture that goes to one who had ascended the summit.

It was her message to the little girl from Brazil, caught by the television cameras on the steps of City Hall, that someday she too could be the mayor, “or maybe the prime minister of your country.”

It could have seemed contrived, but it didn’t.

She, without doubt, knows that such unbridled joy will be short-lived and that keeping promises of a 29-stop Pink Line Metro extension and 12,000 units of social housing will take all her political skills. Things will get messy.

But for a couple of days, Plante reminded us that politics can bring such joy, just as McKenna reminded us a little sandpaper pushback is sometimes needed and Payette reminded us that appointing someone of her calibre as a mere symbol would be a terrible waste of her talents.

It’s been a pretty bright week for three women, and political watchers, amidst the Canadian November darkness.

Tim Harper writes on national affairs for Torstar News Service.

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