It perhaps came to her while practicing the Child’s Pose. Forehead on the floor, chest tucked tight against the thighs, arms and palms stretched way out front, flat on the mat.
“What an image it would be,” mused our premier, “to see a few thousand people assume that position, all bowed to my will, on the Burrard Street Bridge!
“What a testament it would be to their love of yoga and to my mastery of imagery beyond my familiar domain of hard hats, jerseys, and adoring tykes! What a way to impress India’s new prime minister and to curry favour with his legion of admirers!”
Alas, the “yoga haters”, so labeled in jest by Christy Clark, had a different image in mind. They likely saw themselves more in the Downward-Facing Dog position, bent over, butt up, and breathing deeply. Or perhaps in the Extended Puppy Dog Pose, splayed prostrate, facedown, on all fours.
Both are positions with which taxpayers are all too familiar, conditioned as they are by governments to meekly endure from their twisted vantage points all that screams out for resistance. This time they said enough is enough and spontaneously all rose up in unison, much to the Yoga Master’s surprise.
Taxpayers were not amused by the thought of shelling out $150,000 of their hard-earned money for the premier’s silly spectacle. The relatively small amount at issue only made the waste that much more comprehensible and galling for working families that are buried in debt. It was more than most of them earn in a year, let alone net of the tax take.
Vancouverites who spend so much of their daily lives stuck in gridlock were no less miffed at the idea of shutting down one of Vancouver’s busiest bridges on Father’s Day for an event that should have been held for free in a park or any number of other public spaces. British Columbians were broadly dismayed by the insult added to that injury by the premier’s plan to effectively subordinate National Aboriginal Day to International Yoga Day.
The ensuing backlash was fast and furious, and fun to watch unfold to its logical conclusion. The premier’s misguided extravaganza for serenity, peace, and harmony was looking more each day like a scene out of Gangs of New York.
Here comes Raffi’s army, converging on the bridge with who-knows-how-many angry taxpayers, aboriginal protestors, and placard-waving seniors. The terror in the corporate sponsors’ eyes was palpable. The bewildered Lululemonists who would be caught in the middle were feeling their stomachs tied in a knot and their Muladhara Chakras on fire.
And so, after spending a week contorting herself into ever harder to defend positions, our beloved premier and the event sponsors were finally forced to pull the plug. The city councillors breathed a huge sigh of relief that it all ended before they would be called out for approving it in the first place. Crisis averted.
Which brings me to the point of this column. Namely, what we might all learn from Christy’s unintended yoga lesson.
Several media pundits have suggested that the public “hysteria” in response to this event was a tempest in a teapot that was hard to take seriously. They may wonder why the far weightier issues that mostly consume their attention so rarely generate anywhere near the same level of public backlash as this farce did.
It is a fair question and a frustrating concern. But the fact remains, this yoga debacle likely did far more real political damage to Christy Clark than most of the myriad other reasons for public anger and derision that have largely fallen on deaf ears.
The health firings that cost seven people their jobs and resulted in one lost life raised barely a ripple of public concern or blowback. Ergo, the government has no intention of giving in to those demanding a public inquiry.
That scandal is just one of a series of cases involving government cover-ups, human resource mismanagement, and what appear to be flagrant abuses of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. Yet the public has taken them all in stride, without anywhere near the firestorm that yoga-flop generated. Ditto for the Ethnic-gate scandal, which despite intense media coverage has largely percolated with mostly passive public interest.
What was the response to the hundreds of millions of dollars wasted on the failed Integrated Case Management computer software system, the government’s Crown land fire sales, or the premier’s Auditor General’s Office for Local Government? Zippo.
The Agricultural Land Reserve was recently split apart in ways that should have made most people’s blood boil, with barely a whimper of opposition. The National Energy Board’s so-called “independent” review of the Kinder Morgan pipeline project essentially eviscerated any potential for public input, cross-examination, or proper consideration. Yet most people are not talking about that in Starbucks or tweeting about it with the wrath that yoga-flop evoked.
Never mind that the Kinder Morgan project stands to increase heavy oil tanker traffic in some of our most sensitive marine habitats by a seven-fold factor. Or that Fortis B.C.’s Tilbury LNG Facility Project might bring 120 tankers up the Fraser River each year to export an annual volume of LNG that is equivalent to 1,904,000 Olympic swimming pools.
The net effect of the political pressure brought to date in regard to both of those projects pales in comparison to what we just saw over the yoga incident. It has been largely marginalized by the mainstream media and easy enough for governments in Victoria and Ottawa to pooh-pooh. Same for the local opposition to the proposed Woodfibre LNG project in Squamish.
The comparative lack of broad public pressure brought to bear on governments in response to other huge issues has been similarly discounted by elected decision-makers across Canada. They do not feel much threatened by that din of passive resistance that tends to pervade the large issues that should matter most.
The Mount Polley disaster resulted in a lot of oohing and aahing, but little in the way of tangible political consequence for the government that was derelict in its duty to protect the environment. Climate action, education funding, health reform, child protection, national security, housing, government secrecy, open disdain for accountability and meaningful consultation—you name it—it rarely precipitates such political pain that governments feel obliged to “say ‘uncle’!”
Indeed, British Columbians are not alone in their “wacky” reaction to minor controversies that can sometimes escalate to the point of costing political leaders their jobs, or tossing governments out of office. Just ask Alison Redford, or Jim Prentice.
You want to get people really hot under their collars? Waste a few thousand dollars on a trip to attend Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Or fly your kid around with you on a government jet. Or suggest that taxpayers should “take a look in the mirror” if they want to know why government is living beyond its means.
Such are the relatively minor missteps that light up switchboards, rain down like acid on politicians and test the limits of social media. Cut services like Ralph Klein or spending like Clark or Gordon Campbell and the only ones who squawk are the people who are most affected. Typically they are those who are too vulnerable, too ideologically marginalized, or too few in number to excite much attention from governments that never had their votes.
The thing is, what matters most politically ultimately comes down to whatever is most relevant to voters who matter to government. It is whatever motivates those politically “meaningful” power brokers to share their opinions, express their feelings, and ultimately mark their ballots.
Over time, little issues like the yoga affair can prove to be the death knell for any politician or governing party. They tend to stick and fester. They irritate as memorable examples of broader perceived flaws that eventually serve to define leaders and governments in ways that are reinforced by larger issues. Like Seinfeld’s Bizarro World.
Those small symbolic controversies punch way above their immediate political weight. Which is why this yoga fiasco is more significant than it might appear. Come election time, it may be ancient history, but it will not be forgotten, or without impact.
Whatever yoga-flop says in shorthand about Christy Clark—be it her motivation for holding the event, her use of tax dollars to pay for it, her Twitter response to those she consciously and inadvertently offended, or her humiliating surrender in the face of a pending public relations disaster—it will play into the NDP’s narrative about her.
At least it will if John Horgan can finally find a defining, winning narrative that has so far eluded him. His trouble is typical of opposition parties that are so consumed by the big issues that tend to dominate their time and attention that they fail to fully capitalize on the trivial ones that actually spark the most widespread interest and action.
Sure, this debacle was a minor gaffe. Yet it went straight to the heart of a defining narrative that is increasingly resonating about the Clark government.
Namely, that it is wasteful in ways that expose it as hypocritical and that illustrate its skewed priorities. That it is contemptuous of legitimate public criticism, shallow to the core, and more concerned with posing than doing. That it is all about partisan politics, rewarding its financial backers and disingenuous in its purported commitment to fostering reconciliation.
And more, much more than that, Christy does things her way, which is in many cases, just dumb.
The common thread running through most of the public reaction to Clark’s yoga spectacle can be summed up in four words: “what was she thinking?!”
Holding “Om the Bridge” on National Aboriginal Day and on Father’s Day, on a closed bridge that could not be better for an epic protest? Really? What was she thinking?
What was she thinking by inviting such a clash with aboriginal people, who any political neophyte could predict would be rightly offended? What was she thinking by spending 150 grand of taxpayers’ money for an hour-long stretch-fest that need not cost a penny? What was she thinking by deliberately inconveniencing so many motorists in a bizarre effort to supposedly replace noise with silence and chaos with harmony—by bringing Vancouverites to their knees, both literally and figuratively?
And for what?
To “show the world what Vancouver’s really all about”? To put her mug in the media, leading the masses? To win votes from the South Asian community or to dazzle Prime Minister Modi? To help profile AltaGas and Lululemon, two of her party’s key donors? What was she thinking?
Could Clark really not see that most taxpayers would regard that as an inappropriate use of their money? Did she not even consider the slight to First Nations? Did she really think that anyone would be able to concentrate with the predictable protests that would generate?
What was she thinking!
Did she not see how ludicrous it would be to turn something that is supposed to be all about positive energy into something that was bound to be so negatively received? What was she thinking taking Twitter jabs at all those she offended and labeling them all “yoga haters”, when the only object of their derision was her batty decision?
The upshot of all those “what was she thinking?” exclamations that preoccupied so many is a running narrative that stands to define Christy Clark and her government each time it is reinforced by a new loopy policy, decision, or action. It is a phrase that is as memorable as Krusty the Clown’s “I didn’t do it!”
Indeed, it might be the premier’s own private bumper sticker, T-shirt, or fridge magnet. Such is the power of silly mistakes, no matter how small, when future action prompts word association.
In politics, one of the hardest “skills” to exploit and master is to consciously make mountains out of molehills that move people to action. They tend to loom large when reduced to the mental images they conjure up of any leader’s character, ability, values, or judgment.
Far from turning the page on this quirky little episode in B.C. politics, the premier and her critics alike should be asking themselves what should be learned from it.
What made so many people take to social media to express their outrage over this harebrained scheme, in contrast to other more important issues that are endured in quiet resignation? And why was the government finally forced to give in to that pressure and end its self-imposed pain in this instance?
The answers to those questions speak volumes about the kinds of issues that really get tongues wagging and tweets flying. They should be instructive to those opposing the Kinder Morgan pipeline or other contentious projects and policies. They can teach us much about the type of political action that really gets governments’ attention and that can force those in power to bend to public pressure.
What lessons should be drawn from this ill-conceived photo op?
First, as noted, it should remind us that the issues that really rile and resonate are often the smallest. Especially when they are highly visual, viscerally engaging, and compact flashpoints for public anger that speak to larger defining themes that matter enough to drive people to action.
It is very hard to broadly engage people on any subject that is more conceptual than applied, or too removed from their daily lives to matter. Resistance is often futile in regard to the weightiest issues because they seem too huge to budge by individual action, and equally because they are often too remote from families’ workaday lives to merit the effort.
Big issues like the future of aboriginal relations, LNG, the Kinder Morgan project, climate change, and such will only truly captivate public attention to the extent they should when and if they can be made “real”. Which is to say, they must be broken down into topical hot buttons that begged to be pressed because they are material to people’s real lives and pocketbooks.
Easier said than done, to be sure. But often it is the policies and actions of governments and private organizations that only indirectly touch on those larger issues that can suddenly make them ripe for unsolicited discussion and reaction. Rarely are those targets deeply “mined” or fully exploited to broader effect.
Like a lob to a tennis player, the small balls expertly smashed home are more powerful in effect than any near great shot that falls out of bounds. In politics, points are no less cumulative. It matters not how they are earned, as long as the aim is true and the execution is deadly.
Second, Christy’s yoga lesson should teach us all a thing or two about the nature, force, and effect of “people power” in this still nascent age of social media.
For those who believe “you can’t fight city hall”—or any government—think again. When stupid decisions touch a common nerve that causes public anger to go viral, they can be fought and often reversed with sufficient focus, velocity, and coordinated action. The trick is to find that common nerve that provokes its own reflexive action.
The bigger the stakes, the more pressure it takes to force any government’s hand. Small mistakes like “Om the Bridge” can be easily reversed; big mistakes involving large amounts of political capital are usually defended to the hilt, until they start to appear as if they might prove fatal.
In the end, the only thing that really makes any government reverse its chosen course is brute political force. Playing nice usually only rewards bad behavior. The key to exerting pressure that really hurts enough to force a change in government action is to find the aspect of any political target that triggers hard public anger.
In the past, that anger had to be largely channeled by parties and interest groups to hit its mark. Now it can be simply let loose on social media to find its way home, if reduced to its most personally relevant and emotionally compelling dimension.
It helps to have Jane Fonda, Neil Young, or even Raffi on your side. But celebrities alone are no substitute for viral fury that engages any government’s traditional political supporters and swing voters. All of those actors are easy enough for their ideological opposites to ignore. The ones who really matter are the ones who turn on their fold and stand to move the complacent masses away from their own leaders.
Third, this issue highlights the disproportional power of aboriginal Canadians to bring governments and corporations alike to their knees by the mere threat of concerted political action. Especially when it is unimpeachably grounded—morally, legally, or otherwise—and when it stands to jeopardize all that governments and corporations need to earn aboriginal buy-in for their economic and political priorities.
It boggles the mind that the Clark government would show such callous disregard for First Nations as it did in this instance, as it has with so many other similarly disrespectful symbolic gestures. For all of her talk and action aimed at fostering reconciliation and a “new relationship” with aboriginal communities, the premier seems genetically predisposed to frustrating progress on those fronts.
The Clark government has repeatedly rubbed salt into old wounds, as it has underestimated the damage of its mostly unintended insults. It seemed oblivious to the fundamental slight it created by discounting National Aboriginal Day as it did, on the heels of the report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Instead of building new bridges to healing and understanding, the premier actually wanted to use a bridge for a spectacle that only served to reinforce how little she seems to really care about those objectives.
In the new era of constitutionally entrenched aboriginal title, no group carries so much political clout with governments or corporations as aboriginal Canadians. The Clark government, in particular, will do almost anything to avoid a “showdown” with any First Nation that it truly believes cannot be brought onside, cajoled, bought off, or dissuaded from direct political action.
Quite apart from the legal avenues available to First Nations opposed to any project or decision, their trump card is always the threat of confrontation that no one wants to test and which no government can politically weather when it is perceived to be wrong. Little decisions that negatively engage aboriginals can be reversed on a dime and even the largest ones are reversible when push comes to shove.
That is hardly “news”; but it is a hardening fact that the yoga incident amplified. That unwitting insult is yet another tool in First Nations’ considerable moral arsenal. It should make the Clark government much more skittish about provoking such unnecessary conflicts in future.
It has huge implications for any major project that might be prone to public protest insofar as it has likely bolstered those advocating the use of physical confrontation to bend governments to their will. It was really only when aboriginal leaders took to the front lines in the Kinder Morgan protests that company felt obliged to abort its on-ground activities on Burnaby Mountain.
Fourth, Christy’s yoga lesson should sensitize corporations to the political risks inherent in partnering with governments for public relations initiatives. They should know that when they put themselves on the front lines for photo ops aimed at partisan purposes, they become the first line for political resistance that will find new expression through social media and direct action.
In the “old days”, companies could mostly hide in the shadows. Not anymore. It is far easier today for the aggrieved masses to turn the “risk-reward” equation on its head in targeting corporations that only partner with governments in the first place as a brand-building enterprise. That is especially true for companies that still think it prudent to compound their political challenges by adding targets to their backs as partisan financial donors.
Companies like Enbridge are being vilified as never before for projects that stand to make them piles of money. State enterprises, such as the Malaysian, Chinese, and Indian state-owned companies that stand to benefit the most from the proposed Pacific Northwest LNG project may be harder to move and embarrass.
Apart from a physical faceoff with the Lax Kw’alaams and other First Nations, what they likely fear most is a social media controversy over the future of foreign state ownership in Canada. It should be a major issue in the upcoming federal election. It may be the most politically salient target for anyone who wants to really get people from across the political spectrum hot about the use and control of Canada’s precious natural resources.
Again, it is an issue within a broader issue that may or may not touch a sensitive public nerve. Yoga-flop should remind us that companies hate to be targeted for political action that they hope will be diminished by “safety in numbers” when they are partnering as sponsors or pooling their investments in large consortiums.
Virtually any publicly owned company these days can ill afford to tarnish its brand or potentially undermine shareholder value by venturing needlessly into the political fray.
With all of the effort that companies like AltaGas pour into earning “social license”, it is a mystery why they would co-sponsor an event such as “Om the Bridge” that had all of the hallmarks of a public relations disaster-in-the-making from the get-go.
For that company, or for Lululemon, which is already trying to claw its way out of a couple of self-imposed controversies, the yoga event was bound to hurt. Both entities should have known that their donations to the B.C. Liberal Party would make them political targets.
The lesson for others is obvious: stay the hell out of partisan politics if you do not want to be politically targeted for appearing to potentially benefit from governments’ abuse of taxpayers’ money.
Those resource companies, in particular, that gave so much to the B.C. Liberals will be in for a very rough ride for any future B.C. government-driven event that also bears their brand. After the yoga event, they can bet that their opponents will be looking for new ways to tarnish their brands in tandem with government-led events.
Fifth, the government should learn that taxpayers have had it to their teeth with these kinds of misuses of their precious tax dollars, especially when free alternatives are much more appropriate. If anything, the relatively small amount at issue for this one-hour event only aggravated their anger.
As noted, that $150,000 wasted “investment” was an amount that all families can relate to, as Christy Clark of all people should understand. It elicited much more public anger than her government’s election ad spending, which cost a hundred times that amount.
Add that amount to the hundreds of millions wasted or lost on so many other initiatives, including those referenced above, and it further builds the damning narrative that makes its own argument for change.
Yoga-flop should pay off for taxpayers by making the Clark government that much more antsy about future abuses of taxpayers’ dollars for potentially maddening political photo ops. For each time another one of those is held, “Om the Bridge” will be the gift that keeps on giving for anyone who wants to politically attack or stop it.
Finally, this debacle should remind us all of how lucky we are to be living a country where democracy still works. Sometimes, at least. Corny, I know, but true nonetheless. Governments in many other countries are not so easily cowed by sudden surges of public opinion that so temporally rock their worlds of partisan support.
In Canada, if voters want change badly enough, they can force it to happen. We only kid ourselves most of the time that governments do not have to answer to public opinion or serve our collective interests. The right we share as Canadians to get politically involved and to openly express our opinions that governments would rather we kept to ourselves is a precious gift.
Double corny, no doubt, but it cannot be said enough or taken for granted. From the smallest political issues to the largest ones, we get to rule over governments that rile when enough of us feel the same way.
When governments lose touch with the people they serve through a series of mistakes such as this one, they make an argument for political change that moves voters to action.
That sound you hear today is not just the laughter of successful social media activists; it is the first hint of collective relief from a newly empowered resistance movement that feels the vibe of change is in the air, from Ottawa to Victoria.
After what happened in Alberta, it is not that great of a stretch to imagine.