ABBOTSFORD, B.C. — Several hundred of Stephen Harper’s B.C. faithful gathered around him Sunday night for the final campaign rally of this election.
The Conservative leader fed off the cheers and applause reverberating around the airplane hangar in Abbotsford, B.C. and bouncing off his own campaign plane and bus, rolled in to serve as backdrops.
It lent the event an intensity and energy largely absent for the other events on Sunday, and for most of the final week, with his campaign stops held in the same industrial spaces, with the same Canadian flag backdrop, the same music and largely the same speech day in and day out, as it has been for most of the eleven weeks of this election.
“I know you’ve been doing all you can do, 24 more hours, let’s make sure we keep it moving forward,” Harper said Sunday night.
Harper took no questions from the national press travelling with his tour Sunday, though he did talk to some local media, as he travelled from the Toronto-area to Regina to B.C. and finally home to Calgary where he’ll cast his ballot Monday.
He has steadfastly refused in recent days to entertain the notion of what his personal political future or that of his party’s could hold or reflect on the campaign itself as a whole, saying only this week he believes the last decade has been an honour for him and for Canada.
His most ardent supporters agree; Vipul Chandra was one of roughly a couple hundred people who showed up bright and early Sunday morning to see Harper at a facility that makes paint for hockey ice in the town of Newmarket, Ont.
Chandra said in the ten years he has been living in Canada, he’s benefited from Harper’s leadership.
“He’s a man of honour, he is great,” he said, going so far as to add: “I love him.”
But past loyalists aren’t so sure; The Canadian Press reported Sunday the former lawyer for the Prime Minister’s Office says the Conservatives have lost the moral authority to govern and he’s casting a ballot for change.
Harper has been dismissive of the change narrative that’s underpinned the campaigns of his rivals, primarily that of Justin Trudeau.
In a last-ditch effort to hammer the message home his campaign unveiled a gimmick last week that involved calling up a family, senior or small business person to the stage for Harper to use their personal financial situation to highlight what he argues is the tangible pocketbook pinch Canadians will feel if the Liberals are elected.
At the final display, the person plucked from the crowd was International Trade Minister and local Abbotsford candidate Ed Fast’s daughter.
While the Conservatives have been mocked on social media and by some columnists for the stunt, they insist the message is breaking through and giving people pause ahead of Monday’s vote. If nothing else, it has given him the biggest reaction from the crowds in a week dominated by questions about whether the campaign had run out of steam.
Harper skipped the stunt Sunday afternoon at a short rally on the tarmac in Regina, Sask., focusing instead on the broad picture themes in one of his shortest speeches of the campaign before flying to Abbotsford, B.C. for the final rally.
But earlier in the day he appeared almost angry as he discussed what he believes is the contrast between the two styles of government Canadians will be choosing between on Monday.
“We want this country to keep moving forward. We do not want to go back to the days where the government ran for a handful of Liberal special interest groups and the bureaucracy,” he said, his eyes cutting away from the screen carrying the text of his remarks to focus on those in attendance.
“. . . and the Liberal campaign when you cut away all the fancy rhetoric, that’s all it is really about.”
The party routinely scoffed at the suggestion relatively small rallies were a reflection of a campaign no longer motivating Canadians, arguing supporters had better ways to help the campaign than to show up to see the prime minister.
One of the biggest crowds that appeared for Harper in the final campaign week wasn’t lured by him but by two Toronto politicians — Doug Ford and his brother, former Toronto mayor and admitted illegal drug user, Rob, who come from the vote-rich area of Etobicoke, Ont., and are long-time Conservative supporters.
Doug Ford had told reporters earlier in the week that if he wanted, he could get thousands out to see Harper. A rally was pulled together three days later.
Some Conservatives say the hundreds of thousands of people who back the Fords are important voters who ought not be slighted. Others say to court them so actively creates unnecessary noise at a time when the Tories need to get their own political message through.
But what will really matter Monday is who shows up to vote, suggested Peter Van Loan, the Conservative incumbent seeking re-election in the riding of York-Simcoe, north of Toronto.
“Elections in some ridings will be decided by not who votes, but who decides not to vote,” he said.
“And that’s why it’s important that every Conservative voter gets to the polls. If you think you want the Conservatives to win, if you don’t want all those Liberal taxes, well guess what? Staying at home is a vote for those Liberal tax hikes.”
Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press