Kent Hehr has committed the ultimate sin for a Trudeau minister — being mean: Robyn Urback

His off-script remarks darken the whole sunny facade

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The one thing the Trudeau government offered that seemed somewhat plausible as far as promises go was positivity. Niceness. Sunny ways. Kent Hehr's behaviour destroys all of that. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)



In every job, there must be one hackneyed phrase or repetitive social interaction that just drains the spirit to nothing after a while. For journalists, it's hearing "I have a great story idea for you" from visiting relatives at annual family gatherings. For cashiers, it's having to smile when someone says, "I guess it must be free!" when an item fails to scan the first time. For barbers, it's resisting the urge to get a little too close with the clippers when your fifth balding client of the day jokes, "It'd be OK if you want to put some back near the top. HAHAHA."

Politicians have to deal with this routinely when interacting with constituents, simply because every constituent thinks his or her problem is the problem that should be top of the government's agenda. "Do you even understand that [insert number] of people in this country struggle with [insert issue] at any given time? Why aren't you guys doing anything about it?"

In response, an elected official is supposed to reassure the constituent of the government's commitment on the file, while remaining unflinchingly sympathetic to his or her frustrations. Over and over again. Rule No. 1 is never break character.

It's an extraordinarily tough task and just one reason why, I think, we don't give politicians enough credit for the hard work they do. But at the same time, I don't know if we should feel too sorry for our elected officials. After all, to quote a certain Canadian cabinet minister: everyone has a sob story.

Dismissive interactions

The minister of sport and persons with disabilities appears to struggle with this basic job requirement, based on a handful of accounts of him acting rudely or dismissively during interactions with constituents.

A group of thalidomide survivors claim Kent Hehr made the aforementioned "sob story" quip to them in response to their testimonials at a meeting back in October. A Calgary woman says he likened her question about why Ottawa continues to fight sick women (the federal government is facing a class-action lawsuit about denied benefits to women on maternity leave) to "the old question ... 'When did you stop beating your wife?'" And a Nova Scotia activist claims Hehr shrugged off her concerns about supporting her family with a husband with post-traumatic stress disorder by saying, "You married him. It's your responsibility."

For the record, Hehr has denied saying the last remark, but so messy is the situation now that even the prime minister is losing track. Justin Trudeau mistakenly said Hehr apologized for the last comment, when in fact, he has denied saying it.

Hehr is certainly not the first minister to show cracks in the facade in public. In the last government, there was Helena Guergis, who made a spectacular scene at a Charlottetown airport after she arrived late for her flight. And there was Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino, who — among other tense scenes with veterans — literally fled from a veteran's spouse who demanded answers on the government's treatment of returning soldiers with PTSD.     

Neither held on to their positions for very long, and it's likely Hehr won't either. But the delay in shuffling him from his post isn't serving this government particularly well, even while other somewhat problematic ministers — Finance Minister Bill Morneau and to a lesser extent Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan — remain in their cabinet positions.

Morneau's sin was one of hypocrisy, perhaps with a touch of arrogance: his ministry went after small business "loopholes" while the minister himself was exploiting one. Sajjan's mistake, which is now several scandal cycles back, was dishonesty: embellishing his role in an Afghan mission and taking credit for the work of others. Both are bad, but Hehr's sin — meanness — strikes at the core of what is supposed to make this government unique.

Hehr apologizes again 0:34

We expect that all governments, eventually, will be enveloped in spending scandals, get caught in a couple lies, show off their hypocritical bona fides and so forth. As much as they insist they will be different, most of us know that won't happen. But the one thing the Trudeau government offered that seemed somewhat plausible as far as promises go — the characteristic it kept coming back to that would distinguish it from the Harper government — was positivity. Niceness. Sunny ways. Sure, the lying and hypocrisy would come back eventually, but at least Trudeau's ministers would be smiling as they embraced it.

Hehr destroys all of that. His off-script remarks darken the whole sunny facade, which is supposed to be about caring and smiles and unlimited budgets and hope and hard work. It's about as off-brand as you can get for this government. It's a wonder Trudeau would allow the impression it's tolerated.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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