Thursday, December 28, 2006

Christmas in Flak Jackets

A few months ago General Rick Hillier promised me a Christmas I would never forget; turns out he is a man of his word.

This year, on Christmas morning, I was in Sperwan Ghar in the Panjwai district of Afghanistan sitting around a single-burner Coleman stove with a dozen Canadian soldiers. Rush was on the stereo and we were watching a pot of Tetley tea bags threaten to boil. Outside it was wet and muddy, but inside the sandbag bunker where these Royal Canadian Dragoons ate and slept it was warm and as comfortable as one could expect under the circumstances. Corporal Frank Farrell was in charge of the pot and there was no top on it this morning - this was not to be rushed.

Gen. Hillier is a very persuasive man. He is also a Newfoundlander. And while he is the chief of the Canadian Forces it has been suggested that he might think he is the chief of all Newfoundlanders. He'll call you up and suggest to you that on Dec. 25 there is only one place you should be and it's so special that by agreeing to go there you render your life insurance null and void. You aren't asked so much as you are voluntold.

This was my third trip to Afghanistan but my first at Christmas. Gen. Hillier was on a personal mission to shake hands with every man and woman wearing a Canadian uniform in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf and I was along for the ride. The way he described it was simple: "It's Christmas" he said, "and all we are going to do is pop in and say hello to a few folks." In Canada "popping in to say hello" at Christmas is just a matter of arranging for a designated driver or making sure you have cab fare in your pocket. This was a little more complicated. It started with a nine-hour flight overseas, stopping in Croatia for gas, and then onward to a military base that dare not speak its name or reveal its location. Once there we immediately boarded a Sea King
helicopter for a night flight across the water so we could land on the deck of the HMS Ottawa.

On this leg of the trip there were three other Newfoundlanders - broadcaster Max Keeping, singer songwriter Damhnait Doyle and my old colleague Mary Walsh - and three members of the Conservative caucus - whip Jay Hill, MP Laurie Hawn and the President of the Treasury Board John Baird. I was happy they were issued flak jackets and helmets because I had a sneaking suspicion that the combination of Walsh and the three Tories might make some recent skirmishes with the Taliban insurgency seem tame in comparison. If it came down to a three on one donnybrook my money was on the Princess Warrior.

And so, on the night before Christmas Eve, our little gang of Newfoundlanders along with 50 or so sailors closed the mess on the HMS Ottawa. We laughed until we were stupid. It felt like Christmas.

After sunrise Gen. Hillier addressed the troops on the deck of the ship. This was the first of countless speeches he would give over the next four days. He is funny as hell and inspiring as anyone I have ever seen speak. He makes soldiers laugh and then he makes them cry. He thanks them all in a way that makes everyone grow inches. From a show business perspective he is a tough act to follow, but follow we did. When it came Damhnait's turn to say a few words she sang a song, and if there is a better way to kick off an adventure than watching Damhnait Doyle and 250 sailors sing O Canada on the deck of a Canadian battle ship as it sails the Gulf I can't think of it.

After Ottawa it was straight back to the base for a three-hour nap before a 3 a.m. wake-up call for the flight to Kandahar. Once in Kandahar we had the standard briefing that is mandatory for visiting
entertainers and or the head-injured. When the siren goes do what you're told, when everything seems fine do what you're told and, when in doubt, do what you're told.

From there we went "over the wire." It was Christmas Eve and Gen. Hillier wanted to make it to all the forward operating bases. These bases are all former Taliban strongholds. For the most part they are high points of land that were hard-fought for. Some of the bases are nothing but points of land with soldiers living in tents, trenches and bunkers. This is the front line of a war.

Charlie Company at Patrol Base Wilson was the first group we spoke to. These are the men and women who are working under maximum threat levels in Afghanistan. They are out there on patrol every day, for days at a time, engaging the enemy. They have all lost friends here. They have a bit of the ten-thousand mile stare - which is to be expected - so from the point of view of a guy who stands around and tells jokes for a living this is what you would call a tough crowd. Gen. Hillier was right though, he told me that just showing up was enough and everything else was gravy.

That afternoon we made our way by convoy to Strong Point West, home to Bravo Company. This was still Christmas Eve and we arrived in time to help serve their Christmas meal. Gen. Hillier worked the turkey, senior officers worked the potatoes and vegetables and I pulled up the rear as chief gravy server. I must admit I felt pretty darn important serving the gravy. These guys get a cooked meal about every three to four days. For the most part they eat rations out of a bag where they find themselves. Plus they get shot at. Anything hot with gravy is a very, very big deal. As the man with the gravy ladle I was probably - for the duration of the serving line - the most popular man on Earth.

And so this year for Christmas dinner I sat on the ground in the dust and ate turkey loaf and gravy on a paper plate. Everyone except me had a gun. There was lots of talk of home and like anyone's Christmas dinner there were lots of pictures. At one point the designated photographers had 10 digital cameras in their hands at a time trying to get the group shots.

Everywhere you go in Afghanistan where there are Canadian soldiers you see Christmas cards and letters supporting the troops. Some of the tents and accommodations are decorated with so many home-made cards from school kids that you would swear you had wandered into an elementary school lunchroom and not a mess hall. It's amazing to see groups of battle-weary soldiers wrapped in ammunition and guns stopping to read these things with the attention that is usually reserved solely for the parent. I was in a tent with two guys in their early 20s who were poring over a stack of letters and class photos and separating them into piles. I was a little taken aback that these young guys, in the middle of a war zone, would be so moved by support from Grade 4 classes until I realized the deciding factor for the favourites pile was which teacher was hotter.

On Christmas morning, the convoy headed to Sperwan Ghar. The troops here sleep in dugouts with sandbag perimeters. After the speeches and hellos a corporal asked me back to his quarters for a cup of tea. He was, like so many guys here, a Newfoundlander. And so that's where I spent Christmas morning, watching corporal Frank Farrell stir the teapot while a dozen or so guys hung out and exchanged cards and had a few laughs. The crowd in the bunker wasn't there just for the tea. They had been waiting a long time for Corporal Farrell to open the Eversweet margarine tub that he received a few weeks ago in the mail. In the tub was his mom's Christmas cake. When the tea was perfect and our paper cups were filled, the tape was pulled from the tub and we all agreed: Bernadette Farrell makes the best Christmas cake in Canada.

The trip carried on. We visited more forward operating bases. Gen. Hillier made good on his goal of shaking hands with practically every soldier in harm's way this Christmas. And by late afternoon we took the convoy back through "ambush ally" to the main base in Kandahar for the prime show of the tour for about 800 soldiers in the newly opened Canada House.

Max Keeping was our Master of Ceremonies, Gen. Hillier gave a speech of a lifetime, Mary Walsh made me laugh like the old days, Damhnait Doyle sang like an angel and the Montreal rock band Jonas played late into the night. I was supposed to take the mic for 15 minutes, but I stayed for 25. A tad selfish, but honestly I can't imagine I will have so much fun performing ever again.

Everywhere we went on this trip men and women in uniform thanked our little gang for giving up our Christmas to be with them in Afghanistan. I know that I speak for everyone when I say we gave very little and we received far too much. We met great friends, we had lots of laughs and dare I say had the best Christmas ever.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Same Sex Thursday!

So the debate over same sex marriage is back.

Personally I see this as a positive development. I have no idea where Canadians got the idea that once a minority's rights are defined they are somehow set in stone. It's time Canadians woke up and realized those days are long gone. This is an era of reflection.

Sure the Charter looks nice hanging on a wall but the fact is it grants far too many rights that are contrary to the deeply held personal views of many chubby white guys.

I have heard rumours that in the future the Conservatives plan on devoting every Thursday in the House of Commons to more votes on minority rights.

So far they have planned motions debating whether the Chinese should be allowed to drive, whether women should be allowed to vote and whether turbans should be allowed in elevators that travel more than 16 floors.

In order to ensure that these debates target all minorities equally they have come up with an ingenious way for creating motions.

This year, in lieu of a secret Santa exchange, every Tory has to write the name of a minority that bugs them on a slip of paper. On the back of the slip they print a so called “right we all enjoy”. The slips will be mixed up and placed in a gorgeous festive ballot box that John Baird gift wrapped for the occasion. At this year’s party, each member will be blindfolded and they will draw a slip of paper out of the box! That slip of paper is their present to them and to Canada. Imagine the hilarity that will ensue when Justice Minister Vic Toewes stands up and says “This year my Christmas gift is a motion to debate whether Hindus can own property in New Brunswick.”

I can hear the laughter from here.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Final Results

Before the fourth ballot results were announced my friend Mike and I spent 20 minutes working our way right to the middle of the room so we could be surrounded by a mix of Dion and Ignatieff supporters.

That was about as tightly packed as I have ever been or ever wish to be. Looking around and seeing the desperate look on everyone’s faces reminded me of the Ayatollah’s funeral. I was happy to observe all weekend, but at this moment I really felt like an interloper. This was their party and they had invested everything in it. For these people the stakes don’t get any higher.

When the results were finally announced and it was immediately clear that Dion had stolen the race from Ignatieff people all around us basically melted. To the right of me a guy with a Dion bandanna around his neck burst into tears and started cheering like peace on earth had been declared. On the other side of me there were tears as well but the other kind.

I have to hand it to the party, Canadians love to root for an underdog and Liberals showed their true Canadian colours at this convention. Stephane Dion was the underdog from the moment that he launched his campaign – the fact that he pulled off a fourth ballot victory against the establishment frontrunner is nothing short of miraculous.

When it was all over Michael Ignatieff acted more gracious in defeat than we have ever seen. It’s pretty ironic that this experience, which has to rank up there as a personal worst for him, may in fact have been his finest moment in public life.

Dion’s victory speech was very good but all it really did was confirm everyone’s preconceived notions of the guy. Liberals see a saviour who will bring them back to power and the Tories are rubbing their hands in glee over the prospect of heading into battle against a French guy who has a dog named Kyoto.

Dion is an enigma to most Canadians and that’s not such a bad thing. He takes over the Liberal party as a relative unknown and as a result people have pretty low expectations of the guy. This is a good position for a politician to be in, he really has nowhere to go but up.

At the end of the day though, watching Dion on stage, I couldn’t help but be amazed at his physical presence. The Liberals went into this convention with a host of choices. They could have gone with a battle-tested politician, a former athlete, a world famous academic or a food bank founder from the West; at the end of the day they choose the nerd.

That’s pretty Canadian.

I think Turner had the chili for lunch.

Second Ballot

The second ballot results have sent the Iggy people into apoplectic shock.

Looking at the candidate on TV he looks visibly shaken. I think he should compose himself and take this moment to reflect and enjoy the experience. After all, after this vote it will be a long time before he sees his name on a ballot again (barring of course the annual sexiest professor poll at Harvard – his name goes on that ballot the minute he signs his new contract). It’s times like this that a candidate should show grace under pressure and I think it was beneath Iggy to accuse Gerard Kennedy of committing a war crime by throwing his support to Dion.

The Ignatieff delegates I’ve been talking to have that tragic air of someone in palliative care eating apple sauce and making big plans to run a marathon.

It’s understandable that the Ignatieff people are having a hard time dealing with this; they felt that Iggy actually winning this thing was just a technicality. Now they are willing to grasp at any straw available. Soon after the second ballot results came in an Ignatieff delegate grabbed me and waved his blackberry in my face and shouted “Dryden is about to announce he’s supporting Iggy.” The words were not out of his mouth before another delegate started waving his blackberry around shouting “Dryden went to Rae.”

In this room if you wave your blackberry around as you speak it carries the same weight as waving a bible around at an evangelical conference. It’s in the good blackberry it must be true!

The only guy having a good day at this point is the soon-to-be leader of the opposition Stephane Dion.

On the floor

The scene at the Palais de Congres reminds me of the Superdome during the New Orleans flood.

Richard Diamond, the president of the young Liberals, just blurted that Iggy's papercut is starting to look like a flesh wound.

I just saw Iggy accepting congratulations from some adoring fans and in person it looks like it might have developed into a full blown staph infection.

Antibiotics stat.

The Morning After

The one advantage of showing up to a party stone cold sober at 1:50 am is that you will probably be the only one who remembers anything. The disadvantage is that by the time I arrived at ground zero the delegates were drunk and confident – a bad combination.

The Delta hotel lobby was a zoo just a few hours ago. Hundreds of young people were circling like parched animals in search of a watering hole. There were no shortage of options – on the way to the elevator I was told that there were free shots in a Dryden room and a huge Dion event happening with a free ice vodka fountain. I kind of felt nostalgic for the days when I would walk over broken glass looking for such a Shangri-la, but alas those days are gone. I ended up having a few Heineken in a room that apparently was rented by Paul Martin. Martin wasn’t there but there was a huge podium in the corner that apparently he practices on when preparing for a big speech.

There are two schools of thought on Ignatieff’s early round results: it’s possible that Ignattief’s people intentionally surpassed a pile of votes on the first ballot, knowing they will come to him on the second. This is an old trick that guarantees that there will be growth on the second ballot and give the illusion of momentum.

My gut is telling me this is not what happened. I talked to one Iggy delegate last night who was vicious because he saw three Iggy ballots destroyed and on the floor in the voting area. He seemed to think there was some sort of conspiracy afoot. I figure that those three ballots either belonged to people who are too stupid to get the slip of paper in the slot or people who just couldn’t bring themselves to do what it was they promised to do months ago.

I just watched Iggy get cornered by CBC’s Julie Van Dusen and she asked what his reaction was to the first round results.

Iggy said that his first round results were lower than expected because he spoke last and as a result some of his delegates didn’t get a chance to vote.

If that’s the best line the Iggy brain trust can come up with that camp is in serious trouble.

Flight Delayed

Friday Dec 1st, 10:45 pm

I am not in a hospitality suite, I am not in Montreal, I am sitting on the tarmac in Toronto.

Air Canada delayed my flight three times and I have just boarded my flight almost two hours behind schedule.

Earlier tonight I caught Volpe’s speech. Volpe’s introduction video was put together by the same children who donated money to his campaign. It wasn’t even a video actually, it was just a collection of old pictures of Joe set to Tom Cochrane’s Life is a Highway. It didn’t seem like a campaign video so much than the type of thing a well meaning but talentless child might prepare for their parents 50th wedding anniversary. Usually these things work because family members get to laugh at the bad hairstyles from the seventies. I think the purpose here was to make people think “Wow Joe has been to the great wall of China, he should be our leader.”

The Iggy and Bob speeches I watched at the airport. Not a bad place to watch really. I was in a similar situation years ago and watched the Canadian women’s hockey team win the gold huddled around an airport television. This time it wasn’t nearly as hard to get a seat with a view of the TV.

One guy who was pretty knackered announced to those watching that Bob Rae looked “familiar”; this got a pretty good laugh. A few minutes later he announced “I think he’s a comedian.” Bob certainly exhibited a stand-up’s confidence by leaving the safety of the podium and walking to the edge of the stage. At the halfway point when Bob made the joke about Harper’s cabinet being vegetables, the guy laughed a little too hard and said “see he’s funny!”

Ignatieff, I noticed, speaks very slowly – the sign of a good educator. He wants to make sure that even the dim kids can follow him. I admit I have a problem with this style. When Iggy starts waving that bloody finger around I feel like I’m back in one of Ms. Patzold’s grade eight classes. His legions of fans seemed to like it though. When he wiggles the finger they tingle inside. I think Iggy actually made a big mistake and either reached into the wrong pocket or ticked off the teleprompter guy because it seemed to me that he was delivering his victory speech. I remember thinking it had something to do with “hope.” Basically he decided to do Bill Clinton’s act but not as well.

As I write this I’m on the tarmac and apparently Air Canada is “looking for a pilot”. It’s going to be a long night, but not the kind I had envisioned.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Heading to Montreal

"So what if I'm drunk? They screwed me Dryden, and they'll screw you too!"

Tonight I fly to Montreal and figure I will hit the convention at ten pm. I’m worried that everyone will be in bed by then but I will just have to wait and see.

I am shooting the show tonight so while that happens I will be recording the candidates' speeches so I can watch them on my laptop during the flight to Montreal. Would the giant tool in aisle 12 please stow his computer and put his tray in the upright position.

Why am I attending? My plan is to find out first hand whether or not the Liberal party is a vital political force in the midst of an historic renewal or are they simply a herd of dinosaurs in their final death throes. I also hope to find out if the beer will be cold.

All will be revealed at, or at least the beer question will be answered.

So far I have tried to watch as much of the convention as I could but work keeps getting in the way.

I was lucky enough to catch the opening ceremonies and they certainly set the tone. I am not much of a fan of this “nation inside a nation" notion but when the Quebecois are in charge of booking the talent it’s hard to argue with it. I would suggest that whoever thought it was a good idea to feature the dancing dude in the super tight pants and giant mullet so prominently is not just from another nation but another planet.

I missed the tribute to Paul Martin because of work last night but I did get home in time to catch his speech. Too bad he didn’t make a few more like that during the campaign; he might have avoided this whole messy retirement ordeal. It was refreshing though to see Martin speak without him promising all Canadians free tuition or a billion dollars. It was a good speech though; I’ll give the man that. The baby was a nice touch; I might try that next time I have to address a crowd.

Until Montreal mes amis.