Garneau gets dose of earthly reality

Élections 2006

In the pre-dawn cold yesterday, barely recognizable in a bulky parka, toque and rubberized winter boots, an aspiring politician stood on a narrow railway platform and greeted commuters as they arrived to go to work in Montreal. "Bonjour, je m'appelle Marc Garneau, candidat Liberal dans Vaudreuil-Soulanges," the man began with a slight bow, proffering a red-and-white flier with his picture on it. "Est-ce que je peux vous laisser un depliant?"
With few exceptions, the early risers at the Ile Perrot station politely accepted the campaign literature before moving on. It was just before 6 a.m. and there was little time for chat before the first of the morning's trains whisked in. Schedules and routine are things Garneau has lived with all his life - as a naval officer, as a NASA astronaut and as head of the Canadian Space Agency.
And it was fitting that he should bring his campaign to people on the move, people with jobs to go to and classes to attend.
But there was an air of gloomy desperation about the exercise, too. From the platform lamps above Garneau hung icicles dripping in a fine spray of freezing rain. It was a desolate hour, the morning after a televised leaders' debate that appeared to mark a point of no return for a Liberal campaign headed straight off the rails.
How apt, then, that Garneau, struggling against his party's negative image in Quebec and his own image in sovereignist circles as a fear-mongering Canadian patriot, should be doing his best to keep his own campaign on track, here where the railway metaphor meant something.
Not that he really wanted to be there. "Drive-by handshakes," he called such types of superficial meet-and-greets. A thoughtful man, he prefers sit-down breakfast meetings with his constituents, where ideas can be properly aired. But there's a definite strategy behind his coming down to the tracks. Call it the recognition factor.
"There are 110,000 people in my riding, and I'm lucky if I get to meet a fraction of them," said Garneau, who has spent all but one day of the campaign since Nov. 30 "hustling," as he puts it, in the riding west of the island of Montreal, a place he'd barely set foot in before being parachuted there as a star candidate by Prime Minister Paul Martin.
"But for undecided voters who haven't yet met any of their candidates in person, making contact could make all the difference on voting day. That's why I'm here."
Not everyone yesterday was willing to hear his Liberal message.
"Oh, c'est deja fait, mon vote, monsieur," said one woman, dismissing him and his pamphlet as she passed by. Down the platform, she identified herself as Guylaine Collard, physiotherapist in Lachine, longtime Bloc supporter, voting for incumbent Meili Faille on Jan. 23. She doesn't like the Liberals and particularly what Garneau had to say last week to a La Presse reporter.
Asked if he'd move out of Quebec if it ever separated from Canada, Garneau, a passionate federalist, said yes, he would.
The next day, he defended his position with another controversial statement: that separating would be "a little bit like the United States going into Baghdad: it happened very quickly, but what about after that?"
Called to account by Martin, who said he had gone too far, and blasted by Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe, Garneau now says he was speaking his mind as a citizen, not as a politician. But he doesn't regret his words, nor does he see them as a political liability in Quebec.
"I know how to talk out of both sides of my mouth, I know how to skate around issues, but I don't want to do it," Garneau said yesterday. "I'm occasionally going to put my foot in my mouth, I'm occasionally going to be described as naive, but I promise you what I say is the closest thing you're going to get to the unvarnished truth. And I can tell you, some people find that refreshing."
The best piece of advice, he got from his wife. Before the campaign, she told him she hoped he'd "be a politician without becoming a politician" - that is, a double-talker nobody can trust. "I want to be able, after this campaign is over, to say to myself that I kept that promise," he said.
On the station platform, a few of his constituents agreed. One woman, an immigrant daycare worker, said she and her husband admire Garneau for the way he talks.
"He's attractive," said Soraye, who wouldn't give her last name. "And my son loves the fact he was an astronaut."
Mike Aragona, a Standard Life IT employee, said he appreciates Garneau's candour about separatists."I've heard him talk about what Earth looks like from outer space, how it's all one place, no divisions," Aragona said. "It's true - why think of breaking up the country, much less the planet? We're all one."
That kind of boyish sincerity is something Garneau exudes, too. Yesterday, for example, he expressed amazement at how fast and how close the commuter trains approached their stations, hurtling to an abrupt stop with only a few feet between platform and rail. "It's dangerous," he said. "Don't let me back up, eh?"
To sympathizers, he also exudes decency, sometimes in the smallest things. Hearing sirens near the Ile Perrot station, someone yesterday made a crack that maybe Garneau's young opponent, Faille, had caused an accident by driving dangerously. When an aide laughed outright at the joke, Garneau went over to hush her up, saying she musn't find such a thing funny.
The morning of closely watched trains ended on a down note, however.
An hour or so after the sun came up, the last shuttle of the morning whipped into view and stopped for a final clutch of passengers. Before taking off again, the engineer opened the window at the back of the last wagon to see if the platform was clear. Spotting Garneau and his retinue, he asked them if they were boarding.
No, came the reply, they were campaigning - for Marc Garneau, a Liberal "Ah, sacrement," the engineer said with a sigh. Then the window snapped shut and the train left the station.

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