Standing awkwardly at a podium topped by a bright red, house-shaped placard with the unfortunate pledge “A HOME. FOR EVERYONE,” Liberal leader Justin Trudeau endured a barrage of questions Wednesday about the increasingly desperate, perhaps hopeless plight of thousands of Afghan citizens trying to escape the Taliban takeover of their country and secure a roof, four walls and a future in Canada.
The Taliban, it’s become clear, have not only taken over Afghanistan, but Trudeau’s campaign, too.
The Liberal leader was at a morning press conference outside the Surrey, B.C. home of a symbolic couple named “Pam and Mike,” eager to talk about helping Canadians buy homes and taxing banks to pay for it and promoting mail-in ballots and just about any subject other than Afghanistan.
But the questions from a pesky press corps kept returning to the chaos in Kabul — the fast-closing window for evacuations, the bizarre “wear red” directive to would-be refugees seeking rescue from Canada and the mounting dread.
And then a veteran journalist wondered aloud if Trudeau might, “with the situation getting worse and worse in Afghanistan,” consider suspending his campaign, even for a few days, to stop “seeking votes” and focus squarely on the intensifying international humanitarian crisis.
That was the gut punch. Trudeau had answers for all of the reporters’questions, but not strong ones.
“We are going to continue to do absolutely everything we can . . .”
“We’re going to continue with the international community to put pressure on the Taliban . . .”
“Every single day I’m getting briefings . . .”
“I was pleased to be able to be on a G7 video conference call yesterday . . .”
Trudeau reaffirmed Canada’s commitment to take 20,000 refugees, adding — a bit unsteadily — “and we will work very closely, (in) an ongoing fashion, to do that . . .”
In the midst of a national election, an unexpected turn of events — a natural disaster, say, or a terrible crime, or a far-off international crisis — could be seen as an opportunity for an incumbent prime minister to strike a commanding pose, utter inspiring words, perform a poignant gesture.
It’s an advantage the challengers don’t have. Though we call him the “Liberal leader” during the writ period, to be fair to all sides, Trudeau is still the prime minister — the guy in charge of the country, the one Canadians instinctively look to for reassuring signs that things will work out.
The trouble with Afghanistan is that it’s become obvious there’s not much Trudeau can do but hope for the best, in increasingly dire circumstances, for those who haven’t gotten out.
There’s an aura of impotency around him at this moment. It’s not his fault — at least not entirely — but it’s certainly not a good look on the campaign trail.
Worse, this far-off international crisis hits very close to home. Afghanistan is a country in which Canadians are deeply emotionally involved, where the blood of Canadian soldiers stains the soil, where thousands of locals supported our troops and diplomats through years of war and reconstruction.
Conservative leader Erin O’Toole reminds Canadians with regularity — as he did again Wednesday at his own press conference in Brantford, Ont. — that “I served in uniform.” He would “never abandon” the Afghan people “who stood with Canada” during the once-hopeful era between the fall of the Taliban two decades ago, and the terror group’s unfathomably fast return to power this summer.
“We would get them out,” O’Toole blustered about would-be Afghan evacuees, play-acting as prime minister.
But the actual prime minister can’t offer much more.
Trudeau’s election call just as the scope of the calamity in Kabul was becoming apparent has been condemned by critics, but he isn’t responsible for the Taliban’s resurgence and its fallout.
Still, the Afghan evacuation crisis has put his election campaign in peril. That was never more apparent than it was on the suburban lawn in front of Pam and Mike’s home.
“Like any parent, they want what’s best for their children,” Trudeau said. “Pam and Mike are worried their kids won’t ever be able to buy a home — and more specifically, a home in the community in which they grew up.”
Normally, it would be a heart-tugging tale, truly.
But not against the day’s other compelling backdrop, a world away, where Afghan parents wanting the best for their children — and enduring the loss of their country — are also hoping for a home in Canada.
Randy Boswell is a Carleton University journalism professor and former Postmedia News national reporter.