This is what happened when I met Ezra Levant while wearing a Justin Trudeau sweater.
In consecutive washroom visits, two elderly men using urinals adjacent to me let go wet farts. The first quietly apologized after eying my brand new Dreamy Trudeau Sweater. The second fella muttered about how maze-like the venue was, to which another urinal-occupant responded by joking that he should carry around a GPS in case he was found still wandering the halls at next year's event. The presumably grumpy old man quipped that he won't be coming next time, but wanted to attend this year's event "to hear what the young speakers had to say and they were damn good."
Such a scenario wasn't exactly what I'd pictured while catching an 8:29 AM bus to Mount Royal University (my alma mater) on a Saturday to attend Generation Screwed, a nine-hour conference organized by the Canadian Taxpayer Federation intended "to inform and mobilize young Canadians who want to save their economic future." While trudging through Calgary's shitty excuse for a winter on my way to catch an even shittier excuse for public transit, I considered what it might mean to be a member of "Generation Screwed." Perhaps it had to do with the rabid planned obsolescence that denied my phone's battery the ability to simultaneously listen to Grimes and send a text to my mom. Or maybe it referenced the fact that, like most of my friends, I've never held a salaried position longer than a few months. Could Generation Screwed be a shout-out to catastrophic climate change that will very likely destroy any semblance of ordered life by the end of the century? I had to find out.
Of course, I'd assumed prior to the trudging that such considerations would be erroneous given the organization's self-described infatuation with "debts, deficits and unfunded liabilities," not to mention the event's roster of speakers, which included Ezra Levant, Wildrose MLA Derek Fildebrandt, and Stephen Harper's former chief-of-staff, Tom Flanagan. That's why I carried copies of Ayn Rand's The Virtue of Selfishness and Vladimir Lenin's pamphlet The State: A Lecture Delivered at the Sverdlov University in my jacket pocket—the first serving as an emergency item to prove my pseudo-conservative stripes and the latter as a garlic bulb of sorts to repel actual conservatives who accurately outed me as a communist. Yet it wasn't until an older conference attendee used the word "Orientals" while asking me for directions that it fully sunk in that I was going to spend a very long day in a snake pit of not-so-covert racists while operating on three hours of sleep. At least I'd brought a full flask of gin and recently shaved off my straggly facial hair in an attempt to fit in with all the other pale-faced young conservatives who look exactly the same.
Of the 120 or so participants—constituting a sold-out crowd, according to the organizer who strolled around in a red Donald Trump-inspired "Make Alberta Debt-Free Again" ball cap that I absolutely would have bought if it wasn't $20—it seemed that maybe a dozen belonged in the college-aged bracket. Only two of the dozens of white men who asked questions throughout the course of the day were under the age of 30. One of those two was a student who lamented about "liberal garbage" at universities and how he felt he was "going against the grain" and was often degraded and insulted for being a conservative and how he feared that other students of a similar ideological disposition will have their degrees stripped if they don't "toe the line." So at least there was some young talent on the rise for the performance art collective that is the Wildrose Party to tap.
The event's Twitter hashtag, #gscalgary, was used a mere 40 times throughout the day. A lonely three tweets coming from people not directly involved in organizing or speaking or covering it for Ezra Levant's TheRebel.media. The very first older gentleman to ask a question requested a "young person" to fix the mic, which required a switch being turned from "off" to "on." A Mount Royal nursing student Snapchatted my sweater during a break and noted she expected there to be far more young people at the event given its title and supposed mandate. Speakers nevertheless insisted there were "a lot" of young people in the room. The speakers themselves were exclusively white; only three of the 17 were women. The precise demographic of Generation Screwed was thus tricky to define without resorting to obvious phrases like "Aryan" and "ancient" and "penile."
The subject matter was just as uniform. I attempted to keep a count of how many times Ralph Klein's limp carcass was metaphorically circle-jerked, but lost count after a dozen name drops within the opening hour. Debt was almost immediately classified as "immoral and unethical." The province's new climate change policy framework was consistently described as a "cash grab." Rob Breakenridge—a local radio host who very awkwardly made a Wu-Tang reference and paraphrased the subsequent rhyme as "inappropriate language about bodies outlined in chalk"—suggested the NDP have no plan to pay back the debt and that even if interest rates were zero (which they basically are) we'd still be passing on liabilities to our children. This point confused me as I then wasn't sure if the screwed generation was mine or my children, of which I have none and plan to have none. Flanagan reminisced about the good old days when he washed dishes for $0.75 an hour and moved to working in a grocery story for $1.12 an hour although he admitted he was living at home at the time and his father paid most of the bills.
Moaning about debt continued courtesy of Paige MacPherson of the Canadian Taxpayer Federation—the group that organized the event and (likely) scored whatever profit came from the $60-per-head ticket price—who talked about how we should ignore the advice of "academics" and "people in the media" and "elites." She noted debt interest payments are a "terrible use of money" and that we "get nothing for that money" although such a suggestion seemed to ignore the entire premise of multiplier effects, in which investments in infrastructure projects such as public transit or subsidized housing can result in long-term fiscal benefits that far outweigh the upfront costs. Amber Ruddy of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business asked "who owns businesses in the room?" because that was obviously a highly relevant question for students. MacPherson, who previously worked for Sun News, said in the Q&A period that "haters are always going to hate."
Such rhetoric largely underscored the essence of the conference: there was no dissent, no desire to understand what or why the opposition believes what they do, no intent to find out if there were potentially other interpretations of what it meant to be a member of screwed generation like incarcerated Indigenous youth or maybe homeless trans teens. Two consecutive speakers later asked everyone who supports oil and gas to raise their hands. All attendees in the room raised their hand, as if the debate over the energy sector's incredibly positive aspects (cheap energy, plentiful jobs) and tremendously harmful aspects (greenhouse gases, rapid inflation) could be reduced to such overtly didactic terms.
After lunch, Fildebrandt—the Wildrose MLA and petulant child of a finance critic—strutted to the stage. He immediately suggested there might be a hidden NDP camera in the crowd while looking in my direction, and pompously stated that he made up the "Make Alberta Debt-Free Again" slogan featured on the red hats and thus deserved royalties, something the crowd seemed to have trouble reading as a joke. He rounded out his rambly anti-NDP sermon by dubbing the government's fiscal approach "voodoo economic theories" and representative of "socialist zeal" and that "it's time for conservatives to stop apologizing for conservatism." I racked my brain for the last time that a conservative apologized for being a conservative. There was much more clapping. By then, everything started becoming a tad hallucinatory. Old people continued to frown at my sweater. I laughed and applauded along with everyone else.
I mixed a gin and ginger ale in a vacant washroom at lunchtime. Ezra Levant, the self-described Rebel Commander and professional petition maker, had been typing furiously on his laptop behind me for most of the afternoon. I approached him during a break and nervously asked for a picture. We had a surprisingly amicable conversation given the content of my clothing: I truthfully told him I'm a "big fan" (I check his website every day) and suggested he buy up Trudeau paraphernalia for his crew, a recommendation that he seemed into at the time. Other random young conservatives congratulated me on the sweater upon witnessing the engagement with Ezra. I certainly didn't vote Liberal, so the joke worked both ways. However, Michelle Rempel—Conservative MP for Calgary Nose Hill—swerved out of my way while we were walking in opposite directions. Maybe it was too soon for her to appreciate the sweater given the recent decimation of her party by the young prince.
Three points had became exceptionally clear by that point. Firstly, that the conference was a full-blown revival meeting, combining cults of personality, an utter lack of ideological contrast, shitty coffee, and so many old white people. Secondly, that no one in the crowd had any idea what "socialism" actually was, despite it being referenced constantly by speakers and participants: to these people, "socialism" appeared to mean slight increases in tax for alcohol and cigarettes and train fuel, even though such policies do nothing to address ownership of the means of production or the distribution of surplus value which are fundamental tenets of socialism. Lastly, attendees would do anything they can to screw over other demographics and/or generations if it meant they don't have to pay slightly higher taxes.
Rempel's talk following the break was solely interesting because she used phrases like "flying fig" and "poop hits the fan" in substitute for actual phraseology used by a generation under the age of 30. She also made the second comparison of the day between Alberta and Greece, called NDP leader Thomas Mulcair a "socialist," slammed a Huffington Post article, and repeated that deficits are bad and should be avoided at all costs because deficits are bad and should be avoided at all costs. After an intensely dull lecture by John Carpay, a lawyer who decried atheism and hedonism and environmentalism, it was time for Ezra. Whoever was tweeting on behalf of Generation Screwed wrote, "Finally, here's the speaker we have all been waiting for...," which seemed kind of disrespectful to the 16 speakers who preceded Ezra but the observation was probably on point given three speakers had specifically shouted him out in the previous 90 minutes.
The creaky crowd was so ready for it. And Ezra delivered. Perhaps it was my extreme tiredness combined with a still-elevated blood alcohol content but by the time he was done talking in his characteristically new-wave Pentecostal preacher-like inflection about everything from Justin Trudeau's chief of staff's critique that the tar sands has grown too fast (a suggestion that former PC premier Peter Lougheed and Wildrose leader Brian Jean had previously forwarded), or that Notley lied about her desire for market access for petroleum products, or that the robocall and Afghan detainee scandal were "hoaxes," or that The Rebel was operated out of an abandoned daycare in Toronto (which he said anyone is welcome to visit), I was borderline onboard. I'd watched dozens of hours of Rebel videos. Witnessing the Rebel Commander speak in the flesh was a nearly transcendental experience.
A free drink was offered at the "networking social" upon the conclusion of the conference. It was the first time I'd turned down alcohol in recent years. For while I felt like I could pass as conservative within the parameters of the conference room, I started to suspect my cover would be blown after a drink or two, at which point not even Lenin could save me. The last thing I need to do in life is to get chased out of my old university by a pack of farting white men. I still didn't know why my generation was screwed, or whether I was even part of the generation, or if such a generation even existed. But I dreamt about Ralph Klein that night, so I guess that's something.
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