Calgary Nose Hill MP Michelle Rempel Garner in 2017. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Did you know Oklahoma has an official state meal?

The state legislature in Oklahoma City designated the repast as an official state symbol in 1988. And, I must say, it sounds delicious: fried okra, squash, cornbread, barbecued pork, biscuits, sausage and gravy, grits, corn, black-eyed peas, chicken-fried steak, strawberries and pecan pie.

I’m certainly ready for my official Oklahoma state dinner (or lunch) as soon as we can gather up all those frontier ingredients and we’re allowed to creep cautiously out of our social isolation. The purpose of the communal meal, of course, will be to welcome back Michelle Rempel Garner, the member of Parliament for Calgary Nose Hill, from her protracted sojourn in the Sooner state.

Rempel Garner, as is well known now thanks to the Toronto Star and the storm that has been raging on social media, has been conducting her parliamentary duties from the family abode somewhere in Oklahoma, to the general mockery of progressive types and outrage at such criticism by her Conservative defenders.

Citing an unspecified “urgent, private personal matter” that required her presence at the family villa, Rempel Garner seems to have slipped this tidbit onto the 19th page of a 20-page report on her many accomplishments during the COVID-19 crisis that was mailed to her constituents in the Canadian province most like Oklahoma last week.

Normally, the honourable member is best known as one of the most consistently troll-like Conservative MPs and the Blocker Queen of Twitter for her habitual response to anyone who fires back at her broadsides. She was also one of the gang of four Conservative MPs who signed the fatuous “Buffalo Declaration,” a twaddle-filled 6,000-word Alberta separatist screed.

When the Star pointed out that Rempel Garner was doing her parliamentary work from 2,600 kilometres south of the Medicine Line and a few inevitable ripostes appeared on social media, Conservatives were quick to assert that such criticism was inexcusably unfair.

“Honestly,” huffed former Conservative deputy Opposition leader Lisa Raitt in a typical response, “want to know why some folks don’t want to serve in politics? Imagine having to disclose to a national reporter that an ‘unexpected and urgent private personal matter’ happened in your family and other reporters then mock you.”

I just want these good Conservative folk to know that I got my inspiration for mocking Rempel Garner with a mouth-watering Oklahoma welcome spread from none other than the Reform Party of Preston Manning. That is the institution that did business under a variety of names over several years before devouring both the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta and the Conservative Party of Canada, to the great detriment of the Dominion.

As readers with long political memories may recall, back in 1997 and 1998, the Reformers in Parliament got their knickers in a twist about a Liberal senator named Andrew Thompson, who some bright spark had noticed rarely turned up in the Red Chamber and spent much of his time soaking up the sun in La Paz, Mexico.

Before senator Thompson was kicked out of Parliament’s upper house for truancy in 1999, Manning’s crew turned the situation into a cause célèbre. “Reform MPs paraded through the halls of the Parliament Building in sombreros with a hired mariachi band,” the CBC reported at the time. They mockingly served burritos in the lobby of the Senate.

Of course, you didn’t have to be away from Ottawa to attract this kind of disdain from Conservatives. You only had to have been away once upon a time.

Remember the brouhaha the Conservatives made about former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff in the lead-up to the 2011 election because he had previously lived in Britain and the United States. He’s “just visiting,” croaked Conservative ads attacking the distinguished scholar who had held teaching posts at Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard.

Indeed, just holding a foreign passport could be enough to get one in trouble with Conservatives, as former NDP Opposition leader Thomas Mulcair learned to his chagrin more recently. Oddly, this was not a problem with the same Conservatives when it was their leader, Andrew Scheer, who had two passports. Speaking of which, I wonder if Scheer has heard back from the south about his plan to give up his U.S. citizenship?

But what about COVID-19, someone may ask? Surely the global pandemic and attendant requirement for everyone to socially isolate themselves makes this a different matter entirely.

Derek Fildebrandt, the former coruscating star of the United Conservative Party and member of more right-wing Alberta parties than you would care to remember, grumpily expressed this view: “Who gives rat’s tail if @MichelleRempel is working from the US? In lockdown, it doesn’t matter if MPs work from Antarctica or Tahiti.”

This is true unless, of course, the MP in question happens to be working close to his family at Harrington Lake, Quebec, 29 kilometres from the Houses of Parliament.

“So, just to be clear, Justin Trudeau is excoriated as a massive hypocrite because he chooses to be with his spouse, while Michelle Rempel is defended as a good little wife because she chooses to be with her spouse,” observed the always acerbic Robert P.J. Day on Twitter, summing the situation up about as well as I’ve seen anywhere. “At least Trudeau is showing up for work.”

The point is this: Canadian Conservatives care deeply and profoundly about where politicians live, or even what passport they might be inclined to use — until they don’t.

Accordingly, supporters of Rempel Garner, who boasted in response to her critics that “I’m tougher than they are,” are just going to have to get used to it.

I expect she’ll find the means to travel home soon enough, self-isolation or not. After all, coronavirus or no coronavirus, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt, a Republican, plans to reopen the state to business tomorrow.

Holding up the failed state of Oklahoma as a model for Canada and Alberta is all very well when it’s your neighbours you propose to beggar. It’s something else entirely when a prudent parliamentarian faces the second wave of COVID-19 that’s likely to hit sooner than later.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...