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As if the t-shirt isn’t enough, the damn dog’s wearing a Lamarche for Council button too. Oh Cletus, you’re less pet than puppet, I think, steering a wide berth around his handlers. The whole scene is enough to make me swear off politics forever, but I fight the urge to cancel this series and soldier on, perhaps vaguely aware that I’m about to witness the stuff of municipal political legend.
The invitation slipped into my inbox innocuously enough:
Can you come to this?
I’d been pleading for meaningful engagement for weeks – stuck in the back seat when I had clearly called shotgun – and so took the summons as a positive development. But opening the attachment, I grew despondent once more:
NPA candidate calls for ban of dog sales in pet stores.
Jason Lamarche says ban would protect dogs and combat puppy mills.
Yes, that’s how it all started: the genesis of what I’ll refer to as the notorious Jason Lamarche “Puppy Presser”, a political manoeuvre so daring in its cowardice, so bold in its trifling, that I immediately discounted it as crap. Of course his first press release would be about puppies, I thought. Mine would be too. But what happens if the media perceives it as a blatant publicity stunt, Mr Lamarche? Or worse, what if the voters do?
The armchair strategist inside me was skeptical, but the human being was downright disillusioned – already mourning over what was sure to be an awkward moment when 11am rolled by and not a single news outfit showed up for our rookie’s first ever solo press conference.
Thoroughly expecting a disaster, I’m greeted by a goddamn media circus instead. CTV, Global, Sun Media. Metro. 24 Hours. The Province. And in the middle, our boy Lamarche, mingling nervously, a ream of papers in hand, photogenic mutt Cletus sniffing at the grass beside him. A moment or two of stately handshaking and he leads the dog to their position in front of the cameras.
I begin snapping half-hearted photos, clearly not understanding the gravity of the event.
“Hello everybody, my name is Jason Lamarche, and I want to ban the retail sale of dogs in Vancouver,” he says, plainly. “If elected to City Council on November 19th I will put a motion forward to do so.” His voice trembles slightly.
“This will promote adoption from animal shelters and combat puppy mills. While Vancouver only has a small number of retail stores that sell dogs, this policy… This ban is often a costly program… Wait, let me me rephrase that.”
On this last point he stops and restarts while the press waits dutifully. My mood grows ever more somber. The poor lad, he’s staked his entire political campaign on this – this issue of puppy mills – and each time he stutters in the unforgiving eyes of the television cameras, during what will surely be his first and last press conference, I imagine his popularity sliding and the relevance of this series fading further into oblivion.
Wrapping up his speech, he asks the group if there are any questions.
“Do you know how many pet stores there are in Vancouver that sell dogs?” inquires a reporter with The Province.
“There are a very small number in the city of Vancouver,” he replies. “This ban again is about promoting the adoption of animals through shelters and by combating puppy mills, and breaking the link between puppy mills and retail stores.”
A reporter behind the Sun Media camera pipes up with what I fear to be the death blow:
“Jason, is there any information out of Richmond or Toronto that getting rid of dogs out of pet stores is actually working, in terms of cutting down puppy mills?”
Richmond, we learned during Lamarche’s speech, passed a ban a year ago, with Toronto following suit shortly thereafter.
“Well, for example,” Lamarche replies, “this is about breaking the link between pet shops and puppy mills.”
I die a little inside.
“Clearly, if you prevent the retail sale of dogs at the retail level you’re breaking that link between them,” he continues. “I imagine the puppy mills are still operating but the City of Vancouver or any other city that adopts this bylaw will break that relationship between retail stores and puppy mills.”
I’m baffled. The reporter’s question was thoughtful and specific, but, either through an act of nerves or spectacular cunning, Lamarche skipped it right by, answering a question sure, but not the one that was asked. And this is how it continues for the remainder of the conference: a reporter asks a question and Lamarche replies that he wants to break the link between retail stores and puppy mills.
“Have you talked to any pet store owners that sell dogs in Vancouver?”
“I have not heard from the pet store owners – no one has contacted me about this – but this ban is about promoting adoption from shelters and breaking that link between them and puppy mills. “
“What research has this been based on?”
“This is really about personal passions and issues we connect with. As a dog owner, I’m very concerned about the safety and treatment of animals and now that I’m running for City Council, I’m actually in a position where I can advance a cause I strongly believe in, which is protecting the safety and treatment of animals.”
“And how does this do that?”
“This does that by breaking the link between puppy mills and retail stores…”
Deciding there’s no point in listening further, I turn to the CTV reporter beside me.
“Is it typical for this many people to come out to one of these?” I half-whisper.
“It depends on the issue,” he replies. “He’s picked a good one. Everyone loves dogs.”
“Forgive the pun, but isn’t this a little ‘fluffy’?”
“Oh yeah, it’s soft, but everyone cares about animals. Watch television news.”
“Four legs good?” I ask, repeating the unofficial mantra of the trade.
“Four legs good”, a journalist overhearing our conversation agrees.
By now, the cameras have stopped rolling and Lamarche seems more at ease, talking casually with the gathered reporters.
“They say every politician has a pet project,” he says, “and this one’s mine.”
Growing bolder, Lamarche drops to one knee. He adjusts Cletus so that he’s facing the cameras and asks the dog:
“Do you want to ban the sale of dogs in retail stores? Speak if you do. Speak! Speak! Speak if you do!”
The camera operators scramble to get it all in frame.
But the best is yet to come: prodded for some b-roll to stitch together the stories for the evening news, Jason and Cletus find themselves frolicking together in the dog park, running with playful abandon towards the cameras, retreating to their starting point and then doing it again. And again. And again…
To me, the whole thing is a disaster, but it’s elation in the Lamarche camp as we head out for coffee to debrief.
“I honestly didn’t think anyone would show up,” Lamarche says, unable to conceal his glee. “I didn’t think any media was going to show up, and when I got there, there was no one. And then I saw a car from The Province driving around and I was like, ‘The Province, really?’ and then I walked down the street to just go over my notes and kinda collect myself and by the time I got back all these cameras had setup and I was kinda like: ‘uh, interesting.’”
But something about his coyness doesn’t sit right with me. Lamarche is no stranger to video – producing hours of skateboard films and, later on, an online political show called the Liberal Minute (which he’s taken down for the duration of this campaign). The dog, the t-shirt, the running shots – what came across as hokey and contrived in the moment turned into a piece of media magic. Images and video of Lamarche and Cletus mid-frolic make their way onto most of the major TV news outlets, and reach as far as Montreal in print. What’s more, the resulting coverage was overwhelmingly positive and bore little resemblance to the awkward and lumpy press conference I had witnessed. Edited down to tiny soundbites and bounding puppies, our boy came across as confident and polished.
Sitting down for coffee a week later I press him on what I now consider a heroic act of media manipulation:
“Lamarche, of all the things happening in this city – and there are many that we should be excited about – the thing that you decide to go to the public with is dog sales.”
“I didn’t know that at the time,” is his quick, if bashful reply. “The information I had, through an editor at a widely-read pet magazine, was that there was actually a pet store still doing it. They had stopped doing it in the spring of this year. So in my mind, this was still going on.”
He leans forward.
“The flip side of that – actually the unintended happy consequence – with no shops selling dogs it’s the perfect time to ban it, because you’re not making any economic impact on any store, and you’re also saying that Vancouver is now going to permanently close that link between retail stores and puppy mills.”
Again with that damn soundbite… And as our conversation continues, me pressing him ever harder, he grows ever more adamant that the issue was chosen not for its saleability, but because it’s something he’s truly passionate about. He’s a co-founder of the West End Dog Show, he reminds me, proudly. Cletus, he points out, is an adopted animal. And when Richmond passed its ban last year, Lamarche created a Facebook page within days of the announcement calling for similar action here in Vancouver.
While I’ll never fully shake my cynical assessment of his motivations, I have to hand it to the boy: on municipal terms the Lamarche team just hit a home run – a triumph by the mundane standards of civic politics, where simple name recognition is the biggest hurdle to overcome. As Vancouverites enter the ballot boxes November 19 and scan a list of hundreds of names they’ve never heard, I can’t help but wonder if their eyes will linger on that box next to Lamarche, Jason.
But if name recognition is the game, then the loathed “Puppy Presser” is nothing compared to the media shit-storm that will be swirling around Jason a few weeks later.
Banner Image: Francois Saikaly