“I just heard the Prime Minister of Canada say your name. This is weird,” read a text message from Alan Davis’ daughter, when Kwantlen Polytechnic University played host to Stephen Harper on Feb. 19. She’d been home sick watching the television broadcast of the day’s events. After all, it’s not everyday your dad’s name is said by Harper himself. It was just another one of those unique situations that Davis, the president of KPU, had found himself in.
Harper was there to make an announcement regarding government support for liquified natural gas. But behind the scenes, Davis experienced the security, mystery and tight schedules that occur when someone of such importance comes to visit. He says that as president of a university, he must relinquish himself of the luxury of having personal politics.
His job, he says, is to look out for KPU’s best interests, to see that KPU puts on a good face for external parties and that those parties have an understanding and respect for KPU. “I put on a suit that was too tight, wasn’t very comfortable, you know—I suffered,” he jokes. “But it’s the Prime Minister of Canada, and [with] the duly-elected Prime Minister of Canada coming to KPU, I’m going to show up and welcome him.”
KPU didn’t know what the announcement was going to be until the last minute, and as they set up for the event Davis says there were more and more security guards appearing throughout the space. “Essentially, he couldn’t go to the bathroom without a crew of people walking down the corridor with him,” says Davis. “So it was kind of complicated to isolate the space [for the event].”
Davis says that the government had an invitation list of about a hundred people, and he was allowed to invite a few people, the assumption being that he would invite his senior group. KPU also attempted to make it so that Cloverdale employees and students would feel that they could attend. A number of students formed the “human backdrop” behind the announcement. In retrospect, Davis concedes that he “Probably should’ve reached out to the KSA and the KFA and the GEU and said, ‘Please send a representative.’”
“You learn from it, and if we were going to do this again I think I would put that higher on the list, and make sure that that happened.”
Controversy also surrounded the event because the Kwantlen First Nation (KFN) were not invited. Davis says the university made it clear to the government that doing things at KPU always involves acknowledging the lands they’re on and a blessing from the KFN.
“. . . But that wasn’t on their agenda,” says Davis. “It was their show, and they said, ‘No we don’t want to do that.’ They were just very focused on the specific announcement.” Davis intends to set up a meeting with the KFN to discuss what happened. “I’ll be following up with the Kwantlen First Nation . . . I’ve already been approached by the KSA and I’ve explained the situation, and I think they understand that it wasn’t actually my show, that we were there to welcome the Prime Minister, and to not really participate.”
However, he explains, with a lot of these types of events, reflecting and debriefing is key in order to improve the next time. “It wasn’t our place to invite them, but on the other hand maybe we could’ve pushed harder, or we could’ve let them know that something was going to be happening, that there was going to be a federal announcement.”
“Part of my job is very interesting, because it seems like every week I stumble across a situation that I’ve never encountered before,” says Davis. “And who would know what to do? The best you can do is to try and do the right thing, go with the flow to some degree, and then learn from it and know for the next time.”
He emphasizes the importance of knowing, “If you want to come to KPU this is what it means, this is how we do it.”
Following the announcement, Harper stayed to have his photo taken with multiple attendees, including Davis. Unfortunately, Davis lost the card they give you that lets you retrieve the photo afterwards.
“I think it went in the laundry,” he laughs. He also wore a bright red tie to the event, which somebody told him afterwards was the wrong colour to meet the Prime Minister.
“I’m sure there were lots of people who shook his hand, had their picture taken and would never vote for him, or worse,” says Davis. “But he is the Prime Minister of Canada, and one feels to some degree, honoured and pleased to be able to host him. Whether you like the announcement, his politics or not, it doesn’t matter—he is the Prime Minister.”