Steam Whistle, Pierre Poilievre, and toxic partisanship

The Steam Whistle brewery in Toronto is not a politics-free zone.

Back in 2013, a guy named Justin Trudeau held one of his final big social events there before he became Liberal leader. A decade earlier, Conservative leadership candidate Peter MacKay held an event for his supporters at Steam Whistle too. In 2014, new Liberal MP Adam Vaughan celebrated his byelection victory at the brewery — with Trudeau at his side.

But it wasn’t until this week that Steam Whistle’s management felt it had to draw a line between the brewery and the political company it was keeping. In this case, it was Conservative leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre and one of the large rallies that is quickly becoming his trademark.

“Steam Whistle is in no way affiliated with Pierre Poilievre, does not endorse his political views, nor did the brewery sponsor the event,” read the statement handed out to event attendees on Tuesday night.

This could be a comment on Poilievre himself, as his fans and critics on social media were quick to proclaim when news of the Steam Whistle disclaimer hit Twitter. But it is also a revealing look into where politics more generally is headed in this country — a harder, more polarized place, where personal and business reputations can get tarnished by association.

And that’s not good.

The pandemic, and the exasperated, weary public it’s produced, has certainly helped create this political toxicity. Vaccinations have become divisive, political, even in the commercial sector.

In late 2021, Chapman’s Ice Cream found itself in the middle of a tug of war between the pro- and anti-vaxxers when it announced it was giving a raise to employees who had all their shots. Anti-vaxxers tried to whip up a boycott against the product. Public-health advocates replied with a buy-Chapman’s campaign, which boosted pre-Christmas sales of the ice cream.

More recently, the convoy protests across Canada earlier this year pitched many businesses into “for” and “against” camps. Leaked donor data produced the names of businesses and establishments which had contributed money to the protests, and that quickly turned into calls for boycotts of these institutions. Tow truck drivers resisted calls to help clear vehicle blockades in Ottawa and at border crossings, fearing the damage to their future business prospects.

This is how polarization creeps out of politics and starts infiltrating the ordinary lives of citizens. It stretches beyond mere ideological differences and starts influencing how people organize their social and business contacts. Hanging around with the wrong political crowd, whether that’s at a brewery or an ice cream shop, can be damaging to one’s livelihood.

In the United States, where polarization is rampant and much tracked in recent decades, political differences have fused with identity and community to an extent where Republicans and Democrats increasingly form their own insular worlds among the like-minded. Red and blue sides consume their own media — Fox for Republicans, CNN and MSNBC for the Democrats — and build friendships and business contacts among those who share their own view of the world. The danger isn’t just that they don’t mingle with diverse views; it’s that they see the other side as a sworn enemy.

In a Pew Research Center report on America’s “exceptional” state of polarization in late 2020, authors Michael Dimock and Richard Wike wrote: “What’s unique about this moment — and particularly acute in America — is that these divisions have collapsed onto a singular axis where we find no toehold for common cause or collective national identity.”

Poilievre’s supporters were bristling at Steam Whistle’s disclaimer on Tuesday night, eager to see it as another example of “cancel culture” and Conservatives being punished once again for being politically incorrect. But Poilievre has been whipping up the polarizing rhetoric himself at his big rallies, presenting Canadian politics as a simple battleground between the “gatekeepers” and those who want to storm the gates.

Ironically, Steam Whistle’s disclaimer this week could be held up as a perfect example of freedom of speech — that freedom Poilievre’s team is always talking about. It’s a brewery that doesn’t share Poilievre’s views, as the statement said, but it opened its doors (and its cash registers) to host the Conservative candidate and his supporters. That’s how things work when people can draw the line between political differences and ordinary life.

But that’s not where Canadian politics seems headed in 2022, when everything from vaccinations to beer brands are getting politicized. We might be seeing a lot more businesses feeling the need to issue disclaimers whenever politicians use their institutions as backdrops for their polarizing events.

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