Hey, Mr. Prime Minister .. (National Post, April 26, 2006)

MONTREAL - Keen to witness his first triumphant return to Montreal as PM, I made an early reservation at the media table for Stephen Harper's guest appearance at the Montreal Board of Trade luncheon last Thursday.

When I arrived at the Palais des Congres where the luncheon was to take place, I was dressed inconspicuously, carrying a medium-sized sports bag -- I had come directly from my downtown fitness club -- and was also wearing a fairly hefty leather backpack-style purse.

The Palais des Congres is a huge public building with numerous entrances, none guarded. I had come by taxi, but I could have taken the metro, which debouches inside the Palais. Hundreds of people of all descriptions, and carrying every imaginable kind of bags and gear, pour into and out of the metro every few minutes.

You must navigate two sets of long escalators before you get to the conference hall. There was no security present at the first set of escalators, so anyone arriving at the building from outside or the metro could move freely up to the main lobby and the escalators leading to the conference hall.

Here one had to check in at a registration desk. I approached the two young women at the media check-in table. I told them my name and newspaper, they found it on the list and handed me a press card on a string. To my surprise, I wasn't asked to produce my e-mail confirmation, photo ID or any proof at all that I was who I claimed to be. I expect the same was true for the other 1,900 attendees.

I proceeded past the escalator ushers, neither of whom looked into, or enquired as to what was in my sports bag or backpack, and continued upstairs to the conference hall ante-room. I knew nobody; nobody gave me a second glance. I had arrived at the appointed hour, not realizing that included a pre-lunch open bar, so I decided to read a magazine at my table until the luncheon started. I walked past the door usher who didn't seem to think it strange that I wanted to sit for half an hour alone in an empty hall. He waved me and my bags inside.

By now, I had passed what should have been four security checkpoints in the interests of the PM's safety at a long-scheduled and well-publicized event.

When the members of the head table, which included the mayor of Montreal, all Harper's Quebec MPs and a gaggle of other political and business mandarins, marched past the media table, I was briefly within about 20 feet of the Prime Minister. There were likely bodyguards or plainclothes RCMP in the vicinity, but I saw none. As I stood up to applaud his entrance, I noted that for about three seconds, I had Mr. Harper in my sights with nothing but air between us.

At my table, were several cameramen riffling through heavy black bags full of equipment, big enough to conceal any manner of weaponry. I assume they walked in with the same cursory formalities as I did. Forming a gauntlet as the procession slowly made their way to the end of the room, they were inches away from the PM.

Needless to say, the luncheon went off as planned, the PM spoke with brio, switching effortlessly back and forth between French and English to a packed, respectful hall, nobody tried to assassinate him, and life went on in its peaceful Canadian way.

As you read this, I will have been in Israel for two days. As I write this, three days before departure, I am imagining the scrutiny I can expect before boarding my plane and the armed security I'll see at Ben Gurion airport when I arrive. During my visit, I know from experience, I will be treated to more personal and thorough security checks at stores, restaurants, museums and other public buildings in 10 days than in a lifetime in North America.

When I tell my Israeli friends what I just told you about lunch with my prime minister, they will shake their heads in wonder. I know what they will be imagining. Actually, I am shaking my head in wonder right now. Wonder, gratitude, and -- something else.


© National Post 2006