Above: Trudeau and Snowie enjoying the northern Canada weather in Yellowknife. Photo by Adam Scott of the Liberal Party of Canada.
By contributor Denisa Kraus
“There are few things stranger than being asked for an interview from your university paper,” Mat Snowie commented on our recent talk, but maybe also on the almost surreal path he has been following for over a year and a half.
A Creative Writing major, Snowie graduated from VIU in 2013, and faced the reality of unemployment and cheerless job hunting, once interrupted by a Staples gig which he quit after four days.
Life took an unexpected turn for Snowie in May 2014 when his application for a supposed internship in Vancouver took him all the way to Ottawa.
Thanks to years of video production experience and the skills he learned out of personal interest outside school, the former director of multiple Satyr Players plays at VIU and Portal-published author became the videographer for the Liberal Party of Canada, and a member of Justin Trudeau’s staff on the 2015 election campaign.
Denisa Kraus: Where were you on the election day of October 19?
Mat Snowie: I was in the ballroom in the Fairmont Hotel in Montréal. That was where the Liberal Party celebration and the victory speech took place. I was bouncing around throughout the evening, filming it all.
How did you find yourself on the Liberal Party staff?
A friend of mine who is much more politically active mentioned this internship program at The Liberal Party, so I applied and
sent my portfolio. I didn’t think anything of it, and two weeks later I got a phone call from my future boss, Dave, saying, “Would you like to come to Ottawa?” This is what many graduates from any school could picture for themselves as their dream paths. It is definitely a very surprising thing to have happened, and I do recognize it is not very common.
What do you think made you stand out among all the applicants?
I’ve never quite got a straight answer to that. I’ve heard from various people in the office that got my portfolio to the right people. But I think it was just that I had a video background. They had just hired Dave a few months before, and he, as the director of creative content, took charge of the social media and digital strategies for the party. The party assumed they might need a video person, so they asked if he’d want one and I was the only one who popped out.
What was your first job assignment?
It was in June and I was sent to Toronto. I got a camera and a ticket and was asked to go to several different places to cover
events. I ended up running into Trudeau and his team in a market and followed him around with the camera. Then we went to the political rally with the premier [Kathleen Wynne], because she was running for re-election at the time. Then I had dinner, got on the plane, and was back in Ottawa that night. And I edited the material, which ended up being my first video.
What was your first impression of Justin Trudeau?
My first impression was when I was waiting in a tailor’s shop at the market in Toronto. That was going to be his first stop on
the walk. So I was waiting, waiting, and waiting, and he was about 20 minutes late. I found out afterwards that he ran into a
group of francophones from the part of Montréal near where his riding is, and got caught up in a long conversation. But I didn’t know that at the time, so I thought everything was running behind schedule because I assumed politicians are always
behind schedule. But I followed him as he shook hands and introduced himself and the candidate, asked people questions and answered theirs, and did this for an hour non-stop without getting tired or repeating himself. It was a marathon experience which, looking back, I can say was a drop in the bucket in terms of what I’ve seen him do since then.
What is your favourite thing you’ve seen him do?
I wasn’t there the first time when he balanced the baby on one hand. But I have seen him do that a few times now. He can
hold his son, Hadrian, who is a year and a half now, to stand on his hand. They pull that trick, and once in a while it makes the headline. You can Google it; it’s a thing.
Did you ever see him act differently than how he appears in the media?
People are often surprised by this, but he actually is quite honestly portrayed. What you see publically, that really is him. He may be a little more casual, and make jokes just like anybody else if there’s a small group of us having dinner, but the positivity, friendliness, and talkativeness is very much who he is.
It sounds like he really let you in his close circle.
It’s not like you might have heard about other politicians. On the plane, for example, he had the first couple of rows with his
advisors, the next section was staff and a little area of tables with snacks, and behind that was the media and other crew.
On long flights, he walked down and hung out with everybody, talked with the journalists in the back, then went and told a
story to a bunch of others. He’s a very sociable person.
What was working with the rest of the team like?
It has been a strange progression. The first few times I went travelling with them, I met with Trudeau’s executive assistants and the photographer at the airport, or we left from Ottawa together—just the four of us. By the end of the campaign, there was a team of about six RCMP, and seven or eight key staff members, including the three of us that had started. The crowds we were seeing went from small groups of a couple hundred to literally blocks and around-the-corner lineups of people who came to see him. In Winnipeg, we had a lineup that was estimated to be a kilometre long. It took me two and a half minutes to run down the line.
You’ve said before that you weren’t very politically involved until you joined the team.
I remember being political when I was a kid, around 12 years old. I guess that would have been the Paul Martin years. I was paying attention, but I couldn’t vote, so I was trying to convince my sister to vote, but she didn’t vote the way I wanted her to. And I guess it was after Harper came to power when I lost interest in politics. So when I applied for the job, I vaguely knew who Justin Trudeau was, but I wasn’t particularly anxious to get involved.
How has the experience changed you in that way?
When I started it was very much like “I’ll do the job for what I can do.” But being on the inside, you gain an interest. Being around people who think they can change the world and have ideas how to is very intoxicating. It has made me more positive thinking that small groups of crazy dedicated people can do great things. And it made me slightly more knowledgeable. I’m more aware of actual facts and terms, like the income tax structure of the country.
Were there any skills that you had to learn on the go when you started?
French. Ten years in the BC education system hadn’t gotten me much past knowing which side of the cereal box was English. I’ve improved an awful lot in the last year. I’m still not fluent, but I can understand most things I hear.
What was an average day on the campaign trail like for you?
It was a long campaign, so there was hardly an average day, but the days got crazier as it progressed. The first few weeks, the team of about 12 normally took a small charter plane and went to three or four places, and it usually ended in Montréal or Toronto. After that, we got on busses, and went to three or four places a day again. We almost never slept in the same place twice. Only a few times we’d wake up in, for example, Mississauga, and come back to Mississauga on the same day.
The last weekend before the election, we went to eight rallies in eight cities from Halifax to Vancouver.
You must have made sacrifices.
It wasn’t too bad. I sacrificed a lot of sleep, I suppose. The thing that made it easier was that [Trudeau’s] family was in Ottawa
most of the time, so at the end of every week we almost always went back so he could spend the Saturday with his family. We
usually worked six days travelling, and had that one day to be home, do the laundry, and sleep in.
When you’re filming, do you only operate the camera, or do you also interact with your subjects?
It depends on what we’re doing. My job is to record press conferences, speeches, and all those larger events, but if he’s meeting people I’ll be in there with the other camera operator, following around, filming anybody and anything. I also do one-on-one filming with him for the Party. He likes to put out a message for Remembrance Day, for example, or to say “Sorry I couldn’t come to your meeting,” or “Happy Birthday” to so-and-so.
How much footage did you usually have to handle?
My laptop can only carry about a week’s worth of material, so I had to dump it regularly. I calculated the whole campaign was probably 1.2 TB of footage, so that’s a fairly large amount.
Did you ever mess up?
Yes. There was a technical glitch in one of our livestreams that I regret because I wasn’t using a strong enough internet signal. I could have fixed it if I worked it through. But that was a hectic day to say say the least. That’s the reality of having 25 things to do in a day and not having the actual hours for it.
How do you handle your mistakes?
The one thing I remember telling somebody when we were about to do a big event was that “the audience doesn’t notice.”
The audience, in this case, being the whole country. But if you make a small mistake, nobody really notices. When a piano
player is on stage and presses the wrong note, you have to be a dedicated expert or paying way much more attention than
you need to be to notice.
What were some of the memorable moments you had on the campaign?
We did a rally in Winnipeg and I was on the bus with the media to arrive first and get set up, and the leader and the staff were on another bus. As we were arriving to the location, somebody pointed out the window at the lineup. And we were like, “That can’t be for the event because we’re not there yet.” But as we drove three more blocks to get to the event, we realized the lineup was for the event. It was a week before the election and it was becoming really clear that—it sounds cliché—there was a movement toward supporting him.
And then there was one event in Montréal where Paul Martin joined Trudeau in showcasing the economic talents amongst the candidates. It was the usual thing where they arrive, there’s a crowd of media, and everybody wants a photo of him as he walks into the event. As I’m trying to get around, the CBC or CTV cameraman moves into my way and I find myself walking shoulder to shoulder with Paul Martin, because everyone’s trying to get a shot of Justin. So Paul Martin was kind of shoved to the side (laughs). The same thing happened with Jean Chrétien—we were walking along and he joined the team and walked with us. It was a surprise; you just don’t expect to run into people like that. I also got to meet Peter Mansbridge, so that was a highlight.
Did you have to overcome any inhibitions or shyness when being around such personalities?
I’ve certainly learned how not to be starstruck. The first time I saw Jean Chrétien in person, it was a little daunting. In my
head, he was the Prime Minister, the one who was always Prime Minister when I was a kid. The same was with Peter
Mansbridge. You don’t see people on TV and then see them in reality and not have a moment of confusion, like “what,
you’re not on TV! That’s not right.” But I’ve learned to, if not hide it, then at least not show it. I haven’t embarrassed myself
in that way yet.
Do you think it was easier to work for Trudeau because he is still a relatively new figure in the political landscape and, as I assume, a more approachable personality?
Probably. I did know who he was, and I was a little starstruck the first time I saw him. But he learns your name and remembers it, and it doesn’t take a lot for him to make a personal connection. Since I’ve worked for him for a year and a half now, that relationship exists. I think he’s a different type of politician. Perhaps I’ve just been cynical for the last 10 years, but he certainly continues to catch me off-guard. The day after the election, he went and shook hands with people down at the metro station. I’d never have thought any politician would do that.
Will you continue working for the Liberal Party?
I hope so. I’d love to. The government is still in transition right now, so things are still being worked out, but if I had the choice, I certainly would. I’d like to see it through. Everything in the last few years was about preparing and planning and putting forward the ideas, but now that they’re actually the government, it’s a completely new ball game.
Do you dare predict the trajectory Canada is going to take now?
I can say things have already changed. And there will be a significant shift happening, where the rest of the world will want to start paying a bit more attention to us and he will continue to surprise everyone.
Can you give us an insider perspective on some of the campaign strategies?
The plan was to talk to as many people as possible, find out what they want, and then do that. So he spent the last three years talking to Canadians, asking what was causing them trouble, and then figuring out with experts how to fix those problems, or finding out what people would like the government to do and then writing the policies based on that. It seems strange that that is unusual. It’s that sort of idealistic “this is what politics could do” concept that comes out of him being a person who follows through.
What kind of future did you imagine for yourself before sending the application?
I imagined I’d find some kind of reasonable, minimum wage job. I didn’t really want to do retail, which I did in high school and didn’t want to go back to. I didn’t have much expectation beyond, let’s say, junior copywriter at an ad agency or a small time media production. I was applying for all sorts of places in Vancouver, but there were very few job interviews that came out of six months of hard work. So the job that I ended up getting was way above anything I could ever imagine.
What did your years at VIU give you? Collaboration and that VIU lets you have small classes. If you figure out what you want to do, you can do that in the right department and become friends with your professors. I found VIU offers those personal relationships in a way bigger universities can’t. So I don’t regret choosing this school.
Do you still use your creative writing skills in what you do now?
Yes, in different ways. Creative writing is more about teaching yourself to think in broader ways, like in all the humanities. You learn your strengths and weaknesses. And you learn communication skills. Even if I’m not writing down what I’m saying, it’s applicable in all ways of communication. And that’s very important in politics.
What kind of advice would you give to future graduates?
Definitely don’t take personal relationships for granted. Being a friend of somebody who has the right connections can be better than any resumé. And remembering that anybody can be a success story is worth not burning any bridges.
And what would you advise to people who might want to follow a similar career path?
Don’t panic. Never panic. I’ve seen people who don’t handle stress well—not that anybody handles that kind of thing well—but as long as you recognize it, you can deal with situations as they come. My great personal success is that I can deal with the situation that I’m panicking and it always turns out for the better. Panicking is not productive at all.
This experience completely changed any long-term goals I might have had and where I am. There are so many different
opportunities than I would have had before—different contacts, pathways, and skills I have. Being able to say I was the video on the 2015 campaign is going to be the first line on my resumé for the next 30 years (laughs). It’s not often you get to say that, and it was easily the biggest, most important thing I’ve ever done and potentially I ever will do.