From religiously watching CBC’s Power and Politics and perusing through The Globe, to quite literally being at Canada’s center of power and politics and rubbing shoulders with parliamentarians of every political stripe, working on the Hill as one of Jaimie’s Interns has certainly been a surreal and remarkable transition. For a long time, I was always curious to know what really went on behind the scenes at the House. I longed to know what it would feel like to meander through the hallowed corridors of Parliament where our Fathers of Confederation once walked. I even pondered about the chitchats on the side that would transpire after lengthy committee meetings. Ultimately, however, I had to confine all of this to my imagination, but I knew for certain being on Parliament Hill would mean having my finger on the very pulse of Canada.
Now, even after having completed a little over a month on the Hill, I still find it hard to believe that I’m working here in Ottawa. I still get excited when I pass by some of Canada’s renowned politicians and journalists, who, for the longest time, I only had the chance to see on TV or read about in the news. I also still find myself relishing the distinct old-wood smell that reaches my nose as I immediately enter the House. And sometimes, believe it or not, it still takes me a minute or two to figure out that I’m actually sitting in a House committee meeting, sharing the room with some of our country’s top politicians. All of this has felt so strange and new to me. Though in a very good way. In a way that is wholly empowering. Indeed, my days thus far on the Hill have been full of sensing and feeling, learning and doing – from getting back to the basics and understanding more deeply the legislative process of our parliamentary system to the role of the media in holding government to account to witnessing the symbiotic, albeit sometimes tense, interaction between government and industry associations. Almost every evening I find myself coming home from the Hill with new insights to mull over and stimulating policies to explore in greater detail. I’ve been very fortunate to be on ‘the inside’ and this opportunity has allowed me to really appreciate the finesse and dynamism of Canadian democracy today, which, before, was something I was not quite able to do to the fullest extent.
I’ve had an excellent experience these past six weeks in the Office of Bernard Trottier, Conservative MP for Etobicoke-Lakeshore. Originally from the French-speaking town of St. Paul, Alberta, Bernard completed his MBA at Western University (coincidentally, my alma mater too!) as well as a B.Sc.Eng. at UofM, and later worked as a business consultant. He was elected to federal office in 2011 with the biggest election night shocker, sweeping aside the incumbent Michael Ignatieff who was at the time the Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. To my surprise, I learned that it was the first personal defeat for a Liberal leader in a general election in Canada since 1945. Much like my Dad, Bernard is frank, unrestrained and sensible, and I very much admire him for these qualities. He is always animated, adding to the overall positive atmosphere of the office. Bernard’s dedication and commitment as an MP to his constituency is apparent and his indefatigable approach to his work is noteworthy. Through working with Bernard and occasionally scurrying along with him from the Justice building to La Promenade to Center Block and back again, I’ve been fortunate to witness firsthand the many varied and demanding roles of the job of a parliamentarian: legislator, negotiator, ombudsman, policy analyst, public speaker, social worker and office manager. It was fascinating for me to bear witness to these roles. I find that the average Canadian associates parliamentarians with images of heated debates. We tend to remember those dramatic moments that make up the news, but I find we tend to be less familiar with the many roles and responsibilities that make up a parliamentarian’s daily work. That is why seeing Bernard in action was quite the eye-opener.
Bernard’s typical workday might begin as early as 7 am to review his incoming emails and constituency letters. He would later have a few scheduled stakeholder meetings. I sat in one meeting in which Bernard met with representatives from national youth-serving organizations who wanted to share information about their work and to press parliamentarians to uphold a youth agenda. In the office, I do anything from preparing talking points to background research on policy issues to briefings on committee topics for Bernard before he takes off for either House duty, his GTA Caucus meetings, Conservative Caucus meetings, committee meetings, question period or to debate legislation before the House. This has compelled me to become more knowledgeable on certain issues, which prior I had little understanding of, and has required me to look up and analyze various documents, reports, and articles. Topics I have looked into include the government’s policies on Aboriginal affairs, Old Age Security pension, refugees, development aid, as well as initiatives like the 2015 Economic Action Plan, the Canada 150 Community Infrastructure Fund, as well as the New Building Canada Fund. Working with a Caucus Liaison and relevant Ministries, I’ve also helped to address pertinent constituency issues, assisted with communications for constituents – whether it’s drafting correspondence, greetings or letters of endorsement for community projects – and whatever else that ultimately needs getting done. One week I was even tasked by Bernard to do outreach for National Health and Fitness Day, so I developed a letter promoting the event which was then mailed to Mayor John Tory, City Councillors, and sports groups, gyms, yoga studios and other relevant organizations. Before the House adjourns for the day, Bernard is sometimes involved in a late show debate or media scrum in French. Then he is off to receptions and events that are held in and around the Hill area. I’ve been lucky to attend some of these events – they are a great opportunity to meet Hill staff, MPs, industry executives and others while learning about different issues that relate to Parliament. I’ve mingled at events hosted by Ocean Spray, the Canadian Dental Association, and the Big City Mayors Caucus. There have also been events I’ve participated in which celebrated Tibetan Lhakar and even National Fiddling Day. As Bernard is also the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and for La Francophonie, as part of his day-to-day job, he has to respond to certain requests or issues of concern normally given to the Minister and meets with diplomats and representatives of various French-speaking associations. After a busy week on the Hill, each weekend, Bernard is back in his riding of Etobicoke-Lakeshore and, apart from spending time with his family, he meets with community groups, attends announcements with his parliamentary colleagues, and provides remarks on behalf of the Canadian government to groups hosting special events. Considering his very demanding schedule, I wonder sometimes as to whether or not Bernard even has any time to catch some decent shut-eye.
Indeed, there’s nothing quite like being at the heart, the very center of the hive of political activity in Canada. After being on the Hill for some time, it can almost feel like a little bubble; a world on its own. And sometimes it’s even hard to fully comprehend the power of an institution like Parliament amidst the politics – but to just think, that, from within these walls, national policies are passed and eventually emanate across our country that affect the daily lives of Canadians, from Abbotsford to Alert to Antigonish. This is something completely astounding and still leaves me in wonder.
Being on the Hill has certainly allowed me to understand the spectrum of Canadian politics viscerally: the workings, the challenges, the strategies, the partisanship, and the non-partisanship. During my time, I’ve met fascinating people in an intellectually stimulating environment, taken time to understand and appreciate diverse points of view from C-51 to our response in Iraq and Syria to our immigration system, heard exciting debates and, most importantly, engaged with ‘practical democracy’ on a day-to-day basis. I’ve sat in on House Foreign Affairs standing committee meetings which discussed Canada’s response to last year’s Umbrella Revolution protests in Hong Kong. I’ve observed a Senate national security and defence committee meeting which was devising ways Canada could address the issue of radical Islam. I’ve also attended a Senate human rights committee meeting that was drawing up a plan to ensure corporate social responsibility among Canadian companies operating in the global garment industry, especially in Bangladesh. It was also nice seeing Bernard in action as chair of the Parliamentary Friends of Tibet Committee, an all-party group of MPs and Senators launched in 1990, in which he and others discussed the post-earthquake situation in Nepal, the expansion of a Tibetan internship program on the Hill and the drafting of a statement wishing HH the Dalai Lama on his 80th birthday. These parliamentary committee meetings have altogether been a very important highlight for me. It always makes me happy and proud to see politicians, regardless of their political stripe, working together. To me, it’s those brief moments, whether in committees or out, when politicians are able to demonstrate friendliness and respect and perhaps even share a laugh or smile with an opposition colleague that are most powerful.
During my time on the Hill, I was fortunate to have been given a pass that allowed me to enter the working sections of Parliament, which are off-bounds to the public. The Parliament building, of Gothic Revival, is a magnificent work of art and the wings of Parliament are certainly labyrinthine in their vastness and symmetry. To just think of the history of the grand place: the pivotal national moments that were born in the halls and the many renowned Canadians who had once walked where I was walking – this all left me in awe. It was fascinating to traverse the parliamentary corridors, brushing past MPs and Senators with their Chiefs of Staff and Advisors, and peering into the offices and Caucus rooms. On one of my visits, I bumped into the Hon. Pierre Poilievre, Minister of Social Development; had a chance meeting with Justin Trudeau, Liberal leader in the opposition lobby; met with J. Greg Peters, the Usher of the Black Rod of the Senate; and also spoke with Andrew Scheer, the Speaker of the House of Commons. If there’s an afternoon free on the Hill, I take the opportunity to sit in the House or the Senate during question period. These proceedings are always informative and exciting, Wednesdays in the House especially, as the Prime Minister is usually there and must respond to the queries of the Leaders of the Opposition and Third Party.
While in Ottawa, I particularly enjoyed our visits to the set of CBC’s Power and Politics and the Global News studio arranged through Jaimie’s Internship programme. It was very nice to have met with the ‘big name’ journalists I’ve been watching on TV: Tom Clark, Evan Solomon, Rosie Barton and Chris Hall, all of whom have been great supporters of the internship programme. While we were visiting Global News we were fortunate to watch the interview with the Russian Ambassador to Canada concerning the situation in Ukraine. In addition, we sat in on live and taped discussions ranging from the Senate expenses audit to the $15 billion Quebec tobacco ruling. Beyond the studios, having never before experienced the inside world of politics, it was astonishing to understand the incessant and inquisitive nature of the media, as well as to see the close proximity of media and politicians inside the Parliament itself. To think what is being filmed live would be viewed by thousands, if not millions, across the country and would give birth to front-page news stories. Being a mechanism that ensures political accountability and openness, the media continues to play a very important and serious role on the Hill.
As Canada’s capital, Ottawa plays host to a number of exciting public events and so I’ve been taking time to explore all that the city has to offer. Just last weekend, I took advantage of Doors Open Ottawa and made visits to the French Embassy, Rideau Hall, the Supreme Court, Notre-Dame Cathedral, the National Art Gallery and the National History Museum, among other points of interest. During my first month in the city, there were three particular events I attended that were most meaningful. The first was the Manion Lecture hosted by the Canada School of Public Service. This year’s lecture was on the topic of “Sustainable Development in the 21st Century: Building a Better World for All” and was given by Helen Clark, administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and former Prime Minister of New Zealand. Ms. Clark spoke about the post-2015 development agenda and efforts to build ownership and reach consensus on a shared development agenda. She also touched on the role of the public sector in implementing the new agenda. The UN will be finalizing a list of post-2015 sustainable development goals later this year so it was a very timely and informative lecture. A second interesting event I attended was the official release of findings by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. At this event, which was a part of a series of very poignant closing events organized by the Commission in Ottawa, I had the chance to hear from former Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark, honorary witnesses like Canadian Olympian Clara Hughes, and many residential school survivors. Among other things, there were calls made by the Commission for schools to include a mandatory course on the history and legacy of residential schools, and skills training on conflict resolution, human rights, and anti-racism. There is also a recommendation wanting Ottawa to eliminate the gap between funding for education on and off reserve. Finally, a third notable event I attended was the Library of Parliament’s seminar on the Magna Carta which was put together to celebrate the historical document’s 800th anniversary this June. It was a very fascinating seminar as I learned about the Magna Carta’s history, codes and its impact on the foundation of Canadian parliamentary democracy. It provided a chance for reflection on how Canada’s fundamental legal principles have emerged, how they have endured, and how they continue to be put to the test in our modern society.
From what was at first just a mere dream of mine to now a palpable reality, my experience as a Jaimie Anderson Parliamentary Intern, merely a month in, has already helped grow my appreciation of the wide-ranging work of an MP, of Parliament as a longstanding democratic institution in Canada, as well as of the City of Ottawa and its people. In particular, I will never forget what Bernard mentioned to me on our way to the Hill: “You know, a lavish office means nothing to me. If they give me a simple desk and chair, I would still be happy to do my job. Because that’s what it’s all about – the job.” I have a deep admiration for the work of all parliamentarians, while also understanding the challenges and constraints they face. Taking on elected office is certainly no easy task and it unquestionably demands a lot out of you. Nevertheless, my experience on the Hill and in Bernard’s office has reiterated and concretized my commitment to service of the public and community development. Yes, it is a given that on the Hill things do get partisan and, yes, it does many times frustrate me, but at the same time I like to think this adds to the robustness and dynamism of our politics. That said, I do think parliamentarians want a better Canada. It’s just that they each have different perspectives – like many Canadians and people in general – as to how we get to that point together as a nation. Hence, regardless of what things are said, Parliament in many ways to me is vox populi, the voice of the people. And, for this reason, I hold great respect for this institution.
The Jaimie Anderson Parliamentary Internship Program has thus far been engaging, empowering and energizing. In little over a week, the House will rise and MPs will head back to their constituencies. This summer will be an even special one for us interns as the Federal Elections are coming up in October. It will definitely add to the uniqueness of this internship, that’s for sure. I’ll soon be joining Bernard in the constituency office in Etobicoke-Lakeshore. It will be an interesting change that will shift me from a policy-centric environment to one that is more people-centric and, new for this year, it will also mean enduring a heavy campaign-focused milieu. I’m looking forward to seeing how it will all play out very soon, and, if it will be anything like my experience on the Hill this past month, I am sure then it will be all the more worthwhile.