Cyril (Cid) Samson’s debut on Parliament Hill was inauspicious. One week after his election as a New Democratic Party MP, he was in an Ottawa hotel room overlooking the seat of Parliament and wondering what to do next. He called the office of party whip Rodney Murphy, who is responsible for keeping track of NDP MPs, and was told to report to the Centre Block. The trouble was, Samson did not know where the building was. Told to look out the window for the big clock towering above the Gothic revival stonework, Samson was on his way—having learned his first lesson on the pathway to power. Moments later, he walked through the massive oak doors at the base of the Peace Tower and identified himself to security guards as the new MP for TimminsChapleau in Northern Ontario.
That basic lesson in Ottawa geography marked the beginning of an extraordinary month for Samson—and for 128 other MPs newly elected on Nov. 21. Within days of their victories, most of them had quit their jobs, found temporary lodgings in Ottawa and had begun the task of hiring staff and setting up an office. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government further complicated their lives by recalling Parliament just 21 days after the election—the quickest recall in Canadian history. Before many new MPs even knew where to park a car or find a cafeteria on Parliament Hill, they were plunged into the fractious and historic debate over free trade. “I was lucky to get four or five hours sleep a night,” said Alberta Conservative MP Louise Feltham, who spent her first weekend in Ottawa studying the arcane rules of House of Commons procedure. Samson, a 45-year-old former miner, plumber and pipe fitter from South Porcupine, Ont., added: “The whole thing was overwhelming. It was like being a newborn infant again, learning every minute.” Still, most MPs agreed that the 2,000 members of the House of Commons support staff— including pages, cleaners and committee clerks—kept the confusion of the postelection transition to a minimum. Said Conservative whip James Hawkes: “It was an extraordinary challenge for the staff, like setting up the Calgary Winter Games. This was their Olympics.” By the time Parliament adjourned on Dec. 24, after a 12-day special sitting, the rookie members had a glimpse of the life that awaits them when they again take their seats in Parliament on March 6. But the new MPs were not the only people who turned to the Commons staff for help as Canada’s 34th Parliament settled in for business. Hundreds of MPs’ staff members lost their jobs when their bosses retired or went down to defeat on Nov. 21. Some of them left Ottawa, some were quickly
rehired by incoming MPs, but many others were still looking for work.
The preparation for dealing with postelection confusion began last spring, when it appeared likely that there would be an election in 1988. When the election was called on Oct. 1, Commons employees were ready to distribute packages of information to the staff members of all MPs, in Ottawa and in constituency offices, to let them know what to do if their boss
resigned or lost, and to tell them that their pay would continue for 60 days after the election if they lost their jobs. Then, on the morning after the election, Commons workers opened a special MPs’ hotline that handled several hundred calls a day, giving advice on everything from where to find other MPs to how to interview staff. Special numbers were set up for defeated
members and their staff. The office of the clerk of the House of Commons also mailed five-inch-thick bundles of books and pamphlets to each winning candidate. They included the Members’ Manual of Allowances and Services, a book outlining, among other things, the size of an MP’s office budget ($129,800, with at least 20 per cent of that to be spent on constituency office staff); the number of free return trips home each year on any airline (64); the number of free seasonal greeting cards (2,000); and some of the finer points of the Commons messenger service, such as free delivery from the Parliament Hill liquor store of packages not exceeding 12 lb. For many of the new MPs, the experience was both overwhelming and delightful. During her second week in Ottawa, Feltham found to
her relief that she could make an 8:30 a.m. appointment at the subsidized parliamentary beauty salon to have her hair done. Said Feltham: “It was the only time I had free during the day. A regular salon would never have done that.” Male MPs also enjoy such services: at the parliamentary barber shop, a haircut costs $6 and a regular shoeshine, $1. Newly elected Liberal Guy Arseneault, a former high-school teacher representing New Brunswick’s Restigouche riding, appeared equally impressed with the services. “This place is a city within a city,” he said. “If they had accommodation on the Hill, you would never have to leave.” Arseneault was one of the dozens of proud new MPs who brought their families to Ottawa to witness their swearing-in ceremonies. Lawrence MacAulay, another Liberal rookie, representing Cardigan riding in Prince Edward Island, was so disappointed that his wife and children had not been able to attend his swearing-in ceremony on Dec. 8 that he asked the Commons clerk to restage the event the following week—with his family present. On Dec. 14, with his wife and three daughters, aged 6,8 and 10, looking on, MacAulay sat for the second time at a polished desk in the clerk’s
office, while a photographer snapped pictures. Then MacAulay’s wife and children joined him for more photos.
For most new MPs, the first order of business was to get an office and hire staff. Members generally hire three people in Ottawa: an office administrator, a legislative assistant and a researcher. They also hire one or two people for
constituency offices. Last month, as new members rushed to hire their assistants, experienced administrators were in demand. Feltham met Frances Smith, who had run the office of retired Tory Robert Howie, at a birthday celebration for another staff member in the Confederation Building. Two days later, Smith was working in Feltham’s office. For his part, Samson quickly hired two staffers who had worked for defeated Ottawa Centre NDPer Michael Cassidy.
Samson soon learned to value their experience. After a few days in Ottawa, he went to the post office in the Centre Block basement. “I was looking for my first paycheque,” he said later, grinning widely. “Instead, the guy behind the counter hands me a 20-lb. box. I said, ‘What the heck is this?’ He said, ‘It’s your mail.’ Today I got another stack of mail a foot thick.” Administrative assistant Beverlee Bell quickly took over. Bell sorted each day’s mail, dealing with much of it herself. She put items requiring Samson’s immediate attention in a green plastic binder on his desk marked “For your information—important.” She put less important items in binders marked “Not urgent.” Patting the binders, Samson said of his new staffers, “I
don’t know what I would have done without them.”
The search for help led many MPs to the office of their party whip, the veteran MP who functions almost as a personnel manager for his party’s caucus. The whips schedule MPs for duty in the House of Commons and handle logistical problems for the parliamentarians and their staff. Tory whip Hawkes learned of his appointment to the post eight days after the election. The Calgary MP and his wife were checking into a Banff hotel for a three-day postelection rest in the Rockies when a clerk told Hawkes that the Prime Minister’s Office had telephoned. The next afternoon, Hawkes was on a plane to Ottawa.
In the wake of the election, Hawkes’s ninemember staff accumulated more than 300 staffers’ résumés on computer file to help new MPs looking for staff. They also opened files on accommodation, including one for outgoing Conservatives with apartments to sublet to new MPs. “The phones started ringing the day after the election,” said Lucy Langille, executive assistant to Hawkes. For his part, Hawkes said simply, “The first few weeks were hell.”
To Hawkes’s regret, there was no time to give rookie Tories a quick course on the complex rules of parliamentary procedure. When the House of Commons resumed on Dec. 12, the confusion on the faces of many backbench Conservative MPs told the story. New MPs of other parties were equally unprepared, and the three whips watched their charges carefully. When Speaker John Fraser called for the first voice vote, Hawkes threw his arms in the air like a football referee signalling a touchdown and bellowed, “Yea!” A chorus of yeas arose from the Conservative benches. When the opposition forced a recorded vote—a standard tactic to delay proceedings—Nora Lever, a clerk in the House of Commons, had the unenviable task of naming in turn each of the 276 MPs present, then recording the vote. Having memorized names and photographs for several weeks, Lever performed flawlessly. When she finished, veteran MPs from all sides, led by former speaker John Bosley, rose to their feet and gave her a thunderous ovation.
With the passage of the free trade legislation through the House of Commons in the early hours of Dec. 24, the MPs were free to return to their ridings for the Christmas recess. Many new members spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day opening constituency offices. But they also were studying their information packages and preparing for duty on parliamentary committees. But even as they become comfortable with the intricacies of Parliament, memories will linger of their first weeks in Ottawa. For his part, the rookie Liberal Arseneault said that “there were no words” to describe the feeling he had when he first slid into a green leather chair and took his place in the historic House of Commons chamber. Said Arseneault: “As a schoolteacher, I used to teach about this. Now I am living it.”
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