NATIONAL

THE LIFE OF THE PARTIES

What ‘Hillites’ do after hours in Harper’s Ottawa

LIANNE GEORGE March 13 2006
NATIONAL

THE LIFE OF THE PARTIES

What ‘Hillites’ do after hours in Harper’s Ottawa

LIANNE GEORGE March 13 2006

THE LIFE OF THE PARTIES

What ‘Hillites’ do after hours in Harper’s Ottawa

LIANNE GEORGE

Ottawa is not so much the city that fun forgot, as Allan Fotheringham famously wrote in the pages of this magazine, as it is the city where fun is at its most painfully self-conscious. The downtown core is small to begin with, but “Hillites”—politicians, parliamentary staff, lobbyists and journalists— tend to confine themselves to a four-by-four block radius, and socially, to a handful of storied establishments: Hy’s, Mamma Teresa, the Rideau Club. If you work on Parliament Hill, you live in one of these places, and everybody knows everything about you— whom you work for, your ideological predilections, your drink of choice. If they don’t, you’re doing something wrong.

They call it a fishbowl, but, to an outsider, Parliament Hill is more like an enormous high-school cafeteria, with its popular kids, its brainiacs, its good-time guys and its miscellaneous hangers-on. As in any high school environment, social prestige is hard-won and precarious; and while the players remain more or less the same from one year to the next, the power dynamic shifts depending on who’s running the student council, who’s dating the homecoming queen, and who made captain of the rugby team. Following the recent election, a new set of cool kids have claimed their rightful seats. The shift is subtle, but for insiders, writ large: former opposition members, now

cabinet ministers, have taken on the sheen of local celebrity, and Liberal ex-chiefs of staff, who previously couldn’t find a quiet moment at the local pub, can now be found nursing their beers, distressingly unmolested.

It’s common knowledge here that crucial strategic discussions often happen outside of Parliament over a cocktail (or, more likely in a post-Gomery era, a glass of sparkling water). For years, Mamma Teresa, a traditional Italian restaurant located in a red brick house on Somerset Street, has been the hot spot, reputedly functioning as a bastion for Liberals who lunch.

The owner, though, insists his is a non-partisan establishment. “We are in business to cater to everybody,” says Giuliano Boselli, who opened the restaurant in 1970. “All the prime ministers eat here—Mulroney! Chrétien! Martin!

Trudeau!” Post-election,

Stephen Harper has yet to make an appearance.

Social Ottawa is not divided along party lines, the way one might expect. (“The heavy partisanship on Parliament Hill happens during the 45-minute Question Period,” says Conservative MP James Moore. “Outside ofthat, it’s very cordial.”) Rather, the divide is a vertical one. The real power players belong to the private and ultra-posh Rideau Club on Bank Street, with its enormous neo-classical foyer and its solemn “no cellphones” rule. There, the political and business elite can talk shop away from the multitudes. By the elevator, the wall is lined with portraits of Canada’s former prime ministers, all members. Harper is not yet represented.

Down the street, Hy’s Steak House, that

elegant purveyor of fine AAA Alberta beef, is a popular spot among senators and others who favour classic navy banker suits. It’s not unusual to see the new PM’s motorcade parked out front. Next door to the restaurant is the Martini Ranch, a chic, dimly lit cocktail lounge, where on one recent night, the PM’s new communications director, the president of the Liberal party, high-profile members of the press gallery, and assorted senior staffers and lobbyists could all be found drinking and socializing together in an environment so convivial and familiar you’d almost forget this is a group of people paid to exploit their positions of power, procure and conceal information from one another, and criticize one an-

other’s facility with the French language.

“There’s no anonymity in Ottawa,” says Peter Donolo, former communications director for Jean Chrétien, who now helps run the Toronto-based market research firm Strategic Counsel. “You always have to watch what you say. There are always people around in restaurants, and if you’re in a shopping mall, you don’t want to be seen yelling at your kids.”

Despite the intermingling between politicians and the press—and indeed because of it—much of Parliament Hill social life goes unreported. “I think generally there is the feeling, especially among elected officials, that you have to be somewhat guarded,” says Tory

MP Rahim Jaffer, who was also recently appointed to serve as national caucus chair. “But ultimately, I find what happens at these establishments tends to stay there. There’s a level of trust and people tend to check their partisanship or work attitudes at the door.” Sure, people notice certain things, one Liberal staffer says—who’s addicted to what, who’s dating their 20-year-old intern, who’s gay—but people more or less stay out of each other’s personal lives. “When it comes to gossip, people tend to think more along the lines of who’s seen with which lobbyist, who’s hosting which reception and who showed up.”

Perhaps the most festive environment for Hillites is Wednesday night at D’Arcy McGee’s, an Irish pub beloved for its waitresses in kilts and knee-highs, its Celtic band, and, most of all, its extreme proximity to Parliament Hill. “Wednesday is the night that both MPs and staff go out together,” says one Tory staffer. “It’s caucus day, sort of like a half-day in school, and everyone’s fired up from the big Question Period and it’s guaranteed everyone’s going to be in town.” Of late, D’Arcy’s has had some competition in Milestone’s, a newly opened restaurant and bar on the ground floor of 700 Sussex, the ultramodern condominium building recently erected next to the Château Laurier that’s now the part-time home of Belinda Stronach and Alanis Morissette.

A popular opinion among Liberals is that, with Harper in office, life on the Hill will become more staid. “Martin’s guys, they tended to go out and socialize, see people and be seen. Chrétien’s guys too,” says one Liberal staffer who managed to hang on to his job after the shakeup. “[Harper’s guys] won’t go out and socialize where there are reporters and staffers. You’ll see less of an interplay between the centre and everybody else.” For their part, insiders predict, Liberals won’t be dominant on the social scene either. These days, half of them are unemployed and the others are shoring themselves up for the upcoming leadership race. (Rumoured leadership hopefuls have started hosting receptions on the Hill. Stronach’s are the best, says a Liberal staff member who recently attended one such function, because she brings in her own caterers and decorates beautifully.)

That age-old stumper—which party has the most fun?—continues to rage on. “I’d always heard Liberals say, ‘Oh, we know how to party. We’re much more open to it,’ ” says Jaffer, “but the reality was that whenever there were some late parties or big events, you’d always have the Conservatives shutting down the place.” Directly across the street from the Martini Ranch, where Liberals and Tories hobnob together, is an unassuming pub called the Mayflower II. This, one Tory staffer tells me, gazing out the window, is where NDPers hang out—not that anyone here cares. M