Canadian Association of Former Parliamentarians
Good afternoon, everyone. It’s a pleasure to be here with all of you. Guess what I am not going talk about ……..Senate Reform – I can feel the sigh of relief already in the room. And what I like about this room is I see so many friends here.
When Leo Duguay and his team with the Canadian Association of Former Parliamentarians invited me to participate in this luncheon several weeks ago, Canada’s Parliament had a very different face. While probably more than a few of you rightly had your money on a Conservative majority, who among us could have predicted the drastic hit the Bloc would take, or that the New Democrats would replace the Liberals as the official opposition?
The people – at least, those who voted – have spoken and the resulting shift in our political landscape is historical. But as hugely significant as this transformation seems now, just a few weeks after the federal election, there have been no signs of aftershock on the Hill. No earth tremors. And for those of us who are fortunate enough to still work there, our roles and responsibilities are unchanged.
By the way the nicest words I heard on May 3rd as I walked through the Senate door were ‘Good morning Senator”.
I’ve been asked to share some of my thoughts on my role and day-to-day experiences in the Senate.
Like each of you, I bring to what I do my own perspective and values, as well as a lifetime of personal and professional experiences. For 32 years, I worked as a journalist, pursuing the ‘who, what, when, where and why’ of some incredible, poignant events. I told the stories that people needed to hear. The Tiananmen Square massacre.( I was thinking over the weekend, it was 22nd anniversary of Tiananmen. It wasn’t pretty witnessing young men and women die for something that we take for granted . And as former parliamentarians you know what I mean . I also covered the assassination of Indira Gandhi. The Gulf war, the troubles in Northern Island, Lebanon, Cambodia and Vietnam. These are some of the major, global events that I saw firsthand .
There were also smaller, subtler events. Incidents of human tragedy and human accomplishment that compelled me to go beyond being a story-teller and actually make a difference for the greater good.
They were stories from abroad and at home. One story that helped me do that was about a community centre for kids in Whitney Pier, Nova Scotia, which is a pretty rough area near Sydney. It was a simple concept. This community centre offered a breakfast program, an exercise room, a library and more than that – a place for kids, for teenagers, to hang out. Times were hard and because of lack of funds, this centre was going to close. That was the story I told as a journalist.
But the story didn’t end there. After listening to my two-minute story on CTV News, an entrepreneur in Toronto decided to donate 50,000 dollars to the centre. The Nova Scotia government matched his donation and the centre’s doors remained open. I learned then how the stories I shared could have an impact beyond informing Canadians of the ‘who, what, when, where and why’.
From as far back as I can remember, I have always been drawn to discover ‘what’s down the road’. Nothing can squash this trait. Not witnessing the brutality of war or its impact on vulnerable people. And certainly not why I now call my liberation notice from CTV, where I had worked for almost my entire career.
It was 2001 and I was in my mid 50s – not the typical time for someone to make a career change, but that’s what I did. This happened when a man I used to report on, a remarkable man, was looking for someone with a communications background who understood politics. He also happened to be the Prime Minister. Jean Chrétien. And let me tell you, the two years I worked with him were an exciting ride – and, as it turns out, an incredible introduction to what it means to be a parliamentarian.
I have countless anecdotes about the “little guy from Shawinigan”, and am always up for sharing a few.
I relish memories of my former boss’s quirks and foibles – particularly how they contrasted with his self-assurance and resolute commitment to a vision for Canadian society.
As some of you might appreciate, when Mr. Chrétien was leaving office and appointed me to the Senate, I wasn’t entirely comfortable. After all, I remained very much a journalist at heart – an independent commentator on the country’s social and political affairs. More than a few times in my career I had made cracks about the Senate, about the old cronies who weren’t even elected and collected a sweet salary for doing nothing. Would I be stepping into the ‘dark side’ as I had once believed – and as my former colleagues in the media might still suggest?
Fortunately, I had gained invaluable insight from working alongside the former leader of this country and seeing directly how our parliamentary system works. I thought, ‘this might be my chance to do something I have always wanted to do-work for the rights of the child.
I think when it hit me the hardest was when I was in Cambodia as a reporter. A Canadian by the name of Naoimi Bronstien was running an orphanage . Many of the babies were sick, some with serious deformities. I did the story but I never forget and thought maybe one day I could do more than report the story. Well that one day has come.
I have been a senator since 2003 and I feel as honoured today to perform the roles and responsibilities that go with the job.
Working alongside senators and MPs is a daily reality. You naturally get to know the human being behind the title and political affiliation. Just as I have described myself in my opening words, my parliamentary colleagues also have their own distinct perspectives and values, and have stories rich in personal and professional experiences.
I am not nearly as combative in this milieu as I once was in pursuit of a news story.
My approach today is to focus on where individually I can try and make a difference and collectively work with my colleagues on every side.
I am convinced , that every person working on the Hill today is motivated by a commitment to bettering our society something which you folks have understood from the day you were elected or appointed. I believe our common goal is the greater social good. It’s as simple as that.
I say truthfully that if I knew as a reporter what I know now, my stories would focus more on the substance of what parliamentarians do. Rather than seeking out controversy and scandal – the stuff of moments – I would probe into the policies and laws making their way through our system. I would prompt Canadians to reflect on whether they make sense for Canada?
I would also shed light on examples human spirit and compassion demonstrated by parliamentarians- something you see in this very room. Value is about far more than the dollar return on our public investments. I know several senators and MPs who offer their time, hearts and money to support important issues – from literacy and the wellbeing of children, to addressing the needs of victims of poverty and violence in countries throughout the world. Senators Joyce Fairbairn, former Senators Landon Pearson and Wilbert Keon ,people like Roméo Dallaire, Frank Mahovlich, Don Oliver and my new coach Jacques Demers. Their commitment to social issues has helped countless people. Their stories should be told over and over.
Most Canadians are unaware that this kind of inspiring work goes on at all. Unfortunately, the Senate has a serious public relations image that I doubt will ever go away. But geez I am only 65 and there are miles or kilometers to travel before I rest.
Soon after arriving on the Hill, I chose to get behind causes related to kids. This seemed to me a natural evolution – part of the progression that has always been inside me.
I started with Special Olympics Canada, a national grassroots organization that provides sports training and competitive opportunities to more than 32,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities.
I support the work of SOS Children’s Villages, an organization that helps orphans around the world.
I am also a member of the board of directors of the Youth Services Bureau, a local agency helping youth and their families resolve a wide range of very serious problems.
And a chance encounter with a lonely man picketing on Parliament Hill moved me to devote myself to helping children with autism and their families. It’s clear that kids with autism, whose numbers are growing at a terrible rate, are falling through the cracks of Canada’s social safety net.
I’m determined to help kids who are vulnerable and, as a senator, there are lots of promising avenues I can take:
- Sponsoring and influencing the content of bills, Such as a NationalAutism awareness day bill.
- Speaking to interest groups and helping them stay connected
- Enabling advocates to take their causes to government decision-makers
A few years ago, I stood up in the Chamber and raised the issue of autism. My speech included statistics about autism and a plea to the Senate to look at this issue more closely.
Well they did. The Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology spent several months listening to witnesses from across Canada and drafted a report called Pay Now or Pay Later: Autism Families in Crisis. The report made recommendations that we submitted to the Minister of Health.
Along the way, we attracted a great deal of media attention and raised awareness among politicians and the general public about autism and how it affects families. This country needs a National Spectrum Disorder Stratedgy.
So, this should shed some light on my daily activities as a senator – certainly, the moments in my days that are most special and meaningful to me.
There is another aspect of my work, and that is my involvement in caucus. The post-election dust hasn’t fully settled, so the best I can offer today is my initial assessment of the new political landscape. For the Liberals, it is time to get over it and get on with it.
But past few weeks have been difficult. I’ve had to say good-bye to colleagues who were defeated in the election. I do wonder if any of these departures are final. Politics never leaves your blood, after all. I am sure you know how this feels.
The Liberal caucus is definitely in… to put it mildly in a tough corner but I’m already seeing signs the party can grow strong again. We now have a new interim leader, whom I strongly support – so we can start rebuilding.
If ever there was a time for Liberals to come to the aid of the party, it is now. Those of us who remain on the Hill have to sound the rallying cry. We have to work hard and demonstrate our relevance to Liberals of long standing, as well as future prospects.
The New Democrats also have challenges ahead, but I’m inclined to think their election success was a good accident for all of us. Youth need to be part of the process, and now they truly are. They’re in the room. Unlike so many politicians who’ve had power for years and years, these new members of parliament are fresh and not stuck in old ways. We shouldn’t pre-judge them.
And for the Conservative government. I know I can work with many of their MPs and Ministers. And if there are disagreements, it should always be about policy and never personel.
This room is filled with seasoned parliamentarians. All of us here today have the capacity to assist new and potential members of parliament to understand their responsibilities and seize on opportunities to positively shape society. As former parliamentarians, your insights and knowledge would be invaluable to youth movements in all parties. Maybe it’s time to broaden your association’s involvement – consider expanding forums for young politicians beyond universities.
No matter the political tensions, the public relations problems or the occasional injection of blatant partisanship, Parliament Hill is firmly grounded in moral beliefs, principles of decency and hope. These things can withstand and outlive any indecency or political shakeup.
Young politicians need to be assured of this. They require mentorship and we are precisely the people who can provide it. Let’s create more mentoring programs and do our part to see that our political system can move forward.
As I said the most beautiful thing I heard on the morning following the election was this: “Good morning, Senator.”
I am ever grateful for the position I hold in Canada’s parliament. As I reach 65, I expect to have about 10 more years before I can say I’m a former parliamentarian. In that time, I will continue to work hard and push for issues affecting children It is my way of ensuring that our society continues to progress. There is a saying ‘’ we can seek the wisdom of the ages but always look at the world through the eyes of a child’’
Why take on the life we do if we aren’t going to give something back? You have garnered unmatchable knowledge and insight through your involvement in parliament. Your association’s resources, programs and events like this are a wonderful gift.
I am grateful to you for inviting me to be here and talk about my experiences as a senator. You have prompted me to reflect on wonderful memories and to appreciate their positive bearing on the work I am doing today – as well as the goals I have yet to achieve. I came to Ottawa in 1972 , travelled the world . Now every day I walk up to the hill, I see the flag, I see our flag , I always see hope and I see myself trying to make a difference .
I may not be in the news cycle or the front page every day but I believe I am on the page of people’s lives who matter to me.