By Edward Vainker (Sauvé Scholar 2008-2009)
Ottawa, despite being the fourth biggest city in Canada, was named the capital owing to its safe distance from the USA. On Wednesday, January 27th, Team Sauvé succeeded where America failed and invaded the Canadian capital. Much to Désirée’s relief all twelve of us made it to the station for 6:00am and poured over the biographies of the diverse and exciting group of people we were to meet.
Wednesday was spent at Parliament, an exciting place to be when the Canadian budget was being debated and the government struggling to hang on to power. The visit had been planned for mid- December before a constitutional crisis led to the Governor-General, who had evidently not received our itinerary, agreeing to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s request to prorogue Parliament and give MPs six weeks off. Our visit to Parliament Hill came on their first day back and coincided with opposition leader Michael Ignatieff announcing that he would not be seeking to bring down the government.
Our visit began with a discussion with veteran Senator, Hugh Segal, from Canada’s unelected second chamber. He gave a great overview of the Parliamentary system and the state of Canadian politics that we were to see firsthand an hour later. He provided a clear context for our visit and answered a range of questions on Canadian relations with the US, democratic reform and the relations between the Federal government and the provinces.
Having struggled through several more security stops, a lengthy process with a group of 14, we were sitting in the House of Commons, the small size of which surprised me. Clarice gives her perspective: “The whole world is arguing about the best way to reverse the current economic crisis, and the Canadian Parliament was no different. I was amazed that it was possible to address questions directly to the Prime Minister. It was very interesting to see the reaction of the people towards the Canadian Prime Minister’s answers. Furthermore, the united front presented by the members of the Canadian parties was striking to me. It seemed that they, in fact, have the same view about the current challenges for the country.”
Following the meeting we were delighted to have the chance to sit down with the Speaker of the House, Peter Milliken, who had presided over the Question period we had just seen. He came directly from having ruled on an attempt by the Liberal Party to force a vote, and we were very grateful for his time. We asked him about the impact of Jeanne Sauvé’s time as Speaker, about how the Question Period worked, and about his career path, and were delighted that he was still wearing his formal robes!
Our last meeting in Parliament was with Marlene Jennings, Liberal Deputy House Leader and a high profile Member of Parliament (MP). She was preoccupied with the visit of Barack Obama, which had just been announced, and the timing of it that meant that the new President would not be addressing Parliament as it fell on another (!) Parliamentary break in mid-February. She talked about her role in the party, how she became an MP, and discussed issues around work-life balance.
Before dinner, with many of our number visibly flagging, we met with Jacob Abella, from the Office of the Privy Council, who talked about how legislation was developed, became law and was enacted across the country. He then joined us for a delicious dinner – one which was matched on Thursday at the Native American restaurant, Sweetgrass, – and we discussed our impressions of Canadian political life.
Thursday was similarly hectic and full of memorable meetings. The visit to the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) was the highlight for many scholars. The humility and thoughtfulness of National Chief Phil Fontaine ignited a rich dialogue among the group. The discussion moved fluidly from Chief Fontaine’s insights to conversation about the Scholars’ Collective Project with Mohawk community of Kahnawake and reflections about indigenous issues in the various home regions of the group.
Meeting with Chief Phil Fontaine, Assembly of First Nation
Chief Fontaine opened the discussion with a brief overview of the history, achievements and challenges of the First Nations in Canada. Well known for his role in securing both land settlements and the Residential Schools Settlement, Chief Fontaine attributes his success to the courage of individuals before him who spoke out about the atrocities and the strength of those who joined him in “fighting for every inch of justice along the way.” Moving forward, he believes a revitalized Truth and Reconciliation Commission will help facilitate a critical healing process and raise awareness about what he considers “the darkest chapter in Canadian history.”
In addition to looking back, the National Chief and Assembly of First Nations are actively engaged in confronting current development challenges. “Without the eradication of poverty,” Fontaine explained, “our transformation is incomplete.” The group discussed AFN’s multifaceted approach to improving education, economic development, communication and civic engagement.
We were delighted to meet with two government ministers. Peter Van Loan made his way to the cabinet of Canada’s Conservative government by making the most of difficult political environments and seizing the opportunities presented by leadership vacuums to put forward fresh ideas and assume new challenges. During his meeting with the Sauvé Scholars, Minister Van Loan discussed his approach to leadership, emphasizing the value of stepping up to the plate in difficult times, and being sure to tell your own story, rather than letting others define you. Minister Van Loan also shared what he learned from the premiership of Mike Harris, reflecting that Ontario Premier Harris’ initial success came from challenging ideological conceptions and maximizing the opportunities presented when liberal elites get out of touch with the realities faced by voters. The Minister stressed the importance of recognizing voters’ intelligence as well as their limited patience with confrontational approaches such as that taken by the Harris government. This discussion gave the group insight into the tactics and longstanding personal relationships that shape the Conservative government, and the personal commitment to the protection of democracy that drives Minister Van Loan as a political leader.
Meeting Stockwell Day
Meeting International Trade Minister Stockwell Day was memorable for Pyone: “With a friendly shake of the hand, the minister greeted me, ‘Oh! You are from Burma. You know our Canadian government helps a lot to promote the restoration of the democratic process in your country.’ ’Oh yeah?’ I replied. ’ Yes, we put lots of pressure on the military regime. What do you think?’ He sought my opinion. ’Well, you pressure them and they pressure us!’ I sarcastically answered. ’Nicely put!’, said the Minister.
It was a weird opening discussion with the Honourable Minister of International Trade and MP for Kelowna, British Columbia. Before the active discussion with other scholars about NAFTA and trade related issues, I mentioned to the Minister that I was one of the students who became victims of the consequences of the Canadian government Budget cut plan for education projects in Burma. The English and capacity building courses that I was taking through the British Council were funded initially by the Canadian government. Then, it was suddenly cut off since the government of Canada was no longer willing to fund the projects inside Burma.
I was sitting in the discussion but my mind was not wholly in the room. I was so pleased that I was able to express a message to the Canadian Parliament that Canada should maintain its interest in funding the educational projects that are happening inside Burma (giving myself as an example of outcome) regardless of the Foreign Policy and economic sanctions against the Military government. Whether or not the message reached him? I am not sure.”
A welcome change in perspective came from visits to the Council of Canadians and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Carleen Pickard, Director of Organising at the Council, shared her experience and perspectives on national energy strategy, integration processes, trade policy, water issues and public health care in Canada. In answering our questions on NAFTA and a range of subjects, it was clear to see her commitment and drive as well as that of her organisation. Tim Dottridge at the IDRC, discussed the Centre’s work and focused on the attempt to make its research policy relevant and applicable, as well as working primarily with researchers from the developing world. He invited members of the group to apply for a grant for any projects we are working on in the developing world.
David Runnalls, President of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, gave us the opportunity to discuss what we had experienced in Ottawa with one of Canada’s most important sustainable development and environmental policy experts.
Established twenty years ago in response to the landmark UN Brundtland Report, the IISD is a Winnipeg-based non-profit, non-governmental policy research institute dedicated to improving the development of the global environment, economy and society by engaging decision-makers in government, business, NGOs and other sectors in the development and implementation of policies. In addition to generating ideas and encouraging sustainable policy implementation, the IISD has become the most important generator of information and analysis on global sustainable development negotiations.
The highlight of our meeting with Mr. Runnalls was his frank and candid discussion of Canada’s sustainable development strategies. Our conversation ranged from the new Canadian budget, to environmental economics and conservation, to climate change adaptation plans. The federal budget, released 28 January, announces funds for carbon capture and storage and nuclear energy. Mr. Runnalls said he was likely one of the only environmentalists in favor of carbon capture and storage (CCS). He emphasized that something must be done quickly to reduce GHGs and CCS could be a relatively fast, large-scale fix. According to Mr. Runnalls, more testing is needed but old oil wells in Saskatchewan and Alberta could be potential sites because of their relative geological stability. On the other hand, Mr. Runnalls called the nuclear industry in Canada a budgetary ‘black hole’. It will continue to draw money from the government, but will never be a worthwhile investment because the scale of the industry in the country is just too small, and the natural uranium technology will never be where it needs to be.
For a young environmentalist, speaking with Mr. Runnalls was inspiring. It is clear that the IISD does not toe a political line, but speaks truth to power to help build a sustainable future founded on thought and innovation.
Our final day in Ottawa began, as mornings do for all influential people, with a breakfast meeting. Tomer led the scholars in our discussion with veteran Journalist, Elizabeth Thompson. The focus was on the Canadian media, and her exciting career at various national newspapers. Thompson was The Montreal Gazette’s Ottawa Bureau Chief until last month when she was appointed to cover Parliament Hill for the Sun Media papers. She reviewed political developments over the years, showing how events like the Quebec referendum, and the 2006 elections made her work so fascinating. After which she answered questions about the daily routine of a Political journalist – such things as following up politicians’ statements, investigating the results of their actions, the laborious need to establish long-term connections with the elected representatives. Furthermore, Thompson discussed the effect of the Internet as a tool that has reshaped the media. She affirmed that computerized research could be efficient to check the effectiveness of government activity during a long period.
Scott Vaughan, Commissioner for the Environment, provided an interesting contrast with the perspectives of David Runnalls, from outside government. Working at the office of the Auditor-General, the Commissioner is outside government, and he was very frank in his appraisal of the progress government has made on sustainable development in recent years. An insight into the job of an auditor of the workings of government provided an excellent coda to our insights of the previous three days.
Before Tomer and Jenya headed off to skate on the canal, Giovanni and Marta disappeared to find a decent espresso and a keen group made for the Museum of Civilisation, we went to the Supreme Court and sat down with Justice Rosalie Abella, a Puisne Justice and incredibly kind and friendly person. We learned about the work of the Court, her perspectives on the (considerable) role of the judiciary, and the challenges of having a career in what was once an overwhelmingly male-dominated profession. Her candour and humour made the meeting a perfect end to the trip, particularly when Jenya could have his photo taken sitting in the judge’s chair in the Supreme Court Chamber.
The whole group is extremely grateful to everyone we met with for giving us their time and to Désirée and Marie-Marguerite for organising the trip. Roll on Quebec City!