Online Only: Campaign memorabilia and other scrapbook souvenirs from Barry Campbell’s political life.1993. I sat by the phone waiting for “the call.” Days went by. Journalists wrote, and friends and my team told me that I’d be in Cabinet, that he couldn’t pass me over. Like all government MPs, I did the calculations: regional balance, gender, friendships, experience, competence, etc. ” Maybe a few rookies will squeak in,” someone said. “Let me make a call,” another offered. “You can’t appeal to the Boss directly. He’d take a dim view of that, but let me see what I can do.” The Boss probably received 176 “indirect” calls.
Veterans who had weathered the indignity of Opposition waited in silence, while “star candidates” grew apoplectic as reality sank in. All of us were legends in our own minds; few of us got the call. I watched the swearing-in of Cabinet alone, feeling, suddenly, that I wasn’t really part of what I was supposed to be a part of. I had some idea of what a Cabinet minister did but no clue what it meant to be a backbencher. “It’s for a short time,” I assured myself. “There were lots of worthy candidates,” I explained to those who asked. I was guessing. One thing was clear: as I wasn’t in Cabinet, the Privy Council Office would not send over seasoned pros to get me up and running. I was on my own. I set off for Ottawa.
The flag atop the Peace Tower snapped proudly in the wind, but Parliament Hill looked cold and austere. East Block is Victorian Gothic; West Block, Gothic Revival; remnants of the original architectural plan, both are all chimneys, towers, and latticework. Centre Block was torched in the great fire of 1916, and its rebuilt structure is stolid, solid, imposing. (The fire, believed to have started in the House of Commons Reading Room, was fed by elaborate varnished woodwork, and the new Centre Block was built not to burn, “no matter how hot it got inside,” as someone observed. Fireproof, but not foolproof, I soon learned.) The flag is replaced each night, the used ones given to MPs and senators to hand out to those they wish to honour. Sometimes more than one MP is promised the flag for a particular day, and squabbling ensues.
Parliamentary offices are not created equal. The grandest go to ministers, the next best to veterans and parliamentary secretaries. “Turn on the charm, and the party whip might give you the best of the bad lot that remains,” I was advised. He didn’t. The office of Barry Campbell, MP, consisted of three pokey, unconnected rooms in an asbestos-filled wing of West Block. Before officially escorting me there, a guard suggested we visit the parliamentary post office. He disappeared into a doorway and then re-emerged. “You’ve got mail,” he said. A postal worker wheeled out two large plastic containers filled with hundreds of letters and large manila envelopes. I was stunned. “Is this all for me?” I asked. “Yes, sir,” said the postal worker. “Shall I wheel this up to your office? ” “Yes, thank you,” I replied excitedly.
Two weeks into the job, and I didn’t just have mail, I had mail! I tore into the envelopes. What did these good people need? Three hours later, I had my answer. Jobs! Two hundred and seventy-five people had sent me their resumés. They all wanted to join my staff. That’s it. No one needed my help, and only a few offered congratulations. An omen.
MPs’ staff budgets were tight, forcing us to hire eager but inexperienced twenty-somethings — for a newly elected MP, the political equivalent of the blind leading the blind. I culled the resumés. It was like campaigning: piles of maybes, probables, and likelys. Bored, I went for a walk. There were others wandering the halls of Centre Block — new MPs, I assumed. We eyed one another warily. The House of Commons chamber was locked, but I squinted through the leaded glass windows flanking the massive oak doors to get a glimpse. Someone was vacuuming. I continued toward the rotunda that connects the House and the Senate. Democracy felt physical, I thought, and very quiet. It isn’t.
There is a curious pin fetish in Ottawa, I noticed. I was sporting my own — the MP identification pin with the Speaker’s mace on it — and proudly so, until I realized pins were everywhere. Pin couture here is competitive. Senators wear a version in red and gold that some MPs covet. Some female MPs turn their pins into brooches and rings. Summits and international gatherings keep the industry going with specialized pins marking this or that “critically important meeting.” Each cause has pins or ribbons that are presented to MPs during visits to Parliament. They are worn on the appointed day (or during a certain month) for breast cancer, against drunk drivers, for the troops overseas, to fight aids. There is no set etiquette, and, not wanting to offend anyone, some MPs end up looking like pincushions. I returned to my office and unpacked family photos and campaign memorabilia. It felt good to be in Ottawa finally.
Our first national caucus meeting — a get-acquainted session and a chance to congratulate ourselves for getting elected — was scheduled for the next morning. There was no convocation, no blessing, no prayer for our success. I hadn’t spent much time thinking about who my colleagues might be. We were not all white lawyers. We were First Nations, new Canadians, Ph.D.s, historians, teachers, store clerks, former ceos, lawyers, yes, but also a convicted criminal, and, I would soon discover, the mentally certifiable. For some, this was the best job they’d ever had; for others, it would be the worst. For some, the parliamentary salary was the most money they had ever earned; for others, the least. There were single mothers and divorced fathers, and a young woman so unreconciled to modernity that she had fought a running battle with the Catholic Church for the right to say Mass in Latin on her knees (and been arrested for disturbing religious worship). It was a community gathering, a microcosm of Canada, some said.