OTTAWA—If it wasn’t for the pandemic, first-time MP Lori Idlout thinks she might never have been able to hold her swearing-in ceremony in Iqaluit, surrounded by the music, traditions and language she holds dear.
The Nunavut MP began her ceremony with a prayer and the lighting of a qulliq — a traditional oil lamp used for light, warmth and cooking. Throat singing and drum dancing also featured in the proceedings, which were held in Inuktitut and English as the clerk of the House of Commons watched virtually.
“I thought the experience was beautiful,” Idlout told the Star. “It was just a very special moment that I won’t forget for a long time.”
The NDP’s Idlout was one of around 60 MPs who chose to conduct their swearing in remotely instead of making the trek to Ottawa’s West Block.
She is also one of 49 newcomers to the House of Commons, the first cohort of MPs to start their careers in federal politics under the shadow of a public health crisis.
For a group that ran their election campaigns on computer screens and distanced door knocks, the transition may not be as jarring as it was for rookies in 2019, who had a brief period of normalcy before being flung into the pandemic.
Nonetheless, disadvantages exist.
Some new MPs have chosen to complete their orientation sessions virtually, forgoing a rare opportunity to sit and learn alongside colleagues from other parties. Others have decided to hold off on signing a lease in Ottawa, unsure of where they’ll be spending the bulk of their time. And next week, they’ll likely find out whether the House of Commons will reconvene in person or in a hybrid format, potentially limiting their time in the lower chamber itself.
“I think it is always an advantage being in person, and frankly, I think if you can go to a Raptors game with 18,000 people, 300 members can sit in the House of Commons safely,” said first-time Conservative MP Melissa Lantsman.
The Thornhill MP considers herself lucky because of her previous experience as a political staffer on Parliament Hill, but said that as a member of the Official Opposition, traditional sittings are the best way for her to hold the government to account.
Rookie Green MP Mike Morrice agrees that the most effective way for politicians to build relationships is face-to-face, but he’s open to embracing the convenience and accessibility that comes with connecting through a screen.
Morrice, who took Kitchener-Centre from the Liberals in September, has had a whirlwind start to his parliamentary career. Unlike other new MPs who have stuck close to their ridings, Morrice spent more than two weeks in Glasgow for the COP26 summit.
One day, he found himself at Canada’s delegation office, hoping to speak to the negotiating team. Unexpectedly, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau happened to be visiting, and Morrice was able to chat with Trudeau about the country’s climate commitments — before his swearing-in ceremony had even happened.
The whole trip was “pretty profound and of course, really discouraging at times,” Morrice said.
While large gatherings at the international level have been trickling back into political calendars, in Canada, former Ontario cabinet minister and first-time Liberal MP Michael Coteau said he misses the public events that help politicians get better acquainted with their constituents.
“A perfect example would be a full community consultation or town hall, where you’re bringing in 150 people, 200 people to talk about an issue,” Coteau said. “When you’re online, there’s a certain piece missing, and that’s the ability to connect with people in person. It creates a completely different feel, and it does build more enthusiasm, I believe, for solving problems.”
Keeping constituents top of mind is critical in the life of a parliamentarian, says longtime Conservative MP Michael Chong.
“The number one piece of advice I’d give to new MPs is never, ever forget who sent you to Ottawa,” Chong said. “If you always keep that in the back of your mind … you can never go wrong.”
Like many politicians, Chong acknowledged that something of a “technological revolution” has swept over the way people work, changing the pace and nature of the job. The tools that made pandemic Parliament function — smartphones, tablets and social media — didn’t exist when he was first elected in 2004.
But those tools have also dulled or eliminated political dynamics in the House that can only be experienced in person, Chong said.
His advice to newcomers? Read the room, watch people’s reactions to debates and look for how they respond to questions asked and answers given.
For NDP MP Niki Ashton, elected in September for the fifth time, hybrid Parliament has only enriched her experience.
It’s allowed her to explore her riding and it provides desperately-needed flexibility for parliamentarians with young children, the Manitoba MP said.
Hybrid Parliament is “the way of the future”, Ashton said, adding that for younger first-time MPs, the format may feel more natural.
As for MPs worried about their first day on the job — Idlout, for one, is nervous about asking her first question in the House of Commons — Ashton said it’s incumbent on those with more experience to reach out.
“I have no doubt that all of our new MPs will find their stride, but I would say it’s definitely up to the rest of us to help them and support them and embrace this new normal,” she said.
Regardless of the public health situation MPs will be returning to on Nov. 22, Liberal Hedy Fry, Canada’s longest-serving female MP, says the best advice she can impart to the incoming cohort is all about respect.
“I hear people all the time when I knock on doors, or people write to me telling me, ‘You know what, you guys are nasty, and so ugly and you’re so disrespectful to each other. We don’t like your behaviour. We don’t trust you anymore,’” Fry told the Star.
“I think we need to be aware of that as parliamentarians. We need to be aware of the respect we bring to the place in which we serve — which is the Parliament of Canada — to be able to be respectful to each other, even when we disagree vehemently with each other.”
And while MPs may not be as easily able to meet over a cup of coffee or glass of wine, they can still pick up a phone.
“We have to find different ways of working around things. The world of work has changed,” Fry said. “We need to find creative ways to still socialize with each other. I think it’s an extremely important thing if Parliament is ever going to work.”
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