OPINION: Giving young people a chance to understand policy

Capital Letters with Kelsey Johnson

Most days, Parliament Hill is buzzing with political activities where party politics and issues of the day dominate the corridor conversation.

On a recent Saturday, the focus shifted to a more behind-the-scenes group of individuals who help keep Parliament running smoothly.

More than 400 former and current House of Commons pages reunited in Ottawa to mark the program’s 40th anniversary. Some travelled from places as far away as Sydney, Australia and Barcelona, Spain to participate in the festivities.

Each year, 40 bilingual young Canadians who are entering their first year of university are hired to work part-time as pages in the Commons chamber. Nearly nine years ago, in 2009-10, yours truly was one of them. It was my first job on Parliament Hill.

Pages have been in the House of Commons since the beginning, assisting MPs in various ways, from delivering MPs messages and glasses of water, to welcoming visitors.

Historically, however, the pages were young boys from local communities.

In 1978, the House of Commons formalized the program. The move meant for the first time in Canadian history women could work as pages in the commons. The idea was to give young Canadians from across the country a front row seat to Canadian democracy in action for one year.

Since it started, 1,603 youth have been hired as House of Commons pages. Upon completion of their year in the chamber, they’ve gone on to successful careers in the public service, law, diplomacy, business and journalism — to name a few.

More than a handful still work on Parliament Hill in some capacity or another.

On May 5, career stories were swapped and friends were reunited — with more than a few taking a trip down memory lane to remember the events in the House of Commons the year they were employed.

Some recalled the 1995 Quebec Referendum, when tensions were high. More than a few pages, who are required to be politically neutral while serving, recalled the challenges of keeping their own opinions on the matter quiet.

Others were in the chamber when MPs were debating the original North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, during which pages were eventually relieved of their duties for the evening as politicians of all stripes debated the issue into the wee hours of the morning.

The 2014-15 crop of pages weren’t so fortunate. A series of votes meant they were required to staff the chamber around the clock for three days straight. Other pages recalled years of federal elections, prorogations and presidential visits.

My own year in the chamber saw MPs seized with the issue of Canada’s treatment of Afghani detainees. The House, which was at the time a minority parliament under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, also prorogued for a couple of weeks — a move that meant yours truly spent her time cataloging old House debates in one of Parliament’s many vaults.

No one, it seemed, had a boring year.

The House of Commons Page Reunion wasn’t the only youthful gathering of note happening in Ottawa this week.

Some 60 delegates from 4-H Canada clubs located across the country were also in town for the organization’s annual Citizenship conference. The conference ran May 3-5.

The annual meeting, held since 1972, serves a similar purpose: exposing young Canadians to the workings of the federal government.

Attendees are selected by their provincial 4-H organizations. For three days they attend workshops and meet with politicians. Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay visited with the group on Thursday, as did Ottawa’s newly appointed senator Rob Black — a former, 4-H Canada president and the only senator currently sitting who has a background in agriculture.

It’s yet another example of how efforts are being made to give young Canadians a chance to develop an interest in Parliament, politics and policy — tools and skills that can become useful down the road.

About the author

Contributor

Kelsey Johnson is a reporter with iPolitics.ca in Ottawa. Born and raised in Alberta, Kelsey credits her Western roots for sparking her interest in all things related to Canadian agriculture. In her spare time, she can be found hiking, camping or curled up with a mug of tea and book.

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