Chairman's Desk

The unglamorous life of a Member of Parliament

Life on the Hill, particularly for rookie and backbench MPs, can be a lonely, tedious and thankless life away from family and home — but we owe these men and women gratitude for their commitment to Canada

This article appeared in the Toronto Star on September 25, 2016.

Three weeks ago, students across Canada begrudgingly woke up, dusted off their backpacks and headed to school, ending their summer vacations.

This week, our federal members of Parliament did the same.

As Parliament returns, there is no shortage of issues on its agenda. These include setting targets on carbon emissions, agreeing to potentially dangerous peacekeeping roles in Africa, changing Canada’s approach to marijuana, decisions on the building of pipelines and on ratification of new free trade agreements, and the fundamental altering of the way Canadians vote in elections.

Amid these important debates, it is often lost on us that we will be represented by 338 members of Parliament, each with a unique point of view, and each with his or her own careers, family and lived experience.

On Oct. 19 of last year, a record number of rookie MPs were elected — 197 out of 338 — and they were thrown immediately into their roles. They opened offices and hired staff, got to know the media on the Hill, boned up on the issues and got down to the nation’s business.

For new MPs, the first year is an utter whirlwind. They are idealistic and enthusiastic, and the change they can affect and the opportunities in front of them seem limitless.

But soon, just as the freshness of any new government begins to wear off, new MPs face the reality that their scope and influence might not be quite what they had envisioned.

It was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s father who remarked, some decades ago, that backbench MPs were ‘nobodies 50 yards off the Hill.’ Harsh, perhaps, and despite efforts by Pierre Trudeau’s son to change that reality, the unfortunate truth that many MPs come to discover is that real influence and power is invested in just a few of the 338 MPs in the House of Commons.

For many, their high hopes of joining the Privy Council as a cabinet minister are dashed. Others find themselves on Opposition benches they had hoped never to occupy. Nearly all face day after gruelling day filled with meetings on issues they had never cared or thought about, or in committee meetings filled with hours of testimony on policy minutiae.

On top of that, after five days a week attending to hours and hours of parliamentary business, MPs are expected to return to their ridings every weekend to spend time with constituents, attending festivals, local meetings, and what seems like an endless march of parades and charity runs.

It’s all glamorous, until the MP finds themselves attending their seventh church strawberry social instead of watching their child’s T-ball game.

And so, just as MPs adjust to their new jobs as parliamentarians, they and their families also adjust to new and very different lives as well. When MPs move to Ottawa, they leave behind family — and often the bonds of social restraint — in the spirit of public service and personal ambition.

In Ottawa, MPs once again live like students who have just moved out of residence and into their first apartments. In middle age, they often live with roommates, eat off mismatched dinnerware, leave pictures unhung.

Their commitments, understandably, are to their own communities, not to Ottawa. And so with no families to come home to, every day becomes the same. After work, receptions and dinners fuel the makings of a toxic brew of power, exhaustion and a feeling that ‘no one else understands our world.’

The grim, but too often unspoken, reality is that many politicians end up struggling. Marriages end. Relationships fray. Families suffer. Substance abuse issues emerge.

Some MPs’ struggles make it to the front page but dozens more struggle in the loneliness of the shadows.

As Parliament returns this week, we all should remember that these 338 people are not nobodies at all. Rather, they are wives and husbands, fathers and mothers, friends and colleagues of us all.

What’s more, they are the ones we have chosen to represent us in the people’s house, the House of Commons. And agree with them or not, it is only decent of us to honour the sacrifice that they make every day to do their best for our country.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.