Buckle your seatbelts; this is going to be a long one. Yesterday I traveled to Ottawa to attend a dinner at Rideau Hall (the residence of the Governor General) hosted by His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston and the Right Honourable Jean Chretien. For those readers who are not familiar with the role of the Governor General (GG), here is what she or he does. Canada is a constitutional monarchy. Here’s the monarchy part: Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II (AKA the Queen of England or ‘Liz’ as I call her) is legally the Queen of Canada. Here’s the constitution part: by constitutional convention – or unwritten constitutional practices – as ruling monarch, Liz is Canada’s Head of State. Consequently, Liz has a number of powers such as declaring war, proroguing and summoning parliament, and of course providing royal assent to all laws that are passed in our provincial and federal legislatures. That’s right folks, a law does not become a law until Liz says it can be – after all, as our ruling monarch, all of our laws are made in Her Majesty’s name. Now, running an empire is a lofty task so what Liz (and those before her) has done is allow someone to be her representative in Canada, to preform her duties on her behalf and in her name. That someone is the Governor General. That someone is His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston. And I went to dinner at his house – not a typical Monday night dinner at meal hall with the swim team to say the least.
For those readers who are not familiar with the role of the Right Honourable Jean Chretien, shame on you. For the record, in a Westminster Parliamentary system such as ours, the Head of State is the GG and the Head of Government is the Prime Minister (PM) – two different people, two very different roles. End of political science sermon.
So, why was I invited to such a fancy dinner party? Well, as mentioned before, I am heading to Uganda (today) as one of Canada’s first QES Scholars and it turns out that Mr. Chretien, the GG, and the Rideau Hall Foundation are the chief architects of the scholarship program. Naturally, after raising millions and millions and millions of dollars to fund the Program, Chretien et al wanted to have a little party to celebrate and thought that a few QES Scholars would round out the guest list quite nicely.
I cracked a book on the plane to Ottawa yesterday called “A Fair Country” by John Ralston Saul, a Canadian political philosopher and husband to the formal GG, Adrienne Clarkson. John’s argument (John, if you are reading this, do you mind if I call you John?) is quite simple: Canada is a Metis nation built on an Aboriginal ethic of inclusiveness, mutual interdependence, and sharing. Thus the myth that Canadian society is built on Western political ideas of individualism and nationalism inspired by our European friends is flawed because it ignores a fundamental pillar of our historical roots – that is, Aboriginal culture. Further, John argues that in order for Canada to overcome its false sense of self, Canadians must return to their historical roots by viewing ideas like citizenship in a circular rather than linear fashion. Aboriginal philosophy after all sees citizenship as an ever-expanding circle. John’s argument got me thinking about a couple of things. Firstly, in this day and age, after 150 years of European nationalism informing and forming racial and cultural divides, how does one reconcile a circular conception of citizenship with the current linear model? Secondly, and more importantly in light of the adventure I am on, what does it mean to be a Canadian in a globalized world?
These questions followed me throughout my day in Ottawa. My flight landed shortly after 10:00 AM and I headed off to Parliament Hill to ‘nerd out’ for a couple of hours before the big dinner. I noticed something as I approached the eternal flame in front of the Peace Tower. The architecture of our Parliament buildings is completely square, linear and compartmentalized… hmmm, sounds a bit like the idea of Canadianhood that my friend John was reacting against. The eternal flame that lies before the Parliament buildings, however, is circular and well, by definition, something that has always existed and something that always will exist. Call me a liberal arts student, call me pretentious, but perhaps John was on to something by suggesting that all Canadians are Metis; that an Aboriginal, and not European, ethic is at the heart of what informs our collective conscience. Governments succeed and fall behind the walls of Centre Block, yet the circular flame keeps on burning. Yep, welcome to liberal arts 101: everything is a metaphor.
After my little existential epiphany, I spent the rest of the afternoon watching the drama of question period unfold in the House of Commons (HOC). Canada has the strongest party discipline out of any Westminster style Parliamentary system in the world, and does it ever show in question period. Two things that I learned while watching the MPs go at it.
- It is acceptable, if not encouraged, to use ad hominem attacks as much as possible against MPs from other parties.
- It is question period, not answer period.
Two things that I would fix:
- Strap a shock collar to every MP’s ankle give a corresponding button to every Canadian over the age of 18.
- Give the Speaker a cattle prod for good measure.
Regardless of the antics that take place in the HOC, it is evident that every MP wants the same thing: a better Canada for their constituents. The wonderful thing about Canadian democracy is that parties use divergent (and sometimes contradictory) means to achieve relatively similar ends. Simply, even though our elected officials who sit across the floor from one another argue seemingly meaningless points, their passion should not be confused with unwarranted anger as they are doing everything they can to make our lives better.
Alright, everyone still awake? If you are congratulations, hard work pays off and now you get to hear about my dinner at 1 Sussex Drive. I arrived at Rideau Hall shortly after six and was greeted by a small British army, cool hats and all. After walking in the front entrance, picking my jaw off the floor and letting out a quiet squeal I was ushered into a room where I met with six other QES Scholars. From there, we were taken into the sunroom – let me tell you, this was the sunroom to end all sunrooms. Although I do have to say that the one at my family cottage in Winnipeg Beach is a close second. In the sunroom we had a private meet and greet with His Excellency, Mr. Chretien and their wives. This was the first of many ‘holy crap’ moments. From there we were taken into what is called the ‘Tent Room’ (AKA a huge ornate room that kind of resembles a tent around the ceiling. Holy crap) for cocktails with a small group of donors that made the QES Program possible. Among the guest list was: Their Excellencies (the GG and his wife), Mr. and Mme. Chretien, Brett from Dragon’s Den, the CEO of just about every major Canadian bank or foundation, the current Premier of PEI, a handful of former Premiers, and dozen other people who are downright amazing. Never have I simultaneously felt so honoured, yet inadequate in my life.
Side bar: Her Excellency has to be the nicest lady on the planet. Multiple times she grabbed me by the hand and carted me off to meet group after group of people. She reminded me of my grandmother and her sisters at a family dinner – constantly encouraging me to eat, drink, and ‘schmooze’. Holy crap. After another quick picture with my political idol, Mr. Chretien (who was hiding a large beer behind my back) and a chat with Brett about Gorilla chasing, we headed into the ballroom for some grub. By grub I mean a 123 456 course meal with a string quartet and waiters wearing tuxedos. Holy crap. So this is what it feels like to be a head of state – now I know why Liz has stuck with the job for so long.
The highlight of the evening came when I (along with another QES Scholar) was asked to give a quick thank you speech after dinner. The fact that I was in the same room as some of Canada’s most influential people was overwhelming, and to address them directly was nothing short of, well… holy crap. What a life I am living, what a life. After the speeches we headed into yet another ornate room for some coffee and ‘schmooze’. During this time I was lucky enough to tour the GG’s residence with a few other attendees. Holy crap. The evening ended too soon (actually, nearly five hours had passed), but I can say without a doubt that it was the most humbling and surreal experience of my life. If there were any doubts about what I wanted to do before, they are gone now. Dinner at Rideau Hall reaffirmed my desire to spend my life making Canada a better place, hopefully as an elected official.
After sitting in a room with a group of people who built the Canada we know and love, I think I am finally beginning to understand what it means to be a Canadian. We care. We care about ourselves, about one another, and about those who live beyond our borders. As I sit in the Montreal Airport (named after arguably the greatest Canadian of all time) I am ready to care for and be cared for by my friends, colleagues, and fellow Commonwealthers in Uganda.
Next entry will be shorter and less tedious, I promise… maybe.