Sunday, March 18, 2012

Canada's Parliament Buildings

I haven't toured Canada's Parliament Buildings since I was a youth. As a representative to Canada's Youth Parliament from Fort Garry I'd sat in the House of Commons. We were boys then, late teens, and it was a grand time, preparing briefs, debating, playing pranks.  I even got in trouble bringing a guitar into chambers and singing an anti war song condemming Communism to the chagrin of my NDP controversy and the horror of the Parliamentary staff. Apparently guitars and folk singer were taboo in the hallowed halls.  I cleared the way for Maggie Troudeau though.
I'd meet Pierre Elliott Troudeau a year or two later when I visitted Ottawa again with my then wife, Baiba.  We'd actually climbed over his fence with a neighbour of his to look at his collections of ancient relics from around the world.  I only saw them in moon light but could imagine how fine it would be to wander about the back yard of the prime ministers residence in day light.  We were kids back then and climbing over fences and appreciating the neighbour's backyard, if you were careful not to do damage and leave little more evidence of your passage than the coyotes and racoons did, well it was , neighbourly.  Besides Baiba was beautiful and young men with a beautiful woman in tow were bound to do anything to impress her. Today, were we caught,  it would be a scandal of front page proportions and no doubt we'd be arrested, finger printed and the whole matter treated as a breach of national security.  Even then I knew not to mention to Mr. Troudeau that I thought he had a very fine backyard.
I was at the side entrance of the Parliament Buildings. I'd left Baiba around the front. We each had pack sacks.  I needed to use the washroom and had been directed in this general vicinity.  A very officious grey suited big muscled man came out of a side entrance and immediately passed me without apparently seeing me. I'd been standing looking at the door wondering if this was the door to the washroom.  Next came Prime Minister Troudeau.  He literally walked right in to me, backed up a pace and asked, "What are you doing here?"  By now the second man, another guard, I presumed, had come up from behind and the first one who'd been looking around without seeing me, returned to stand on either side of this great man.
"You're Mr. Troudeau."  I said.
"Yes, he asked, "But what are you doing here."
"I'm looking for the washroom, " I replied.
"It's over there, " he pointed.
There was an outdoor building a little ways off which housed the very fine facilities. I left Mr. Troudeau. Even then thought it quite marvellous that a Prime Minister would know where the public washrooms were and could be so helpful. I realized too that I'd startled him and he'd been most wary upon meeting me, a strapping youth, in lumber jack shirt, blue jeans and boots carrying a great ruckus sack.  He wasn't very tall and built quite slight especially compared to his guards. His eyes were rivetting though.  As I left he spoke to his companions in an irritated but truly commanding voice.
It was Pierre Elliot Troudeau's flare that interested me in politics.
My father was a fan of Mr. Diefenbaker. Years later I'd hear he'd had tea with that great man on several occasions.  Mr. Broadbent was my mother's favourite at one time, her friend being a local minister who had gone on to be an MP. There was always talk of politics about the home with Dad actively engaged at different times while mom with her involvement in journalism was naturally a shoe in.
Our dinner table was often a place where Dad expressed his opinions about politicians and their decisions. He read the Winnipeg Free Press daily and we all listened to the Winnipeg radio station, CJOB. It seemed like there were a lot more 'facts' in those days. Then people like my dad and the other men would express their 'opinions'. Today the news seems more about opinion and very weak on facts.
I liked Pierre Elliott Troudeau. I liked his red rose and he  appealled to the young people of my day.   The Beattles were all the rage.  I had no real knowledge of world affairs or things of substance. I was against Nuclear War and loved John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Bed in" song "All we are saying is give peace a chance".  I thought Barbra Streisand was great and it was even better that Pierre Elliott Troudeau was a friend of this beautiful, talented movie star and singer.  I loved her best in the "Way We Were" with Robert Redford.
Laura hadn't ever been to Ottawa. She was still a girl  when I was off looking for washrooms on capitol hill.  Today her children are grown and she has another grandchild on the way.
My brother and his family live in Ottawa where he served with the federal public service for decades while his wife taught school and studied at the university. All my nephews are university educated brilliant young men.  My admiration for my brother and sister in law for the way they've raised their boys and the trials and tribulations they passed through on their collective journey to adulthood fills me with awe.  My brother, today, is  the mainstay in caring for my father who is here at a nursing home.  That's my reason for coming to Ottawa.  Were it not for family I'd probably not be re visitting parliament and going over old memories but in Greece enjoying the low tourists prices with the economy
failing there and the heat that the Mediterranian has to offer.
Laura is along for the trip. We're staying in the luxurious Brookstreet Resort and Spa in Kanata near where Dad is.  I promised Laura a tour of the Parliament Buildings. Something to share with her four grandchildren and new one on the way.  She was born and raised in Vancouver, her father, a tug boat captain.  Like so many other British Columbians she hadn't yet made the essential pilgrimmage to the Mecca of Canadian politics.  Given the Canadian Rocky Mountains it's not uncommon for us British Columbians to consider ourselves a people apart.  Were I know raised in the east I might now today appreciate Canada so much as a whole.  
My nephews Graeme and Andrew recommended we go on the weekend because without parliament sitting the tour can extend further into the hallowed halls of power and government.
It was a beautiful spring day for a visit to Parliament.  We left our winter coats in the Budget rental, a brand new Jeep Grand Cherokee which really is a fine 4x4 automobile.
The old parliament is majestic. Queen Victoria chose Ottawa as Canada's capital in 1857, the legislature moving there in 1866 and confederation happening in 1867, with the Declaration of the British North American Act, 1867. Though this brought about the Dominion of Canada, full legislative autonomy from England was not achieved until the Statute of Westminster, 1931. Indeed it wasn't till the Canada Act of 1982 that legislation terminated the power of the British parliament's ability to legislate for Canada.  I remember all these lofty political days with the great debates that split the country and formed it again into something new.
The parliament buildings are an amazing feat of architecture.  The old building, save for the library, burnt down in a fire and the new building was built at the turn of the century. The Peace Tower with it's magnificent bells and clock was completed in 1927.  The superb workmanship and intricacy of design with every consideration given to function and detail was truly imperssive.
We were really fortunate to be able to sign up for a public tour at 2:50 which gave us enough time to line up to take the elevator up to the top of the Peace Tower. The view from there was spectacular. At this time of year the ice on the Ottawa River was just beginning to break up.  With the clear skies we had a 360 degree view of the city.  Much to our surprise the elevator malfunctioned and we were required to walk the 9 flights down to the main floor.  It wasn't arduous but an adventure really, the old elevator being repaired shortly after. We bought souvenirs in the boutique while waiting for our tour of centre block. I was delighted to get parliament hill pens for friends while Laura got cards, earrings and maple syrup  candies for hers.
Sophia was our tour guide.  She was delightful giving us bits of history and pointing out details of architecture I'd never have noticed alone. These included symbols of wheat and mining and fishing which were primary industries of the young nation.  Everywhere there were stories on the wall and ceilings.  I loved the large pictures of the various prime ministers we passed.
"He's handsome," said Laura.
"That's Prime Minister Turner," I told her.
I'd had the rare priviledge of spending an afternoon with him in Watson Lake Yukon when I was working there as a physician and taken the time to hear his talk. Later   accompanied him to the airport where we'd waited for a delayed plane. I was so impressed with him and his wife as we chatted about camping and canoeing.   He had a fine sense of humor too.
It's always amazing given the too often derogatory portrayal of great men by the media. Prime Minister Turner, like other Canadian Prime Ministers, was not only heads above the average man in intelligence and accomplishment but he was a successful family and community citizen with a breadth of individual talents and interests as well.  One doesn't get to be Prime Minister of Canada without being truly outstanding. There are no slackards or dummies in this cast of characters.
The House of Commons is one very impressive site.  It's where decisions and debates have occurred that changed the course of the lives of 25 million people.  I've watched the events of history unfold on tv and even had the honor of standing and witnessing some debates from the public gallery.
Today the rooms were empty.  Prime Minister Steven Harper sits in the 11th chair on the right of the speaker of the house.  Together we walked on as a group to the House of Senate. This august room has frescos of WWI so that 'we never forget'. One particularly haunting grand picture showed the devastation of a wall torn apart by bombs, What waste.  It's clear that the message here is that war is a failure of diplomacy so that government bodies had better work especially hard to ensure that war doesn't prevail. As Canadians we can be collectively thankful to date for the wisdom of so many politicians in forging alliances and coming to terms with disparate positions with no need of civil war or war on an international basis except that which has brought us into our traditional role of 'peace keeping'.
I was moved to be in parliament.  I loved best the library. So much of it was made by Manitoba wood. It was all that survived the fire that destroyed the original parliamentary buildings. Laura's face was radiant with seeing all the grandeur filled with great moments of history. I joked with saying, "I could run for parliament if only to be able to use this library. What a great place to study!".
We'd had to go through security to enter. I'd been wearing my leatherman multitool and they took that putting it in a cloth envelope for me to pick up at the point of exit. I was so thankful for this. "When I was at the Vatican, they took my Canadian Boy Scout knife. The Pope didn't give it back. I'm much more impressed that our Prime Minister gives back out stuff when we depart.  Perhaps there's something to be said for government that religion has yet to learn."  I've since bought a bigger Canadian Boy Scout knife but still  the Pope is enjoying his boy scout knife. As much as the Prime Minister might need a multi tool I was glad to have mine back.

Outside Laura and I enjoyed the continuously burning flame surrounded by the coats of arms of the provinces showing the date when they entered confederation. British Columbia entered confederation on condition and when the trans continental railway was built in 1871.  Gordon Lightfoot's, Canadian Railway Trilogy is truly one of Canada's greatest songs and a tribute to that vast enterprise that made Canada the nation it is today.
Laura loved her first time in Parliament and I was touched to have so many memories return.
I'm proud to be Canadian and regret how often I've been mean spirited towards our countries truly amazing leadership. It's so easy to be critical but the decisions that have been made throughout history have been so very hard.  I wish everyone would just get on board and do things my way but the fact is that's how everyone feels. Politicians are guaranteed from the get go of not being able to please everyone. It's a tough job and yet more often than not these extraordinary men and women get ridiculed and disparaged for their profound work.
I looked at the portrait of Kim Campbell, Canada's first Lady Prime Minister from British Columbia. I remembered how I didn't like the way she dressed on one occasion.  It's humbling to consider how small minded one can be up. The collective aggreements that these men and women of leadership have achieved against all odds as often as not is amazing.
I can't say enough about my admiration and gratitude for the men and women who have lead this country.  Now I'll no doubt get back to crabbing when I pay my taxes but today I really appreciate my little membership in this great enterprise.
Oh Canada, we stand on guard for thee!
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