From BBQs to basketball camp: What MPs have been up to this summer
NDP MP Jenny Kwan in her Vancouver East riding. (Jenny Kwan / Facebook)
OTTAWA – MPs have been off the Hill for nearly three months, taking their annual reprieve from the daily grind of working in the largest legislative body in Canada to spend the summer in their ridings.
There’s been no question period, or late-night debate duty. So what have the over 300 elected officials been up to since mid-June?
For one thing, all will say it has not been a break, and for some it has been busier than when they are in Ottawa. CTVNews.ca caught up with more than half a dozen MPs from various parties and the almost unanimous reasons why: A backlog of case work or constituent meetings and trying to attend as many community events as possible.
In a recently published report titled “Beyond the Barbecue,” civic engagement charity Samara Centre for Democracy interviewed 54 past MPs from across the political spectrum and found that the case work—from immigration paperwork, to tax issues—and expectations to attend a large number of community events, are taking up a growing about of constituency time.
These two focuses, while central to an MP’s role, are edging out the amount of consultation with constituents MPs are able to do, according to the report.
This trend appeared to bear out with the MPs CTVNews.ca spoke with. The workaround most seem to be using is to view the dozens of community events they attend as more than ribbon-cutting or hotdog serving opportunities, though none were complaining about it.
In most cases that’s where MPs say they try to work the crowd for their perspectives, and get a reality check on the issues on the minds of the people they are paid to represent. The big topics at the doorstep this summer have been NAFTA, Trans Mountain, the summer jobs values attestation, and legalized marijuana, MPs said.
MPs from both sides of the House of Commons say that being home for an extended period of time over the summer is crucial and important both for this meaningful engagement with their constituents, but also to have some semblance of a “normal” life with their loved ones.
Both of these things enable MPs to return to the Hill well-equipped for the daily grind of political Ottawa. Before that happens in just a few days, here’s a snapshot of summer 2018 from the perspectives of MPs.
Delta, B.C. Liberal MP Carla Qualtrough
“Overall it’s just a different kind of busy,” says Carla Qualtrough about the summer months in her riding. As the federal minister of public services and procurement and accessibility, she has the added task of balancing cabinet duties with constituency work, with the former often winning out when the House of Commons is in session.
“It’s an opportunity to, for me anyways, as a cabinet minister, to really dig in on the constituency side and meet with people who have been patiently waiting to meet with me because of my Ottawa duties,” Qualtrough told CTVNews.ca. “Either could take up 110 per cent of my time.”
She said the summer gives bureaucrats in Ottawa the time to focus on their files, and not the “noise” that comes from Parliament being in session, like prepping her for the daily question period.
To get a few hours of ministerial work in each day, she has been waking on the west coast at 6 a.m., or 9 a.m. Ottawa time for meetings and calls, before heading to her constituency office.
Qualtrough also found a few days to get away with her family to a Great Wolf Lodge in Washington state.
“It’s a lot of fun to be back in the riding for the summer,” she said. “I get to put my kids to bed at night. So even if my days are very hectic and a lot of evenings I’m out, at the end of the day I still get to kiss my kids goodnight… there’s a comfort there.”
Qualtrough said she thinks there’s room to better balance how much time MPs spend at home, and in Ottawa.
“I think that having more time during the year in the riding would benefit Canadians as a whole…. If I could fly home every Thursday night I would spend every Friday in my riding and do the stuff I’m talking to you about now,” she said.
The government did try to eliminate Friday sittings last year, but the proposition ended in acrimony after a strong backlash from the opposition.
Edmonton Riverbend, Alta. Conservative MP Matt Jeneroux
For Matt Jeneroux, the summer has “gone by too fast,” from attending over a dozen community events on any given weekend; to travelling the country as part of his critic role, which recently changed from science and innovation, to infrastructure and communities.
Though he did find time for French lessons, and made a trip to the Capital, with his daughters, where he got to give them a “where dad disappears to” tour of his Ottawa apartment, Parliament, and some nearby national museums.
On how his French is coming along, Jeneroux said some days are great, “and then they’re like ‘OK, now let’s talk passé compose.’”
He also had Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer spend some time in his riding this summer and took him around. Jeneroux said this summer he also spoke with constituents about what the party’s positioning will be going in to the next election and gauging them on what Ottawa “bubble” issues had permeated, and which weren’t sticking.
Jeneroux said he is envious of the MPs who live in the Ottawa area and don’t have to commute each weekend to get home. The travel back and forth is something he said he never looks forward to, and has relished not having to do each weekend this summer.
“It’s certainly a relief to not have to get on an airplane at the end of that weekend and everything that goes along with it,” he said.
Vancouver East, B.C. NDP MP Jenny Kwan
Jenny Kwan is her party’s immigration critic, and it’s not been uncommon for her whole day to be thrown out the window when a breaking issue emerges. For the second summer in a row she had to travel back to Ottawa for special committee meetings.
“That, I have to say, threw my schedule way off and we had to cancel a whole bunch of stuff that I was slated to appear at community events and had to reschedule all of those, because I had to be back at committee,” she told CTVNews.ca.
Though, when she’s able to dedicate a full day in her riding, she says it often is a combination of the following: meetings with constituents in her office regarding casework, or about a policy issue; attending community events; making media calls; working on correspondence; and keeping in touch with NDP colleagues, including NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh’s office. Sometimes she’ll pack up a tent and the constituency or case paperwork she’d need and set up a mobile office in different parts of her riding.
“For me that is invaluable … if you’re not connecting with the community, you’re not talking with them and being in touch with them, it’s pretty hard to represent them,” she said, adding that if she had more time during the year to meet with more people it would help make each day feel less jam-packed and allow her to give certain cases the extra time they need.
Kwan is a single mom, so being able to spend more time with her kids over the summer makes a difference. She said people remark at her out doing “normal stuff, stuff that everybody does” when at the grocery store or when she’s out getting ice cream.
Northwest Territories Liberal MP Larry Bagnell
Larry Bagnell’s riding is the size of France, which has meant that much of his summer has been spent on the road. His home is in Whitehorse, but he often has days where he’s driving hundreds of kilometres to visit all the communities he represents.
One such trip around graduation season ended with him hitchhiking four rides back the 300 km to Whitehorse when the engine in his car “blew up” on a stretch of road with no cell service.
“That type of thing doesn’t happen in a Toronto community where you can see all your constituents out your condo window,” Bagnell told CTVNews.ca.
He said the longer stretch of daylight over the summer makes it easier to pack lots into each day, and it has done wonders for the kohlrabi and other vegetables in his greenhouse.
Bagnell told CTVNews.ca that he likes the ability to “do business” at community events and hear from people who he probably wouldn’t otherwise.
“People appreciate when you go. They always say: ‘it’s great to see you’… They get to actually talk to their MP and give their view on whatever they want to talk about… and you get to do business because they’ll approach you on things that they wanted to talk to you about, and so I think it’s good that way to be around the riding and find out what people are thinking,” he said.
Like many MPs, Bagnell has his Ottawa staff come up to the riding for a period of time in the summer to get a feel for what it’s like, and this year he’s also played host to fellow MPs, ministers, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Canada Day in Dawson City.
Brampton East, Ont. Liberal MP Raj Grewal
The last two months in Raj Grewal’s riding have been busier than it was on Parliament Hill the month prior, he said. This is largely because of the amount of immigration casework that has come across his desk, attributable to his riding having one of the largest number of visible minority constituents.
Grewal said it’s also common for people to come into his office with other questions that end up being municipal, or provincial matters. It’s something lots of MPs deal with, making it not uncommon to see MP offices next to the local MPP or MLA. Grewal said he doesn’t mind the garbage removal questions because he views his role locally as being a problem solver for people.
With the growing diversity in his riding comes dozens of summer cultural events. He said on an average summer weekend he’d attend several events.
“Friday evening and Saturday and Sunday all day, I'm just at events. Like all day at various community BBQs, seniors centres, weddings, you name it, office openings, park openings, basketball tournaments… if we're invited, we generally go,” Grewal told CTVNews.ca.
His tip on making it through so many shindigs? Don’t eat at them.
“I have a rule not to eat at events because I have so many events throughout the day that if I ate at every event, I'd be the most unhealthy person ever… but the food always smells good,” he said. “Plus, you don't want to get your shirt dirty.”
Between this, Grewal also got married this summer, and ran a basketball camp at a local high school.
“You can't have a job description for an MP because the job of an MP is different depending on what area of the country you represent,” Grewal said.
Parry Sound-Muskoka, Ont. Conservative MP Tony Clement
Tony Clement said the summer months are like “rush hour” for him, where he has longer stretches than just Friday to Sunday, to be out in his community.
“I love the retail side of politics, I love talking to people. When I go to events like this, even if it's small talk, you're getting a sense of what's going on with people and their lives,” Clement said.
He said while some of what he hears is complaints and rarely just about federal matters, the most common feedback he gets is surprise, and appreciation for the number of events he makes it to.
The 13-year MP has had time to better master the balance of constituency and legislative work than some of the rookie MPs interviewed, which was reflected in his disagreement with the idea that a politicians’ best work is done in the House of Commons.
“I don't believe it's right to say we have an important job in Ottawa and this constituency time gets in the way. I don't see it that way at all,” he said.
For him, planning the events he attends has become quite methodical. Clement told CTVNews.ca that he and his constituency manager go through all the invites he gets, as well as mining Facebook for events happening that he wasn’t asked to attend but might be key to attend.
“You have a rhythm… I'm in the summer festival mode. In a couple of weeks the fall festivals kick in, and the Terry Fox runs and then before you know it, you're into the Santa Claus parades,” Clement said.
Fundy Royal, N.B. Liberal MP Alaina Lockhart
“Typically my days in Ottawa clearly are spent on that legislative piece… but I find through the summer in the riding, it’s a lot about connecting with constituents, organizations, and communities to basically get my marching orders, where I hear what’s important to them,” said Alaina Lockhart.
Lockhart represents a rural riding which means on a typical day she could be in several different communities.
This summer she has attended agricultural fairs, took part in an axe throwing event, and hopped on a tractor to plow a plot of land as part of a Canadian plowing championship event in a community within her riding.
She spends a good amount of time on the road, usually travelling with staff so they can spend the time in the car between meetings planning other work.
In the three years she’s been an MP, Lockhart has put 190,000 kilometers on her vehicle.
As was the experience of Liberal MPs across the country, Lockhart played host to a few federal cabinet ministers this summer: Seniors and Accessibility Minister Filomena Tassi; Infrastructure and Communities Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne; and Fisheries, Oceans, and the Canadian Coast Guard Minister Jonathan Wilkinson. They were in town at different points over the month of August to hold meetings on their files.
Lockhart said she said the information she’s gathering over her time in the riding will feed into her contribution in the House of Commons, saying she feels more comfortable debating issues and legislation that she’s spoken with her constituents about.
“You call it the barbecue circuit but the reason you go out and do these things is to talk to people, to hear what they’re thinking. ‘Are we going in the right direction as a government?’ ‘Are there things that we need to be focusing on?’ I find it very fulfilling,” she said.
With files from Laura Payton