Trip to Ottawa

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(HOST) Commentator Willem Lange and his wife have been visiting Ottawa and watching the way our neighbors run their affairs.

(LANGE) Mother and I are seated in the gallery of the Canadian House of Commons. I told a Canadian friend we were planning to see Parliament in action. He responded: I’d pretty well described it: “inaction.” It seems many Canadians feel the same way we often do about our elected representatives. But I’ll take this over ours any day.

There’s an air of fragility to the parliamentary system as contrasted to ours, where the dominant party can fall into disgrace, but remain in power till at least the next scheduled election.

Mother and I have a floor plan of the House below, with the names of the members and the locations of their seats. So I’ve identified a couple I recognize – Paul Martin, the Prime Minister, and Ethel Blondin, a First Nations woman representing Northwest Territories – and whenever a member rises to speak, we count seats and check our floor plan to see who it is.

Security here is tight. My prostheses set off the alarms, and my Swiss Army knife is waiting for me at the exit. But it’s been striking how cheerful and polite all the security people have been. Just now the guard behind us slipped to Mother’s side and asked her very nicely to sit back from the rail. She’d been trying to get a better look at the speaker below us on our side.

Till two in the afternoon, the action is largely speeches, read from scripts and much more reasoned (and boring) than passionate. The members’ seats were then less than half-occupied. But by two o’clock the floor was full, the questions began to fly, and the nature of parliamentary debate became clear to us: The Govern-
ment attempts to govern; and the Opposition tries to hold it to its promises and topple it, if it can.

“Mr. Speaker,” begins one Conservative member “will the Honourable Minister explain why it has taken so many years to discover that some of our First Nation villages have toxic water supplies, and why nothing has been done about it for so long?”

The Honourable Minister leaps to his feet and declares that if the member had read a newspaper in the last year, he’d know something is being done. This elicits hoots and catcalls from everyone in opposition. What a great way to run a country!

On a regular basis the Opposition gets to hold the Government’s feet to the fire. This may produce more heat than light, but Canadians can see it on the evening news and judge for themselves.

The members switch effortlessly from English to French. The Speaker, knows everyone by name and recognizes each one with no apparent effort. There are three pages sitting in front of his chair with their backs to him; but when he rises, they jump up, too. How do they do that?

This is Willem Lange up in the Speaker’s Gallery, and I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer, and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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