This past week the family and I spent a delightful dinner with someone who had been one of the great champions in Parliament. Nicole Demers was a Bloc MP, who, like me, lost in the last election. We served for a couple of years together on the Status of Women Committee and I’ve written of her intrepid courage in some previous blog posts.
I worried about her a bit … until I saw her, that is. Her embrace of the family was sincere and touching, but I could sense that she was happy – her political days effectively behind her. We spoke of how we had easily moved on after the election, though we both knew some who hadn’t.
Nicole was always a truth-teller – a fearless one. On so many occasions I recall her standing in Parliament, championing the rights of women. One time she gave a heartfelt and emotional speech and when she concluded I rose to my feet to applaud her eloquent effort, only to discover that I was the only one standing. Embarrassed? No way. We all should have been standing after that particular tour de force.
Now that politics is over for her, she still speaks powerful truth. Like many of us, she believes Parliament has undergone an unpleasant transformation in these last few years. She recalls travels with other members of Parliament in years past when there was always respect shown, despite their various party affiliations. Nicole told my family of one such all-party trip where she grew very sick and was looked after carefully by the other members on the trip. One – former Liberal MP and doctor, Bernard Patry – monitored her throughout and helped to return her home for proper care.
She points to the Conservative victory in 2006 as the time when everything changed. This will sound like a partisan jab to the reader, but from more civil servants than you can count, including those in senior capacities, this is a common theme. That’s also true for advisors and former parliamentarians, many of who were Progressive Conservative in the days before the overthrow. It’s also true for many current MPs and the former Speaker of the House. So Nicole’s observation has good company.
A common theme runs throughout the sentiments expressed by these hundreds of people who comprehended Parliament for years. It used to be that parties would always wage war with one another and at times the balance of power would shift. Now it’s about the war on Parliament itself – its tenets, its support staff, its committees, its senior officers. Historically, those assuming power understood that Parliament itself was the true gatekeeper of accountability and objective outlook. Yet serving in such a capacity often put it in conflict with temporary holders of office. It was a productive tension and served us well for decades. The present government views Parliament as the legacy of a cabal – socialists, separatists, Liberals. The intention of the present occupant of the PMO is not merely to gain power but to destroy this legacy. And when it comes to the Liberal portion of it, the desire is strong to pour salt over it all, ensuring Liberalism can never rise again. One former Progressive Conservative PM told me in my office two years ago that by such an all-out attack on the system of governance, the present Conservative brand will strip our democracy of some of its greatest history and strengths. Everything – all of it – in my brief parliamentary stint has taught me that this is true.
As it is for Nicole. She views MPs and their staff as those caught within a partisan cycle that is in fact a vortex, pulling things ever downward. And for government MPs, she views them as trapped within the cells of their own power. They can’t reach for parliamentary legitimacy if it means that they could lose their hold on office. So they maintain their grasp on the one while failing to reach for the other – the gap is too wide. She has it exactly right. We wouldn’t accept any such outward inclination in our workplace, the kid’s hockey teams, at school, or even within our own home, yet it is condoned by the government of the day and an electorate that just can’t see the point of it all anyway.
Jane noticed as we left that Nicole Demers hadn’t seemed bitter at all. That was my sense too. In fact, she’s moved on quickly and easily. Living alone, she has sold her house and now lives in an apartment. “I want to spend the rest of my life volunteering for the causes I believe in,” she states firmly. “Are you looking for work?” I asked, to which she replied, “I only wish to volunteer.” In truth, she is like other former members of Parliament who have escaped the bonds of severe partisanship. They note the difference between politics and democracy and they choose to pursue the latter before it is destroyed by the former.
I now know many former parliamentarians who are back in their communities, bringing the extensive knowledge they gleaned over federal matters and applying them to local circumstances. They are discovering that democracy is easier to practice at home than in Ottawa and in the knowledge of that truth they are liberated. It won’t always be like this in Ottawa, but for now Ottawa’s loss can often be a gain for local communities. Nicole Demers is a perfect case in point. Bravo Nicole.