On Wednesday of last week, I happened to be in Ottawa. It was a clear, crisp fall day and I decided to walk up to the Parliament buildings and take “the tour.”
A pleasant greeter told me that the tours were over for the day but I could go up to the tower and visit the memorial chamber should I desire.
It was only after I was in the building that my son (articling in Ottawa) texted that the Senate was in session and Sen. Pamela Wallin was to speak. An hour or so later, I found myself in the visitor’s gallery of the Senate Chamber in anticipation of a spectacle not unlike the circus of ancient Rome. I was not prepared for what happened next.
The chamber was alive with the bee-like activity of the pages and assistants as the senators and clerks took their respective places. Attendance was 100 per cent or nearly so. The speaker was next on the scene and deftly brought the chamber to order and to business. The chamber itself, like the Parliament buildings as a whole, is a tribute to craftsmanship inspired by statesmanship.
The structure in many respects typifies simplicity of form, being a simple rectangle. The large paintings which help to fill the massive wall space speak in picture form the story of our nation.
I had just come from the Memorial Hall where I had read the names of men and women who had sacrificed their future for ours and was, therefore, sensitive to the importance of the structures that safeguard our free society. The building was meant to serve not only as a physical structure to house these activities but, more importantly, a reminder that our society drew its lifeblood from those who gave of themselves with no thought of what they would get in return.
If democracy’s “beating heart” is the rule of law, its “oxygen” is truth.
Would I find any in the Red Chamber?
Prior to that day, I had never given much thought to the Senate, or the role of senators in our government.
I expected them to look bored, old and generally overfed — oh yes, and white.
What I did see was something other than I expected. Apart from the fact that there appeared to be few, if any, “young people” (I use the word loosely) seated at the double desks, the occupants otherwise typified the human mosaic of the multicultural society in which we live.
What I heard, however, impressed me more. Once the routine business of announcing the reading of bills was done with, the senators moved to questions.
One of the first to stand was Sen. Mobina Jaffer, a lawyer, originally from Uganda but living in B.C. — a polyglot in six languages. She pleaded (in English and French, if I recall) for the government take a stand against the Quebec Charter of Values, saying that for the first time in the 40 years spent in Canada, her stance on this legislation had occasioned her very first personally directed experience of xenophobia. Her appeal was reasoned and eloquent.
The next speaker was Sen. Lillian Dyck from Saskatchewan who rose to speak on a point in the throne speech. From the gallery, I could see a middle-aged aboriginal lady who, I subsequently discovered, holds a PhD in biological psychiatry.
She pointed out that reference to aboriginal women as victims of sexual violence is immediately followed by a reference to prostitution, which is immediately followed by a pledge to honour “service” animals.
In the six-sentence cascade from “aboriginal women” to “prostitution” to “dogs,” the senator felt a deeper, more subtle and less-reflective discrimination was at work here.
The government was called on to explain itself to the Canadian people and, more specifically, the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada.
It wasn’t long after this that the “circus” I had come to see did start, but not before I caught a glimpse of intelligent and thoughtful people discussing serious issues in a respectful and yet forceful manner.
I felt the weight of the tradition of democracy in our country, both in its buildings and memorials, and in the people appointed to safeguard this tradition.
The Senate as an institution may not be popular or efficient, and may still be too partisan in many respects, but I, for one, am hopeful that this particular part of our democratic expression remains in some form so the voices I heard on that fall afternoon continue to be heard.
Stephen Darcy writes from Mount Pearl.