Ottawa can change a person. When I was first elected to Parliament in 1993 I told my wife Lydia, “Make sure I stay the person I am.” She’s done a good job.
I grew up on a farm near Springside, Saskatchewan. Today you’d say we lived below the poverty line. I had one pair of trousers, a pair of green button-fly army surplus pants that Mother washed every Saturday. I hated those pants.
As children we walked a mile to a one-room country school. It’s a long trudge in the Saskatchewan winter. My parents had hard times; there were years when crops were wiped out by hail or flood. I recall a 1961 drought where we could barely feed the cattle. I can still see the windblown dirt mixed with the barley. There’s a lot of dirt in the barley in Ottawa, too!
I’d never been in politics before my first election as a Reformer in 1993. All these years I’ve been cautious: am I doing the right thing? Am I working for my constituents? I never sought the Ottawa limelight. I rarely use the fleet of green buses that shuttle MPs and Senators around Parliament Hill; Ottawa is not as cold as Yorkton, and walking is good exercise. I walk from my apartment and take the six flights of stairs to my office rather than ride the elevator.
Parliament can be a head-turning experience. My Christian faith has kept me on the straight and narrow; family is important to me. There are a lot of receptions on the Hill, a lot of drinking. An MP typically sees two dozen invitations a week. In 22 years I’ve followed a simple set of rules: a) only attend receptions that concern issues important to my constituents; b) stick to one glass of wine.
Hard work and drudgery was the first lesson of my boyhood on the farm. As I look back now, the experience molded how I approached my job as an MP. I’ve grown weary of the travel. I return home at every chance though it’s an 11-hour journey by air and car. Constituents expect it, and I do it. Of course there are rewards, but being a parliamentarian is also a job. If not for the commitments I made, I’d have given it up because of the travel.
There’s been one parliamentary perk I’ve grown to treasure. All MPs are entitled to free long-distance calls. When I was first elected our children were in grades six to 11; I vowed to call home every evening and spend ten minutes speaking with each of the children, discussing school and sports and their day. Do you know what happened? In talking to the kids – really talking to them – we developed a relationship I’d have missed if I was home every night. Our children are grown now and live across Canada and the United States; we have 12 grandchildren, and now I speak on the phone with them.
This year I’m retiring. I will cut ties with Ottawa and go home, perhaps do meaningful work with a charity. I’ll definitely spend more time with our grandchildren. And, I have a plan. Lydia loves to quilt, and I love carpentry. I’m going to build 12 hope chests with a homemade quilt in every one for our grandchildren.
(Editor’s note: the author is seven-term MP for Yorkton-Melville, Sask.)