Guest Commentary

Garry Breitkreuz

Survivor’s Guide To Parliament

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 did 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 through the years I was cautious: Am I doing the right thing? Am I working for my constituents? I never sought the Ottawa limelight. I rarely used 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 walked from my apartment and took the six flights of stairs to my office rather than ride the elevator.

Parliament can be a head-turning experience. My Christian faith kept me on the straight and narrow; family is important to me. I’ve seen legislators lose their marriages. Nobody ever seems happier when it’s all over.

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 followed a simple set of rules: a) only attend receptions that concern issues important to my constituents; b) stick to one glass of wine.

Free liquor is a peril in Ottawa. I recall a young MP who had a next-door office and enjoyed cocktail parties. When I worked late some evenings, I’d hear him yelling at constituents on the phone. “He’s not getting re-elected,” I thought to myself. He wasn’t.

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 grew weary of the travel. I returned home at every chance though it’s an 11-hour journey by air and car. Constituents expected it, and I did 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 was one parliamentary perk I grew 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.

(Editor’s note: the author was seven-term MP for Yorkton-Melville, Sask. Mr. Breitkreuz retired undefeated in 2015)

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