When I first arrived in Ottawa, I was astounded. As a teacher’s advocate I had met and talked with politicians; as a social studies teacher I’d taught students about government and how a bill becomes a law. When I saw how Parliament actually functions, my first reaction was: this is not how it’s supposed to be.
I’d worked as an educator for 30 years, teaching English, history and social studies. Current events were always very important in my class. I took time to delve into topics such as how government works. I felt it was important for students to understand the role of parliament in society, and how the decisions of lawmakers in Ottawa affect everyday lives.
In my class we used role-playing as a teaching tool. There was a local criminal case, an assault on a minor. The community was angry; some residents called for the death penalty. I asked students to think about this issue: my Grade 11 class drafted a bill and guided it through all the stages of a mock parliament; we discussed how a bill would be amended in committee; how different stakeholders would craft changes; how legislators would carefully weigh dissent and opinion.
Students found the process painstakingly slow! Yet it illustrated the care that guides the process, and showed students it isn’t easy to pass a law. Democracy is deliberative. At the end I had the students vote, then took my class to Victoria to witness the legislature in action.
Then I saw how Parliament works.
In truth debate in Parliament is banal. I expected legislators would carefully weigh their words with gems of wisdom and humour. Yet there is little actual debate; this has been the biggest disappointment. It doesn’t matter how compelling or coherent the arguments are; there is often an iron curtain that exists between the two sides of the House.
I was shocked at the process. Debate is limited by closure, a procedure that will permit only two days of debate on a bill. Many MPs are indifferent and never participate. There is no attempt at thoughtful analysis. What is debate without different perspectives? That’s disrespectful.
Experienced parliamentarians told me it might be like that in the House, but when you get to committee, it’ll be wonderful. Not so. My first committee dealt with immigration; we received a number of bills. Occasionally the parliamentary secretary would say, ‘Jinny, you made a good point’ – but only off the record. Opposition amendments were rarely accepted; occasionally the government would co-opt our suggestions as their own.
I was left with a sense the government was determined to do as it liked without input. The process is exclusionary and lacking in openness.
Some MPs come to Ottawa driven by passion for public affairs; others arrive by mishap. What would I tell students now if I revisited my social studies class? I would tell them to wake up: don’t take our democracy for granted.
Processes are disrespected; legislation is hastily passed; dissent is not tolerated. Is this too cynical for schoolchildren? There is no cynicism in asking questions – such as, what does true parliamentary democracy look like? And what are Canadians prepared to do to protect our democracy?
(Editor’s note: the author is former New Democrat MP for Newton-North Delta, B.C. Ms. Sim’s commentary was originally published January 18, 2015)