In this edition of the Canadian Parliamentary Review we turn our eye to what one contributor calls “the country’s most dramatic, if accidental, parliamentary reform”: constituency offices. With well over 1,000 constituency offices at the federal, provincial and territorial levels combined, many people across the country will have at least some familiarity with these institutions – whether simply passing by on a street or actively seeking assistance from their constituency office in person, by phone or by mail.
Upon replacing long-time Liberal Herb Epp as MPP for the riding of Waterloo North in 1990, Progressive Conservative Elizabeth Witmer hired two of her predeccessor’s constituency office staff. In this interview, Witmer notes that although such arrangements are uncommon between politicians with different partisan affiliations, adopting a firmly non-partisan approach to hiring staff for constituency work served her and her community well.
CPR: Can you tell us how you became involved in politics and the path that took you to your election as an MPP?
Members of the Legislative Assembly in Canada’s smallest province are not provided with a budget to establish their own constituency offices. Instead, as Deputy Speaker Paula Biggar explains, backbench MLAs must do constituency work and hold meetings in a variety of locations including their offices in the capital buildings, local government-run information access centres, libraries, coffee shops or even in their own homes. Biggar notes that while PEI MLAs are the lowest paid in the country, they tend to be, and are expected to be, the most accessible to constituents.
CPR: Constituency offices seem to have developed haphazardly across Canada over the past 40 to 50 years and are now well-established in many jurisdictions. Why do you think Prince Edward Island has not adopted them for provincial politics?
MPP Gilles Bisson represents a large Northern Ontario riding. To maximize his access to constituents in geographically dispersed communities he began sharing office space with two of his federal colleagues. In this interview, Bisson describes the many benefits of this arrangement for his constituents and how staff members in each office manage their casework flow.
A Constituency of Millions: “Elected” Senators Discuss Alternatives to Operating a Province-wide Constituency Office
Unlike Members of Parliament who are elected to well-defined constituencies, it’s unusual for Canadian Senators to operate constituency offices in their efforts to represent their home provinces/regions. Former Senator Bert Brown of Alberta, who was appointed to the Senate after a province-sponsored election process, ran an office in Calgary as a part of his efforts to be an active representative to the people of his province; but in separate interviews with the Canadian Parliamentary Review, two current “elected” Senators from the province, Senators Doug Black and Betty Unger, suggest they prefer to employ alternatives to a stationary physical space in their outreach and consultations.
In this roundtable discussion, three MLAs from rural/northern parts of the Northwest Territories reflect on the unique challenges parliamentarians face when doing constituency work in remote communities. They explain that offices often tailor themselves to the needs of the community. For MLAs, an office helps to create work/life balance, offers a source of much-needed local employment, and provides an additional connection to the seat of government. They are also the office of last appeal for constituents frustrated by bureaucratic decisions.
CPR: When you represent a geographically vast district, how do you decide where to set up your constituency office(s)? How do you balance where you spend your time?
With 36 per cent of its MLAs now women, British Columbia currently has the highest proportion of women parliamentarians in Canada. Moreover, women hold key decision-making positions in the province as Lieutenant Governor, Premier and Speaker. While celebrating these milestones, in this article, B.C. Speaker Linda Reid warns against complacency and urges parliamentarians across Canada and the Commonwealth to continue implementing changes designed to facilitate a level playing field for women interested in political life. She provides several examples of innovations which have contributed to the province’s success at bolstering the number of women representatives and improving the quality of their work life in politics.
In 2013, some senior undergraduate students in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University were given the opportunity to be the first class to enroll in an innovative course called the Constituency Office Project. Pairing each student with a Member of Parliament or Member of Provincial Parliament in the Greater Toronto Area, the course allowed students to experience the practical application of political theories they had learned in the classroom. In this article Patrice Dutil outlines the steps taken to set up the course, lists some of its scholastic resources, and shares the feedback he received from the first participants.
Drawing from several chapters contained in Canadian Democracy from the Ground Up: Perceptions and Performance, in this article Elisabeth Gidengil and Heather Bastedo examine citizens’ evaluations of their elected representatives and assess several key aspects of MPs’ performance in light of these evaluations. Noting some possible reasons for a disjuncture between citizens’ perceptions of MPs and how MPs perform their representational roles, the authors suggest some possible avenues for improving MPs’ public image.
Satisfaction with the way democracy works in Canada lags behind a number of other established democracies. In fact, only a bare majority of Canadians (55 per cent) are satisfied with the country’s democratic performance, placing Canada in 11th place among 20 countries in which the same question was posed.1 Moreover, dissatisfaction with the way democracy works in Canada has grown in recent years. Canadians appear to be particularly displeased with the performance of their MPs.2 But is their dissatisfaction warranted?
In Tragedy in the Commons: Former Members of Parliament Speak Out About Canada’s Failing Democracy, authors Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan draw on exit interviews with 80 former parliamentarians to reveal how federal politicians felt about their experiences leading and directing the country. Chief among their findings: many MPs did not have a clear understanding about what their job in Ottawa was, and often felt stymied by a partisan system that constricted their freedom in Ottawa. These selected excerpts from Chapter 4 (“What Job Is This Anyway?”) suggest that many MPs interviewed found the most tangible result of their work to be individual casework for constituents in their home ridings, prompting the authors to ask if all constituency work alone is the best use of an MP’s talents and time.
Once they’ve faced down the challenges of their first weeks in Ottawa—where the office is, how to claim expenses, where to find staff, how to get to the bathroom—new MPs face a more long-term hurdle: managing the many demands on their attention and schedule. The former Liberal MP for Miramichi, New Brunswick, Charles Hubbard, for one, was astonished by the number of people who approached his office to seek help from one of the federal bureaucracies, such as Immigration Canada, Revenue Canada or Service Canada. “Your office is always facing calls where somebody is frustrated with trying to approach the government,” said Hubbard. “When you think of somebody having trouble with his income tax or with his EI or trying to access the Canada Pension or an old age pension, and they get the proverbial runaround, they wind up calling your office.”