These interns want you to know there’s a lot more to Parliament than yelling

Young Canadians who participate in a coveted internship program on Parliament Hill say federal politics isn’t anything like the version of it you see on TV.

In fact, they say, it’s far more civilized and less combative than video clips from question period might lead you to believe.

“Before coming to Ottawa and getting to work on the Hill, question period basically defined what politics looked like to me,” said Ahdithya Visweswaran, an intern from Edmonton.

“But what you don’t see on the screen is the MP crossing the floor to go talk to someone, get a little scoop on — ‘Hey, my constituent needs their casework looked at right away’ — or another MP coming and just having a conversation with them behind the curtains.”

“MPs aren’t just screaming at each other,” he said. “They’re working together to achieve what they want, which is a better life for all Canadians across the country.”

LISTEN: Meet the young people with a front-row seat in Parliament

The House10:36Meet the young people with a front-row seat watching MPs at work

Visweswaran is one of four participants in the Parliamentary Internship Programme (PIP) who spoke with The House. They all said they were struck by the amount of co-operation and shared values they observed in Parliament.

“If an everyday Canadian or a political science student is watching question period, that is incredibly different than what happens at the committee level or what happens in constituency offices,” said Katie Campbell, an intern from Winnipeg. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh as Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre looks on during a reception on Jan. 30, 2023 in Ottawa. Such moments of cross-party civility may seem rare — but interns say they happen often when the cameras aren’t on. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

“There are so many nuances associated with parliamentary duties and how to represent Canadians that you don’t get to learn in a classroom,” she said. Being a parliamentary intern, she added, means getting to be “on the ground of what politics actually looks like, and learn from your MP, learn from your staffers, learn from constituents as well.” 

Both sides of the aisle

The 10 to 12 people awarded spots in the program annually each spend half of their internship with an MP from the governing party and the other half with an opposition party. It’s one of the few truly non-partisan initiatives on the Hill, said Paul Thomas, the program’s director. 

“It is really quite fascinating to me to see the interns discussing how many of the issues from their different placements are the same, whether it’s a Conservative riding, Liberal, NDP, Bloc,” said Thomas. “And also that MPs are often more willing to work together and share information than might be expected.”

A legislature and its lawn on a sunny summer day. There are construction cranes behind it.
Centre Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Aug. 28, 2023. (Brian Morris/CBC)

Catherine Despatie said she saw a lot of common ground between the two MPs she spent time with during her 10-month internship.

“I’ve worked for two incredible MPs, both women, different ideologies, different parties, but similar in their approach to politics, which is that ‘I am an accessible person for my constituency,'” said Despatie, who is from Ottawa. 

A job that’s tougher than it looks

The program, which was founded in 1970, also involves interns spending time in MPs’ riding offices.

Arianne Joyce Padillo, of Mississauga, Ont., said those days spent in the riding offered an eye-opening glimpse of just how many people turn to their MPs for help.

“Getting to do the riding visits and working in the constituency office for a week, you get to see there are actually people, constituents that go into those offices and say, ‘Can we meet with my MP?'” she said. “Or, ‘Hey, listen, I have this visa issue or this immigration issue.’ There is a lot that they look to their MP for, regardless of whether or not they voted for them.”

The interns also got to understand how hard the job can be.

“One thing that my first MP said to me, that has really stuck with me, is, ‘The day that the seven-hour drive from the riding to Ottawa becomes a chore is the day that I know that this job is no longer for me,’ and that he needs to constantly remind himself that being in Ottawa is a privilege and is a duty to represent his constituents first and foremost,” said Visweswaran.

A close-up view of the face of a clock on Parliament Hill.
The Peace Tower on Parliament Hill during the summer of 2023. (Brian Morris/CBC)

Being a member of Parliament often includes being on the receiving end of some abusive behaviour — something the interns also saw first-hand.

During the first month of her placement, Padillo said she was on her own in the office during question period when her MP rose to answer a question. Shortly after, the phone rang.

“The person who called was not even a constituent … but they still took the time to look up their office number in Ottawa,” said Padillo. “It turned out to be a really aggressive person who was just very angry. And I said I would pass on a message, but that message was not worth passing on because it was just full of expletives and nothing valuable.”

Because it was her first such experience, she said, it left her a little shaken.

“But then after that, I got right back to work,” she said. “If it doesn’t faze an MP, it’s not going to faze me. And it’s not enough to turn me away from the opportunities that are present on the Hill.”

Despatie said that an MP is often seen not as an individual, but as “a voice, as a person that shows up on TV.”

“It’s been a good reminder for me that MPs are people and they have families and they have lives and they have responsibilities and they are juggling it all.”

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