OLIP in Ottawa: Legislative Affairs: Ian McCowan, Charles Robert, Heather Lank, and Michel Patrice

PRIVY.JPGA view of Ottawa from the Privy Council Office.

Behind the inevitable excitement of study tours for the OLIP interns is the goal of learning about the comparative legislative context, process, and peculiarities of other legislatures across Canada and the world. The interns were especially fortunate to meet with some of the best possible guides into the world of the Canadian Parliament: Charles Robert, Clerk of the House of Commons, Heather Lank, Principal Clerk of the Senate, and Michel Patrice, Deputy Clerk (Administration) of the House of Commons. In addition, we met with Deputy Cabinet Secretary (Governance) Ian McCowan, who introduced us to the inner workings of the Cabinet Office, an even more foreign world to the average Canadian citizen! The chance to have open and informative discussions with these behind-the-scenes legislative heroes is one of the great privileges of the OLIP program.

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Friday morning, Charles Robert and Heather Lank welcomed us into a committee room in the soon-to-be-closed Center Block for a crash course on the procedure of the Canadian Parliament. We talked about Mr. Robert and Ms. Lank’s impressive careers, which wind through the House, the Senate, and back, giving both of them enviable perspectives on the Canadian legislative process. We were surprised to realize the Senate they were describing, soon to have a majority of independent senators, was perhaps growing into the Senate of “sober second thought” we learned about in school, and also something more, something new still taking form – and yet M. Robert and Ms. Lank emphasized that we were only seeing the latest evolution in a 800-year old parliamentary tradition. By studying the whole history of our medieval institutions, our clerks also gain an appreciation for their flexibility, depth, and capacity for change – and, of course, an appreciation for tradition.

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Deputy Secretary Ian McCowan sat down with us in the Cabinet Office, contained in a historic building facing Center Block, which contains Prime Minister Trudeau’s second office (no, we didn’t get to see inside), and for us political geeks, lots of wonderful historical photos and artifacts. We talked at length about the difficult task of political transitions, bringing one government into the Cabinet Office and moving the previous administration out, and the zero-to-hundred start that all Cabinet Office staff have to make the morning after the election. As deputy cabinet secretary of Governance, Mr. McCowan is essentially the deputy minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, and deputy to Prime Minister Trudeau. He gave us a valuable view into the inner workings of the Cabinet administration, and the difficult work of setting and tracking legislative priorities, as well as the recent practice of making ministerial mandate letters public. He closed by insisting we accompany him on brief tour (so we at least got to see his office!).

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Michel Patrice very generously rounded off our Ottawa visit with a long discussion on the difficult task of administrating a geographically and politically diverse 338-member Parliament and maintaining open institutions while respecting safety concerns. Having also served in both the Senate and House, M. Patrice spoke a little of the differences between serving each institution, and the slight disorientation of moving from one to the other. He emphasized that each Parliament and legislature can be so idiosyncratic that often clerks will spend their whole careers at one institution, as a lot of their most valuable experience and knowledge is not easily transferred to a different context. This includes the magic it takes to effectively administer the House, the work of which fills up most of Ms. Lank and Mr. Patrice and Robert’s duties, even though clerks are usually only recognized publicly – if at all – for their legislative work. It isn’t all tricolor hats and white collars!

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We were touched by the generosity of all four, and came away with an invaluable perspective on how Parliament grinds, bumps, hops, and, sometimes, glides along under their able care.

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