Column: The People’s Parliament

Thinking back to a 9/11 security briefing in Ottawa, where my MP sneaked me into a no-go zone for journalists. Are we at a turning point?

I lived and worked in Terrace for 11 years, and one of the perks of being a newspaper reporter in a remote corner of B.C. is the cool places the job takes you.

There was the day I hopped on a Cessna six-seater, joining the NDP hopeful on the hustings in the federal riding of Skeena – one of the nation’s largest in size if not population – touching down in Atlin, Iskut, Dease Lake and Telegraph Creek, where wild horses scattered from the gravel runway and the closest ATM was a 10-hour drive away.

“If we drove, the election would be over,” the candidate reasoned.

Then there was the flight to Masset on Haida Gwaii, the handful of helicopter rides, road trips to the Nass Valley, Prince Rupert and Kitimat, and, most thrilling of all, a ride-along in an aerobatic plane the size of my ‘87 Nissan Pulsar.

In early December 2001, courtesy of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), I was invited to Ottawa for security briefings for community newspaper journalists.

It was barely two months after the attacks on the Pentagon and New York City. The ‘9/11’ shorthand wasn’t yet accepted newspaper style but already there were big changes in airline travel and for anyone entering federal buildings. Ditch the nail clippers but don’t forget your soon-to-be security-enhanced passport. The World Had Changed.

Picture two-dozen journalists from places like Weyburn, Sask, Cochrane, AB, and Inverness, NS, shepherded through a succession of government offices in our nation’s capital by a French-accented handler who exuded an air of unflappable, career bureaucrat cool.

Many briefings were on deep background only, meaning the stories we’d file at home would cite unnamed officials, and not the CSIS or RCMP officials we spoke with. Federal cabinet ministers like Allan Rock were less reticent.

We absorbed a troubling new reality of air marshals, locked cabin doors, and sweeping federal powers, from pending border control measures to anti-terrorism legislation that would give police, our justice system and intelligence agencies broader rein.

The highlight for me was the day we went to Parliament Hill, already home to strict new security measures. Bags were searched. ID scrutinized.

Our tour included the rotunda, the press gallery, Senate, parliamentary library, and the bustling House of Commons during question period. We capped it off with a genuine media scrum in the hallway of this impossibly grand and imposing Gothic building, school groups and tourists traipsing by.

Later, my MP Andy Burton (Conservative Alliance), the likable former mayor of Stewart, sneaked me into the Opposition lobby, strictly a no-go zone for journalists. But I was also a constituent, so a peek was definitely fair game, he winked.

It’s a narrow, corridor of a room with computer pods and white boards, shared in those days with the NDP. A couple of doorways led directly to the floor of the House of Commons, steps away. Eyes wide, I took it all in, feeling more Canadian than I ever had in my life.

We were a world away from the dirt roads and wide vistas of northern B.C., surrounded by cathedral-like hallways and well-appointed legislative chambers.

Out in the hall, I took his picture as he sat on the stone sill of an arched window. In the soft winter light, I noticed his lapel pin, a U.S.-Canada flag symbolizing his party’s stance for tougher anti-terrorism measures, and remarked on his tie – producing the disarming confession he’d bought it at the parliamentary gift shop.

Trying to make sense of the shootings in Ottawa last week, I wonder if that same window where I quizzed my MP about his first year in office now has a bullet hole.

Marveling along with the rest of the country at the heroics of Sgt.-at-Arms Kevin Vickers, I can’t help but think it would be a shame if Parliament became a fortress for the few. Are we at another turning point for security?

The day of the shootings, the Globe and Mail described Vickers as a fierce defender of public access to Parliament, citing a quote saying he approaches his job considering the relationship that must be maintained between Canadians and the Parliament buildings, turning down a political press conference in favour of a conflicting school trip from Moose Jaw, for example.

An observer noted, “It’s fundamental to democracy that citizens have access to their place, their building. This is a House of Commons and it’s for the commoners,” according to the Globe’s Erin Anderssen, who added, “Something to remember… especially on a grim day such as this, when an attack on that place risks closing doors that once stood open.”

– Jennifer Lang is editor of the Cloverdale Reporter

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