Workplace and symbol

It was about 1 p.m. One of the clerks outside the chamber went over the rules I was to keep in mind when I went inside: Enter quietly. No briefcases or parcels. No applauding or talking out loud. Rise to your feet when the Speaker enters, when you’re introduced and when you leave. It made me think I was entering the Vatican.

But it was actually the Speaker’s Gallery at the Alberta Legislature in Edmonton last Thursday afternoon. Eventually, the MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly) for Sherwood Park, just outside Edmonton, rose to address the government and opposition members present.

“Speaker, I rise to introduce distinguished visitors,” MLA Annie McKitrick said.

Then, she went on to point out a couple of entrepreneurs in the gallery, the mayor of Sherwood Park, and me, whom she referred to as an “accomplished author, who will be speaking later today about the 100th anniversary of the famous Battle of Vimy Ridge.”

The last time I had actually sat in the Alberta Legislature, it was in the early 1980s in the press gallery, where I took notes and reported on issues facing a very different provincial assembly. Back then Conservative MLAs dominated, with but a few MLAs on the opposite side of the House, including Grant Notley, the leader of the Opposition NDP from Spirit River, Alberta. Now, nearly 40 years later, Rachel Notley, Grant’s daughter, sat as Premier amid an NDP majority.

(I was actually on the air on CBC Radio, Oct. 19, 1984, the morning Grant Notley died in a plane crash in northern Alberta; we chose not to go to air with the news, since we knew his wife was travelling to the airport and did not know his flight had gone down short of the airport.)

My visit to the Speaker’s Gallery last week allowed me to absorb Question Period, not as a reporter, but as a spectator, a casual observer. And it’s odd what a former reporter notices among politicians when not there on assignment. Some MLAs scanned their cell phones for messages. Others communicated by passing written notes carried by young pages back and forth in the chamber. Still others rehearsed their lines, preparing for their moments in the spotlight putting a question to the government. Nothing is spontaneous in politics anymore.

It turned out that I was back in the Legislative building just two days later for another ceremony. Once past the front door security – reviewing my personal documents and passing through metal-detection devices (something I never encountered 40 years ago) – I stood outside the office of the Speaker yet again.

This time, I arrived for a meeting with Her Honour Lois Mitchell, Lieutenant Governor of Alberta. She had invited me to join a ceremony honouring young Albertans who had created personalized tributes to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Vimy Ridge. The L/G’s “Spirit of Vimy Awards” went to five deserving teenagers, who had gathered photos from soldiers’ personal albums, composed lyrics and original music, generated digital artwork and then voiced their own videos in honour of Canadians who’d served in the Great War a hundred years ago.

“What these young people have accomplished is dazzling and unique,” she told a luncheon of dignitaries that day. “Like the men and women in the service of Canada a century ago, these young Albertans have taken up the spirit of a nation.”

The L/G’s staff actually scheduled me into what they referred to as “an audience” with Her Honour before the awards ceremony. And I came to understand another aspect of legislative activity, from the perspective of a civilian, not a reporter. Her Honour described the hectic nature of her schedule in recent days as the Queen’s representative in Alberta.

She had joined the campaign to promote women’s international hockey (she told me she was secretly proud of those American women demanding equality with men in financial dealings with the international hockey federation and Olympic organizers). And she described a gathering earlier in the week at which she had helped secure millions of dollars in donations for a regional agricultural school.

“Typical day in the life,” she quipped.

Finally, as I dashed from the dying moments of the L/G’s awards ceremony, last Saturday, on my way to catch a flight home, I passed the front steps of the Alberta Legislature one last time. A number of motorcycle clubs were just wrapping up a demonstration in front of the building, attempting to draw attention to their pet cause – cyclists’ rights. Asked earlier in the day whether she wanted a police escort around the demonstrators, the L/G said:

“No. We’re remembering the sacrifices at Vimy,” she said, “and among other things, those sacrifices were intended to protect freedom of speech.”

I hopped in my car, took one last look at a Legislative building that had been an occasional workplace for me 40 years ago. But during this visit, I had allowed myself the luxury of recognizing the Canadian principles of “peace, order and good government” for which it stood.

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