At the time this article was
written Arthur Milnes was Special Assistant to Bernard Grandmaitre, Member for
Ottawa East in the Ontario Legislative Assembly
Like many students the author
completed undergraduate studies with only a vague idea of what career path to
follow. After graduation he found employment at the Ontario Legislative
Assembly as a Member's assistant. In this article he provides some impressions
of life as a legislative assistant.
While completing my Bachelor of
Arts at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, I had enrolled in a course
entitled "The Legislative Process in Canada", taught by Professor
C.E.S. Franks. This class opened a new world of Parliament which went far
beyond television's "30-second clips".
So, upon graduation in the summer
of 1988, I turned my eyes towards employment in the parliamentary environment.
It proved to be a difficult task as I was not alone in having the desire to
work for a Member of Parliament.
Persistence and help from a friend
paid off and my wishes were soon realized as I began my duties as Special
Assistant to the Member of Provincial Parliament for Scarborough- Ellesmere at
Ontario's Queen's Park on November 22, 1988. I later moved on to the office of
the Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Health, the MPP for Ottawa East.
The essential tools for an
assistant are simple; a telephone, typewriter, computer, and pen. Once assigned
these, the work begins.
The first few weeks were spent
familiarizing myself with the files and correspondence that existed in the
office. It became apparent that my duties were going to be both varied and
exciting. The amount of inquiries by constituents and the issues they were
asking about were staggering. At the time of my arrival the office computer had
within it almost four thousand recorded incoming letters and responses. This
figure gains a greater perspective when one considers that my Member had only
been serving since September of 1987. Nor does this figure include the many
hundreds of inquiries made and answered from the constituency office in sburban
In order to answer the many
questions, a Member's staff must properly utilize the resources available.
Occasionally, a constituent might raise a question which can be answered in a
simple fashion, using a newspaper article or a statement from Hansard.
But even these simple answers are backed up with documentation as a MPP cannot
put out incorrect information.
The most valuable resource that
staff and Members are introduced to is the Ontario Legislative Library. While a
university student, the hours spent searching after information and sources had
been a subject of constant frustration. The Library at Queen's Park removes all
the difficulties inherent in undertaking research while under severe time
A simple telephone call or visit to
the Library can provide you with the most minute information or statistic
needed to answer the latest letter. What makes this service even more
indespensable is the speed with which the librarians provide material.
To illustrate the speed and value
of the Legislative Library I simply think back to the first Private Member's
Statement I prepared for my Member. These statements begin promptly at 1:30
p.m. before Question Period. After taking the better part of two days
researching and writing a statement in tribute of Sir John A. Macdonald I began
to get "cold feet" as the statement was approved and my boss walked
over to the Legislature to deliver it. The clock stood at 1:15 p.m. when I
decided to phone the library and check a fact I had placed in the statement to
be sure of its authenticity. From memory I had written that Sir John was
greeted with shouts of "Sir John, you'll never die" during his last
campaign which I had taking place in the summer of 1891. Something made me want
to question that "fact". With fifteen minutes left before the MPP for
Scarborough-Ellesmere would rise and inform the House that Old Tomorrow had
campaigned during the summer of 1891, I phoned to check this obscure fact. The
reference librarian plaed my call on hold as she looked for the truth about Sir
John in the pages of history. Suffice to say that the library had saved myself
and a MPP from accusations of being revisionist historians. By the summer of
1891, Sir John A. Macdonald was dead.
At anytime the telephone can ring
with a constituent on the line needing assistance or information on an infinite
range of topics. These range from the serious to the bizarre as when a person
telephoned to inquire as to what colour of wallpaper the Member recommended he
use in his bathroom!
The telephone is a powerful tool in
the hands of an assistant. Phone calls often bring forth necessary but
complicated administrative information regarding government programs from civil
servants. Explanatory information from government departments can often be confusing
and these calls allow us to explain rules and regulations in plain language to
constituents confused by government language.
Often a letter in response to an
inquiry draws on material from many different sources. Some data for a letter
may come from the library, some from a phone conversation with a Minister's
assistant or civil servant, some from newspapers, and some from the many files
and clippings found in a Member's office. When looking for information it often
becomes clear why the Member told you not to throw out that year-old press
release from such-and-such Ministry or why it in fact was important to clip
that certain edition of the daily paper.
Government plays such an important
role in the daily experiences of Canadians that the duty of a Member as
spokesperson or critic of the Government becomes very important. Many citizens
contact their Member to ask for information, express opinions, and offer
suggestions regarding policies and programs.
Most members of the public quite
properly refuse to take "I don't know" as an answer when contacting
their Member's office.
Daily newspapers take on an
important role in the life of an assistant. One must also be aware what is
being reported on teevision and radio. Members are expected to respond to any
number of issues and events each day and thus must keep well informed.
Days at the Legislature begin early
in the morning and end late in the evening. Upon arrival at work the newspapers
must be read and often clipped for articles to bring to the attention of the
Member. Working in such an office is a valuable education in current affairs.
Tenant's meetings, political briefings, or time spent catching up on
correspondence or research for the Member often involve evening duties. Our
legislators have a difficult and important job within our society and working
for them often leaves little time for anything else.
Nevertheless I am fortunate to have
spent the past year working in a legislative office. I have made contact with
many people and issues that no other job could possibly offer. In fact, calling
my duties a job seems to underestimate the value my time at the Ontario
Legislature has been. When I finish here and go on to Law School and a
permanent career, I will carry within me a wealth of experiences and skills
that cannot be acquired elsewhere.