Ottawa From an American Perspective

The Question Period is exciting, but doesn't provide many answers.

In November 2022, the fourth cohort of Master of Public Policy candidates visited Parliament Hill to learn firsthand from policymakers. Organized by the Max Bell School including visiting professor Neil Bouwer and alumnus Enzo Zorigtbaatar, the inaugural trip was designed to educate and inspire. A few MPPs - Elisa, Aftab, Linda, Gianna and Raúl - reflect on the experience.

Before embarking on the Max Bell School Ottawa trip, I hoped that it would help me better understand the Canadian political and policy landscape. As an American, I have noticed our systems can be quite different so my goal for this trip was to immerse myself in the Canadian policy experience as much as possible.

I am delighted to share that I returned from Ottawa with a new knowledge and appreciation of the Canadian political and policy system.

One of the first activities my cohort and I partook in was watching the House of Commons Question Period. This enticed me because it was an opportunity for opposition parties to hold others accountable by asking difficult questions that the press does not always ask. I listened to the passion and cadence of each opposition leader and glanced at peers next to me with excitement. One feature of this system that I particularly appreciated was the presence of the Prime Minister. It demonstrated to me that even the country’s most powerful leader must be held accountable. In the United States, you would never see the President taking questions from Congress weekly, that is simply not how the system works.

The next day, my peers and I met Members of Parliament, ministers, political staffers, and public servants. These groups demonstrated how much dedication and patience it takes to get anything accomplished in public policy. Nothing can ever be done by a single person; it must go through a series of steps in which each of these groups is collectively involved. Members of Parliament surprisingly opened my eyes to the bipartisanship between different parties in parliament to pass important issues via committees. They gave me hope that things could get accomplished in politics, at least in the Canadian system. Meeting the ministers further solidified my belief that there are multiple complexities to pressing issues such as gun control and housing and that nothing is black and white. Ministers also emphasized the challenge of making quick, difficult decisions despite the criticism they may receive. Staffers informed my peers and I of the complexities behind the scenes that the average person might not see. They are essentially the backbone of the political system; without them, politicians would be nothing. Finally, public servants showed us the impartial side of policy, and the rewarding process that comes with it. Meeting these individuals was all-encompassing, filled with new insights. I left appreciating their hard work and dedication to the general public.

However, that is not to say the Canadian system has no flaws. One significant issue apparent to me in Ottawa is politicians sidestepping issues—question period is simply for questions, not answers. There is also a ton of bureaucracy–just because a staffer approves of a policy does not mean a politician does. Lastly, there is still not enough representation of BIPOC and women on the hill. I hope that going forward, my peers and I can bring the diversity and accountability that Ottawa needs.

Gianna Formica is a 2022-23 MPP student at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University. She also serves as the Chief Editor of the Bell Newsletter and Content Creator for the Max Bell School. Her interests include global affairs and political communications.


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