Shaping the Arc of History Through Policy

Learning what it means for policy makers to provide "fearless advice and loyal implementation” on Parliament Hill

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.

Beyond the childlike gratification of being acknowledged as future policy leaders at Question Period, in the presence of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and parliamentarians from across the aisle, our trip to Ottawa moulded an innate and humbling understanding of the complex nature of policymaking. In engaging with politicians, staffers, policy practitioners and civil servants over a series of panel discussions, dialogues and meetings, we were provided a glimpse of how government functions behind the glitz and glamour of what we see in the media.

As a cohort, we recognized that whilst the approach taken in designing, implementing and delivering public services, is in reality, a slow, rigorous, and perhaps, frustrating process, at its core our system is democratic and celebrates a diversity of perspectives, opinions, and values, which makes the policymaking architecture a conscientious entity within the Canadian political landscape.

Throughout both days, we sought to understand the nature of the association between civil servants and the elected political leadership. We were repeatedly informed that the unofficial motto of the public service is that of “fearless advice and loyal implementation”. Civil servants guarantee the smooth function of government and hold the political leadership to account, by curating innovative policy solutions and by providing bold, pragmatic and evidence-based advice – whilst faithfully discharging the decisions taken by those with an elected mandate to govern. In more ways than one, this unique relationship between elected and unelected stakeholders, represents the strength of the policymaking system, and certifies appropriate levels of checks and balances within our government.

Importantly, the trip also provided an opportunity to learn about the perspectives of members of the Cabinet and parliamentarians, who shared their thoughts regarding public safety, environmental protection, digital security, the state of our democracy, housing and more. There are practical reasons for aspiring policymakers to be wary of the doom and gloom under which we desire to make positive impacts on society. Our trip reminded us of how events such as the pandemic, the Ukraine-Russia war, the ongoing Sino-American rivalry and the existential threat posed by climate change, is shaping a global community which faces novel challenges on multiple fronts.

The threats posed by online harms, climate catastrophes, economic downturns and soaring energy prices, endangers the stability of an already fragile international political order. Yet, it also provides an exciting prospect for aspiring policy practitioners to serve their communities, by identifying solutions which can ensure a better world for future generations.

In his statement to the House of Commons, MP Francis Scarpaleggia welcomed the Max Bell School community to the heart of Canadian democracy, by reminding parliament that students have an obligation to “take up roles and responsibilities that will guide our ship of state into a promising future”. Our 11-month MPP program seeks to develop a robust toolkit for policy scholars, by providing hands-on training to graduate students on interdependent, but distinct policy issues. As we commit to crafting future careers in this space with a sense of passion, purpose and progress, I am confident that the future of Canadian public policy is in good hands.

Aftab Ahmed is a 2022-23 MPP student at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill. Aftab serves as the Vice President (International Student Affairs) at the Public Policy Association of Graduate Students and as the Chief Editor of The Bell, the student-run policy newsletter at the Max Bell School. He is a Freelance Columnist for two major Bangladeshi media outlets and worked as a banking professional at Toronto Dominion Bank prior to joining the Max Bell School.

Read more from Aftab Ahmed.


Back to top