Hijabi on Parliament Hill My Experience as a Page in the House of CommonsWritten by Yasmeen Ibrahim
Back in Grade 5, I recall leafing through my new social studies textbook on the first week of school. My teacher at the time explained that that year, we would be learning about Canada and the history of the Canadian government. As I flipped through the pages, an image caught my eye. It was the floor plan of the House of Commons. Someone raised their hand to ask where the Prime Minister sat and our teacher pointed us to the legend describing which labels on the plan were which on the floor: Prime Minister, the Opposition, the Speaker, clerks...
Then I noticed a small label by the Speaker's chair that corresponded to the position "Page" in the legend. "What's a page?" I asked.
"Pages are students who are privileged with full access to the floor and assist the Speaker and clerks, as well as the Members of Parliament," he explained.
"Even the Prime Minister?" I asked excitedly.
"Even the Prime Minister," he affirmed.
"No way! They must be really lucky to make it into there!"
Little did I know that 8 years down the line and after memorizing 308 names and faces, I would benefit from this privilege and watch the world of Canadian politics unfold before my eyes.
Every year, the House of Commons Page Program selects 40 new Pages from all across Canada. The program is open to all first year students who plan to pursue post-secondary education in the National Capital Region. As a Page, you get to experience the inner workings of Parliament like nobody else on the Commons Floor. Pages work with the Procedural staff to facilitate the legislative process for Members and act as links between various Parliamentary bodies.
Pages have ceremonial duties as well, such as taking part in Royal Assents or the Speech from the Throne. Our uniforms truly become our ticket to every nook and cranny in the Parliamentary buildings, as we gain access to the different departments involved in keeping the political show rolling. These include Hansard, the Library of Parliament, Media and Broadcasting, Translation, and the Government and Opposition Lobbies just to name a few. Pages ensure that all of these different players have the same information and are quick to act when there is a change in the Order Paper or any other unexpected event occurs. It is up to us, along with our team of supervisors, to make sure that all departments are well informed on what is happening in the House.
For as long as I can remember, politics has been one of my many passions. You could ask me any question on a current national or international issue, and I could brief you on the key events, stakeholders, our Government's response, as well as the Opposition's critiques. Becoming a Page seemed to be a dream come true. I would now be able to witness everything I had been reading about happen in real time. It did not seem like it would be as much of a learning experience as it would be a treat for the political junkie in me. Boy...was I ever wrong!
The past year provided me with a multitude of insights into the political world, beyond what we read about or see on TV. However, there was one that stood out more than the rest, and that was the importance of procedure in Parliament.
I think we tend to forget from the short Question Period clips that air on national television that once in a while Parliament is not just a chaotic room full of politicians arguing and heckling at each other. That excitement lasts for about an hour at best before we return to the Order Paper. Ninety-percent of the time, we would be listening to speeches from each party arguing for or against a proposed bill, voting on a bill to pass from one stage to the next, or even voting for time allocation on a debate to be able to proceed to other important matters on the Order Paper. The very concept of an Order Paper, the daily agenda, was foreign to me when I first started working. Every element had been carefully allotted time down to the minute and once time was up, the Speaker would promptly stand up and move on to the next point.
The other bit of insight I gained from my time as a Page in the House of Commons was not so much to do with politics, but the people. It was refreshing to see that partisanship did not radiate down to the core of all Members and that, after a heated debate, many Members would cross the floor to sit with their colleagues on the opposite side of the House. Other times where we would see Parliament come together, party lines aside, and that I will remember for the rest of my life were just before the session broke for the winter holidays and at the passing of the late Finance Minister, the Honourable Jim Flaherty. These two specific events gave me a strong sense of reassurance in our Parliament that no matter what we are going through as a country, Canadians can always depend on the unity of their Members of Parliament.
Getting to know the Members and their staff personally is something that I will cherish from my experience as well. Most Members were extremely approachable. My go-to questions would always be what they studied, what their career before politics was, and what got them into politics. I received an array of responses. Lawyers, economists, doctors, teachers, farmers, carpenters, students, activists... Many of them far from the idea of a professional politician that we have today, and many of them arriving at politics indirectly. Despite their differences in education, trades, or careers, one thing drew them all together: Wanting to change society for the better. They put their personal lives on hold, sometimes even leaving families in other cities or provinces, to stand in the House of Commons and vouch for a better society for us, based on their interpretation of what is best. At the very least, they deserve credit for this, no matter whether or not my opinions align with their opinions.
Not only was I interested in their personal stories, but the interest was reciprocated. There was no clearer message that I was the Muslim in the room than when people would see "Little Black Riding Hood," as one Member put it, walking around the House in her black hijab. My hijab was a source of curiosity for the Members of Parliament and my colleagues alike. On a number of occasions, I found myself having to be an ambassador for my faith and beliefs, and it was a challenge I accepted with pride. I remember heading into one of the lobbies after the address made to Parliament by His Excellency, the Aga Khan. I saw a group of Members gathered together discussing Ismailism and whether or not it was the same as Shiism or Sunnism. Let us just say that some of the things I heard were definitely NOT politically correct, nor were they true, and two seconds later I found myself deeply immersed in their conversation explaining that the three are all sects of Islam, and that no sect was better or worse than the other.
Nothing made me happier than to represent my community in a field where there seemed to be very few of us. As the first hijab-wearing Page, my goals were to be an ambassador for my faith, be approachable to anyone who had any questions, and to show everyone that we are no different than them. Just as the other Pages were chosen based on their education, intellect, and interest in politics, I wanted it to be known that I had ambitions, that I was smart, and that I am present in the political sphere, all while being a hijab-wearing Muslim woman. My hijab did not have to contradict any of these. Instead of just telling people that the "oppressed, veiled Muslim woman" is a misconception that the media loves to spread, I was there to show them that this is not true.
I also took it as a personal victory and a victory for the Muslim community when my swearing-in as a Page coincided with the tabling of the controversial Quebec Charter of Rights and Values, where overt religious attire or symbols were to be forbidden in the public workplace. Before I had even begun working, my amazing team of supervisors took special care in ensuring that my transition into the Page Program as the first hijab-wearing Page did not cause me any discomfort at this sensitive time, whether it be in selecting my uniform or receiving any negative comments from anybody in the workplace. My security from any form of discrimination was a top priority for them and I will always be grateful to them for this.
The most important thing that I wish to leave with Muslim youth, especially those who are more visible than others, is that do not assume that just because you are Muslim or that you wear hijab that you will not get the job or get accepted into some program that you applied for. We have all grown up hearing about somebody not getting a job because they wore a veil or being asked to take it off upon accepting a position. For the longest time ever, I succumbed to this and let it be the factor in determining if I should even bother with applying to something or not. At the same time, we keep saying that we need to increase the Muslim presence on all fronts in order to educate others about Islam and fight Islamophobia. In order to fight stereotypes, we not only need visible Muslims in the fields of engineering and medicine, but also in non-traditional fields like journalism, politics, education, and law enforcement. It was after thinking about this that I realized the only way I can fulfill my part in promoting Islamic awareness is by successfully passing the interview stage and by performing at my highest level in any job I decide to pursue in the future, all while wearing my hijab proudly.
As for youth in general, we all get to a certain point in our lives where we want to make the world a better place. We take part in protests and demonstrations that are dear to our hearts, we sign petitions on issues we feel strongly about, we give motivational speeches about our dreams for the future, and, overall, we become more active citizens. However, politics is the real engine for change in today's world. Laws are what regulate individuals' activities and it is through the legislative process that they come to be. I am not undermining the people that take their concerns to the streets (because these individuals do have some sway on political action,) but it is mainly up to the government to have the final say. For this reason, it is important that we see those passionate youth, who yearn for change and a better society, possessing a clear understanding of the political process and inside the folds of Canadian government.
There is no better way to gain this knowledge and experience, in my opinion, than by becoming a Page and joining the House of Commons Page Program. The application process is broken down into three stages. Applicants are first asked to submit an essay on their interest in Canadian politics. A telephone interview in the candidate's second Official Language will follow. Finally, should the candidate pass the first two stages, he or she will be invited for a formal interview at the Federal Parliament or to the closest Provincial Legislature. The application deadline usually falls around mid-December and all pertaining information can be accessed online.
Also, your experience in the Page Program does not necessarily have to be the start and end to your career on the Hill. It surely was not for me! If anything, this program was a stepping-stone along my political journey. The beauty of this program is that not only does it take you into the heart of Canadian politics, but it allows you to expand your network with some of Canada's most influential leaders. Nothing prior to my experience as a Page can match the number of contacts I made on both sides of the House, as well as in other departments. Thanks to our ability to assist with certain ceremonies on Parliament Hill, I also had the chance to speak with various delegates and ambassadors to Canada on a number of occasions, not to mention mingle with the Members of Parliament we worked with on a daily basis. The direct benefit of building these connections was having the chance at other Hill opportunities. After our 1 year contract, many Pages went on to become guides for the Parliamentary Guide Program, reporters for Hansard in the House of Commons, or staffers for Members of Parliament. I was fortunate enough to become acquainted with and hired by one of the Members sitting on the Finance Committee, which is a field of great interest to me as I am currently pursuing a degree in Economics. Telling me before I stepped foot into Centre Block that after my contract as a Page was over, I would be entering the political field as a FINA researcher and potentially influential player would have sent me laughing all the way to the moon. Now I can see that it would not have been possible had I not taken part in the House of Commons Page Program. You never know what awaits you once this amazing experience comes to an end!
Some tips for future applicants: Brush up on your basic knowledge of the House of Commons, the different branches of Canadian government, and the roles and responsibilities of Members of Parliament. Also, be ready to spend your next summer memorizing all the names and faces of the current Parliament's members should you get the exciting call that you have just been accepted to the 2015-2016 House of Commons Page Program! To learn more about the Parliamentary Page Program visit its website.
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