Prime Minister for a long weekend

My three-day journey through the House of Commons

Joe in the House of Commons. 
Credit: 
via QMP

“And now I would like to call on the Right Honourable Prime Minister Joe Cattana.” When you’re 22 years old, you’d never expect to hear that, sitting in our nation’s House of Commons.

For three days, along with 350 other Queen’s students, I stormed into the House of Commons and claimed it as my own.  

From January 11 to 13, Queen’s Model Parliament (QMP) experienced what it’s like to be Members of Parliament and debate policy.

QMP is unlike any other conference on campus. For the months leading up to the trip to Ottawa, you spend an hour every week meeting with your party.

After being put into a party, delegates are required to elect a leader. The sole reason why I ran for leadership of the Green Party was because I had done the conference for a few years.

Unlike most leaders, I went down a different path to entice the delegates. After drinking water out of a plant glass to get elected — which was gross — I set out on the path of becoming Prime Minister. For the next two weeks, I pitched people on what made the Green Party so great — which consisted of telling people whatever they wanted to hear like politicians often do.

Including a leadership debate, it was quite the experience to be a leader. With all delegates representing a riding, wherever we decided to pledge their allegiance would form government. After beating the Bloc by three seats, we formed government and began to work on our policy.

By participating in the conference, we as delegates form political parties, draft legislation, engage in debates and take strong, and sometimes satirical, positions on pressing and contemporary issues.

The greatest part of the QMP conference is what you make of it. As a party, we set out from the beginning to make it an inclusive process, with all policy decided through a Google Doc. In the end, our main objects were to rebrand Canada and tackle the future of the environment.

Even though it was my third year at the conference, arriving to Ottawa still excites me every time. You board a bus outside the JDUC at 6 a.m., sleep most of the way there until you open eyes to the sight of Parliament Hill.

Everyone stumbles into the House of Commons, often still tired and wishing we probably slept a bit longer. As the Prime Minister, I had to prepare a Speech from the Throne, outlining what the next three days would be like. In that speech, I referenced how this Green-government would bring back both Drake’s Tears and his ex-girlfriend, how wind turbines would be placed in Manitoba —because does anyone even know what happens there— and that Canada would invade Greenland, strictly for its name.

While I was sitting in the chambers prior to the conference starting, I was greeted by Chris Bittle, the current MP from St. Catherines and a Queen’s alum who was QMP’s Prime Minister 15 years ago. While I was nervous about the conference and if my speech was going to make people laugh, he reminded me of what QMP is all about — having fun and making the best of our time in the House of Commons.

And we did.

For the next three days, students debated and discussed topics ranging from Indigenous education to youth unemployment and even a spinning wheel that would solve foreign policy issues.

Our generation of students aren’t as apathetic to politics as we’re often made out to be. By allowing delegates to go anywhere with their legislation even if it’s sometimes silly  some are afforded their first time to engage in the political sphere.

When you first sit in the House of Commons, it kind of reminds you of a cathedral. Queen’s is one of the few universities in Canada that gets the opportunity to actually use the House for their conference. I remember the first time I delivered a speech two years ago — it’s a nerve racking experience. For a few minutes, your microphone light goes yellow, and everyone’s eyes are glued
on you.

The chamber probably hasn’t changed much over the years, with dark wood and green covering the room. When you look up, your eyes are met with stained-glass windows with flowers that represent each of the Provinces.

In a place where debates about conscription, the FLQ crisis and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms took place, where Canada was truly shaped, we try to make our own change. I still get goosebumps thinking about it.

Having the chance to sit in the Prime Minister’s chair for three days was something indescribable. When I sat there for the first time, I tried to think about what it meant to the great men and women who sat in this seat before me as the leader of our nation and what they thought about in times of crisis. What did they try to change? What did they stand for? Why did they put themselves in such an immense pressure situation?

I kept coming back to one idea — the greater good of the Canadian people. Now you and I might not believe in every Prime Minister and we might disagree on the policy they stood for, but one thing is for certain — they stood and argued for hardworking Canadians on the international stage.

For the third year in a row, we had a Q&A with Prime Minister Trudeau. For 15 minutes everyone was silent, taking in every one of the Prime Minister’s words about his life, his politics and his upbringing.

On the second day in Parliament, the government is afforded one stressful opportunity in the Emergency Bill — a fictitious crisis that the government needs to respond to. In this situation, you are presented the topic 30 minutes before a press conference, and have to take immediate action.

The situation was that an 8000-barrel oil spill was ongoing in the Mackenzie Valley, with the oil making its way to the Arctic Ocean. For us, Canadians had to not only open their hearts, but their homes to the people residing in the Mackenzie Valley region.

Having to run a press conference was difficult. Working for The Journal, I’m used to asking the questions, but being on the other side was a welcome change. With all the delegates eyes on me, I had to tackle this problem, and how to best save Canadian lives. While I was trying to string together a response with a mashup of points from a sheet of paper, the QMP journalists were preparing questions about the future of Canada.

I wish I could say that being put on the spot like that was the most stressful part, but for me, it was Question Period. In real politics, the purpose of Question Period is to seek information from the government, that accounts for their actions. While there’s some of this at QMP, it’s slightly changed, with questions ranging from everything and anything — people have even asked for someone else’s number.

This year, the first period grilled the leader of the Bloc Québecois for not being able to speak French. In the second period it focused more on myself as Prime Minister, with it being my 22nd birthday. Not all questions were very serious — I was asked how I did my hair in the morning and if I put pineapple on pizza — I don’t — but it was all good fun.

One question stood out to me. I was asked if I could name a previous first lady who, alive or dead, would be mine. So I did as any real Prime Minister would do, stood up, buttoned up my jacket and answered:

“What if my first lady is already in the room?”

When I looked back at my girlfriend, she was both appreciative of the answer, and probably a bit embarrassed. While she would’ve probably wanted me to answer with a previous first lady, I couldn’t. It was my parliamentary right to answer with the truth.

Unfortunately, all good things come to an end. When the last bill is debated, and the final Speaker has left the throne, the House calls an end to the conference.

There’s something special about stepping into the House of Commons. People take on another persona, the sounds and sights are all different.

You think about the Prime Ministers before you, the MPs who represent you and the people that support you every day in that House. As delegates, we create madness, but it reminds us of a few things.

Change is possible. Rather than waiting for someone else to create it, QMP reminds our generation that we’re the change we’re looking for.

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