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A Muggle enters the Chamber of Secrets and cracks open the door: Senator Simons
March 5, 2019
image Paula Simons
Paula Simons
ISG - (Alberta)

There were no owls. No little boats. No sorting hat.

It was just this strange feeling of vertigo I had, as I was sworn in to the Senate of Canada. This sense that I’d somehow walked into a Harry Potter novel.

The Senate Chamber, with its faux-Gothic gargoyles and its high gilt ceiling, was like a medieval castle. No wonder I felt like Hermione Granger, a Muggle among wizards, as I took my oath. I felt for all the world as if I’d entered the Hogwarts Great Hall and been “sorted” into my house.

It was truly magical. Until I realized that my seat, right near the big front doors, was incredibly drafty. I’d worn nylons and heels for my big day; so had the other newbies, Patti LaBoucane-Benson and Josée Forest-Niesing. No one had warned us about the cold gusts of wind that were soon whipping around our ankles.

(That was the last time I wore nylons to sit in the old Senate. I donned fleece-lined leggings instead. Patti, more practically, brought a lap blanket to stow in her Senate desk.)

But I’ve come to realize that the Senate isn’t the Hogwarts Great Hall; it’s the Chamber of Secrets. On one of my first flights back to Edmonton, the woman sitting beside me asked why I’d been in Ottawa. With what I hoped was a becoming show of (admittedly false) modesty, I told her.

“I didn’t know Canada had senators,” she said. “I thought they were American.”

Oh wow. I’d expected to meet people who were cynical about the Senate. I hadn’t expected to encounter Canadians who didn’t know the Senate even existed.

An Edmonton friend of mine tried to explain to her boss why I spent so much time on Twitter. “It’s because she’s a senator,” said my friend. “Really?” said her boss. “I didn’t know Twitter had a Senate!”

No—Twitter doesn’t have a Senate. But it does have me, a senator addicted to Twitter, a senator who’s doing her best to use social media to share the experience of being a rookie senator with Canadians.

I started with the marginalia of my new life, things like tweeting about meeting Connor McDavid’s grandmother and auntie in the Edmonton airport departure lounge, or hunting for Ottawa’s best shawarma.

But December’s emergency debate on ending the rotating postal workers strike changed things. Here was the Senate, in the midst of a debate that would have a direct impact on the lives of every Canadian. But it wouldn’t be televised. And because it was a weekend, there weren’t going to be a lot of reporters in the Senate Press Gallery.

After all my years of live-tweeting city council meetings, school board meetings, and debates in the Alberta legislature, it just seemed natural to sit in my drafty Senate seat, an Independent senator and an embedded journalist, and use social media to cover the debate in real time.

Was I allowed to live-tweet from the Senate floor? To be honest, I didn’t know. But no one told me I couldn’t. And as the debate went on, thousands of Canadians followed along.

For many people, it was their first-ever glimpse into the mysteries of the Senate. And I had my own small epiphany. If we in the Senate have any hopes of earning the respect and confidence of Canadians, we have to show them what we actually do.

In Harry Potter’s universe, the Chamber of Secrets hides a lethal basilisk, who can only be defeated if you avert your eyes and refuse to look at it head-on.

The Senate’s problem is exactly the opposite. The best way to renew the Senate, to earn it back some political and moral authority, is to open our workings to the light of day. Especially now, when Independent senators, who now dominate the Senate, are figuring out exactly what to do with their new responsibility.

Soon, we will start televising our formal sittings for the first time ever. And we’ll be doing it from our bright and airy new home, in Ottawa’s glorious old Beaux Arts train station. Maybe being on TV, and off Parliament Hill, will help us to blow away some cobwebs, and make us seem less like we’re run by the Department of Mysteries.

Meantime, I’m doing what I can to fling back the veil.

It’s a risky business. Odds are that someday, some ill-considered Tweet or Facebook post is going to land me in the soup. The more open I am, the more politically vulnerable I make myself, I suppose.

But there may be upsides to radical transparency:

  • If I can use social media to shed more light on how Senate decisions are made;
  • If I can engage directly with Canadians on controversial issues, such as Bill C-69, the new environmental assessment act;
  • If I can make authentic human connections, ones that beat the bots and let me have real conversations with real people, one-on-one; then the gamble will be worth it.

Till then, I’ll endeavour to make my public policy debates and my public pratfalls as entertaining as possible.

Stay tuned for my upcoming adventure: Paula Simons and the Quest for the New Senate Snack Machine.

Senator Paula Simons represents Alberta in the Senate.

This article appeared in the February 25, 2019, edition of the Ottawa Citizen and other Postmedia newspapers.