Some fond journalistic memories of the Centre Block on Parliament Hill: Senator Munson
PSG - Ontario (Ottawa / Rideau Canal)
A gentleman by the name of Jean Chrétien has said that he spent so much time in the Centre Block on Parliament Hill, it felt like his own living room. I understand what he meant.
As I walked through the Hall of Honour recently, just weeks before Centre Block is to shut for a decade of renovations, it struck me that 44 years have gone by since I first entered this place. Somehow I always knew I would one day work in it.
I first caught the political bug when I was only 12. The year was 1958 and the town was Campbelltown, N.B. My dad took me to the train station for separate campaign whistle stops by two politicians named John Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson. With the colourful party bunting draped over the railing of the last car, I listened to the speeches from the open platform. I was in awe.
As a child, I imagined what Ottawa looked like and wondered what it would be like to go to the top of the Peace Tower.
Maybe the real bug took hold when, eight years later, Diefenbaker showed up in Yarmouth, N.S., for a by-election. I was now a 19-year-old radio announcer. Dief was intimidating in his manner, and I was so nervous, I just welcomed him to Yarmouth and didn’t ask even one question. He talked, and I politely thanked him at the end. It may have been the best interview I have ever done.
But there were reporters around, in real trench coats, from Ottawa. They even had their collars turned up. That was it. I was going to the Hill. It took some time but I arrived in 1974.
It wasn’t easy being a rookie around the likes of journalistic icons such as Charles Lynch and Doug Fisher. The third floor “hot room” for journalists in the Centre Block was a maze, difficult to navigate. Mounds of newspapers seemed to be everywhere; typewriters; portraits of journalists from long ago; cigarette ash trays — the haze of smoke in the air. This was the first glimpse of any working day.
Some may find this hard to believe but there was life in the House of Commons before television. In fact, every seat in the gallery was filled with journalists, assistants and politicians. And, can you imagine, MPs and ministers and the prime minister spoke without notes.
You had to pay attention and as reporter you had to be quick on your feet to get answers. No corridor in the Centre Block was off-limits to reporters. It was hallway journalistic terrorism at its finest. The political chase was always on.
If you wanted to get a little rest, you could sneak off to the tranquil setting of the Parliamentary Library.
At the end of the day, you didn’t have far to go for a cheap beer. It was right next door to the hot room, coolly waiting in a disguised beverage-vending machine.
Still, journalism on the Hill was challenging and I had to be resourceful.
In the late 1970s, then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau had a personal driver who was (and is) affectionately known as Cadillac Jack. Those were the days before heavily armoured SUVs on the Hill. Occasionally, as Cadillac Jack slowly drove from the Centre Block towards the Centennial Flame, I would be waiting near the flame, and in a couple of instances, the car would slow and the back door window of the Cadillac would open. Waiting with my microphone, I found myself face-to-face with the prime minister.
Pierre Trudeau opened that window and by speaking to me, opened the window to my life on Parliament Hill. I like to think that both Mr. Trudeau and I were mischievous kindred spirits.
Since those days as a journalist, I have had the privilege of working for a prime minister, then becoming a senator. And I can say: There is no bad seat in the Centre Block, no matter what you do, no matter where you sit in the world of politics.
Senator Jim Munson was a journalist for more than 30 years and went on to serve as director of communications for Prime Minister Jean Chrétien before becoming a senator in 2003.
Note to readers: The Honourable Jim Munson retired from the Senate of Canada in July 2021. Learn more about his work in Parliament.
This article appeared in the January 7, 2019 edition of The Ottawa Citizen.