The COVID-19 pandemic took a toll on so many Canadians this year through job losses, business closures and forced separations from family and friends as various restrictions were brought in to slow the spread of the virus.
Those challenges were felt also by the federal politicians who tried to serve their constituents remotely, and who had to self-isolate each and every time they returned home from Ottawa.
“I have to say, this is probably the hardest year of my elected career,” said Conservative MP Todd Doherty, who represents Cariboo-Prince George in northern British Columbia.
He joined Green MP Jenica Atwin and New Democrat MP Matthew Green on CBC’s The House recently to discuss the past year and what’s it’s been like dealing with both the personal and public burdens imposed by the pandemic.
Doherty spoke of working to get thousands of Canadians home from all over the world after borders were shut and flights were disrupted by pandemic measures. One case in particular stood out for him out — that of a young girl traveling in South America, where foreigners were being targeted as carriers of the virus.
‘Pins and needles’
“And so things were getting very dangerous for her. We were working with family members and trying to get hold of her … where she could talk and where she was safe,” he said.
But their efforts were going nowhere, Doherty said — so the young woman chose to pay someone to smuggle her out of the country.
“And so she had a long, long way to go, and then go through the U.S. … I think the whole ordeal was probably seven days, maybe more,” he said. “But you know, you’re just on pins and needles until you get that next phone call to make sure that they come across.”
Atwin spent the first part of the pandemic driving back and forth to Ottawa from her Fredericton riding, with her husband and children in tow. They all had to self-isolate every time they returned home to the ‘Atlantic bubble’.
“And it was almost eerie as you would go through certain areas to see … the flashing signs [saying] this is a COVID red zone, things like that,” she said.
“[And] every time as well, when returning … to get to the checkpoints and having the peace officers … giving the rundown of questions and telling you you have to isolate when you get home. So it was certainly an experience I will never forget.”
The ‘last resort’
Green represents Hamilton Centre, where poverty and social service delivery present challenges at the best of times. The pandemic made those challenges much more daunting.
“This is a deep, deep social pressure,” the NDP MP said. “And then, of course, probably the most haunting calls I could get outside of self-harm would be … people facing imminent eviction, people calling about how they’re going to be able to put food on their tables.
“When they’re calling our office, they’re calling us as a last resort.”
The MPs’ own staff members also felt the strain this year.
“We had to make sure that our staff were well taken care of,” Atwin said. The volume of calls and emails from constituents needing help, she said, was probably four times greater than usual after the pandemic struck, making it more difficult than ever to solve problems or get answers.
“You know, we love the wins or [when] we have a case that we’re able to solve,” she said. “But, you know, the ones that were not [solved] … it’s just, it’s hard to kind of turn that off and and go home at night knowing that people are still struggling in such a profound way.”
There’s an old saying: “A house is not a home.” For MPs in 2020, the distinction between home and the House of Commons all but disappeared.
Atwin has two kids, aged three and eight. When taking part in virtual Commons sessions from her home in New Brunswick, she said, she scatters toys and puzzles at her feet to keep her toddler engaged.
“It’s a challenge. I won’t say I have the answer on that one,” she said. “And I would just say to anyone who’s experiencing it still to just to hang in there and, you know, be easy on yourself, because your mom guilt or dad guilt is real and it’s powerful.”
Green said that while the hybrid sittings this fall allowed for a better work-life balance, it also blurred the line between home and office.
“And of course, this is what people all around the world are facing,” he said, adding that the parliamentary system is “not set up for young parents.” But the arrangement had its compensations.
“I can assure you that that we had to really be resilient,” he said. “And it’s also true that I found time in this, you know, in these isolated moments to really have joy with my son in ways that I might not have appreciated in the in the hustle and bustle of a regular parliamentary session.”
Doherty said all MPs have their own key moments to remember from this past year, professional and personal. His came just as he was just about to speak in the Commons — when he received a text saying his daughter was about to have a baby.
“And probably … I bawled all the way back home. I told everybody that I ran into that I was going to be a grandfather,” Doherty said. In a subsequent question period, he held up a photo of his new granddaughter for his colleagues to admire — violating a Commons rule against the use of props.
“I haven’t got a chance to see her very, very much because of COVID. And we have to isolate when we get home,” he said.
“But let me tell you … you have so much love for your children and then you get a chance to hold your grandchild. I never thought my heart could swell to that size.”
After a year like 2020, it’s hard to imagine a better ending.