by Jocelyn Kuntsi
QUEEN’S PARK—Imagine having to memorize 124 MPP’s ridings, ministries, names, faces and where members sit in the legislature… That’s just part of what it takes to be an Ontario legislative page. On my first day at Queen’s Park, my teacher asked the group of 22 pages how we were feeling. We all said, ‘Nervous, scared, anxious, nauseous, stressed.’ He told us we were not allowed to say any of those words again. Instead say “Excited,” he told us. “Whenever you feel any of those emotions, just say you are ‘excited!’”
Being out of my comfort zone was frightening, but I just channeled all my nerves into excitement. Living in a big city, working at Queen’s Park, and making connections made the experience of being a legislative page challenging yet fulfilling.
I had some adjustments to make after living in the rural town of Manitowaning my whole life and transitioning to living in the city of Toronto. I didn’t even know how to order pizza! I had to worry about forgetting my keys to the apartment, which thankfully, never happened. I also learned how to use a fob, which is a small security hardware device to let me into my aunt’s apartment building. Being in the city did have its perks as well. I could get bubble tea at four in the morning if I wanted, there is free wifi everywhere, and there’s no pesky trees or fresh air to obstruct my view. Another advantage of living in the city was having access to public transportation. Public transit was a challenge because I’d only travelled the route to Queen’s Park twice and was worried about missing my stop, getting off too early, going in the wrong direction, or getting mugged. I learned to ask for help and not panic.
Toronto was also fun. I went to the Eaton Centre, had access to a pool, saw attractions, went on a boat ride, went to a movie theatre, ate at a variety of restaurants and read at the three-storey Chapters. Learning to function in the city was a vital part of participating in the program.
Other than the subway, I also learned to navigate Queen’s Park. The first time I had to deliver a document for an MPP was to the farthest point in Queen’s Park—Whitney Block. I wasn’t even sure how to get there. I learned that it was better to ask the security guards for directions than to wander around aimlessly trying to find my way. In the Legislative Chamber, it was definitely an asset to know where every MPP sat, their riding and their appearance since I had to regularly deliver official documents. I asked either my teacher Mr. G or the head of security, Mr. B. They both knew all of the answers to my questions and made my job more efficient. By the end of the program, I was very effective at all my page duties and hardly needed to ask for help.
The most challenging part of my day at Queen’s Park was Question Period or oral questions. This part of the day was very busy because most members have to be in the Chamber for the entire hour. The pages had to continuously deliver water and documents. Pages are traditionally summoned in a surprising and rude way: by members snapping, frantically waving papers and occasionally whistling. Couldn’t they just calmly raise their hands like we do in school? During oral questions, members fire rapid statements and questions, so pages need to be on their toes to collect the notes needed by the Hansard for recording. This one-hour went by very quickly, but other than that, the other eight hours were much slower-paced. Being on the subway at 6 am for my one-hour commute, and then coming home (on the late shifts) at 7:30 pm was draining but worth it.
Being in the Chamber is very different from watching the legislature on TV. Between side conversations, seeing many MPPs distracted by their phones, and little focus on the subject matter, the House reminded me of an intermediate classroom. Experiencing the legislature first-hand was certainly eye-opening.
My MPP Michael Mantha took me out to lunch during my term. We had a great meal in the dining hall and took some memorable photos. Using the time that I had with him I asked many questions. Like what he thought of the atmosphere in the Legislature. He said, “I choose to stay quiet instead of heckle, listening is the only way to learn.” I think that maybe if everyone in the chamber tried to do the same, then our government could accomplish more.
From sitting on the dais, I can say that the Chamber wasn’t always positive. Working together was not always on the members’ minds. There were often jokes made to “lighten the mood,” but most remarks are made at the other side’s expense. Although once in a while there were some good lines that made it hard to keep a straight face. “Put some mustard on that bologna” is the best line I heard during my term. I find that it got the most heated when there are quick speeches because they were to the point with arguments and heckling breaking out. Those times were quickly settled when the Speaker called for order. Even though the Speaker stops the yelling, the negative comments continue until a recess is called. The best way that members handled this was taking a quick break out of the chamber to cool off and calm down. The personalities seemed different when I talked to them outside the chamber and off-camera. For example, many MPPs act like they despise each other when speaking and debating, but in reality they are good friends, just with different points of view.
No matter what the circumstances or comments, the pages had to stay non-partisan. It was a challenge for all the pages to not laugh or clap in the Chamber. Once we were in the privacy of the pages’ quarters it was a different story. We would replay our favourite lines and have a good laugh. Eventually, we would have our own debates, but ours were more civilized. The pages all clicked as we shared this unique experience. At orientation, the pages exchanged contact information and many connected via Facetime to test each other on the MPP seating. After the first two weeks we went on a field trip, which was a bus and boat tour through Toronto. The trip gave us an opportunity to bond even more. The following week we enjoyed a fry fund, exploring the Queen’s Park area, and just hanging out in the page quarters. Saying goodbye to my fellow pages was very hard. I hope we stay in touch and meet up in the future.
Coming into the program, I was very nervous and thought that the experience would be constant stress. Even though I had studied hard, I still didn’t feel ready. At first I wasn’t really sure how the legislature worked, but I did learn all of that in legislative process class and by watching it first-hand throughout the weeks. For example, I thought that debates and statements would take the quickest amounts of time, but in reality they were the longest periods of speaking. After all I realized that to make a good point, it takes more than two and a half minutes. I also picked up some random facts. Did you know they say a prayer from a different culture for every day of the week? Or that the legislative motto is audi alteram partem: hear the other side? The experience at Queen’s Park was very different than I thought it would be. My friends, teacher and other staff didn’t expect us to be perfect and helped us to learn from our mistakes. My experience at Queen’s Park was amazing and I highly recommend it to other Grade 7 and 8 students. I learned so much, made connections, discovered city living, and had the experience of a lifetime. I am considering a career in politics in order to reform the system. But in the meantime, I am happy to be home.