Closed for renovations: The home of Canada’s democracy

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OTTAWA—It has been home to Canada’s democracy, the scene of momentous debates and landmark decisions that shaped the nation. And now it’s heard its last political debate, at least for a decade.

Centre Block, the heart of Parliament Hill, is closing its doors for a massive — and costly — renovation.

When MPs and Senators return from their holiday break, it will be to new homes in West Block and Ottawa's former train station.
When MPs and Senators return from their holiday break, it will be to new homes in West Block and Ottawa’s former train station.  (Bruce Campion-Smith / Toronto Star)

Parliament has recessed for the holidays. When MPs return on Jan. 28, it will be to a new home in West Block, itself transformed with a $863-million renovation to build a Commons chamber in what used to be a courtyard.

Senators are moving as well. Ottawa’s former train station, transformed once into a conference centre and the scene of past political drama itself, has been repurposed again at a cost of $219 million into a temporary Red Chamber and Senate offices.

For many employees and politicians, the Centre Block closing is bittersweet. By the time it reopens in a decade or more, their time on the Hill will be over.

“Every day when you come into this building, you pinch yourself and say, ‘How the heck did I get here?’ It is hard to believe,” House of Commons Speaker Geoff Regan said.

“There is so much history here and so many decisions, so many famous debates … So many things that make up what we consider as fundamental parts of our country today that were decided upon here,” he said in an interview.

There’s no price tag yet for the renovation. There’s not even a full outline of the work to be done.

Public Works officials say they can’t estimate the cost until they have a plan for the renovation and get a handle on the building’s current condition. For example, Centre Block was one of the first steel-frame structures ever in Canada and there are worries whether water infiltration has rusted the steel.

“We’ve already started invasive openings to get a better understanding of what’s behind the walls and floors and ceilings,” said Rob Wright, assistant deputy minister, parliamentary precinct branch, with Public Works and Government Services.

The refurbishment is meant to overhaul the mechanics of the century-old building, such as the electrical and heating systems, and install air conditioning, new IT systems and seismic protections.

But any work beyond that, such as a rethink of the interior spaces, the committee rooms and offices, remains a question mark.

Throughout Centre Block, intricate stone carvings tell stories of Canadian people and places. Spaces were deliberately left blank so that future generations could add their own tales.
Throughout Centre Block, intricate stone carvings tell stories of Canadian people and places. Spaces were deliberately left blank so that future generations could add their own tales.

At a recent Commons committee meeting, MPs made clear they want a say in how Centre Block is redeveloped. And NDP MP David Christopherson (Hamilton Centre) said Canadians deserve a voice as well.

“As everybody else has given their professional input, how about one step back, put the whole thing out there to the nation and say, ‘OK, Canadians, what do you think?” Christopherson said.

At a recent committee meeting, Liberal MP David Graham (Laurentides-Labelle) wondered if the renovation could extend to a dramatic reimagining of the Commons itself.

“Is it important that we keep the chamber in the same physical shape as it is today or is it the opportunity to rethink how chamber itself is structured?” he asked.

It’s a question others are asking too. Writing in Policy Options, editor-in-chief Jennifer Ditchburn lamented the lack of discussion about the future of Centre Block or the possibilities for a new Commons seating arrangement to replace the current adversarial design that has politicians facing off across an aisle.

Regan said that decision will rest with MPs.

“If members decide they want a different shape chamber, the House could decide that. I don’t expect that. I think it would be very difficult to change it,” he said. “But we have to leave that to the future.”

Another possibility is to keep the chamber in West Block when Centre Block eventually reopens, using it for so-called “parallel debates,” as happens now in Australia and the U.K. parliament.

Following the example of those jurisdictions, it would operate in concert with the Commons, allowing more time for debate on private member’s business and committee reports.

As people making nostalgic last visits crowded Centre Block hallways on one recent day, Regan stressed that the House of Commons isn’t a physical space. Rather, it’s the idea of representatives, elected by Canadians, to run government, he said.

“That’s a very important idea in democracy and it’s one that continues, whatever building you’re in,” he said. “However, this is a beautiful building and we’re going to miss it.”

Centre Block and the Peace Tower were built between 1916 and 1927, replacing the ruins of the previous building that had been gutted by fire on Feb. 3, 1916. It was conceived by Toronto architect John Pearson at a time when a younger Canada was coping with war, its aftermath and emerging nationhood.

“I think it’s really stood the test of time and I think those kind of ideals about what we are and what we want to say still resonate today,” said Johanna Mizgala, curator of the House of Commons.

There is history at every turn here.

The Commons chamber has seen speeches by British prime minister Winston Churchill, Nobel Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai, U.S. presidents Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy; Indira Gandhi, the prime minister of India; and South African president Nelson Mandela.

The Speaker’s wood-panelled office is where photographer Yousuf Karsh plucked a cigar from Churchill’s mouth and captured the now-famous image of a scowling prime minister.

In the Centre Block's second-floor cabinet room, successive prime ministers have met with ministers debating and deciding national issues of their time.
In the Centre Block’s second-floor cabinet room, successive prime ministers have met with ministers debating and deciding national issues of their time.

In the second-floor cabinet room, successive prime ministers have met with their ministers. The cabinet table is surprisingly scratched and worn by the politicians who have sat around it debating and deciding the momentous decisions of the day.

Throughout the building, intricate stone carvings tell stories of Canadian people and places. Spaces were left blank so that future generations could carve the tales of their time.

“The history of our country and of this place is carved into its very walls. But I think the intent of the architects was to remind members of Parliament of the people of Canada … to remind us who we work for,” Regan said.

During the renovation, some of the memorable experiences will be lost to visitors — going up the Peace Tower, taking in the majestic surroundings of the Library of Parliament, seeing the Senate chamber and its eight large paintings that depict scenes from the First World War.

Officials hope to keep other parliamentary symbols accessible as the work unfolds. The Peace Tower bells will ring until at least 2022. It’s hoped the flag atop the tower will continue to flap in the breeze, apart from one brief interruption when the flagpole is replaced.

Workers began cleaning out the House of Commons Friday, getting ready to move MPs desks to the new chamber.

“I will miss this building. I will miss everything that it signifies,” Mizgala said as she walked the building’s Hall of Honour.

Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier

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Democracy is dying. The executioners are our leaders

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If the current state of global democracy is struggling to survive, as new studies indicate, will we feel any better after this weekend’s Group of 20 summit in Argentina?

Not likely. And the reason will be on stark display in Saturday’s closing group photo of the leaders attending the summit.

A balloon depicting U.S. President Donald Trump as a baby was hoisted by protesters outside the Congress building in Buenos Aires, Argentina, ahead of G20 summit of global leaders.
A balloon depicting U.S. President Donald Trump as a baby was hoisted by protesters outside the Congress building in Buenos Aires, Argentina, ahead of G20 summit of global leaders.  (ALBERTO RAGGIO / AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

With despots, dictators and at least one cold-blooded killer among them, it will resemble a rogues’ gallery of pretenders who are working tirelessly — often in the dead of night without us knowing — to undermine democracy in many countries.

Although not a word about this will be uttered at this year’s G20, that is the issue that should be dominating the summit.

In October, a Stockholm-based international institute updated its report on “The Global State of Democracy” — a study of the performance of 158 countries since 1975. It reported an “alarming” decline in the past year in the health of democracy worldwide, warning that “democracy’s global rise has come to a halt.”

According to the study, “the number of countries experiencing democratic decline is now greater than the number experiencing democratic gains,” the first time that’s happened since 1980.

Much of this is due to what it called “modern democratic backsliding,” characterized by political parties or leaders “using legal means to weaken democracy from within.”

Similar conclusions were found in this year’s 12th annual survey of “the state of global democracy” by the U.S. research institute Freedom House.

It concluded that democracy faces “its most serious crisis in decades … as its basic tenets — including guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press and the rule of law — came under attack around the world.”

It reported that 71 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties — including nations such as Turkey and Hungary that “a decade ago seemed like promising success stories.”

The report was also critical of Donald Trump’s America: “The United States retreated from its traditional role as both a champion and an exemplar of democracy amid an accelerating decline in American political rights and civil liberties.”

These are not the issues at this year’s G20 and the reason for this is obvious. The summit is being dominated by the very leaders whose actions in the past year have proved to be such a threat to global democracy.

There is Trump, of course, the leader of the pack. In the two years he has been U.S. president, his efforts to attack America’s key democratic institutions, such as a free press and independent judiciary, have been ceaseless. And they have provided incalculable inspiration and cover for authoritarians and despots in every corner of the globe.

Most of the dominant G20 cast of characters also have blood on their hands. Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping are there, as is Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

But this year’s award for the most notorious leader in attendance surely goes to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the alleged mastermind behind the savage killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Although still willing to accept Saudi money, many leaders will be horrified at the prospect of having to shake his hand.

The fire and fury at this year’s G20 summit will eventually dissipate, but that likely won’t be enough. The underlying malaise threatening the global order will deepen.

A hundred years ago, an exhausted world was celebrating the end of the First World War and was about to begin the Paris 1919 peace conference intended to create a harmonious, modern new world.

Instead, it led to a century of violent and bloody upheaval.

Decades from now, when historians assess the direction of this 21stcentury, will they note that democracy’s fateful death began here in 2018?

Tony Burman, formerly head of CBC News and Al Jazeera English, is a freelance contributor for the Star. He is based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @TonyBurman

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Follow the money as Doug Ford disrupts our democracy

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The beauty of democracy is that you get to vote the bums out.

But what if the next group of bums clings to the seat of power — rewriting the rules to undermine campaign finance reforms, handicap their opponents and advantage themselves ahead of the next election? And the one after that?

Follow the money. Keep an eye on the hypocrisy.

In opposition, Ontario’s Tories made their name by sullying the Liberal brand. They accused the last government of playing money politics through bribery, corruption and “cash for access.”

But from their new perch in power, the Progressive Conservatives are turning back the clock on hard-won democratic reforms that keep politicians accountable.

Buried in the government’s fall economic statement is disturbing new wording that would reopen the door to big money from big business (and big labour), while hobbling competing parties. It is sneaky, it is duplicitous, it is anti-democratic.

For decades, all three major parties profited from Ontario’s wild west of money politics. Under sustained media pressure (not least from the Toronto Star), the Liberals belatedly cried uncle in 2016.

Then-premier Kathleen Wynne banned the outsized donations that distorted decision-making by the government of the day, no matter which party was in power. Individuals had to attest in writing that they were not sneaking in “funds that do not actually belong to the person; or any funds that have been given … by a corporation or trade union for the purpose of making a contribution.”

Now, the new Progressive Conservative government is deliberately diluting those protections. As first reported by my Star colleague Robert Benzie, the latest language would remove the obligation of individual donors to certify that they are not being bankrolled by corporations or unions behind the scenes.

It is a retrograde development, part of a package of changes will diminish democratic protections in Ontario.

Make no mistake, powerful corporate interests funnel money to buy favours from politicians in power, or to curry favour with politicians poised to attain power.

Remember when Doug Ford, campaigning to become premier, promised a group of donors that he would slice and dice the Greenbelt to clear the way for commercial development? Only when a video clip of his jaw-dropping comments circulated online did an embarrassed Ford foreswear such action.

That’s how the game is played by all parties. A series of columns in 2016 revealed that senior Liberal cabinet ministers were assigned fundraising quotas — often in the hundreds of thousands of dollars — that could only be achieved by prostrating and prostituting themselves at the expense of the public interest.

Shamed into action, the Liberals enacted far-reaching reforms, reducing overall donation limits and banning corporate money.

Shamelessly, the Tories are now cancelling the requirement that donors certify they are using only their own money, on the dubious grounds that it is too bureaucratic. That’s like saying you shouldn’t go to the trouble of signing an attestation on your tax returns, because everyone already knows it’s illegal to cheat.

Insidiously, the Ford government is also bringing back the notorious cash-for-access event, where the premier and his most bankable cabinet ministers will once again headline their own fundraisers for lobbyists and corporate power brokers, who get to hobnob for a high price.

Disturbingly, the Tories will also eliminate (by 2022) one of the pillars of campaign finance reforms — the per-vote allocation that goes to all parties surpassing a 5 per cent benchmark. The $2.71 per-vote payment is a recognition that weaning modern political parties off big money calls for compensation in the form of secure public funding, rather than throwing them off balance and depriving voters of a diversified choice.

Based on their latest electoral performance, the PCs receive $6.3 million a year, the NDP $5.2 million, the Liberals $3 million, and the Greens $700,000. Under previous leader Patrick Brown, the Progressive Conservative caucus endorsed the so-called per-vote subsidy as a reasonable quid pro quo.

But Ford, flush with fundraising cash from his populist base, sees an opportunity to undercut the just-defeated, deeply indebted Liberals before they are fully recovered, while gaining an advantage over the NDP. Finance Minister Vic Fedeli, who backed Brown’s position in the past, has now fallen into line with Ford’s antipathy to the formula, saying that political parties “shouldn’t be a burden on the taxpayer.”

Implicit in that sloganeering is the proposition that parties should end up beholden to big donors. And that campaign reforms undertaken in good faith should be whittled down at the whim of the premier in power, at the expense of the parties in opposition.

Fedeli’s new legislation is cynically called the Restoring Trust, Transparency and Accountability Act. In truth, it is eroding all of the above — making it that much harder to follow the money, but easier to see the hypocrisy.

There was a time when the Tories cast themselves as reformers in the defence of democracy. Now, they are disrupters in the service of donors.

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Martin Regg Cohn is a columnist based in Toronto covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn

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