How'd you get that job? Samara talks to an MP's parliamentary assistant

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How'd You Get That Job? Thursday, May 01, 2014 View Count = 12420

How'd you get that job? Samara talks to an MP's parliamentary assistant


Isabelle Bourassa was born and raised in Quebec City. She has been the parliamentary assistant to Anne Minh-Thu Quach, Member of Parliament for Beauharnois–Salaberry, since June 2011.*

What made you want to get involved with politics?

When I think about it, I was always involved in some way with civil society organizations, NGOs and other groups that work on promoting democracy. Eventually, I decided to get involved in a political party because I think that it’s a good way to make change in our society and also because I really wanted to know more about how Parliament works. I used to work at the international level on democracy promotion and electoral observation in different countries with the Organization of American States (OAS). In that work I was exposed to many countries throughout the Americas that have vibrant democracies, and alternative forms of democracy and it helped me realize that I didn’t know my own electoral system very well. I thought that working for a Member of Parliament would be a good opportunity to get involved, and to bring some of the lessons I’d learned abroad into the Canadian system. When I was returning to Canada after my contract ended with the OAS, it happened to be the time when a lot of NDP MPs were elected in Quebec. I was looking for work and I applied to work on Parliament Hill, and was hired by an MP. I started in June 2011. I would say that my main motivations were really doing my small part in strengthening our democracy and fulfilling a desire to learn about Parliament.

Were you a member of a political party at that time?

I was not a member of a party for a very specific reason. I worked as a journalist for Radio-Canada for 12 years and we were not allowed to be members of political parties, but I had been following politics for a long time and I had voted for the NDP at the federal level for a number of years. In 2010 I finished a master in International Relations and moved to Washington to work with the OAS, so I didn’t have the chance to get involved in a political party, but I have always been engaged on a civil society side. 

It seems surprising that you could get this job without being a member of the NDP. Is it common for non-members to be hired as political staff?

Every Member of Parliament has a different way of hiring people. For some MPs, belonging to the party is really important, for others experience on the Hill is important, and for others experience with civil society is really important, but being a member of a party is not the only criteria which should guide an MP’s hiring because the work we are doing on the Hill is really related to the responsibilities of the MP as a representative. Of course the MP is a member of a party so, for example, when we write a speech it has to represent both the opinion of the MP and also of the party, but that is not the only aspect of our work. The first and most important piece of our work as Parliamentary Assistant is to make sure we are supporting the MP in their work to represent all constituents in Parliament. They are elected by the riding constituents to represent the entire riding.

So, how did you come to this specific role? 

While working in other countries as an electoral observer I realized that we Canadians tend to think that the Canadian electoral system, or our version of democracy, is better than others. I don’t know why we have this idea. When you go to other countries you realize that they have really big challenges, perhaps different problems with their democracy than we do, but they also have really interesting experiences and ideas that we have never explored. That’s why I really wanted to learn more about how Canadian Parliament works, and how we can improve. I do think that we can learn a lot from the experiences of other countries.

Here’s an example, when I was in El Salvador observing an election day in 2009, I noticed a lot of young people were electoral officers. They performed their roles with a lot of professionalism, even though for some of them it was their first experience as an electoral officer. They were really serious about their jobs, and they respected the rules and wanted to learn about the electoral system and how it works. They arrived at 5 o’clock in the morning for their training. Seeing that I thought that, you know, this interest and commitment to the electoral system is lacking here in Canada. People tend to take our democracy for granted. They aren’t interested in getting involved in the electoral process or working as electoral officers in the polling centers. We have a lot of cynicism in Canada, and I remember thinking that we should learn more from others’ experiences. That was a good eye opener for me, working abroad and seeing the commitment of young people to their electoral system.

After the NDP’s sweeping wins in Quebec on May 2, 2011 Jack Layton and other MPs from Quebec did interviews on Quebec television and radio channels. It was really a phenomenon to see all the NDP MPs elected in Quebec. They were always repeating in their interviews, “We need people. If you’re interested in helping us in Ottawa or in the ridings, send your resume or give us a call.” You don’t usually hear that from political parties, not in that way. Maybe they’ll post something online, but you don’t hear the leader of the party repeating “we need people with energy and conviction” and I kind of connected with that. I thought, “They need people, and I feel I can bring something, so I’m going to apply.”

I did some research about the NDP MPs, especially the women from Quebec because it was important for me to work for a woman. When I learned more about Anne Quach I was really interested in working for her because she was young and she is the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, I really liked her profile. I think it is really great that someone like her can be elected as an MP. So I sent her my resume and I was selected for an interview and she hired me. I started to work in June 2011. When I arrived a lot of MPs from Quebec didn’t have offices or any staff, they were doing everything from scratch. The first day I arrived in Ottawa (from Quebec city) I came in by train. I arrived at 9am and went straight from the train station to Confederation Building. Mrs. Quach and I met at the reception desk and she said, “We’ll open the office together because I haven’t had a chance to see it yet!” When the security guard opened the door and we went in, there was nothing there but three desks and some computers. She said, “Well, that’s great, welcome to my office.” She was starting as a new MP and I was starting as a Parliamentary Assistant and we felt really green but also so happy to take on this challenge. It was a really good feeling to start together like that. 

Can you tell us what exactly a parliamentary assistant does?

It depends. Usually, there are two people in the office on Parliament Hill and two in the riding, but every MP organizes a little differently. In my team, I do the legislative work and my colleague does more of the administrative and communications work. In our riding office one colleague works mostly on attending to citizens’ needs, such as helping with immigration matters or Employment Insurance, and the other is more of an attaché who does outreach, and accompanies the MP to events, etc. 

Like I said, my role is largely centered on legislative work. I go to committee with the MP, I help her prepare questions for committee, I do research with the Library of Parliament. If we are doing a study in committee I do the research and brief her and I suggest questions for witnesses. I also write speeches for her. For example, if she wants to speak about a specific bill I would research the topic and then help her to speak about the bill in the House of Commons. I also help to write questions for Question Period and I monitor the media for articles that relate to her portfolio. Right now, my MP is Deputy Industry Critic for the NDP so every day I read the newspaper, and then do a media briefing for her on anything related to this portfolio. Sometimes I’ll also do outreach with people who have expert knowledge related to her portfolio or with civil society groups. 

What has been your favourite moment in your position?

I think I have several, but what I really like is when I feel like I’ve supported my MP to do her job in the House, when she feels confident and feels that she has all the information she needs to take an informed position about the issues. When I feel I have brought something to the table to give her a better understanding of different policies or situations and when she rises in the House and gives a speech and I feel that she is really in control and knows about the issues. That makes me feel good.

I also help with outreach and I really like when we have visits and we welcome people to Parliament and Mrs. Quach speaks about being an MP and how Parliament works.  Many people don’t know what MPs really do, they don’t see the purpose of it, so it’s great when I can help to welcome ordinary citizens here and help them understand how important this institution is for our democracy and how they can get involved. Every citizen has a role to play in a democracy and I think that sometimes people don’t know what they can do, or they think that even if they do voice their opinion there will be no impact, but that’s not true. Now that I work here I realize that we do take all the feedback we receive into account—phone calls, emails, letters—and the  MP is always aware of that correspondence. In fact we’re not only aware, but interested to know what people think.  You know, there are a lot of ways Canadians can get involved and reach their MPs, there are town halls and petitions, and I truly believe it’s worth it and it makes a difference. 

What skills or experience are required for this job?           

The first thing I would say is good judgment. I don’t think that there is a specific skill set, like expertise in government departments or Parliament, even if it’s important to have a basic understanding of our political system. You have to be a good communicator.  It’s also an asset to understand political dynamics and have a good general understanding of Canada and the important issues in the country. And you have to like people.  You have to feel comfortable reaching out to people, because that is one of the most important parts of our work as Parliamentary Assistants. It’s our job to make the connections between citizens, experts, NGOs, other stakeholders and the MP which means you have to read a lot and be interested in everything that’s going on. Then you need to be comfortable reaching out to people and acting as the intermediate between those people and your MP. 

So most of all I would say have good judgment and be a people person. If you want to be a good Parliamentary Assistant you have to like speaking to people, and listening to people. At the end of the day MPs are elected by people and you are the communication tool between the MP and the people who elected him/her. 

What advice would you give to someone who wants to have a job like yours? What is a good first step for them to take?

Volunteer for an MP. If you don’t have any experience on the Hill and you would like to eventually work as a Parliamentary Assistant, the best thing would be to volunteer or to work on contract in an MP’s office. You can also get involved in a party through your riding association. That’s a good way to become familiar with the political world. I think those are the best ways to get experience. 

Do you often host volunteers in your office?

We have volunteers here in Ottawa and sometimes in the riding. Usually they come in as part of their studies. We get a lot of people who study political science or public administration and it’s a good way for them to learn more about how Parliament works and how government works. It’s always great for us to have volunteers because they have grassroots experience, they are connected with their community and they always have an interesting point of view. Volunteers help us to connect with the people in our riding and they help us with a diversity of things – communications, building and maintaining databases, correspondence with the citizens. We really appreciate that sort of help.  

*Please note that this interview represents the views of the interviewee and not of the MP for whom she works

Isabelle Bourassa holds a BA in communications and a Master’s in international relations, and worked for more than 12 years as a journalist and producer for Radio-Canada. Her passion for languages and cultural diversity led her to travel and work in Africa, Europe and Latin America, in Commonwealth programs and for NGOs such as Amnesty International and ENvironnement JEUnesse. 

In 2010, she was awarded the Jean et Rita Chapdelaine scholarship and participated in an internship with the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington where, until April 2011, she held the position of assistant coordinator for the joint OAS/CARICOM electoral observation mission in Haiti. 

For Isabelle, being open to the world, intercultural dialogue and sharing knowledge are key elements of sustainable and equitable development. She intends to continue promoting democracy in Canada and abroad.

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