A couple of months ago I was in Ottawa and went to Parliament Hill hoping to observe Question Period. It was late fall and the air was frigid; the news that morning had forecast the first snowfall of the season. At Centre Block, a few dozen people were waiting in line. Within minutes of my arrival, a Parliament Hill employee, a young woman whose coat bore a silhouette of the building in front of us, announced that Question Period was full, but we were all welcome to stay in line to see if anything opened up. A stout guy in a leather jacket turned to his friend and said that it was because the PM himself is supposed to attend today and then the two of them slipped out of the line. A middle-aged guy in an overcoat said to no one in particular that this never used to happen when Harper was the Prime Minister and then he too slipped out of line and began the long march along the giant lawn in front of Centre Block and up past the Centennial Flame, around which a group of kids huddled for warmth.
I was determined to wait it out, so I pulled out my book and settled in. I had come to Ottawa to attend a meeting of publishers, cultural bureaucrats and MPs. In preparation for the meeting I had been discussing with a friend Hannah Arendt’s writing on culture and entertainment in which Arendt proposes that entertainment increasingly threatens to erode culture through the remaking on a mass scale of art objects into easily digestible forms suited for mass consumption. My friend suggested that the same process is at work in the political sphere, and that politics has come to occupy the space of entertainment, as most recently evidenced by our own Prime Minister, the one who was attending Question Period that very day, appearing on the covers of fashion magazines and a reality TV star being named the Republican candidate for the US presidency. Then I heard a matronly voice say, where did you get those pansy shoes? I looked down at my own shoes and then up to see the speaker, who was a middle-aged woman in one of those brightly coloured puffy jackets; she was wearing a pair of brown leather boots in the style of riding boots favoured by equestrians, a sport that seems particularly suited to Ottawa. The woman in the riding boots was evidently addressing her son, who had on a pair of blue canvas sneakers. You’re a big guy, she said, you need big rugged shoes, not little pansy shoes.
At this point the crowd shuffled forward, and along with the woman in the riding boots and the young man in the canvas sneakers and a couple of middle-aged guys in varsity jackets, I finally entered the foyer of the Centre Block, which was filled with security guards directing traffic, RCMP officers rushing in and out of the building, men with white hair and dark suits and women with big hair and skirts and blazers striding confidently through security; young men and women in tighter suits with lanyards around their necks standing around; a flutter of activity that was amplified whenever the door was opened and huge gusts of wind ripped through the foyer.
The security guard, a pudgy guy in his forties, asked, are you together? What about you? You? He was pointing at the people in line. Okay, he said, you’re going to wait here for a moment and then I’m going to wave you through and you’re going to walk along the wall here just like that and then you’re going to see those fine gentlemen over there, belts and jackets off, pockets empty.
The woman in the puffy jacket said to her son, you should become a security guard, you’re a big guy.
The son said, you can’t trust people if you’re a security guard; I trust people too much.
Then the security guard started chatting with the two guys in the varsity jackets, and at one point I heard him say, for Halloween one year I went as Hunter S. Thompson. Way I see it, it gives you licence to get belligerent. Another year, he went on, I went as a hobo. I rubbed some bike grease on my face, so I could say that I wasn’t wearing makeup.
After we had passed through security, we were pointed upstairs, where more white-haired men in dark suits and big-haired women in skirts and blazers were strolling around with folders in their hands. Another security guard pointed me to a desk, where two more security guards sat, and when I asked them about attending Question Period, they pointed me to yet another security guard, who pointed in turn to a line of people huddled behind a velvet rope. Question Period is full, she said, but you can wait there to see if anything opens up.
I got into the back of that line and settled in. The place looked eerily familiar, though I knew I had never been inside any buildings on Parliament Hill before. Two women in their forties, wearing power suits, got into the line behind me.
—When I don’t have to worry about my mom I can cook a good dinner. You know, experiment.
—Ya, when I was house sitting I could look at the recipe books and then go to Walmart but when I got into that damn store I’d get confused and leave with only two or three of the ingredients on the list.
—You gotta write it down.
—I know that. You’re right.
—You ever read the ingredients on cream cheese? You can’t even pronounce half the words.
—Ya, like my mom used to get Cheez Whiz.
—Oh I like Cheez Whiz.
—Or those Kraft Single slices.
—Or that Velveeta stuff.
—The Velveeta I liked better than those slices. But not for your hamburgers or for your grilled cheese sandwiches.
—Now you can get Velveeta in those slices.
A few people slipped out of line, so I shuffled along closer to the front.
—Oh, and I’ve been making a bit of progress in my knitting. But I’m still having a hard time with accounting for rows.
—Oh, you just really have to count right. But it might be too difficult for you.
—I already made one of those copy cats and Sarah has me making more for Christmas.
—Have you met Fiona yet?
—I have suspicions about Fiona. I don’t think that I trust her. I saw what appeared to be an alcoholic beverage at her work station.
—I guess she thinks her job is more important than God.
—That’s like my mom. I said to her, get off those pills and start believing in God.
Then it dawned on me why this place looked so familiar; I had seen it on YouTube, it was exactly where the cameraman had shot from when he filmed the RCMP closing in on the man who had attacked Parliament Hill a few years earlier, while the sound of gunfire rang out.
At quarter past three, two hours after I had joined the first lineup, there were only four of us left in line. Another security guard came over. English, French? he said. Okay, I just want to inform you that Question Period is over. You can stand in line to see the galleries, but QP is over.