• By: Elliot Hughes

How does Ottawa actually work?

The city that fun forgot. That’s what some call Ottawa. And perhaps that was once true. But not anymore. Today, Ottawa is growing up (LRT) – and hitting the gym (restaurants, craft breweries, cannabis).

A ‘government town’? That one sticks. In fact, based on a growing public service, one could make the case that it’s never been truer. Something else that hasn’t changed – Canadians’ understanding of how the machinery of government works in this government town.

Which is understandable. Aside from elections and nightly news clips of yelling matches during Question Period, Canadians are rarely forced to confront what goes on day-to-day in political Ottawa. And who can blame them, really. From the outside, law-making seems slow, partisan, and frustrating. And that’s not too far off. But deep down, whether it’s during one of the Leaders’ Debates or while watching prime ministers try and answer questions over the howls and the shrieks, there must come a point where Canadians ask themselves – how does the that system, that town, actually work? (This is, admittedly, a bit of a leap of faith, but bear with me)

First, it tends to work slowly. The entire political process, from meetings with MPs, to Caucus meetings, to parliamentary votes, to budget-making, runs on a strict calendar. Why would anyone think to update that calendar? (Don’t answer that). Instead, embrace the slow pace and play the game. If you decide to engage, don’t get frustrated and always show up and engage if you want to be part of shaping the outcome. No matter how trivial an opportunity may appear – a consultation, a committee appearance, an MP meeting likely to be cancelled due to ‘votes’ – taking part matters. Showing up matters. And reaching a level of Zen (or at least tolerable acceptance), matters. Indeed, it’s how we maintain our strong democracy. And how MPs get many of their good ideas.

The next thing to know is there’s no such thing as smooth sailing. One day your issue could be front page news. The next? Barely on people’s mind. Depending on what the issue is, that could be good news or bad news. Either way, don’t worry, it’s common. Running hot and cold has reached an art form in Ottawa. What you need to remember is that if your issue is truly important and requires attention, it will eventually get it. You will need patience and persistence. Focus on delivering your message consistently and with clarity. And again, don’t get discouraged.

So, while the road may be bumpy and slow, remember that our system is better than almost every other form of government in the world. Companies and individuals can meet MPs and Ministers to tell them their needs. Officials return phone calls. Legislation is drafted, enacted and, when needed, amended. Leaders are publicly accountable for what they say and do. Governance can be messy, but all that tension, discord, and disagreement is proof of a strong democratic system. All in all, our system works relatively well – most of the time.

And yet we shouldn’t take this for granted. We’re fortunate to live in a country where avenues and mechanisms exist for people to make a difference, ideas to be heard, and for engagement that can lead to substantive policy change. But there are ways the system can be improved and further democratized to ensure more and more Canadians feel part of the process. And the first step is to increase one’s awareness and education about the system and understand how to succeed within it.

Government is far from perfect and dealing with it can be incredibly frustrating. But the best way to improve it is not by avoiding it or throwing your hands up in despair, but rather by working it and demanding more from it. Once in, you can work to change it – but be sure to get in early.