Mark Rendell
Mark Rendell

A Day with Dennis: Hanging with the NWT’s MP in Ottawa

Representing the North's needs in Ottawa in a majority-ruled parliament can be an exhausting job, full of raucous question periods, Leona Aglukkaq, press conferences, and a lot of frustration.

Dennis Bevington might be a leisurely, sometimes halting speaker – someone who writes words on sticky notes and underlines them with a certain oomph as he talks; but when the Northwest Territories’ man in Ottawa has somewhere to be, he’s a speedy walker. Coming through the front doors of the chateauesque Confederation Building next to Parliament Hill, he’s a good few paces ahead of me. He checks his watch as we wait for a crosswalk light: five minutes until the Environment Committee meeting with Minister Leona Aglukkaq.

It’s 8:40 a.m. and we’re enroute to the NDP MP’s first engagement of the day. To go with his purposeful gait, he’s wearing a dark blue two-button blazer over a light blue shirt and a crosshatched beige and cream tie. I’ve been allowed to tag along for the day to get a sense of life on the Hill, and it’s going to be a busy one, he assures me. There’s a rare committee meeting where the responsible minister is actually showing up, a press conference on Nutrition North, some afternoon theatre – I mean question period – and some parties on Parliament Hill to round the day out.

First elected in 2006, the 62-year-old former mayor of Fort Smith has been in the House of Commons for three terms straight. “It’s been a very difficult job for me,” he admits candidly. “I’m a more creative person. I proved that when I was a mayor, I could make things happen… [Try being] an opposition MP for 10 years. It’s not a fun job.”

Still, nine years on, he’s flying back and forth from the NWT to Ottawa dozens, if not hundreds, of times a year trying to bring northern issues to the government. He seemed exhausted when we first met in his spacious three-room office on the second floor of the Confederation Building; he’d been up since 6 a.m., reading newspapers and doing yoga. But now he and his signature grey moustache are animated as we hurry through the street. The wrinkles around his eyes whisker into laugh lines.

***

The first building we enter turns out to be the wrong one. Bevington checks his BlackBerry, then dashes up a ramp, through a back door and across Sparks Street to the correct building. I follow suit, emptying my pockets onto the airport-security conveyor belt as Bevington flashes his parliamentary badge and races upstairs. By the time I get to the large boardroom, Minister Aglukkaq is zipping through her talking points.

“…230 megatons of greenhouse gas emissions in the first 21 years, and this is equal to the removal of 2.6 million personal vehicles from the roads per year in that period…”

Bevington is on the right side of the long table. He’s already looking bored. Eight other MPs are in attendance, along with a cadre of high-level bureaucrats sitting in a row beside the minister.

The Environment Committee meets twice a week to discuss environmental policy and quiz department heads on various initiatives. The minister, for her part, only comes to committee about once every five months, says Bevington. Today she spends the first 15 minutes reeling off the manifold things her government is doing to protect the environment – a few million invested here, a billion there, a new plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, lots of collaborating with partners – then it’s time for questions.

Bevington was fidgeting with his BlackBerry and looking distracted while the minister spoke, but when it’s time for his question he’s all attention, leaning forward in his chair, hand on his hip.

“Can you explain how your government moving forward is actually going to have some action on black carbon, renewables and where the investment is, going forward, for renewable energy?”

“In my opening remarks I stated we have put in 10 billion to support renewable energy and that program will continue under NRCan,” she starts. Bevington tries to interrupt her, but is brushed off. He gets in a few more questions about investment in renewable technology and CANOR office positions in Iqaluit, and then is out of time.

The whole event plays out as one might expect: the three NDP and one Liberal MPs needle Aglukkaq with questions which are, for the most part, passed on to her deputy minister Michael Martin to answer; the Conservative MPs toss her softballs – “Your department and our government as a whole has taken significant strides towards combating climate change, and I was wondering if you could please provide the actions that have been taken?”

After an hour and one “math is hard” moment later – neither Aglukkaq nor Martin could figure out how many megatons of emissions would need to be cut to meet their 2030 target – the minister leaves. An hour more and Bevington’s back outside, rushing off to a lunch meeting that I’m not allowed to attend, in which NDP members will be discussing their hunting and trapping policy.

***

The bi-weekly committee meeting is Bevington’s main committee appointment, though he also subs in on other committees when northern issues are being discussed. It’s also one of the places he actually has a chance to ask questions and be heard; as an opposition MP in a majority situation, it’s tough to get a hearing.

“When this government makes bad decisions you can’t stop them,” he tells me. “It was much easier when it was minority. We had more say over things, we had more ability to intervene with the government. The majority for the last four or five years has been very difficult, I’m not denying that.”

Bevington is openly wistful about the bygone period of his political career when his actions had tactile consequences. His political baptism came in his 20s in Fort Smith, organizing “what was probably one of the first citizens’ environmental movements” against the building of a dam on the Slave River. “We kind of won. There’s no dam there! And it really taught me one thing: when First Nations and environmentalists get together they’re pretty powerful.”

A ‘scary environmentalist’ reputation hamstrung his first run for Fort Smith’s city council –  “Environmentalists weren’t looked on the same way they are today. They weren’t the elite of society then” – but he was voted in the following election; within a few years he was mayor, a position he held from 1988 to 1997.

“I was in my mid-30s when I started, I had a lot of energy, we built a lot of buildings, we fought a major environmental issue over ALPAC pulp mills on the river system. I was president of the NWT Association of Communities, prior to division, so I worked on the division issues.”

Federal politics had been at the back of his mind since an unsuccessful bid to be the NDP candidate in 1986. In 2000, after a few years out of politics running his own renewable energy company, he managed to wrangle the NDP nomination, and was then trounced by long-serving Liberal MP Ethel Blondin-Andrew. His 2004 race against Blondin-Andrew was much closer; with only 53 votes separating the two candidates, it was the tightest race in the country that election, but an even bigger let-down because of its closeness.

“I was one of the few guys that lost an election because the Canadian Air Force bombed a runway,” he says with a chuckle. “I was going to fly into Fort Res on a Saturday morning from Yellowknife, but when I got to the airport, the road was blocked off and all the planes were shut down. An F-18 had taken off from the airport and a bomb fell off the plane and bounced across the road onto the golf course, where the commanding officer was golfing. It didn’t explode, but then they shut down the airport. My joke is of course: I only lost by 50 votes, and I hardly got any votes in Fort Res because I didn’t show up – I might have been bombed out of that election!”

2006, the year the Conservatives came to power, was his year. Though the NDP hadn’t won since Wally Firth lost in 1980, the NWT was bound to go orange sooner or later, says Bevington. “I think the riding is very left-wing. Fifty percent of the population is Aboriginal and they’re very communal people. They have very strong environmental leanings. And the rest of the riding, there’s a lot of people who are left-of-centre.”

It’s an interesting political dynamic, he says. There are a lot of anti-establishment voters in the North – “They can vote for the Reform Party or they can vote for the NDP, depending on who they consider better for their purposes.” And while the rural south tends to be overwhelmingly Conservative, the rural North, says Bevington is “kind of like NDP hinterland… If you look at the North across Canada, we hold a lot of those seats, whether it’s northern Manitoba, northern B.C., we won seats in northern Alberta this time, northern Ontario, we have almost all the seats there.”

Bevington spent his first few years on the Hill sitting at the far end of the House of Commons as part of the tiny NDP caucus. Since the NDP’s surge in 2011, he’s been the opposition critic for the Arctic Council and the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency.

“I’m reactive to somebody else’s work. That’s been necessary, and I think I can point to many things I’ve convinced the government over time to do that are good – the increase to the northern residents tax deduction; I actually promoted the road to Tuk in 2007 to the minister of Aboriginal Affairs; I’ve been engaged in a whole number of different things – but it’s not a creative experience as much as I’d like.”

 ***

We meet up again in his office just before 1 p.m. He introduces me to his two assistants he shares the office with: his right-hand man Doug Johnson, who helps with everything from policy research to election strategy, and Stella Desjarlais, who manages constituent outreach. Then we’re off – catching a minibus shuttling people from the Confederation Building to Parliament Hill – to Tom Mulcair’s office on the fifth floor of the Parliament Building, to rehearse for the daily masque known as question period. I’m not allowed in, but he explains that NDP get together for about 30 minutes before question period to hash out their questions for the day, figure out their order, and even practice their delivery. The Conservatives, says Bevington, often rehearse for two hours.

He admits it’s a bit silly: before cameras were allowed in the House of Commons, he says, question period was a time for opposition MPs to ask questions about government policy and receive answers. Now all sides just spend their time hammering at talking points in the hopes the media will pick them up.

Before question period and after the dress rehearsal, Bevington holds a 20-minute press conference about Nutrition North in the first-floor press gallery. He’s been doing more research on the much-maligned food subsidy program and has some new numbers he wants to spin out to the media. For example, four litres of milk in Lutsel K’e, which only gets a five cent subsidy for every kilogram of food shipped, costs $16.99, while in Kuujjuaq, the same milk costs $7.99. All told, “the total subsidy to the 300 people who lived there last year was $2900. $10 a person for the whole year,” he says while standing on the small press gallery stage with four other NDP MPs. “What we have here is an unfair system that needs to be fixed.”

Each MP takes a turn speaking, but Bevington is clearly the NDP’s point guy on the issue. In the hallway, moments before the press conference begins, Romeo Saganash, an MP from northern Quebec, had asked him “What’s new? What’s the plan?” Bevington fields most of the questions journalists throw their way and he’s the one to announce an NDP proposal to get $7.5 million added to the program so all remote communities are funded at the same level.

Fifteen minutes later, during question period, Bevington has taken a back-seat role. He sits in the second row several seats in from the speaker of the house, cheering and clapping when an NDP member takes a shot across the aisle. Although he hasn’t been allotted a question for the day, he seems fairly engaged, leaning forward and clutching the front of his desk with one hand like he’s stretching his muscles – a far cry from a moment in 2011 when he was roasted on the nightly news for falling asleep in parliament.

Questions of tax cuts, sexual assault in the military, replacing a Quebec bridge and so on fly back and forth across the chamber. At one point, the Conservative side of the house breaks into something resembling a rugby chant.

“No chanting,” cries the speaker. “It’s unbecoming.”

Truth be told, the whole thing is rather unbecoming. MPs from both sides of the floor heckle each other and loudly applaud partisan comments; questions are answered with empty rhetoric, often veering off in totally unrelated directions.

Bevington has been allotted a ‘pocket question’ – one to slip in, if there’s time, just before question period closes – but as he stands the speaker calls time and the MPS start filing out.

***

My day with Dennis ends back on Parliament Hill a few hours later. After question period he went back to his office to work for a few hours. Now it’s past 5, and time for some shrimp, mini-quiches and the daily schmooze. We start at a fairly staid party at one end of parliament, then move down the hall to a pretty bumpin’ party (well, as ‘bumpin’’ as a party on the Hill could reasonably expected to be) celebrating the ten-year anniversary of the legalization of gay marriage. The room is packed with progressive MPs and stylishly dressed twenty-somethings. Justin Trudeau poses for a photo with a group of excited young women before slipping out. One of the speechmakers pulls out his “gay sweater,” woven from the hair of thousands of LGBTQ Canadians. “This is the only sweater in the world which is a ‘gay sweater’” he says to laughter and applause.

“This is more our speed,” says Bevington, pinning two pro-gay marriage pins to his lapel. I track his progress through the party for 20-odd minutes, watching his balding pate pop up around the room as he shakes hands and munches on appetizers. Then we’re off to a event party at a nearby bar in honour of Diabetes Day. After perhaps ten minutes, he excuses himself.

It’s been a long day and he’s looking tired. Though with a schedule that’s nothing short of torturous, you can’t blame the guy for being pooped. While parliament is sitting, usually between 130 and 140 days a year, he flies direct from Yellowknife to Ottawa on Sunday, spends the week working, then flies to Edmonton on Thursday night and on to Yellowknife the following day. He’s in his Yellowknife office for Friday, then flies home to Fort Smith for the weekend. Add to that various meetings and trips around the territory when parliament isn’t sitting, and he’s on the road about 250 days a year.

For a guy of 62, with a nice log cabin he built 40 years ago waiting for him, and seven grandkids in Fort Smith and Yellowknife, it’s grueling. But with the NDP surging in the polls across the country and the prospect of forming government closer than it’s ever been for the party, another kick at the can must look pretty tempting. When I ask him about it, he gives me a sly smile: “I’ll make that announcement in due time. When you don’t announce you’re not running you have to assume that I am running.”

Next installment: A look at SSI Micro’s operations in the nation’s capital.

 

Note: Air North provided the flight to make this story possible. While we’re incredibly thankful for their contribution, the company did not influence the story’s content.