The life of a student political staffer

It will come as no surprise that the University of Ottawa has the largest number of students working on Parliament Hill. Even though these staffers are young, they still play a critical role in the daily functions of the offices of our elected representatives.

In this issue of “On the Hill,” Raghad Khalil will take you behind the scenes in the lives of three U of O student political staffers, two current and one former. From long hours in the office to gaining practical experience in the highest level of Canadian government, they’ll be sharing it all with you.

Our guests this issue are Matthew Don Trapp, who is in his fourth year in political science, Laura Pennell, in her fourth year of international development, and Stephane Mukunzi, a political science and communications alumnus.

On how you got started on the Hill

Matthew: Before I came to the U of O, I had never met a politician in my life. I was passionate about politics, so I sent a message to my hometown member of parliament just asking if I could meet with him. I started off as a volunteer and transitioned into part-time then full-time employment with two different MPs. I worked on the Hill from 2012-15.

Stephane: I applied when the Liberals had 33 seats. I essentially had to apply to everything that was there. I just emailed everyone and then finally received a response. I volunteered with an MP for almost an entire academic year and then worked there for two months before taking a Federal Student Work Experience Program position.

Laura: I began working on the Hill immediately following the 2015 election. I did some campaign work, and decided I wanted to take part in the upcoming government. I also began working for my hometown MP.

On the worst and best days

M: Oct. 22, 2014, when the shooting occurred. I was not in centre block, so I had it much better than some of my friends who had SWAT teams coming through the doors. I was in lock-up from 10 a.m. until close to 11 a.m., and we didn’t really know what was going on.

The best day was the next day. Rather than close Parliament, like many people thought, it remained open and fully functional. Everyone arrived at work shaking hands with the security forces. All the leaders from the various parties gave speeches about how our democracy would not be shut down. The partisanship that often makes Ottawa quite insufferable was completely gone for 24 hours and you realize that everyone is there for improving their constituency and the lives of Canadians. It was just a really emotional day. I felt every possible feeling within a 48-hour span.

Raghad: It’s interesting, because they’re all there, in principle, to make everyone’s lives better. It’s just that they disagree on how to do it.

M: It’s true. When you’re dealing with constituency work especially and you’re dealing someone’s immigration file, or employment insurance, and they’re really in distress, being able to secure a victory for them is great. We’ve had constituents send us Christmas cards every year because we helped them five or six years ago.

S: I didn’t exactly have that experience. Not everyone is that connected with the riding that they’re working for. It’s just a reality that you have to confront sometimes—it’s not meant for everyone, it’s not the best atmosphere for everyone. Part of it was because I felt so disconnected to the people that I worked for. I worked for an MP that, as loving as she was, was not very present, and I never really got to know her as an individual and the riding as people. When I was asked to do research on a file, it never felt personal. The issues were just so different from the riding that I’m from (Ottawa-West Nepean) to this riding in Vancouver.

On something interesting they have learned

S: People tend to have a negative opinion of politics and politicians, especially growing up watching House of Cards—you think everyone is like Frank Underwood and is constantly scheming to the top. In truth, everyone has a particular issue that matters to them. Everyone has something they’re extremely passionate about. The MP I worked for is a doctor, so she was very passionate about health issues and also LGBTQ issues, so there’s a human aspect that you don’t necessarily see when you see the tough, loud woman in the House of Commons.

L: I think that kindness and being a good person gets you much further in politics than as being a Frank Underwood. The best politicians, the best members of parliament, reach a hand across the floor to the opposition all the time. The most successful people collaborate.

On a future career in politics

L: From my experience working in my constituency, I feel that working as an (elected) official is the highest privilege as an advocate. I haven’t ruled out running later on in my life. I’m a big advocate for encouraging more women in politics, so I have a responsibility to always keep that option open in my mind. Since my degree is in international development, when I came to the U of O, I did not think that I would be involved in big “P” politics. Working on the Hill has made me realize how much I love politics, and it has transformed my understanding of a political science degree.

M: Getting to see the inside, the daily life of a member of parliament, I realized politics is not a nine to five job—it’s a 24/7 kind of job and it takes a lot out of you. You don’t have weekends, you go to constituency events. It’s a different life and I don’t necessarily want that for myself.

Final words

M: You can go from being an 18-year-old volunteer to being a paid full-time staff, making a decent salary within three years. That would not exist within any other field. So you may work on the Hill for a few years, maybe you go into a different field after in the public sector or business. That is perhaps more friendly to family life, but at this point in your early to late twenties, working on the Hill is totally doable and a great experience.

That’s all for this edition! Join us next time for “On the Hill with Raghad Khalil!”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Matthew Don Trapp worked on the Hill from 2010-15, when he actually worked on the Hill from 2012-15. The article has been updated to reflect this change. The Fulcrum sincerely regrets this error.