6 ways MPs spent their summer break

The bells on Parliament Hill won't call MPs back to the House until Sept. 17, but caucus meetings this week will kick off preparations for the fall. What have MPs been up to all summer?

MPs share tales of road trips, reunions and charity work during Commons' 3-month break

New Westminster-Coquitlam MP Fin Donnelly steers a 34-foot Voyageur canoe filled with young participants in the Sustainable Living Leadership Program he founded. The group paddled the entire length of the Fraser River this summer. (Fin Donnelly/Rivershed Society of B.C.)

While the bells on Parliament Hill won't call MPs back to the House of Commons until Sept. 17, this week's federal caucus meetings signal the start of preparations for the fall session.

Every summer brings its share of predictable photo ops (Stampede breakfast anyone?) punctuated by intermittent flare-ups of news. But what about the hazier, lazier days in-between, when Parliamentarians disappear from the radar for weeks at a time?

Here's what a few MPs were up to during their break from the Hill:

Paddling the Fraser

When your MP's first name is Fin, maybe it's only fitting to hear he spent the summer on the water rather than behind a desk.

Fin Donnelly, the New Democrat from Vancouver, has a unique relationship with the Fraser River, which forms the southern boundary of his New Westminster-Coquitlam riding. Donnelly has swam its entire length (1,375 km), from the Rocky Mountains to the Georgia Strait, not just once, but twice. Before that, he swam Georgia Strait four times, raising some $50,000 for the Georgia Strait Alliance.

His swims and other work for the Rivershed Society of B.C. have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last two decades, he estimates. This year, he spent 25 days at the helm (literally) of a leadership development program he founded that takes small groups of young people down the entire length of the Fraser by 34-foot Voyageur cargo canoe and whitewater raft.

The Sustainable Living Leadership Program is now in its tenth year, offering not only a physical adventure, but also an educational experience during stops along the way at First Nations and other communities that rely on the river for their livelihoods.

"While it's a fantastic trip, it's a lot of work," Donnelly says. "It's pretty intense, but I definitely take a lot away from it."

Donnelly is the NDP's western fisheries and western economic development critic. While the more remote parts of the trip take him well outside BlackBerry range, he appreciates the chance to connect in person with people involved in fishing, tourism and other industries along the way. 

This year, the group paddled a massive cargo canoe right into a rally at Kitsilano, where Donnelly spoke against recent cuts to coast guard service.

"For me, it's a real inspiration and recharge," Donnelly says of working with the young people chosen for the trip. "It reminds me of why I'm doing the work I'm doing in Ottawa."

Receiving honorary citizenship

Conservative Stella Ambler thought her trip to Italy this summer would be a personal one, but the Mississauga, Ont., MP ended up at a government meeting anyway.

Her parents immigrated to Canada in the fifties as children. In 1962, a group of Italian-Canadians in Toronto formed a social club for everyone who came from the town of Pescosolido, northeast of Rome. As part of the club's 50th anniversary this summer, a reunion trip was planned and Ambler's father wanted to take her 13-year-old son. Ambler decided to join part of the trip.

Conservative MP Stella Ambler was surprised with an honourary citizenship in her father's hometown of Pescosolido, Italy, this summer. She says the citizenship comes with perks like 'getting to eat all you want when you visit.' (Stella Ambler)

The MP has cousins, aunts and uncles still living in the town. When she arrived on a Saturday morning, her uncle showed her a poster in the town square advertising a special meeting of the municipal government scheduled for that evening.

There was only one item on the agenda: a surprise honorary citizenship for her, to commemorate one of their own being elected to Canada's House of Commons.

"It was so cute and such an honour," Ambler says, adding she had some help crafting a short speech in Italian to thank her hosts.

The entire group of about 70 from Toronto, her extended family and much of the town turned out to hear the mayor and her first cousin, who's a town councillor, speak about what she's said and done so far as an MP, including her committee work and speeches from the House of Commons. She was particularly touched when they spoke of her being a role model for their daughters as a woman in politics.

"There's something special about going back to where you are from," she says, saying the Pescosolido club was very formative for her growing up. "These are people who supported each other when they didn't know anyone."

Hitting the open road

Here's a tip for married guys who want to take an epic summer road trip with one of your buddies: first, get in your wife's good books.

Sudbury, Ont., MP Glenn Thibeault started the summer by celebrating his tenth wedding anniversary with a trip and wedding vows renewal ceremony in Cuba. The trip was a chance to reconnect with close friends and family after long absences in Ottawa earlier in the year.

That, he says, cleared the way for another trip he wanted to take with a friend at the end of the summer: a week-long, 1,700-km motorcycle trip to Cape Cod, Mass., and back.

Thibeault had started a similar trip last year, reaching only the tip of Lake Michigan before news reached him of his leader Jack Layton's resignation to fight cancer.

The NDP MP knew he had to turn around and go back to Ottawa to be with his colleagues.

This year, he was able to do it all, including a "breathtaking" ride up Vermont's Hogback Mountain, which he describes as a highlight.

"I call it my decompression," he said over the phone on the last leg of his journey back to Sudbury last week. "It's nice just to be able to drive and not worry about my BlackBerry and everything else."

Reuniting with teammates

In Canada, Corneliu Chisu is known as the Conservative MP for the Ontario riding of Pickering-Scarborough East. But this summer he returned for a reunion in his Transylvanian hometown, where he's known for something else: fencing.

The Romanian city of Satu Mare is famous for producing outstanding fencers. Chisu was the junior champion of Romania in 1965, when he was 16, and competed for Romania at the World University Games. A friend of his became a world champion representing Germany, while others competed at past Olympic Games.

Chisu, who left Romania when he was 29, says fencers from Satu Mare are now scattered all over the world. Of the 200 or so who attended this summer's reunion, about 20 competed internationally in the sport. Others, he says, were unable to attend because of their continued involvement in the sport at this year's Olympics in London.  

Conservative MP Corneliu Chisu, right, presents a Canada flag to Adrian Stef, the president of the county council in Satu Mare, Romania, during a reunion of competitive fencers in August. (Corneliu Chisu)

He's not the only politician in the group: a former president of Hungary is also a fencer.

"Fencing taught me a lot of things," he says. "You can't blame anyone for your faults ... You must attack your priorities and make decisions in time. You can't postpone."

Chisu calls fencing an "intelligent sport" where you engage directly with one adversary and need to outsmart him. "That guided me my entire career," he says.

Across the Commons aisle, Chisu has learned that Quebec MP Christine Moore also enjoys fencing. He's hoping to organize a friendly competition against the NDP opponent, perhaps for charity, sometime in the future.

Emergency room nursing

For her part, Moore hasn't exactly been taking it easy this summer. She's used her time away from Ottawa to take nursing shifts in the ER and ICU at her local hospital, the Centre de santé et de services sociaux des Aurores-Boréales.

The NDP MP for Abitibi-Témiscamingue already puts in long hours over long distances get to and from — and around — her remote Quebec riding, travelling an estimated 8,000 km each month. But when she's home, she tries to fit in a few shifts in order to keep her nursing licence while serving as an MP.

"It helps me keep in contact with people," she says. "At the emergency room people talk about work, families, the difficulties of their kids at school ... I really like to know what the reality is of true people."

Moore says people are sometimes surprised to realize their nurse is also their MP. Some have joked about going to Parliament Hill next time they need an injection, or going to see her at the hospital instead of her office when they have a concern. Sometimes students at the hospital call her "Madame La Deputé [French for MP]."

Fitting in enough nursing shifts to keep her qualifications is a challenge for a busy politician. She also recently purchased a home in Hull, Que., to use when she's in Ottawa and she's spent part of the summer fixing it up.

"I didn't really take vacation," she says.

Racing to fundraise

Several members of the Liberal caucus hit the road this summer for the fundraising circuit. In Halifax West MP Geoff Regan's case, he used his bicycle to raise money for charity.

Regan's first contact with his region's MS Bike Tour came a few years ago when his former law partner called him to say they needed another team member to ride and raise money for multiple sclerosis. He's seen a friend, brother-in-law and former assistant fight the disease.

"I've seen what they've gone through when they were first experiencing it," he says. "It's baffling at first ... with a bunch of effects that can really be tough."

Liberal MP Geoff Regan participates in the 2012 MS Bike Tour in July. He interrupted his two-day ride this year to race back to Halifax to walk in that city's Pride Parade. (Crystal LeBlanc)

Regan says he's done other charity runs as an individual and MP, but this is his big fundraiser each year. He raised more than $1,500 as part of a large team — "Road Kill" — that brought in close to $49,000 as a group.

Doing the tour is a chance to ride with people he doesn't often have a chance to see due to his hectic schedule as an MP.

"It's fun to see folks I've known off and on since high school," he says.

The Windsor-to-Wolfville, N.S., course is either 50 or 85 km each way, depending on a rider's abilities, with an overnight stop. This year, Regan did the shorter distance on the first day so he could rush back to Halifax for the 25th anniversary of the city's Pride Parade. He was one of the first riders to complete the 50-km ride on the Saturday morning, hustled back to the city to walk and dance his way through the parade, then hurried back to complete the full 85 km on the second day of the tour.

Other years he's had to miss the parade for the bike tour, but he wanted to attend this year to show his support after the death of a prominent gay activist in Halifax earlier this year. 

Compared to previous years, "I was pretty darn slow" on Sunday, Regan says. But "it's really important to support research in this area."