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OPINION | Paula Simons: What it's like as a reporter embedded in the Canadian Senate

Paula Simons used to joke that she'd never join any club (or political party) that would have her as a member. Now, here she is, an honourable senator.

The columnist turned senator says it's been hard to turn off her journalist brain

Paula Simons is an independent senator representing the province of Alberta, after 23 years as an award-winning reporter and columnist. (Supplied by Paula Simons)

Late last June, the CBC's Jim Brown commissioned me to write an online essay.

I've never actually met Jim, but back when I was a columnist with the Edmonton Journal, I used to be a pretty regular guest on Jim's CBC Radio program, The 180. So I was happy to oblige.

Fired up, I wrote a passionate essay on the dangers posed by those whipping up Alberta separatist sentiment — a column timed quite perfectly, or at least so I thought, to coincide with Canada Day.

I emailed the essay to Jim, and felt quite proud of myself. I'd filed it on deadline. It was the right length. And given that I was out of practice at column writing, I thought it read pretty well.

Jim was polite enough to tell me that people at the CBC had liked my piece. That it read well. That it was timely for Canada Day. That it had received a reasonable number of "clicks," especially given that it ran on a long weekend.

But.

But?

Well, he pointed out to me, the piece I'd sent him was in no way on the topic he'd assigned me.

Covering politics vs. doing politics

What he'd asked me to do was to write a piece about my transition from being a journalist who wrote about politics to being a politician myself. Instead, I'd turned in an essay about something completely different.

Which is, I suppose, the first difference between being a newspaper columnist and being a senator.

When you're a reporter and you turn in an off-topic assignment, your editor reams you out and spikes the piece.

When you're a senator? Well, your editor pats you on the head and lets you try again.

A joke. Mostly at my own expense.

But it gets me to a more serious truth.

Outsider on the inside

One of the things I always loved about being a reporter is that journalists don't fit neatly into any social hierarchy.

Journalists like to fancy themselves as slightly anarchic, people who can criss-cross class lines, who can sit down and talk to anyone. No one ever pays deference to a newspaper writer. No one ever holds doors open for reporters — quite the contrary! They're more likely to have doors slammed in their faces.

And truth be told, reporters quite like to see themselves as rakish outsiders whose job it is to challenge authority, to hold the powerful to account.

The Senate of Canada building and Senate Chamber are pictured in Ottawa last February. The Senate will remain in what is Ottawa's Old Train Station during the renovations of the Parliament Hill Centre Block. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

I loved that persona. It was how I defined myself — as someone whose job it was to be provocative, to stir things up, to push back against those in power.

Yet now, I find myself on the other side of the looking glass.

I woke up one morning and found myself not just a politician, but an honourable senator.

Culture shock

I used to joke that I was a Groucho Marxist, that I'd never join any club (or political party) that would have me as a member. Now, here I am, a member of the Senate, a place that's been described as the oldest boys club of them all.

It's been a culture shock.

Lots of the skills I'd developed as a reporter and columnist have been easily transferable to my new world.

My 30 years as a journalist gave me lots of experience at reading bills and governments reports and analyzing their contents. Much of my work on Senate committees means asking tough questions of senior bureaucrats, academic experts, lobbyists and cabinet ministers. I've had lots of experience with that, too.

A committee room is seen in the Senate of Canada Building, formerly the Government Conference Centre, late last year. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Even my years of experience dealing with angry callers and letter writers and online trolls has come in very handy. I'm used to being in the public eye. I'm no stranger to hate mail. It turns out those are transferable job skills, too.

But it's been hard for me to turn off my reporter's brain.

I'm not used to being an "insider," as it were. It still makes me uncomfortable. Add to that my pathological need to report, to share interesting stories, to keep people informed.

The result? I've been trying to use my reporter skills to open up the workings of the Senate to the largest audience possible.

Am I even allowed to live tweet? 

It started, in earnest, late last November, when the federal government ordered postal workers to stop their staggered strike tactic and go back to work.

There were two extraordinary days of hearings and debate in the Senate, as senators grappled with whether to support the government's back to work legislation.

I'd only been in the Senate for about a month, and as I listened to the remarkable calibre of debate and wrestled with my own decision, it seemed natural enough for me to start live tweeting the proceedings on Twitter, in a real-time series of micro blog posts. Since there was no TV coverage of Senate proceedings then, and few reporters in the gallery, my tweets were one of the only ways to follow the debate.

Suddenly, I had tens of thousands of people across Canada reading my narrative bulletins, peppering me with questions, which I tried to answer as quickly as I could.

Back home in Alberta, people weren't shocked. This was exactly the sort of thing I'd always done as a political columnist, so my live tweeting seemed quite natural. In Ottawa, though, they'd never seen anything quite like a senator live tweeting from the Senate floor. Was I even allowed to do such a thing? Was it a violation of the decorum of Parliament? No one seemed to know.

But nobody stopped me — and so on I went.

'Tumultuous transition'

The post office debate experience revealed to me just how little many Canadians, including Canadians who are pretty politically savvy, knew about the inner workings of the Senate. So I decided to do my best to change that.

I've been trying to use my media skills to give people a window into an often opaque process, whether I'm using Twitter to "cover" Senate committee hearings, or Facebook, to provide detailed explanations of why I'm supporting or opposing various bills and initiatives.

The Senate is going through a tumultuous transition.

As of this spring, our sittings are now televised and streamed in real time. Finally, Canadians can see what we actually do in the Red Chamber.

The way we do things is in flux, too.

The Trudeau government made a radical change to the workings of the Senate, by appointing independent, non-partisan senators, nominated by an independent panel. There are now 60 Independent senators out of 105. Of those, 50 were appointed under the new system.

But no one knows what's going to happen after the upcoming election. If the Conservatives win, leader Andrew Scheer has indicated that he'll return to the old system of partisan patronage appointments. Add to that, if the Conservatives win, there will technically be no Official Opposition in the Senate. And no one is quite sure exactly what happens after that.

Either way, the Senate will be making headlines. And I'll be in the peculiar position of having a front-line seat, as an embedded reporter, sharing dispatches from the front lines. (Though not the front benches.)

I'm sure I'll eventually feel more like a senator, and less like a journalist who somehow snuck into a meeting without anyone noticing. Eventually, I won't look surprised when someone opens a door for me and says, "Bonjour, madame la senatrice."

But I hope I'll continue to be forthright and transparent, as I do my best to serve Albertans and Canadians, and to share the stories of the Senate, too.

About the Author

Paula Simons is an independent senator representing the province of Alberta. She spent 23 years as a reporter and columnist at the Edmonton Journal, and was awarded the National Newspaper Award for column writing in 2017.

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