It’s a dinner Mark Tomkow will never forget.
On November 8, the high school teacher from Alberta dined in the iconic Château Laurier with educators and parliamentarians from across Canada as part of the Teachers Institute’s week-long professional development program on Canadian parliamentary democracy.
For two hours that evening, he sat next to Pierre J. Dalphond, a newly minted senator from Quebec. An awestruck Tomkow listened as the senator spoke about the inner workings of Parliament and what it’s like to be a senator.
“He is filled with such immense wisdom that it was just a treat to listen,” said Tomkow, who teaches Grade 11 and 12.
“And within two hours it had totally demystified a ton of myths and preconceived notions of how the Senate works and what its function is.”
The program, run by the Library of Parliament, shows teachers Parliament in action and arms them with knowledge of our democratic systems so they can take their experiences back to their classrooms. It’s an experience many teachers say will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
Tomkow and 84 other teachers were selected to participate in the program, which brought them behind the scenes in the Senate Chamber, the House of Commons, the Supreme Court of Canada building and other spots in the Parliamentary precinct.
During their visit, teachers also met Prime Minster Justin Trudeau, Gov. Gen. Julie Payette, Senate Speaker George J. Furey and House of Commons Speaker Geoff Regan.
Here is a snapshot of what this year’s participants had to say about the program.
Grade 11 and 12 teacher at St. Peter the Apostle Catholic High School in Spruce Grove, Alberta
“We got to meet the prime minister, we got to meet the Governor General, I got to go with my MP for a tour of Centre Block, but in terms of the impactful conversation with Mr. Dalphond, it was really inspiring and it gave me a whole new level of trust for the Senate and its process.”
When I sent (my students) last night a Google Doc with a summary of what I’ve been doing so far one girl wrote back and said, “It looks so beautiful and I’ve never been and I want to go to Ottawa. Enjoy the rest of your trip.” I emailed her back and said, “You will go to Ottawa. You’re going to apply for the Senate page program. You’re going to go to university in Ottawa and you’re going to go and do this.” I know that there will be some (students) who will be impacted in that way.”
Grade 9 to 12 teacher at Lord Tweedsmuir Secondary School in Surrey, B.C.
“I feel so privileged and honoured to be part of the program. The Teachers Institute, they’ve given us so many incredible opportunities — and I taught government. I know a lot of the topics that we’ve gone through. But, to connect with them interactively it completely solidifies and brings to life the entire process.
To really get a view of what a senator’s week looks like, what their day looks like, and the varying pressures they have on them and how seriously people take that role. There can be a misperception, particularly with the senators, that it’s an easy job, it’s a retirement job. But, to hear how seriously they take the responsibility and they see it as an opportunity to impart real change in Canadian politics is really powerful.
Teacher at F. H. Collins Secondary School in Whitehorse, Yukon
“Senator Jane Cordy and I had this connection because she’s a teacher and I’m a teacher. So, we talked about some education issues, but we also talked about her experience she brought to the Senate as a teacher.
They’re very, very generous with their time with us. Senators just sitting in the Chamber. They took an hour of their time today to speak to us. It is such incredible professional development. You can’t beat that. Meeting these people — like the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the Governor General, the prime minister, the Speakers of both Houses — is reserved normally for heads of state, and we’re here.”
Teacher at Polyvalente Thomas-Albert in Grand-Sault, N.B.
“This week has been an experience that every teacher should at least have once in their lifetime. You can learn so much about democracy, you learn the truth, you live it, you see it.
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting two senators — Senator Cormier and Senator Mockler. Senator Cormier had some questions for us. I thought it was a good experience because he wanted to know about teaching, what we needed as teachers to further our kids to know about democracy.
I have several students that are in the LGBTQ community so I’m there for them as an advisor. Within our province we have a program that once a year we have a summit so we gather the kids … so they can live their experience. Senator Cormier wanted to have my input on that. That was great because that’s what he’s dedicated to.
It also brought me to say that one day I might be an MP, I might be a senator. I’d love that. I had a misconception about their role.”
Grade 3 and 4 teacher at École Pointe-Claire in Montreal, Quebec
“It’s been an extraordinary experience. I didn’t exactly know what the Senate was doing. Honestly, I would apply for that job later on in my career.
“I think that the Senate committees, they look very thought-provoking. You get to learn things you didn’t know about. It gives you the opportunity to open your eyes on more things.
By coming here, it clarified many things, like the House of Commons versus the Senate, what are the differences, how does it work. In the Senate, some of them are independents. It’s very interesting. Many things like that that for sure I’m going to bring in the class. For sure, I’m going to make some calls and invite people to talk to the kids. I think that’s also a way to engage students in being active in politics, in Canadian democracy.”
Grade 6 French immersion teacher at École Arthur Pechey in Prince Albert, Sask.
“It’s been incredible. The chance to speak with educators who are like-minded like me, just so passionate about social studies, and Canadian parliamentary democracy and all our systems. With all of us coming from all different corners of Canada it just gives you that unique perspective that you can’t get at home.
I’m a former guide on the Hill. But to have, from the senators and the clerk, that human perspective in their input — whereas as a guide it was the people, the place, the process and we may have known a few stories — but we never really got that chance to have senators or clerks to give their point of view.
They see such an interesting perspective that we don’t really know and we don’t really understand unless we’re talking to them or asking the questions.”