Canadian and Anchored to your Roots
By Arevig Afarian
Seven interns had their eyes locked on the TV in their living room, horrified at what they were witnessing on CNN. The heavy silence was only alternated by nervous laughter and some muttered words that were shut down by the hushing of the others. Those seven interns were the participants of the ANCA Leo Sarkissian Internship, and they were watching the first presidential republican debate, wondering if what they were seeing was a parody or reality. I was not able to stand 10 minutes of the debate, and so, I tuned in on my iPhone to the debate happening back home; to the first debate of the 2015 Canadian Federal Elections. In contrast to the leadership race happening on TV in front of me, the four Canadian leaders were having a substantive discussion on the future of Canada… After ten years of a Conservative government, and after a few minutes of Donald Trump, the idea of “Real Change” promised by the Liberal leader seemed very tempting and most importantly, it seemed honest and achievable. That day in Washington DC, I decided to get somehow involved in the electoral campaign of the Liberal Party of Canada.
Once I landed back in Montreal, I became a volunteer in the team of the liberal candidate of Laval-les Iles, M. Fayçal El-Khoury. Two months later, on October 19 2015, we were all celebrating the victory of our new representative in the House of Commons, and we were also celebrating the newly elected majority government. A couple of months after this win, I found myself to be an intern again, this time in the Canadian capital. I was granted the opportunity of a lifetime to be one of the 150 participants of the Summer Leadership Program of the Liberal Party of Canada, where I interned on Parliament Hill in the office of M. Fayçal El-Khoury, Member of Parliament for Laval-les Iles. The overall experience that lasted four months was incredible.
Although important, lobbying and protesting are the classic ways used by our community to get our point across. The ANCA pushed us towards another option: having Armenians as staff members of the decision makers of our countries
Both the job itself and the events that I was able to assist were very exciting. As a staffer of a Member of Parliament, the work in the Hill office changes a lot and offers daily challenges. One day you’re a secretary answering emails and phone calls, the next day you’re assisting meetings on dossier’s that are going to be discussed in the House of Commons and that you need to brief your Member of Parliament. On other days, you assume the role of a communications director by writing speeches and working on his outreach. Sometimes you find yourself entertaining guests or constituents by giving tours of the parliament, or holding long discussions with them because the Member of Parliament is being held longer than expected by another engagement. I was also granted the chance to work a few weeks in the constituency office of Laval-les Iles. The job was fairly different and a set of new challenges that dealt directly with the needs of constituents. Working for a parliamentarian was also an opportunity to learn about different policies taking form concretely throughout the country. Also, this government has put an emphasis on engaging dialogue between Canadians and their representatives in the House of Commons, mainly by encouraging each riding to hold public consultations on diverse subjects. M. Fayçal El-Khoury and his office put me in charge of the public consultation on the electoral reform, which was a joint collaboration between three of the Laval MPs. That is how I had the opportunity to learn a lot on Canadian electoral reform, something I was vaguely aware of despite my acute interest in politics.
Many things happened throughout the internship, and there are many anecdotes. There was that time a group picture of some Members of Parliament, Ministers and Senators was being taken, and I found myself stuck right in the middle of the picture. The Senators weren’t budging to give me a way out. There was that other time I accidentally walked in the office of the deputy whip, but thankfully she laughed it off. There was that time that I got tired of making phone calls to each Liberal office asking for a House Duty Trade, and so I mass mailed the offices offering some “baklava” with the trade… Put it briefly: I had fun.
There is one event that stood out for me during the internship. I had the chance to attend a very special garden party. Ministers, Members of Parliament, staffers, interns, they had all flooded the terrain of the house designated as a national heritage site. In a moment of total distraction because of the delicacies offered at this garden party, I managed to lose my intern friends somewhere in the overcrowded tent. I was walking all by myself for a while in the quest of finding my friends or my co-workers, but I was also seizing the opportunity to observe all these people present at the garden party. Two things stuck out to me: the youthful and ethnically diverse crowd. I could not help myself but think about how different it was from Capitol Hill that I had familiarized with a summer before. There was no discrimination, no division in the crowd. Minister, Member of Parliament, ministerial employee or staffer, everyone was on a common ground, having a good time together. I remembered that I used to feel limited as a woman and visible minority, especially in regards to my possibilities in the political field. And I know I was not the only one. I was in these deep thoughts when Karine Sahakian, the political attaché of M. Fayçal El-Khoury, found me under the tent and informed me that the Right Honorable Justin Trudeau was taking pictures with everyone. We walked towards his location, right in front of his house, and waited in line to take our professional portrait with the Prime Minister of Canada. It was finally our turn to take pictures with the Canadian Prime Minister, as guests to his garden party thrown at 24 Sussex Drive, Ottawa. This is the moment that I consider the most representative of the importance of Canadian-Armenians to be involved in Canadian politics.
Since my childhood, I have repeatedly been told, during our youth gatherings at the community center, that we need to get involved in Canadian politics. It is the Armenian National Committee of America’s internship program that made me realize the true urgency of Armenians being involved in the politics of their adoptive country. The ANCA taught us the importance of staffers in a parliamentarian’s office, and the importance of having Armenians as staffers. Armenians in Canada have been a very well respected, involved and integrated community, who have contributed a lot to Canadian society. We have individual success stories, the best known being Atom Egoyan, world famous Canadian filmmaker, and we have community success stories, like the recognition of the Armenian genocide. These successful individuals help the entire community by spreading a positive image of Canadian-Armenians throughout the country, and the community in return fights for the interests of Armenians in Canada, interests that are mainly of a political nature. Although important, lobbying and protesting are the classic ways used by our community to get our point across. The ANCA pushed us towards another option: having Armenians as staff members of the decision makers of our countries. Well of course, having Armenian parliamentarians is the ideal option, but one thing at a time. In Ottawa, I had the opportunity to discuss with many staffers, who had been brought into the world of politics by advocating for diverse causes. Like any good Armenian, our genocide came up more than once throughout this summer. I even had the opportunity to discuss it’s denial by Turkey with Members of Parliament. As much as one may try putting their Armenian origins aside, as much as one is a Canadian, our Armenian heritage, history and culture is something that we carry around with us. As redundant as this may sound, it is important to get engaged in our community, to be anchored to our roots, and to be engaged proactively in the Canadian society.