Sketches: Inside the Belly of the Beast
by Darren Stewart

Electric Circus

The atrocious Much Music spectacle, Electric Circus, which comes to the hill once a year, came and left a recent Friday evening. This year, Toronto ebonics slinger, Maestro (formerly know as Fresh-Wes) "headlined". He played for an allotted three minutes then ducked back below the frenetic lights into his heated trailer. But for the next hour a hundred young people, wearing far too little for the sub-zero temperature, shook their asses for the rest of the country, while plastic VJ's tried unsuccessfully to rally the Ottawa crowd into TV-friendly.

Would they do this on the White House lawn?

Tony Blair

The other morning: It is a crisp winter day at the hill. The dull greencopper of the peace tower cuts a stark outline in front of the deep blue winter sky. The hill is calm this morning. The 13 giant snow sculptures eachrepresenting one of the Canadian provinces and territories (very popularwith tourists,) were recently ploughed. All seems as it should be.

The sidewalk past the lawn and up the lane towards the massive front doors is slushy and treacherous.

I am picking my last few steps carefully when sirens and speeding cars bring turbulence to the morning calm. It is Tony Blair's motorcade. Blair and entourage jump out in front of me and suddenly Jean Chretien is there, shaking his hand. It happened fast while I stood there, dumb.

The scene plays out for a few cameras and the group moves inside, with me in timid tow. I cut out of the action to drop my stuff at the press gallery, one floor above. I brush past a phalanx of British reporters complaining that they can't smoke on the job in this country, and return to a vista, which over looks the main foyer.

Below is a chaos of diplomatic hand shakes and lights. Mario, a janitor on parliament hill for thirty years and three months away from retirement, begins making fun of Blair's accent ("sow, this is Coh-na-doh") in a voice certainly audible to those in the scene below.

A surreal moment.

Alexa McDonough and my pants

As question period winds down each day we "scrum" the members of parliament as they leave the House ofCommons chamber. Few parliamentary media are afforded this opportunity in other countries.

Every day there is a half-hour of chaos in the foyer immediately outside the chamber. Cameras, lights and a lot of stoic, yet blood thirsty journalists wielding tape records like gladiator weapons, ready to stick them in anybody's face that will talk.

Brian Tobin will talk to anybody about anything and is sometimes the first to arrive and last to leave. He stands around, assertively awkward, and waits for somebody to ask him a question.

Chretien scrums rarely, and whenhe does, the pack surrounding him is 10 people deep and filled with a handful of his RCMP henchmen keeping their eyes pealed for trouble, and cream pies.

Lastfall, Stockwell Day began refusing to scrum and holding a daily press conference in the bottom floor conference room (dubbed the "whine cellar"). This was more poor planning by Daybecause it pissed off journalists; which is not something you want to do, as a perceived pretty-boy newcomer politician from the prairies; one the Canadian electorate is skeptical of already.

The NDP and PC parties, always keen forpress headlines and because they have nothing to lose, will always scrum.

Journalists can also page politicians to come out and make an appearance. I rarely do this.

The Canadian University Press obviously has less clout than, say CTV or CBC Newsworld, so my pages often go unanswered. I recently paged NDPleader Alexa McDonough, who'd raised the issue of the two Canadian students arrested in China for unfurling a "free Tibet" banner at a Team Canada event.

McDonough took issue with the Canadian business delegates, who heckled the protesters as they were being led away by Chinese securityguards. She brought up what I thought was an appropriate point in the whole question of human rights and free speech in China.

Why had two Canadians peacefully protesting violent crackdowns on Tibetan religious freedom, been heckled themselves by Canadian delegates, while being taken away by potentially dangerous Chinese security forces?

Industry Minister John Manley had responded to the question by suggesting that this was a free speech issue. He said the protesters were exercising their right in unfurling the banner, and the business people were exercising their right by heckling.

Manley missed the point and looked dumb.

I wanted to get McDonough to respond to his response. I was already writing on the story, and students are brought up so infrequently in the house proceeding, I figured it would be an appropriate component to add.

But I realized while scrambling down to the scrum foyer that I'd worn a pair of pants that the button had fallen off of recently. This usually wouldn't have bothered me as I would just keep my shirt untucked,covering my undone, but secure pants. I wasn't supposed to be down in the foyer without my blazer and tie let alone with an untucked shirt. To make matters worse, the previous week, while standing slightly inebriated at a student journalism conference in Vancouver, my pants had fallen down. The people around me were more amused than Alexa McDonough and her staffers would likely be, should this happen again. And again I wasn't wearing a belt.

As I stood there, holding my tape recorder in Alexa McDonough's face, I had to concentrate all my effort in standing still and looking casual, all the time I'm worrying about my pants.

And the two Canadian students were interrogated for four hours, then put on a plane back to Canada and are now safe.

Darren Stewart used to be called "Danger Boy".




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SKETCHES: INSIDE THE BELLY OF THE BEAST

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