A family divided by geography, a dying man without access to his insurance, an elderly person unable to get his old-age pension.
These are Canadians at their most vulnerable -- financially, emotionally and mentally at risk. So whose job is it to help solve these problems? The Canadian public service... or your member of Parliament?
The correct answer is our public service; those men and women who administer government services for all Canadians. However, according to former MPs who participated in a recent Samara report, many MPs commit a large amount of time and staff resources to getting constituents in the back door of bureaucracy. In fact, about one-quarter of former MPs described their proudest moments as those where they directly helped an individual constituent navigate Canadian bureaucracy, especially in the areas of immigration and government benefits.
One MP recalled his office dealing with these types of calls daily: "Your office is always facing calls where somebody is frustrated with trying to approach the government. When you think of somebody having trouble with his income tax or EI or trying to access an old age pension, and [they are sent to a 1-800 number], they wind up calling your office."
He expressed some frustration at the amount of resources spent dealing with issues that are meant to be handled by the federal bureaucracy: "[We had] about two-and-a-half people full-time dealing with these situations. Over a period of time we exceeded one hundred thousand calls from people either coming to the office, or looking for help with government."
Numerous MPs recalled helping constituents with immigration issues. Canada accepts about 250,000 newcomers annually, but according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, as of March 2011, there are one million people waiting in line, many who have friends, family or other advocates in the country. For one MP, his proudest moment as an MP was helping an African refugee bring his family to Canada.
"He got to Canada and tried to establish himself. Then he wanted to bring his wife and his kids because they were separated by war. After all that, the government said, 'No, you don't have a wife. You are committing a fraud. These kids aren't really your kids because you can't provide the documentary evidence.' Well, in the villages, they didn't have marriage certificates.... he came to me and showed his papers and the track record he had. I worked with him for two and a half years at the end, and that was quite a proud moment being able to help him deal with the bureaucracy."
So is processing paperwork what Canadians expect their members of Parliament to do? The traditional definition of an MP in the Westminster system of government -- to consider, refine, and pass legislation, and to hold the government to account -- suggests no. The MPs themselves diverge on this question. While many MPs related stories of how they helped constituents navigate their way through difficult bureaucratic processes, other MPs expressed dismay at their constituents' expectations in this regard.
As one MP put it, "That was the hard part, trying to explain to somebody, especially immigration cases, where we were limited in how far we could intervene... That's something that has to change. It should not be the MP's office handling that."
In fact, since there is no agreed upon role for the MP defining appropriate intervention, each MP could potentially have a different response to a constituent's concerns. In other words, they're all operating within their own rules. This is troubling, particularly when we realize that they do not and cannot intervene equally for everyone. Often they work for those constituents with whom they had a personal interaction or relationship.
The frequency with which MPs intervened in immigration, employment insurance, veterans' affairs, Canada pension and disability cases also raises difficult questions about political interference in a process that is meant to be handled by an objective bureaucracy. Does an MP's intervention compromise this objectivity?
Furthermore, what does it say about our bureaucracy that it seems to require such continued intervention from elected officials?
Of course many of these cases involved people at their wits' end, having been through bureaucratic processes which had been unresponsive or had not produced the desired effect. For many citizens, these can be matters of life or death, and require attention.
The question, of course, is from whom? Many members of Parliament are spending valuable time and energy acting as an intermediary between individuals and the federal government. Canadians, and would-be Canadians, are receiving unequal and inconsistent treatment based on who they know, not who they are. Bureaucracy's role and decision-making processes need to be made more transparent and accessible to citizens, so that the burden of this work can be taken out of the MPs' office and placed back in the bureaucrats' hands, where it belongs.