If, for your average person, government bureaucracies can seem like forbidding mountains, then Linda Paluck is a sherpa.
People often call on Paluck at their lowest point: when they need to apply for employment insurance or social assistance, get a son into a recovery house, or retrieve lost or stolen identification. Sometimes they visit when they feel they need to yell at someone.
Such is the job of a constituency assistant to a federal or provincial politician. It’s not an easy job, but it’s also not a glamorous one.
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The job of a politician is pretty clear and very public: you make laws, lobby for policies, give speeches, shake hands and sometimes sling some mud. But a politician is tasked with being the voice of one’s constituents. And while that can mean lobbying for major community projects, it can also involve trying to reunite a family separated by thousands of miles or helping someone just find the right form.
Sometimes those issues require a prominent figure with the ear of those in power. But often, there’s no political angle. Help may be available, but obscured in some way by a Himalayan mass of forms, websites, ministries and phone lines that together comprise the thing we call “government.”
And it’s here that constituency assistants shine.
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Paluck, who works for Abbotsford West MLA Mike de Jong, knew nothing about politics when she applied for a job advertised in the paper more than a decade ago. She had a good resumé, with experience in business and advertising, so she took the gig. But her first weeks were eye-opening.
One day early on, a man walked into the door. Paluck came out to meet him, and immediately got an earful.
“This gentleman just started to rail at me – he was just screaming,” she said recently. “I started here thinking ‘I’m not going to like this job.’ “
She declared she would give the job six months and decide on her future then. It has since been 14 years.
“I love the job,” she says now. “There are no two days the same. People will come in every week with a question I have never been asked before.”
Her counterpart at MLA Simon Gibson’s office in Mission, Jean Hooge, has a simple description of the complex job the pair share: “help people who are stuck.” That frequently means assisting people – including those suffering from mental illness or addiction – access to social assistance or other help.
“We do want to honour people and treat them all as equal,” Hooge said. And being able to help those people to actually get what they’re seeking is a joy. “There’s just a huge sense of stress release in their life,” she said.
Before going to work for Gibson, Hooge had worked for more than a decade as a pastor – a past she shares in common with Mike Murray, who until recently was a constituency assistant for Abbotsford MP Ed Fast.
Aside from the faith element of being a pastor, both CAs say there are similarities between the jobs: the focus on helping people, while presenting a calm demeanour.
“I’ve seen a lot of joy, and a lot of crying,” said Murray, who recently left Canada to take a political job in the United Kingdom.
As a representative for a federal politician, much of Murray’s work involved helping people involved in the immigration process. With so much paperwork involved, a wrong number or address can sink the dreams of a hopeful Canadian.
But Murray also had to be careful about how, exactly, he helped. He couldn’t tell the immigration authorities that any one constituent (or a constituent’s family member) was deserving of a place in the country, or needed to jump a queue. Occasionally, though, he could help humanity, and common sense would win out.
He told the story of a Thai woman immigrating to Canada whose daughter had been granted a visa but missed her landing date because of a single wrong address on a form. Suddenly, the daughter’s arrival in Canada to be with her mother was in jeopardy.
“This was years in the making,” Murray said. He was able to find the people who could resolve the issue, and the family was united. “There was a legitimate complaint and there was a [need] for some kind of mercy.”
Hooge, Paluck and Murray – who worked for Randy Kamp while the Conservatives were in power – also all saw their jobs change slightly after an election.
All three say life is different with a member in opposition. It’s not that government employees are hanging up on them – all three say there is still co-operation. But the access to ministers, and the relationships with the staff of those decision-makers, inevitably lessens when one’s boss isn’t brushing shoulders with those in power on a regular basis.
“I think they’re pretty fair all around,” said Murray – who ran for a seat in Pitt Meadows-Maple Ridge with the Conservatives in 2015 – of the bureaucracy under the current federal government.
Paluck said provincial ministries have also remained helpful, although being in opposition can result in frustration at times.
And things have grown quieter at the office, although some people, she noted, “will get mad at you whether you’re government or not.”
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Few constituency offices have seen quite so much change as that of Abbotsford South MLA Darryl Plecas, who became Speaker of the Legislature and left the BC Liberal party in one fell swoop.
As speaker, Plecas must be seen to be impartial. At the same time, though, he remains his constituent’s elected representative. So, in addition to his long-time CA, Amber Born, Plecas now employs Alan Mullen as a “special adviser.”
Mullen had previously volunteered on political campaigns, first on behalf of the NDP, then for Plecas after he decided to run in 2013.
The pair had come to know each other while Plecas was a prison judge and Mullen worked as a corrections manager at Kent Institution. So when Plecas decided to accept an offer from the NDP to become Speaker of the Legislature – a job in which he can’t directly advocate for policies – he tapped Mullen to perform some of the functions he could no longer do.
That includes things like meeting with groups and organizations seeking funding, and taking those requests to decision-makers in Victoria. And Mullen gushed at the results so far, saying he was surprised with the ability to be able to sit down with ministers – although he said Plecas’s decision to take the speakership wasn’t the reason for that accommodation.
Born’s job, meanwhile, remains similar to her counterparts elsewhere: providing help, clarity and finding “the right channel” that can lead through the tangle of ministries and phone numbers that can be government.
“It’s nice for us to be able to take that on when someone’s already at a low point in their life and stressed and don’t know who to turn to,” she said. “I don’t want to be, like, phone this person and then they’re going to tell you to phone this person. I can take all that on.”
The office of Jati Sidhu, the federal Liberal MP for Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon, declined to participate in this story.