The Speaker's office on the main level of the Centre Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa is an impressive, high-ceilinged Gothic confection with a commanding view of the Ottawa River. A portrait of Winston Churchill glares down on the oak-panelled library with its leatherbound volumes of rules and procedures. The iconic Karsh photograph of the British prime minister was taken in the room in 1941 after Churchill had delivered a speech in the House of Commons. If you take the time to look around the overwhelming space, you will spot a crucifix sitting unobtrusively on the mantle above the marble fireplace. The Cross, made of olive wood from Jerusalem, was a gift to Andrew Scheer from his father when he was elected Speaker of the House of Commons.
At 35, Scheer is the youngest person to hold the Speaker's position. He is also a practising Roman Catholic. As the member of Parliament for Regina- Qu'Appelle, he opposed the same-sex marriage bill and expressed his "outrage and disgust" when abortionist Henry Morgentaler was awarded the Order of Canada.
"I absolutely think that each member of Parliament has a different kind of faith — a different level of faith — and it is up to each member to determine how much he or she wants to incorporate that into their public life," he says.
"But it is an important part of my life. [Faith] can be important for public policy for those who wish to express it and have it as a source of direction and motivation for their work. It is important for us to have public policy discussions in an environment where a person's faith is welcomed. It is appropriate [for those people who have faith to self-identify]." As Speaker, however, Scheer has to be impartial. He can't attend caucus or participate in parliamentary debates. He can, however, exercise his influence in other ways. Scheer started an informal study group on the Hill of the St. Thomas More Society. Named for the Chancellor of England who fell out of favour with Henry VIII over the issue of divorce, it is open to all MPs and parliamentary staff. It meets several times a year for dinner to talk about, and perhaps influence, public policy.
"It is a real exchange of views," Scheer insists. "It is not meant to be a catechism class. It allows us to have a better understanding of each other and of the issues." The wide-ranging topics discussed include Church abuse scandals, Pope Benedict's speech on faith and reason at Regensburg (to which Muslims took offence) and the 2009 papal visit to Israel. Scheer met with Pope Benedict when he was in Rome for the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha, but the group still hadn't tackled the subject of Pope Francis when Convivium spoke to Scheer.
"As Speaker, I am aware of how my pronouncements are parsed," Scheer says. "I can't imagine what it is like to be the Pope and have every syllable of every word parsed."
Scheer does believe, however, that the difference between Francis and his predecessor is that Benedict's approach was to have a smaller Church "where the light would shine on the true believers" while Francis has opened the doors wide to everyone "in the hope that some of them might see the light."
The first clue to the nature of Scheer's fervent Roman Catholicism is his parents. "Family is the centrepiece on which society is built," he has said. "Parents are the first source of learning."
His father, a deacon at St. Patrick's in Ottawa, was the librarian at the Ottawa Citizen; his mother sang in the church choir.
"Each one of them provided me with a different piece of the puzzle. My dad is very intellectual, very academic and very logical. We would have these great conversations around the dinner table when I was 10 years old on the difference between transubstantiation and consubstantiation. What I got from my mom was a real practical understanding, a real love of the faith. She was Irish-Catholic, and when she said the rosary, her accent came out a little bit."
Scheer was raised in Ottawa with his two sisters and was an altar server at St. Clement's. He studied at the University of Ottawa. After he met Regina schoolteacher Jill Ryan in Ottawa, he moved to Saskatchewan to be with her. He and Ryan were married at Holy Rosary Cathedral in Regina in 2003. He worked as a waiter at a Danbury's restaurant that was once a posh private club while continuing his studies at the University of Regina. In Regina, he became an avid football fan. His brother-in-law Jon was a punter who went on to play for the Seattle Seahawks.
Scheer cut his political teeth working for the provincial Saskatchewan Party, for Preston Manning's Reform Party and for the short-lived, right-wing Canadian Alliance before Stephen Harper hired him to work in the Opposition Leader's office.
He ran for the Conservatives in Regina-Qu'Appelle in the 2004 election. The seat had been held by the NDP's Lorne Nystrom, and many thought Scheer was running as a sacrificial lamb. At 24, with the odds against him, he took the seat from the NDP. Two years later, he was named Deputy Speaker and worked with Peter Milliken, who held the job of Speaker longer than anyone else in Commons history. He spent whatever spare time he had watching the British House of Commons debates on television to acquaint himself with the work. Three years ago, when the Conservatives won their majority, he defeated eight other candidates after six rounds of balloting for the $240,000-a-year job. He was two weeks shy of his 32nd birthday.
Scheer confounded those who dismissed him as being too young for the job.