As MPs disperse to their 338 ridings around the country, media will describe their upcoming summer as “time off” and that they will “do the barbecue circuit”. Canadians may wrongly conjure up the vision of buff, rested politicians, replete in their social and culinary summertime pursuits.
In my experience as an MP from 2008 to 2015, summer meant time in the riding, an intense, tightly planned period when I could actually meet with multitudes of constituents whom I did not have time to see when Parliament was in session. For the job of an elected federal leader in Canada is really two jobs - one on Parliament Hill and another, in the riding, more focused directly on the “customers,” as we’d term constituents in a business sense.
In my own case, my staff, in three separate offices around my riding, had identified 50 different groups, each of which demanded distinct consideration and service. Serving them, meeting with individuals, and attending community events created an intense, tightly scheduled experience far from the “barbecue circuit” image projected by our media.
Most MPs love the job and love the riding activity. However, their divided existence takes its toll in many ways. One of the notorious casualties of Parliamentary service is physical and mental health. This is a price political leaders pay that is directly analogous to the price paid by leaders in business, professional, faith, and other fields.
When leaders sacrifice their physical and mental health in the name of work, they hurt not only themselves but also all those who look at them as role models. This key thought motivated me to launch various initiatives designed to leverage the role of leaders in promoting physical and mental health and fitness.
First, there was the Parliamentary Fitness Initiative, which got MPs and Senators running, walking, and swimming together with volunteer coaches. The “PFI” began in the wake of the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games and continues to this day. Second was National Health and Fitness Day, an occasion when First Nation, provincial, and local governments are invited to proclaim the first Saturday in June as a day to concentrate on increasing citizens’ devotion to healthy physical exercise.
Over 400 cities have proclaimed the day, which Senator Nancy Greene Raine and I formalized through Bill S-211, enacted in 2014. A third wave of initiatives are annual marquee events designed once again to profile healthy physical activity: Ski Day on the Hill; National Life Jacket and Swim Day on the Hill; and Bike Day on the Hill. Finally, we now have a charitable entity, the National Health and Fitness Foundation, created in 2015 to transcend the political careers of leaders devoted to the cause of promoting health and fitness.