OTTAWA – Life on Parliament Hill, with its parade of free meals and wine-soaked networking events, can make it difficult for even the most stout-willed politicians, staffers and journalists to avoid overindulging at the best of times.
“It’s an occupational hazard,” said one former senior political aide from a previous Liberal government.
So imagine the challenge for those struggling with alcohol issues, such as Nunavut MP Hunter Tootoo, who stepped down from his cabinet post and left the Liberal caucus Tuesday to seek treatment for what the Prime Minister’s Office has only referred to as “addiction issues.”
Tootoo has not spoken about his experience, but former MPs and staffers recall a lifestyle marked by multiple receptions with stakeholders every night, where socializing with a drink in hand is considered part of the job.
“It’s very seductive,” said former Liberal MP Marlene Jennings.
Jennings, who represented a Montreal riding from 1997 to 2008, said she does not enjoy the taste of alcohol and so never drinks anything more than the occasional glass of champagne with her husband on a special occasion.
But she remembers the atmosphere during her decade in Ottawa, with a variety of organizations hosting receptions as part of their lobbying efforts on any given night. MPs and senators would circle the room to exchange business cards with a glass of wine in their hands before heading back to a debate — or on to another event.
“Even those who have absolutely no drinking problem, it becomes really easy to have that glass of wine and then have the second one and you’re not realizing that you’re on to your third one,” she said Wednesday.
Another former staffer put it more bluntly.
“I never drank so much in my life than when I worked on the Hill,” said the former staffer, who no longer works in politics and so spoke only on condition of anonymity.
The staffer said most in his circle would keep things together during the actual receptions, saving their more obvious drunkenness for the after-party at an apartment or bar. Others, however, would see the drinking affect their working lives.
“With the passage of time you would notice that there was a few that would go a little too hard, would maybe have too many glasses of wine,” he said.
Don Boudria, an Ottawa-based lobbyist and former Liberal member of Parliament, says more awareness about mental health and addiction — and more women on Parliament Hill — means things are not nearly as bad as they used to be.
And they were bad, he said, recalling seeing people drinking themselves literally under the table when he was a staffer at the start of his political career.
“All of these things have changed, and thank God they have,” he said.
Former NDP MP Laurin Liu, who came to Ottawa at 20 years old as part of the so-called Orange Wave in the 2011 election, said she saw how easily people could get carried away.
“It’s certainly easy to not draw limits, simply because work and socializing and these receptions all kind of fall into one category,” said Liu.
She would have her staff schedule meetings with stakeholders during daytime hours to cut down on the number of evening events, she added.
“Obviously, there are drinks at every event you go to, and so I think sometimes the lines are blurred,” Liu said, adding that it is also hard for people to be away from their families and support networks.
Jennings said talking more about work-life balance during orientation sessions for new MPs would go a long way. So would doing away with the open bar and charging patrons for drinks, she added with a laugh.
“Economics can condition people’s behaviour like you would not believe.”