Shuffle scene

14 Aug

The front gate of Rideau Hall sits right across Sussex Drive from the Prime Minister’s house. Real-life Mounties with real-life powers-of-arrest guard against intruders at the PM’s gate. Rideau Hall, though, is open to the public. At its main entrance this afternoon stand two ceremonial guards – university students, probably, here for summer jobs.

They wear heavy red uniforms with big black furry hats, have recently marched along the long path from the Governor General’s residence to the front gate of the grounds, and are standing still at the gate, unloaded rifles at their sides, staring straight ahead, undistracted by the gaggles of tourists snapping their photos. They don’t stop anyone from walking past them through the gate. And today, there will be many special guests making that passage.

Ottawa residents may not have a long list of things over which to claim bragging rights, but the Rideau Hall grounds surely must be near the top of that list: Thirty-two hectares of beautiful lawns, tree groves and gardens for us to enjoy, paid for by the taxpayers of Canada.

The walk up the path from the front gate to Rideau Hall takes about five minutes if you don’t stop along the way. But there are distractions on this warm, sunny afternoon. Like the four kids jumping all around the well-kept playground near the front gate, their bikes and their dad parked on the nearby lawn. Or the many trees lining the path, plaques at the base of their trunks, showing which world leader planted what tree and when.

There’s Robert Mugabe’s sugar maple, planted 17 years ago, right by Dick and Pat Nixon’s matching 35-year-old Red Oaks. And Mikhail Gorbachev’s Pin Oak from 1990 sits right across the path from Vladimir Putin’s maple, planted exactly one tumultuous decade of Russian history later.

Beyond the trees, great arcs of water shoot out of endless sprinklers all the way out to the distant cricket field. Seagulls wander the trash-free lawns, looking restless and hungry. A bagpiper comes down the path in the opposite direction, escorting a couple of new sentries to relieve the guards at the front gate.

And then, all too soon, the Governor General’s residence comes into view, its facade obscured today by what looks like a giant condom covering up some sort of construction scaffolding, ruining the ideal background shot for the journalists doing TV hits in front, their satellite trucks parked over to the side.

Past the trucks, over by the residence’s east entrance, stand many more reporters, looking as restless and hungry as the seagulls to the north.

It’s cabinet shuffle day in the city of Ottawa, the culmination of weeks of frenzied speculation and yes, this is what passes for excitement in the city of Ottawa… at least among those of us who work within a six-block radius of Parliament Hill.

After an hour or so of waiting behind security barriers, with only each other – and the returning bagpiper and guards – for company, the show begins for the gathered media horde.

The show, by the way, is a half-hour-long sporadic procession of people walking into the building and generally ignoring questions thrown at them from behind the media barrier.

Did I mention this is what passes for excitement… etc? Actually, it’s as close as you get to a Hollywood red carpet in the nation’s capital.

First up are the dark-suited, earphone-wearing security guys. Then a few somewhat tense-looking political staffers. Then some of those red-suited ceremonial guards, no furry black hats.

The first cabinet minister to arrive is Peter MacKay, who of course will turn out to be the main headline of the day. His new job as Defence Minister hasn’t yet been officially announced, but the news has leaked out. One reporter asks MacKay if we will need to salute him. He ignores the question and is quickly inside.

The excitement out here, such as it is, is in seeing who gets out of which ministerial car and speculating about what cabinet job that person will get.

When a senior bureaucrat exits one car, he is mistaken for a Conservative MP and asked a question by a shouting reporter. He ignores it as skillfully as any politician.

The first surprise of the day is when Alberta cabinet minister Monte Solberg gets out of one of the cars. No one is sure what new position he’s getting. We will find out later that he’s keeping his old job and is here to watch his friend Chuck Strahl get sworn in as the new Indian Affairs minister. For now, he just walks past reporters with a smile on his face.

Gordon O’Connor, the about-to-be-demoted Defence Minister, gets out of his car with an aide in a military uniform. O’Connor walks past reporters without a smile on his face.

One of the final arrivals shows up not in a ministerial car, but in a taxicab. Diane Ablonczy, the well-liked veteran MP, is finally in cabinet. Where in cabinet? She’s not saying. Anything. We’ll find out soon enough

And then – at 3:30 p.m. – Maxime Bernier, about to be announced as the new foreign affairs minister, enters the building and the show is over.

A few reporters go into Rideau Hall to watch the swearing-in ceremony (on a TV in a downstairs cafeteria). Most stay outside and don’t watch the swearing-in ceremony. They get the news of who’s in cabinet via a press release handed out moments before it is made public.

Many journalists wait around for another couple of hours, hoping to get a word or two from departing cabinet ministers. Those words will never come. The politicians leave as silently as they arrived. The only government official making any public comment today is the Prime Minister. On the front lawn of his house. Down the path and across the road.

As reporters head out for 24 Sussex, great arcs of water continue to shoot out of sprinklers and onto the grounds of Rideau Hall. Children continue to laugh in the playground. But the ceremonial guards at the main entrance are gone. They’ve been sent home from their posts early, because of the disruption of all of the ministerial cars going in and out the front gate.

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