By Cecilia Nasmith/Today’s Northumberland
Irina Vanden Bosch’s 13-year-old daughter Alexandra returns to Grade 8 at Grafton Public School next week, but she missed a lot of school this fall.
From Nov. 14 through Dec. 8, Alex was at Queen’s Park with the Ontario Legislative Page Program. And while it may have been a break from school, Alex found it to be an entirely different kind of education.
About 150 young people each year go to Queen’s Park to serve as pages to the sitting MPPs. Their qualifications include being an Ontario Grade 8 student with an academic average of at least 80% and demonstrating an involvement in a variety of community-based activities, leadership skills, an interest in current affairs, strong interpersonal and social skills, and an ability to get along well with others.
Alex completed a biographical essay as part of the process that obviously made an impression. She was offered the chance to participate and, with the support of her teachers, she became one of 19 pages at Queen’s Park in the late fall of 2022.
The page work is as regimented as a military protocol, and even includes a uniform – a black three-piece suit. Footwear must be black leather flats worn with black mid-calf-length socks. For girls, hair cannot be beyond shoulder length and must be worn in such a way that it is entirely off the face and shoulder (for Alex, that meant braids).
When on duty, eight pages form a semi-circle around the seat of Speaker Ted Arnott, facing outward with their backs to the speaker, four facing one side of the house and four facing the other to watch for an MPP summoning someone to fetch a glass of water or deliver a document.
Just entering chambers is a choreographed exercise where they parade by twos in height order – from the shortest ones to the tallest ones (with her height, Alex was in the final pair). They split into two lines at the double stairs and rejoin at the top. And there are other maneuvers as well, like the criss-cross formation, and even a double criss-cross
Once in place, they stand at alert, straight-faced, non-partisan. In fact, Alex said, in the whole chambers, only the speaker and the pages are non-partisan. If things get loud, they keep a poker face. If a speech goes on too long and gets too boring, they remain alert (although she will never forget the heart-felt speech about education by MPP Wayne Gates that kept her fascinated, even though it lasted an hour).
This was not Alex’s first time at Queen’s Park. She took a field trip there in Grade 4 and gave Premier Doug Ford a high five. The premier showed up to shake hands with the pages, and she reminded him they had met before (and was not at all surprised he did not remember – “he meets so many people,” she said).
She remembers hearing something about the page program at the time and, when she in Grade 7 (and old enough to reply), she made application and composed her essay. It’s a remarkable document that shows a young lady who brings a lot to the table.
Recalling that first visit to Queen’s Park, she wrote, “Even back then, I wanted to now what happened inside and I knew that I needed to be a part of it.”
She speaks of wanting “to become a senator to achieve a bigger purpose in life.”
As the oldest of four children, she knows about responsibility, but she also strives for the best marks “to prove to myself that I can make my goals become realities.”
Along with her string of As and A+s, she has been a leader on a very active student advisory committee that has made a difference at the school in several ways.
And if you think she’s bilingual, you’re right – English and Russian, thanks to her mother’s Ukrainian family (which helps explain her keen interest in geopolitics).
She expressed her belief that she would be an excellent candidate for page duty, and her prediction was correct.
“I really enjoyed the experience of getting to talk to the MPPs and hear them talk about the problems Ontario has – health, the housing crisis, everything. It was exciting to be there to listen to them and hear what laws were going to happen,” Alex recalled.
It did surprise her to hear how much heckling took place when Queen’s Park was in session, the carefully worded insults (“you’re being hypocritical” as opposed to “you’re a hypocrite,” for example), the catcalls of “Shame!” that would begin with one MPP and be taken up by his or her party colleagues, the voting where not one member ever failed to toe the party line.
And once in a while, something would hit her funny and she’d feel a laugh coming on. If you have to laugh, they advised her to excuse herself to a designated area (where she estimates she had to go about 10 times over the four weeks).
“I was surprised – it seems like it would be much more civilized,” she commented.
“It was surprising to see these adults in suits and fancy clothing yelling at each other.”
Alex happened to be there during the hubbub of the CUPE strike and the protest at Queen’s Park. They could hear the noise in chambers, but her mother said that’s a good thing.
“That’s part of the design – they aren’t isolated,” Irina explained.
Alex recalled their orientation, a time for pages to be shown around so they never get lost and know where to find the classroom, recreation room, staff room and change room, with locked doors that they could open with their card IDs.
They are tutored in the job they will do in chambers, but the program also includes tutoring in their school subjects and special educational activities – for example, classes in legislative process where they staged their own debates on different topics.
Alex recalls the exhilaration of handling and delivering documents that were later passed as legislation, and the pages’ project of creating their own bills and voting on them in their own faux chamber.
“Mine was a bill to allocate some of the education budget for school therapists in some schools that may need them,” she said.
The only bill that failed to pass was one to shorten school days and abolish homework. As great as that sounds, she said, everyone recognized that would be bad for their education.
Alex sweated out the test on all 124 MPPs, whom they had to identify and name ridings for, but she got 92 right (with 80 required to pass).
They enjoyed the chance to meet Lt.-Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell and learn more about her job, and the recently retired Sergeant-at-Arms Jackie Gordon.
“We were her last page group,” Alex said.
“Every morning she brings in the mace. It’s made of gold and has two diamonds, one polished and one unpolished, to represent the diversity of Canada.”
Because the mace is an historic relic, Gordon had to wear gloves when she touched it. And elsewhere in the building, there are displays of historic maces previously used (some of which were stolen at different times).
Because Gordon’s role was essentially security, she carried a gun and a ceremonial sword – the one she inherited from her predecessor, who happened to be a very tall man, so it wasn’t the greatest fit.
Gordon would bring in the mace, deposit it in its place of honour and escort the speaker to his chair.
And no one – pages or anyone – is ever to engage in frogging. This is the colourful term for walking between the speaker and the mace, as the mace must remain in his line of sight at all times.
An unofficial page tradition is to have lunch with the MPP from your riding, and Alex did not miss out on this – nor on the opportunity to report to him on the student elections held at her school to mirror the June 2 elections. Not every student is up on the candidates’ platforms, and many of them tend to vote the way their parents do, she said. Still, at Grafton Public School, the NDP and Green Party both made a strong showing.
She recalls her first introduction to Northumberland-Peterborough South MPP David Piccini. In session, he looks so stern and serious, but she made him smile when she mentioned she lives in Grafton.
“He was so glad to see me. It was the first time in five years he’s had a page from his riding.
“He gave me his phone number and e-mail, and said I could visit his constituency office.”
If you’re going to be a page, you have to have a place to stay in Toronto. For Alex, it meant moving in with her grandparents in North York and commuting to work on the subway.
“I was exhausted every day,” she said.
It’s the kind of real-life experience few girls her age have, Irina noted – “riding the subway home, being afraid to fall asleep, dealing with strangers.”
She and Alex’s stepfather Justin tried to prepare her in advance, and she is philosophical about sharing her store of commuting stories – getting pushed out of the way by a man running with a knife, listening to a man spouting gibberish and threatening people, even trying to discourage a woman beside her politely from making conversation she was too tired to bother with (in vain).
She has a supply of funny stories from page duty as well, such as responding to an MPP’s summons to find, when she arrived, that the lady was on her phone playing Candy Crush.
Alex was thoroughly delighted with her group of fellow pages. They bonded over their work, their shared experiences, their Friday field trips to the Royal Ontario Museum, Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada and the Little Canada exhibit.
They voted among themselves to choose the valedictorians of the group, the two pages who were best at what they did. And they carried on the long-running tradition of each page group to sign the ping-pong table in the lunch room along with some kind of inside joke. For this group, the words Jerk Chicken were inscribed in large letters in honour of the food one boy always brought in.
MPP Piccini gave her a special parting gift, a Queen’s Park seating chart, autographed by all the MPPs in the appropriate party colours – orange for the NDP, blue for Conservatives and so on, with the lone Independent signing in black.
Pointing out the group picture of the pages she served with, she speaks of close friendships and the wish to stay in touch. And because they were from all over Ontario, it’s sort of like having a friend wherever you go.
Meanwhile, she has mementos to remember the experience by, including the Hansard (legislative record) that includes the names of the pages being announced, the welcoming words and the applause.
“I came with her to orientation,” Irina said.
“Only then did I get a bigger understanding of how big a role it is, how important it is, how wonderful of an opportunity it is. It’s quite something.”
She recalled seeing the MPPs talking informally with the pages, sharing a laugh.
“You realize they’re people. They’re all people.”
“We get to know them,” Alex agreed.
And aside from Piccini, she probably most enjoyed MPP Michael Mantha, who was something of a joker – stealing their shoes, making faces to try to crack them up.
At an age where some young people might tend toward shyness, Alex has had invaluable experience in talking to people of all ages and characteristics – to her mother’s delight.
“They are people. They are not the unattainable. When you start communicating that life experience, you can talk to people – it builds confidence,” Irina said.
And Alex’s service came in for rave reviews from her MPP, who posted a photo with her on Instagram calling her a bright light – “inquisitive, intelligent and caring.
“She leaves Queen’s Park today with a much deeper understanding of our Legislative process & lifelong friends. In fact, don’t be surprised if you see her take the Northumberland-Peterborough South seat in this place one day,” Piccini predicted.