It was a typical Friday night in the nation's capital. Ottawa was getting ready for the weekend which meant that the civil servants were loosening their ties and packing their red tape away. The options for entertainment in Ottawa had improved since the days of Government-funded strip clubs in Hull, Quebec being the only show in town, but not by much.
The lineup of cars heading to Hull from Ottawa on a Friday night, as those who serve by stamping avoided home and family for the warm embrace of the fleshy delights, could be seen snaking across the bridge in the early evening rain from my office window. I wouldn't call it dark and stormy, maybe grey and damp; pretty much an accurate description of Ottawa even when the sun is shining.
What is it about nations' capitals that stifle all other forms of life except for those who are willing to be sucked dry by their strict adherence to the rule that unless it's in triplicate and countersigned it doesn't exist? Perhaps that's why the strip clubs in Hull are the favoured destination for either male or female staff.
All of them had been vetted and funded through loans and grants via the Business Development Bank of Canada. This meant they all had to submit to the rigours of meeting with the approval of the Civil Service. Anywhere that had to file receipts for everything from toilet paper to "servicing fees" warmed the cockles of a paper pusher's heart. They could feel at home in a place where they knew that the government signed the checks that paid that girl to lap dance and climb a pole using her thigh muscles.
Watching the rows upon rows of sensible cars obeying the speed limit and all traffic rules made me pine for wilder, more exotic locales – Prince Albert, Saskatchewan where you could at least watch the wheat growing sprang to mind – when the ringing of the red phone on my desk demanding my attention shattered my reverie. Not only did the sound startle me like waking up and finding myself in the middle of the gay women's caucus of the Conservative Party of Canada (I'd be startled if they existed let alone finding myself at one of their meetings), the fact that it was ringing at all set off alarm bells in my head that made a sound eerily similar to the balls on the brass monkeys outside of Parliament Hill clanging together on a mid-February night's freeze.
The last time that phone had rung had precipitated a national crisis on a scale that hadn't been seen since Wayne Gretzky had been traded to Los Angeles. I didn't know if I could handle another situation like that again. We had all been feeling a little stretched thin since the men's hockey team had failed to even place in the medals at the last Olympics; another blow to the national psyche might just end up crushing what last shreds of identity we had as a people.
I picked up the phone with all the trepidation of a man picking up a box of feminine napkins for his wife, and even before I placed it to my ear I could hear the panic-stricken voice, calling hello.
"Hello, Hello – are you there? Is there anybody there?" rose faintly from the receiver as I stood there staring at it, holding it halfway to my ear still undecided about did I really want to take this call. It would be just as easy to softly lay the phone back down in its cradle and walk away, and I have to say that the thought fleetingly passed through my mind.
But with a deep sigh, and against my better instincts I completed the journey and replied with toughness that I didn't feel. "Yeah, I'm here. Who is this and what do you want calling on this line? Talk and talk fast. I'm a busy man who can't waste his time on trivial matters," I said, thinking longingly of wheat growing in Prince Albert.
"This is the voice of Concerned Canada."
I sat down with a thud that rattled every bone in my body. It was worse than I thought; something was badly amiss when the voice of Concerned Canada calls on a Friday night. Instead of being out drinking beer with the boys, here it was on the phone with me sounding like somebody had just told it their hockey team had moved to some American city in the deep south where the only ice they'd seen before now was in their drinks.
I was able to swallow my own panic and put on what passed for my calming voice in an attempt to ease its fears. "So what's the matter, Tim Horton's run out of Canadian Maple donuts?"
"Bite your tongue. Heaven forbid that we face a crisis of such a magnitude."
"Well if it's not that, what is it? You sound like your world is about to end."
"You promise not to laugh?"
"Why would I laugh at the voice of Concerned Canada? Unless you guys have been at the medical pot again you usually make some sort of sense."
"Well it’s funny you should mention that, pot anyway, because it's got to do with what's going on in up in your city. In fact we almost went to the police, but we know you specialize in this sort of sensitive work, so we decided to approach you."
"Lucky me," I whispered to myself before urging the voice to go on. That's the problem with taking on conceptualizations as clients; they tend to wander around never getting to the point as they figure out how to say something that best represents all of them. I was all prepared to listen to some vague generalities about unease and qualms, so was taken aback when:
"It's a missing persons case."
"A missing persons case. We want you to track down and find out what happened to the opposition parties in the House of Parliament. They appear to have vanished without a trace, placing the country in a dangerous position. When we gave Harper and his folk a minority government we had counted on the opposition to keep an eye on him. That way we could take him for a test drive, see if we liked him or not, but not to let him do that much or whatever he wanted.
As it stands now he seems to be doing whatever he wants and nobody's doing anything about it. What's happened to the opposition? Where have they vanished too? Why is someone with a minority government getting away with acting like he has a majority?"
Voice kept talking, but I stopped listening to the litany of complaints as they washed over me, and started thinking about what had been said. There was something odd happening in Ottawa these days. Where had the opposition been when Harper's gang pushed through their day care plan instead of the one the country and the provinces preferred? Where were they when he let the Kelowna accord lapse? Where were they when he refused to consider lessening the penalties for simple marijuana possession like the previous government had planned?
Who was speaking for Canada when the majority of people were against extending and expanding the armed forces' role in Afghanistan or asking why he couldn't find money for health care, housing, and job creation programs? Why wasn't anybody asking how the money was found to buy the military all sorts of toys, but couldn't be found to increase the armed forces annual budget to allow soldiers to be paid a decent wage?
No, the voice of Concerned Canada was right. The opposition parties had gone missing and that was no laughing matter. When the shoe had been on the other foot and the Conservative Party of Canada had been in opposition they had done their job as leaders to question the policies of the Liberal minority. You might not have agreed with their ideas and opinions, but they, along with the New Democrats and Bloc Quebecois had done their best to keep the Liberal honest.
I turned my attention back to Concerned Canada who was still holding forth in the earpiece and spoke over the voice, "I'm on the case". There was a pause at the other end of the line as those three words and a contraction were absorbed, and then I heard a collective sigh of relief. Canada was going to sleep easier knowing I was taking the case of the missing opposition parties.
It's still too early to rule out foul play; perhaps they've been kidnapped and replaced with lifelike replicas. The only way to know for sure is to start checking into it. I'll probably end up stepping on some toes, sticking my nose in where it doesn't belong, and just generally being a pain in the ass to people who won't appreciate it.
I'll have to watch my back carefully, Ottawa is a small town and word travels fast. I expect to be up to my knees in trouble soon but that just goes with the territory. Politics is a tough and dirty business to get involved in during the best of times, but when political parties are trying to consolidate power, well, things can get out of hand real fast.
I've got to go now; there's a warm woman, a cold beer, and a seat by the pole waiting for me in a bar in Hull. One thing I have learned from living in Ottawa is to take your enjoyment whenever the opportunity presents self. You never know when you just might go missing.