“It’s about sharing Parliament, not just what it means but showcasing it to others as well.” French Student Gurpreet Seehra spent this past summer working as a Parliamentary guide.

Students, French

Student Profile: Gurpreet Seehra, French

December 17, 2014

Gurpreet Seehra’s passion for Canada’s Parliament began five years ago when he spent six weeks near the capital in Gatineau as part of a YMCA youth work exchange. He wanted to return to Ottawa ever since; “the experience had a big impact on me, my relationship to the French language, and to being Canadian in general. It was something important to me.” When he was looking for summer work he found a listing for parliamentary guide positions in Ottawa. He successfully petitioned the SFU Co-op Program to include the guide job and was off to Ottawa in April 2014.

The Parliamentary Guide Program is administered through the Library of Parliament, which is run by the speakers of both Houses. In addition to guiding tours, parliamentary guides also work at informal interpretation, the ticket office, and stand outside to greet people (and pose for photographs) by the Peace Tower. They are given a grey suit and a yellow and blue tie to wear, uniforms that share the colours of the Library of Parliament.

When working as a guide, Seehra was responsible for showing people around the House of Commons, the Senate, the Totunda, and the Hall of Honour - the area that separates the House of Commons and the Senate chambers. The tours are free and open to the public; “people would come from all over, Italy, Germany, it was mostly tourists, either local or international, but there were also many school kids, especially near the end of the school year.”

Parliamentary guides are given basic content and a general framework for their tours and then told to “make it your own.” Seehra explains, “it’s about finding what you like and talking about that…the point was relating all the information in a very accessible way. We had to have a certain amount of visual content, we had to talk about facts, and we had to appeal to different types of learners. That was something that was a little more challenging.”

The guides are responsible for coming up with a theme around which to construct their tour. “My theme was co-operation and compromise,” says Seehra, “I talked about that by showing things in Parliament that expressed the sentiment most clearly, for example, the Speaker’s chair in the House of Commons. I would talk about how that was a symbol of cooperation between both sides, the opposition, and the government, because the entire Chamber elects the speaker of the House of Commons by secret ballot.”

Seehra spent a total of four and a half months living in Ottawa and working as a parliamentary guide, staying in a dormitory room at the University of Ottawa; “I have to say, whether you like tour guiding or not, this job is good. I think people should do it at least once if they are studying French or if they want to do anything related to a second language, it’s a great opportunity. It also really helps your comfort level with other people, I was confident before but not as confident as I was after, I definitely saw a change in myself.”

There were 40 other people in the program from all over Canada, many native French speakers from Ontario, the Maritimes and two from BC. Upon reflection, Seehra thinks it was the exposure to different French dialects that was one of the lasting impacts of the experience; “This program really helped me learn to appreciate the different varieties of French we have in Canada, whether that’s Quebecois, the French of the Acadians, or Franco-Ontarian, all the different types, that was one thing I was really grateful for in this program.”

As a student of French for the past eight and a half years, one of the many draws of the job for Seehra was that he had to conduct tours in both French and English, “you’d have tours of up to fifty people at a time, and you’d be taking them through the entire Parliament Building either entirely in English or entirely in French.” Seehra says, for him, that “learning French was very much a part of getting close to a Canadian national identity. Maybe this is funny to say, but I’ve always been a bit of a nationalist. I have a lot of pride in my country, and as I grew older my French identity became important for me to develop as a component of my Canadian identity, to garner that respect for one of the communities of our country. Obviously it’s not the only language that’s important, but it’s one of the two official languages and that’s important to me.”

Majoring in French and minoring in History, Seehra is now in his fourth year at SFU. For the future, he is aiming for a government position, “that’s the main thing I was thinking about when I started the French program at SFU. Ultimately I want to end up working in the public service and hopefully helping other Canadians somehow, all I know is that wherever I go I will work hard.”