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The CatalystConversations on Mental Health

How two MPs are serving constituents in the era of COVID‑19

If there’s any job that relies on the power of interpersonal connection, it’s being a member of Parliament. Just ask Matt Jeneroux, longtime mental health advocate and MP for Edmonton Riverbend.

In a phone interview from his home, he said that just like everyone else in Alberta and Canada, he’s learning how to succeed in this new context. In his case, it’s about figuring out the best ways to support his constituents.

“If you’d told me a month ago I’d be advertising for local businesses, I wouldn’t have believed you,” he laughed. Jeneroux also happens to be working remotely while co-parenting a new addition to his family. “The baby is two months old; I’m trying my best to work from home. I’m using social media like never before . . . and in some ways I feel like, as we struggle to find our collective footing, we are also discovering common ground like never before.”

In fact, Jeneroux acknowledged that COVID-19 has resulted in some unexpected silver linings. “I’m working with my counterpart (NDP health critic Don Davies) literally every day. We all want the same things: we want our health-care workers to have the protective equipment they need, we want to support people who’ve lost their jobs, and we want to make sure the most vulnerable among us don’t fall through the cracks.”

During the current physical distancing, Jeneroux admits that much of the pre‑COVID‑19 partisanship has been replaced by partnership. “At virtual committee meetings,” he said, “you see your colleagues in their homes, you’re invited into their personal space. Seeing their photographs, books, and mementos puts a human face on everyone.”

But even while conceding that there are silver linings, like the joke tree he sees on his morning walk, designed to make passersby smile, he spends a lot of time worrying about how people in his riding are really doing.

“I lose sleep, if I’m honest. I worry about the guy who has lost his job, lost all his coping mechanisms, and is struggling with anger. I worry about people who, like my 95-year-old grandfather, don’t know how to use technology to stay in touch or get the most up-to-date information. I worry about new moms, obviously, my wife having given birth in early February.” 

Jeneroux isn’t the only MP who has found himself thrust into a new reality. Lloyd Longfield, who represents Guelph, equates the situation to building a plane while flying it.

“There are so many layers to this,” he said, his voice clearly strained from non-stop calls while working from home. “At first, it was just, how do we cope, how do we make sure people have food on the table, get some financial supports out the door. Now, I’m playing a coordination role ꟷ working with local businesses to keep the supply chain moving or with those who have switched to the production of protective gear.”

Longfield admitted that navigating new technology while doing policy work has been challenging. “Zoom, FaceTime ꟷ it was all new, and it was a bit intimidating at first. But I’m realizing that with these new technologies, we’ve got to be more present. You can’t check e-mails on a video call. And maybe that’s something that will stick with us when we move through this: being more intentional about how we communicate.”

He also pointed out that he should take his own advice when it comes to protecting his mental health. “I urge people to reduce their news consumption. I think that’s really important. I also encourage people to focus only on those things they can control. To worry about what other countries are doing is as futile as worrying about what our neighbours are doing. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be a good global citizen, but doing that work starts in our own backyards.”

While Longfield still has a sizable list of worries, including how to responsibly reopen the economy while protecting the needs of health-care workers, he’s also been buoyed by the way people in Canada have come together.

“From entrepreneurial businesses honing made-in-Canada solutions to interprovincial collaboration and our government’s Wellness Together Canada mental health portal, I am so proud of our response to this challenge as a country. We’re making strides to become more self-reliant and compassionate. Every Canadian should consider that an achievement to be proud of.”

Longfield ended the call by saying he’s got to save his voice for a Facebook event that evening.

“I want to be sure I am comfortable with the technology and really ready to bring my A-game because I’m facing a tough crowd.”

Longfield wasn’t referring to virtual Parliament. That evening, he was going to be reading a bedtime story to neighbourhood kids. “We’re all learning how to be more present with one another. And when my grandkids reflect on this, I hope that’s what they’ll remember. That the adults in their lives were there, present, with them. It’s what really counts.”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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