Hill Times: constituency aides are an MP’s ‘eyes and ears,’ says NDP MP Kwan, and her team is a busy one


No two ridings are the same, and with a large immigrant population, more than 70 different languages spoken, and a high proportion of low-income families, NDP MP Jenny Kwan’s downtown riding of Vancouver East, B.C. is one of the busiest in Canada.

“We fly by the seat of our pants a lot of the time,” said Ms. Kwan in an interview with The Hill Times in her Confederation Building office in Ottawa.

“We’re among one of the lowest income, poorest ridings in the country. We’re also [part of] the third largest urban aboriginal community as well in the country, and so we’re a dynamic community,” Ms. Kwan said. “We have a lot of vulnerable communities as well, people who need support, who need services, and often are not able to get it.”

Along from its diverse mix of demographics, Vancouver East is a “very active” riding by nature of it being a very “activist riding,” with a lot of highly engaged residents, she said.

“They have strong opinions and important opinions that should be heard and that should be brought to Ottawa,” said Ms. Kwan, who was elected to represent the riding for the first time in 2015 with almost 50 per cent support.

Members of Parliament split their time between the federal ridings they’re elected to represent and Ottawa. For Ms. Kwan, that means spending 26 weeks out of any given year more than 4,000 km away from her constituents.

Before becoming an MP, Ms. Kwan spent almost two decades serving as an NDP MLA for the area, and during that time, she said she could commute from the provincial legislature in Victoria to her riding in a little over half an hour. Now, she faces a more than five-hour commute, compounded by a three-hour time difference.

As a result, Ms. Kwan said her constituency assistants serve as her “eyes and ears” on the ground in the riding.

“Everything that happens, they come back to tell me, every leaflet that goes out, every email … I go through it all so that I know and I can feel the temperature of what’s going on in the community,” she said.

The job of a Hill staffer is a diverse one, centred on the debates, bills, and studies ongoing in the House of Commons. But for constituency staff, it’s an almost entirely different realm of work.

Along with correspondence work and arranging community events, constituency assistants are an MP’s constant frontline—part advocate, part caseworker, part sounding board.

It’s up to MPs how to divvy up their annual office budget—for Ms. Kwan, that’s $379,160 for 2017-18—which is meant to cover expenses, including staff salaries, for both a Hill and a riding office, or two in the case of some ridings.

Along with two Hill assistants, Ms. Kwan has three in her riding office: constituency assistants Calvin Kuah, who tackles casework and administrative work in the office, and Dora Ng, who along with casework is responsible for writing the Householders and Ten Percenters sent out to residents on behalf of the MP (with support from Hill staff); and Member’s assistant Gabriel Yiu, who tackles community outreach- and media-related work.

Vancouver East has a population of 115,724. Roughly 39.3 per cent of the riding—45,445 residents—identify as visible minority, and roughly 41.3 per cent of residents’ mother tongue is a language other than English or French. Among these residents, almost 50 per cent speak a Chinese language (predominantly Cantonese, which Ms. Kwan and all of her riding staff also speak).

The riding has an immigrant population of 38,270, or 34.8 per cent, higher than both the national and provincial average; of those, 4,280 are recent immigrants who arrived between 2011 and 2016. Roughly 19.6 per cent of residents aged 18 to 64 years old are considered low income in the riding, based on the 2016 census; and the median employment income in Vancouver East in 2015 was $33,684. The riding is also home to a port, a rail yard, and a college.

Ms. Kwan’s constituency office is located on East Hastings Street, smack in the middle of her riding and a ten-minute bus ride from the downtown eastside area that’s become known as ground zero of Canada’s opioid crisis.

Dora Ng, front, and Calvin Kuah, pictured at work in NDP MP Jenny Kwan’s constituency office. Photograph courtesy of Gabriel Yiu

It’s a street-level office in a mixed retail and residential district. Mr. Kuah said they see “no less than 10 walk-ins per day” on top of at least 20 phone calls and hundreds of emails.

“A lot of times, someone will walk in and the first thing they say is, ‘Hi, I want to see Jenny Kwan,’” said Ng. “Most of the time she’s actually in Ottawa, not in the riding, so we talk to them, try to assess what they’re here for.”

Some are just looking to meet with Ms. Kwan to voice an opinion, in which case, if the MP is in Ottawa, staff often refer them to her next “mobile office,” said Mr. Yiu, something they arrange roughly once a month during break weeks in different locations across the riding, like a community farmers market or seniors home.

But many are looking for help navigating various government bureaucracies and processes.

Mr. Kuah estimated that he and Ng spend roughly “80 per cent” of their time working on cases.

Casework covers “any issues that people have with a government program or government service,” explained Mr. Kuah. Quick, easy-to-fix issues, like helping get a constituent the right contact information or helping someone pay a bill, don’t get marked down as casework.

“Most of the time, it’s helping people going through the complicated process, and sometimes, when things don’t quite make sense, we can do a bit of advocacy,” said Ng.

Ms. Kwan said she sees casework as “one of the most important things that an elected official needs to do” for constituents, and she makes that clear to her staff.

She often gets cases related to her role as the NDP’s critic for immigration, refugees and citizenship referred to her office. On top of that, she’s a former MLA and city councillor who’s become a well-known advocate in her community, and oftentimes, people don’t distinguish between federal and provincial issues or riding boundaries.

“A lot of issues, people, whether they live in the riding or they don’t live in the riding, when they have issues they come here,” said Mr. Yiu.

Unless it’s an extremely time–sensitive issue, Ms. Kwan’s office usually refers out-of-riding cases back to their respective MPs, said Mr. Kuah, but they take note of the issue being raised.

In 2016, Ms. Kwan’s riding team tackled 290 new constituent cases, of which 145 were immigration and citizenship-related issues (from visa applications, to passports, to foreign worker applications), 83 were related to Service Canada (including EI, CPP, and old age security), 17 were related to the Canada Revenue Agency (from tax filings to child and family benefits), and 45 were “miscellaneous,” including issues related to the Canada Border Services Agency and “advocacy-type cases” that touch on provincial issues.

In 2017, the office saw 256 new cases and managed to close 146 of them; including 57 related to immigration and citizenship, 50 Service Canada-related cases, 12 CRA cases, and 27 “miscellaneous.” Those that the team wasn’t able to resolve were carried over to this year. Some cases take years to resolve.

When a constituent approaches the office with a problem, they go through an “intake process,” essentially a fact-finding interview to understand and categorize the issue, said Mr. Kuah. For residents with mobility issues, Ms. Kwan’s team also arranges home visits for casework.

All information gathered gets entered into a “pretty elaborate excel spreadsheet” he said, which helps the team ensure “no cases in our office are missed.” On top of that, he said the office keeps physical files.

When the office notices “a surge of similar cases, it could signal that there’s a flaw in the system,” and they flag it to Ms. Kwan as part of regular updates she gets on their work, explained Ng. For example, the office recently noted a lot of people were coming in complaining about IRCC applications being returned in full due to “very minor mistakes.”

“That’s something that we can work on, or Jenny can work on, either in committee or she may raise it as an issue with the minister,” said Ng, adding other MP offices will also flag issues related to Ms. Kwan’s critic file to them, and vice versa for other NDP critics.

While Ms. Kwan’s constituency staff tackle most casework, Hill staff lend a hand on cases with “more policy implications,” like issues related to Canada’s live-in caregiver program backlog, which the team has been “very active on,” said Mr. Kuah.

“We actually made a little project out of it, and some positive impacts have come out of it as a result of us taking on this casework,” he said.

On Dec. 3, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen (York South-Weston, Ont.) announced the government had committed to finalize at least 80 per cent of live-in caregiver program cases by October 2018, among other things.

Every so often, the office has to contend with angry residents—angry over something Ms. Kwan has done, her party has done, or just the government in general. An alarm system and panic button are installed in the office, but staff have only had to call in the police on one occasion—and not even the time an angry constituent came in waving a tennis racket, which they managed to de-escalate on their own.

The office is open to the public from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., but to deal with the “excess amount of work that comes in” Ms. Kwan’s constituency staffers regularly work beyond that—on top having to staff the MP at weekend and evening events in the riding. Doing the job well requires a lot of passion, “we wouldn’t be doing this job if we’re not passionate about it,” said Mr. Kuah.

He said, for him, the best and hardest part is the “personal aspect of case work.”

“The cases are always on our mind, and we’re always thinking of different solutions,” said Mr. Kuah.

Ng said the best part of working as a constituency assistant comes when they’re able to help somebody. When help isn’t possible, “just the process of listening to them and trying to do what we can so those people feel appreciated” is “very satisfying and very rewarding,” said Ng.

“The hardest part for me would be waiting with our casework,” said Ng. The processing time for refugees is long, often more than two years, and residents with family in dangerous areas are “anxious.”

“They might come in once every two weeks or so, sometimes they just want to talk, sometimes they’re just so stressed out they can’t sleep…and we’re listening and we’re waiting with them,” said Ng.

This is the first of a planned series of profiles of constituency offices in some of Canada’s busiest federal ridings. 

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