Monday, 13 April 2015

My breakfast with a senator was a proper expense

With the criminal trial of Canadian senator Mike Duffy on charges of wrongful charges to his expense account starting in Ottawa, I have a confession to make.

I had breakfast with a senator once.

I bought my own breakfast and charged it to my travel expenses for the church.

The occasion was back in the mid 1980's. I was serving First United Church in Campbellton, New Brunswick at the time.

In those days VIA Rail ran a daily train from Montreal to Halifax called The Ocean. The train left Montreal at 6:00 PM in the evening and pulled into Campbellton at 6:30 the next morning, after having split in two at Matepedia, Quebec, with a section going on to Gaspe.

The train included coaches, sleepers and a full dining car. It arrived in Halifax at 4:00 PM that day.

Because many church meetings were held in Moncton or in Sackville, it was not unusual to get on the train in the morning and arrive in Moncton around 10:30. Meetings would start at noon and either end late in the afternoon allowing me to catch the northbound train home at 6:30 or carry over into the next day.

It was cheaper for me to take the train and even get a roomette and have dinner in the dining car than to drive my own car.

After settling into my roomette and waiving at my kids as the train rolled by our house, I headed for breakfast, just a few cars away.

I noticed that while there were several tables vacant, there was a distinguished looking gentleman in a sweater at one table. I asked if I could join him and he pleasantly agreed.

We introduced ourselves and that was how I met Senator Norbert Theriault.

As I recall, breakfast was scrambled eggs, bacon and toast; simple, but hot off the grill and excellent. I always found VIA Rail’s meals on The Ocean to be very good.

Over coffee, Senator Theriault and I exchanged ideas. As I recall, the senator was deeply passionate about engaging young people in Canada through programs like Katimavik and in empowering the younger generation both socially and politically.

Senator Theriault left the train at Chatham, where he lived in New Brunswick. I recall asking him why he travelled by train as opposed to flying and especially as he could fly in business class.
His answer was simple.

“I like the train,” he said, “because it allows me to talk to real people for a longer time. And that’s what I want to do as a senator. I want to listen and take people seriously.”

Several weeks later I received a package from Senator Theriault about his work with young people and what he hoped to accomplished.

Senator Duffy’s expense account trial will not bring any repute to our system of government. Expense accounts are a trust. I have had expense accounts over the years, mostly for travel. I recall attending a conference in the US and realizing that I didn’t have enough clean shirts. So I sent an e-mail to a staff person in our national office asking if I could have some laundry done.

The answer was affirmative, but I was also told to ensure I attached the receipt for proof.

I did.

Senator Duffy’s expense accounts are under examination, as is his own understanding of that trust. I have no idea if the Senate expense rules were clear or not. But if you are doing business and using someone else’s money, you are under a special obligation to be fully accountable. It’s just the ethical thing to do.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.