Peter Tells Tales of the Civil Servant

This week’s column will cover a variety of subjects, because there are a couple of issues that I want to discuss. I will finish off with a number of “stories from the trenches”.

Let’s discuss breastfeeding in public. (Full disclosure, I am one of 8 children who were all breastfed. The medical and emotional benefits of breastfeeding are well documented.)

Now there has been a lot of controversy about this subject over the years, and I really find it quite sad that there is even any discussion about the subject at all. Society, ( or at least parts of it,)seems to enjoy shaming practitioners and objectifying this most natural act between mother and child.

In my job I often saw women on maternity leave who came to the office enquiring about their claim. At least once I interviewed a young mother who stopped at the Canada Employment office on the way home from the hospital with her baby! On several occasions, I held the little gaffer while Mum searched frantically through her purse seeking her I.D.. I would always “cut her some slack”, for as I would say, ‘my mother raised gentlemen, then she had me!’. So it would happen that often a baby would need to be fed in an inopportune time. I would excuse myself, telling her to let me know when she was ready to proceed. I’d close the door to my office, stand in front of the window and glower a) in the general direction of the waiting area.. She’d shortly give me the OK, I’d come back in, look her right in the eyes and finish the interview, while the young’un had lunch under a towel. Simple. Natural.

And how about changing babies? As a child of the 50s, I grew up in a different, more defined world. (I’m not saying that it was correct, I’m just saying that this was the world I experienced. While my father pitched in with diaper duty b) and child care, many fathers didn’t.) The world is constantly changing, and facilities are developing to allow both parents to participate equally in child rearing, as the following anecdote shows. I was interviewing a young mother and her partner, with the little one. In the middle of the interview, the young mother said “Oh, I’m sorry, but my baby needs to be changed.” I quietly observed that there was a changing station in the Men’s washroom. Acting on my suggestion, she wordlessly handed the baby to her partner, pointing at the diaper bag at the same time. His facial expression was a fascinating melange of barely suppressed choleric anger, horror and shocked surprise, but he got up with the babe and duly headed off to do his duty.

At work we would call our next interviewee by checking a list at the front desk, on which their name, the program they were enquiring about and their time of arrival in the office were noted. The officer would call the person by their name after noting the time as well as the officer’s initials. (More on that shortly.) So I called this gentleman, who followed me to my desk and sat down. Looking annoyed, he said “Before we begin, my last name is pronounced ‘Moentray'”. I took out my driver’s licence, placed it on my desk, pointed and said “Well my side of the family pronounces it ‘Montroy'”! We looked at each other and laughed.

While we generally used our initials to “accept” the interview, we briefly had a receptionist from Quebec who was a Nordiques a) fan. When she was there, I would use the “CH” of my beloved Canadiens, just to tease her.

I would also sometimes print my full name backwards, until a co-worker told me that the office manager regarded that as a sign of mental illness!

Seated at a table of eight at an office Christmas party, we were having a nice after dinner conversation when this same manager walked by, interrupted us and said “There’s some great music playing, get out there and dance!” Two of the couples got up and complied. My date started to, but I put my hand gently over the back of her wrist. She said “She’s right, that’s a good song!” I replied “That woman tells me when, where and how to work. She does NOT tell me when, where and how to have fun!”

For a while I worked at on the 20th floor at 20 Eglinton Avenue West, and there were a number of memorable moments there. Early one morning, I showed up only to find a sign on the door telling all the ” Canada Employment employees ” to assemble in the food court downstairs. Apparently a transformer had blown up and the building had no power. Mr Graham, our manager, addressed his unruly mob. ” I spoke to Regional Office, and you have two options. You can go work at another office or you can go ho…”

There was some discussion about what word he was saying. It’s possible that he was saying “…home…”, it’s possible that he was saying “…hope…”, it’s even possible that he was mispronouncing “…Holloman Air Force Base…”. We’ll never know for sure, because by the time he finished that word, he was talking to himself  😉 !

On another occasion, there had been a fire at a hotel in Toronto. I was president of the union local, and several members approached me about a practice fire evacuation. Mr Graham thought that it was a Good Idea, and contacted Regional Office, who agreed that it was a Good Idea. Building management also thought that it was a Good Idea. So it was announced to the two floors of the office that there would be a practice fire evacuation the next day, Tuesday, at 2 P.M..

At the appointed hour, the cream of the federal public service traipsed down the stairs, giggling and chattering like we were going on a school outing. We got to the ground floor, grabbed a coffee and eventually order was restored and we were back at our posts.

You will remember that building management had thought that the fire evacuation was a Good Idea.  They were so enamoured with it that they scheduled one for the entire building, the day after ours!

I can tell you that the ragged band of federal government employees who took to the stairs the next day were not quite as cheerful as they had been the previous day. Discretion definitely being the better part of valour, I kept silent about my part in the previous day’s proceedings as I walked down the stairs surrounded by a group of extremely unhappy campers.

Working for Unemployment Insurance, I  naturally dealt with people from all across the employment spectrum. I remember interviewing a bouncer, and smiling as I said ” Now I need to see your I.D.”. He smiled back and took out his wallet.

I’ll finish off this week with a few “vignettes”.

We were on the 20th floor, and a co worker of mine had argued with a client and threw him out of the office. They happened to be in the elevator lobby, and the elevator doors opened. My co worker heard them open. He began to move towards the elevator, looking over his shoulder and talking to someone else when the client grabbed him. He started to protest when the client pointed, then he fell silent. While the doors had opened, the elevator car was not there.

We got excellent training and were very well equipped to deal with the public properly as a result. One of our trainers came from Belleville, On. She was put up in a hotel room, and after a horrid of day of trying to get us to think, got changed and went out to go to dinner. She was waiting to hail a cab when she heard a female voice behind her say “Beat it honey, this is my corner!”

One of my favourite stories is about one of the few times I was rendered speechless. I had interviewed this man several times and been very courteous and respectful to him. As he left my office one day, he said “Thank you again, Mr Montreuil. You’ve been so nice, and if there’s ever anyone you want beaten up…” While I didn’t take him up on the offer, I was impressed…..

In conclusion, this week you say; “Gee Peter, there’s no good contemporary music!” Sure there is, but don’t take my word for it! Check out “Diamond Wheels”, the latest from Jaimie Vernon and his band Mr Mouray. They will be at Hugh’s Room in Toronto next month.

So that’s it for this week. I have many more tales of “derring do” and plans gone sadly awry to bor…( I mean,) entertain you with. Watch this space!

See you soon.

a) One of my core skills is glowering.

b) With 8 children, that was preordained.



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