Before the two broke the explosive story of the robocalls scandal in February 2012, then Postmedia reporter Stephen Maher and Ottawa Citizen reporter Glen McGregor would work in 350-N of Centre Block, also known as the Hot Room, chipping away at a story that would eventually win them a prestigious Michener Award.
While the Hot Room’s other occupants from other news outlets typed away, the two would shout ideas to each other across the cubicles that separated them, but instead of speaking freely, they used code words to communicate.
“We developed code words to refer to people, for example, so that if anyone overheard us, they wouldn’t know who we were talking about,” said Mr. Maher, who first landed a desk in the Hot Room in 2004 for the Halifax Chronicle Herald and left in 2016. More than six years later, he couldn’t remember the exact code words.
The robocalls scandal happened during the 2011 federal election, when voters in 247 ridings received calls incorrectly saying their polling station had changed, with a concentration of such phoney calls in the closely-contested riding of Guelph, Ont. Ultimately, the Elections Canada commissioner concluded there was insufficient evidence to believe an offence was committed, but in August 2014 former junior Conservative staffer Michael Sona, who’d worked on the party’s campaign in Guelph, was found guilty of one violation of the Elections Act.
One big break in their story was when the two learned of a calling company, RackNine, being investigated in the scandal, but they couldn’t yet prove the firm was being investigated. Mr. McGregor, who now works for CTV News, got the Conservatives’ 2011 campaign electoral return file from Elections Canada. It had phone records that Mr. McGregor scanned, eventually doing an optical character recognition search on them.
“He got a hit on one of RackNine’s telephone numbers, and I’ll never forget the look of [him]…he was just beside himself. So excited and delighted to have made that link, which was what allowed us to put it in the paper,” Mr. Maher said.
“We could show that at the time of the unethical telephone call, someone on the campaign had called RackNine in the moment exactly the call went out,” Mr. Maher said.
Both current and retired Parliamentary Press Gallery members are saying goodbye to the Hot Room this month, as Centre Block closes for at least a decade for extensive renovations. Those working there today said lots of familiar faces have popped in to say goodbye to the place known for its quirky but inspirational charm.
Parliamentary Press Gallery President Philippe Vincent Foisy, who works for Radio-Canada, said he still hasn’t gotten 100 per cent confirmation that the prime real estate along the north corridor on Centre Block’s third floor will still be reserved for the gallery when the building reopens in 10 years.
“We can’t say for sure that it’s going to be there,” said Mr. Foisy. “The final plans are not yet drawn and signed by the people who are taking care of that, so we’re still trying to make sure it will be there in the final plans.”
“We’re just trying to see what’s happening and where this is going. I don’t have the exact details of where it is right now,” Mr. Foisy added; nor does he know when he might get the final decision.
In the interim, Hot Room members will work out of the sixth floor of the National Press Building on Wellington Street, and will have a “media workspace” in the renovated West Block to work from on a short-term basis. The West Block building will be the House of Commons’ interim during work on Centre Block, while the Senate will move into the Government Conference Centre. Senate spokesperson Alison Korn said there will also be a “media workspace” for those covering the Senate at the Government Conference Centre.
House of Commons Speaker Geoff Regan (Halifax West, N.S.) told the Procedure and House Affairs Committee on Nov. 20 that he thinks public and media access to Centre Block is “essential to our democracy,” which Mr. Foisy said he takes as a positive sign.
“The idea of having the ‘Hot Room’ where it is now is very important because they’re more able to get down to question period quickly, to be present here in Centre Block and to question members about what’s going on,” Mr. Regan told the committee.
The Hot Room is the main room on Parliament Hill for journalists from smaller print and radio news outlets across the country to work out of, either full-time or when they need to file quickly, and is also home to gallery staff who, among other things, help set up and organize press conferences on the Hill. When Centre Block reopened in 1920 after the Great Fire of 1916, journalists moved back in the building too, this time with designated office space. In the original building, the reporters’ gallery in the House Chamber also served as workspace. Along with its long main room filled with rows of cubicles, the Hot Room also features a lounge—the Jean-Marc Poliquin Lounge, featuring a stone fireplace inscribed with a quote from Lord Byron and pictures of old gallery members—for people to meet and chat, play cards, smoke, and do interviews.
Originally built for 35 people, decades later the Hot Room had 130 people spilling out into the hallway, before they were ordered to clear out due to it being a fire hazard.
Being prime real estate between the House of Commons and Senate Chambers, MPs have long pressured Parliament’s administration to turn it into office space, but journalists say it’s critical the room stays put.
As long as the Hot Room is in Centre Block, the government can’t bar media from the building, which would stop reporters from staking MPs out before or after Question Period, or popping into offices, said Mr. Maher.
“There was talk in the past of that they would like some sort of media centre that’s more like a theatre where they bring is in and give us… what they want us to write, and then send us away again,” he said. “And being in the Hot Room means that there’s always journalists there, you’re not just going to a feeding area where you’re getting your slop.”
The Hot Room marks the importance of the media’s place in a democracy, and shows that reporters are an equal factor in Parliament’s community ecosystem, echoed others.
Mr. McGregor, who spent 18 years working in the Hot Room, was with the Ottawa Citizen in December 1998 when reporters noticed from the TV stream that something weird had happened in the House of Commons Chamber. After rushing down the hall and a short set of stairs to the gallery to see what happened, he realized that former Liberal MP Shaughnessy Cohen had collapsed from a brain aneurysm on the House of Commons. She was pronounced dead soon afterward.
“[I] witnessed this awful, tragic scene unfolding,” he said. “It was kind of an example of why it’s important to have a presence there, close to the place where democracy happens.”
Most reporters describe the Hot Room today as a typical newsroom, with sometimes off-colour jokes, political discussions, and filled with a lot of old newspapers and documents—there’s probably more paper copies of Canada’s public accounts in the room than any other Parliamentary Precinct bureau combined.
With a lot of strongly-opinionated people working in a small space outside the direct purvey of any boss, there were sometimes tensions that blew up into arguments, noted a few reporters who spoke with The Hill Times. Mostly though, it’s been collegial. It’s also been the place of heavy drinking and fun, with it housing a bar at one end for much of its history.
In the years just after the Second World War, rye was 50 cents an ounce, and scotch 75 cents. Beer was 25 cents a bottle and came out of a vending machine, which lived on long past the bar and was shut down in the 1990s after someone complained.
One of the biggest changes to the gallery is the inclusion of women, whose numbers grew during the 1970s and 1980s. The Hot Room’s walls are filled with class pictures of the gallery from year to year, and over time one can see the changes. Today, the women make up about 38.3 per cent of the gallery, which totals 328 members.
It’ll be a bummer when the Hot Room closes, said Winnipeg Free Press reporter Dylan Robertson and New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal reporter Adam Huras. They are two of several one-person bureaus housed in the Hot Room, along with The Halifax Chronicle Herald’s Andrea Gunn, and Cristin Schmitz from The Lawyer’s Daily. Freelancers are also around.
Several reporters noted that Kady O’Malley, who often writes for iPolitics, was quite helpful for parliamentary procedure questions when she was based out of the Hot Room.
Mr. Huras started in the Hot Room full time in late 2016, and said the room’s occupants were fundamental to him learning the ropes of the job. Unlike other regional correspondents, he didn’t have an outgoing reporter to provide advice.
“There’s an intense, steep learning curve,” he said, but it would have been more difficult alone. “It’s been challenging, but I wanted this challenge.”
Mr. Robertson agreed it’s been a great place for learning, as did Mr. Maher, who was at one point sandwiched in between Radio-Canada reporter Maurice Godin and now-Senator Mike Duffy (Cavendish, P.E.I.) during his time as the Chronicle Herald‘s Hill reporter.
Mr. Robertson, who started in the Hot Room in January 2016, said some of his favourite memories of the room are during the holidays when people bring in food. One morning after Easter, he found someone had put Easter eggs on his desk.
“I don’t even know to this day who had done it, but it was just kind of like, ‘oh I do have colleagues here,’” he said
Of course, not all of the memories are so happy. Mr. Foisy and freelancer Alex Binkley remember being in the room during the 2015 shooting on the Hill, when Michael Zehaf Bibeau killed Cpl. Nathan Cirillo and then stormed Centre Block before being shot dead just outside the Library of Parliament.
“Two minutes before the shooting I came inside the Hot Room again… just to file my stuff, and we heard the gun fires,” said Mr. Foisy. They locked the door and it was “really, really crazy. Everybody was kind of panicking, trying to understand what happened.”
Soon afterward, the group climbed out a window and onto some nearby construction scaffolding, said freelancer Alex Binkley, who has worked on and off in the Hot Room since the 1970s.
“That’s how we got out of here in about 15 minutes instead of nine hours, like what the others [under lock down] went through,” he said.
Nobody knows what the state of the media industry will be when Centre Block reopens, but with any luck, the Hot Room will continue to be a place of sharp wits and busy pens.
The Hill Times