The Speaker's office on the main level of the Centre Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa is an impressive, high-ceilinged Gothic confection with a commanding view of the Ottawa River. A portrait of Winston Churchill glares down on the oak-panelled library with its leatherbound volumes of rules and procedures. The iconic Karsh photograph of the British prime minister was taken in the room in 1941 after Churchill had delivered a speech in the House of Commons. If you take the time to look around the overwhelming space, you will spot a crucifix sitting unobtrusively on the mantle above the marble fireplace. The Cross, made of olive wood from Jerusalem, was a gift to Andrew Scheer from his father when he was elected Speaker of the House of Commons.
At 35, Scheer is the youngest person to hold the Speaker's position. He is also a practising Roman Catholic. As the member of Parliament for Regina- Qu'Appelle, he opposed the same-sex marriage bill and expressed his "outrage and disgust" when abortionist Henry Morgentaler was awarded the Order of Canada.
"I absolutely think that each member of Parliament has a different kind of faith — a different level of faith — and it is up to each member to determine how much he or she wants to incorporate that into their public life," he says.
"But it is an important part of my life. [Faith] can be important for public policy for those who wish to express it and have it as a source of direction and motivation for their work. It is important for us to have public policy discussions in an environment where a person's faith is welcomed. It is appropriate [for those people who have faith to self-identify]." As Speaker, however, Scheer has to be impartial. He can't attend caucus or participate in parliamentary debates. He can, however, exercise his influence in other ways. Scheer started an informal study group on the Hill of the St. Thomas More Society. Named for the Chancellor of England who fell out of favour with Henry VIII over the issue of divorce, it is open to all MPs and parliamentary staff. It meets several times a year for dinner to talk about, and perhaps influence, public policy.
"It is a real exchange of views," Scheer insists. "It is not meant to be a catechism class. It allows us to have a better understanding of each other and of the issues." The wide-ranging topics discussed include Church abuse scandals, Pope Benedict's speech on faith and reason at Regensburg (to which Muslims took offence) and the 2009 papal visit to Israel. Scheer met with Pope Benedict when he was in Rome for the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha, but the group still hadn't tackled the subject of Pope Francis when Convivium spoke to Scheer.
"As Speaker, I am aware of how my pronouncements are parsed," Scheer says. "I can't imagine what it is like to be the Pope and have every syllable of every word parsed."
Scheer does believe, however, that the difference between Francis and his predecessor is that Benedict's approach was to have a smaller Church "where the light would shine on the true believers" while Francis has opened the doors wide to everyone "in the hope that some of them might see the light."
The first clue to the nature of Scheer's fervent Roman Catholicism is his parents. "Family is the centrepiece on which society is built," he has said. "Parents are the first source of learning."
His father, a deacon at St. Patrick's in Ottawa, was the librarian at the Ottawa Citizen; his mother sang in the church choir.
"Each one of them provided me with a different piece of the puzzle. My dad is very intellectual, very academic and very logical. We would have these great conversations around the dinner table when I was 10 years old on the difference between transubstantiation and consubstantiation. What I got from my mom was a real practical understanding, a real love of the faith. She was Irish-Catholic, and when she said the rosary, her accent came out a little bit."
Scheer was raised in Ottawa with his two sisters and was an altar server at St. Clement's. He studied at the University of Ottawa. After he met Regina schoolteacher Jill Ryan in Ottawa, he moved to Saskatchewan to be with her. He and Ryan were married at Holy Rosary Cathedral in Regina in 2003. He worked as a waiter at a Danbury's restaurant that was once a posh private club while continuing his studies at the University of Regina. In Regina, he became an avid football fan. His brother-in-law Jon was a punter who went on to play for the Seattle Seahawks.
Scheer cut his political teeth working for the provincial Saskatchewan Party, for Preston Manning's Reform Party and for the short-lived, right-wing Canadian Alliance before Stephen Harper hired him to work in the Opposition Leader's office.
He ran for the Conservatives in Regina-Qu'Appelle in the 2004 election. The seat had been held by the NDP's Lorne Nystrom, and many thought Scheer was running as a sacrificial lamb. At 24, with the odds against him, he took the seat from the NDP. Two years later, he was named Deputy Speaker and worked with Peter Milliken, who held the job of Speaker longer than anyone else in Commons history. He spent whatever spare time he had watching the British House of Commons debates on television to acquaint himself with the work. Three years ago, when the Conservatives won their majority, he defeated eight other candidates after six rounds of balloting for the $240,000-a-year job. He was two weeks shy of his 32nd birthday.
Scheer confounded those who dismissed him as being too young for the job.
"The current Speaker of the House of Commons in the United Kingdom, Mr. John Bercow, also faced questions about his age as he was relatively young when he successfully ran for Speaker," Scheer points out. "In his speech asking members for their support, one particular MP said to him, 'Certainly not, Bercow. You are not just too young, you are far too young, given that, in my judgment, the Speaker ought to be virtually senile.'"
Scheer quickly developed a reputation for what the National Post's John Ivison has described as "cherubic grace under pressure." He is a tall man at 6 foot 4 inches, and in his black silk robes, white bib and tricorne hat, he still looks a little like a self-conscious choirboy.
"The job is a little overwhelming," he admits. "I had worked as Deputy Speaker with Peter Milliken and had seen the practical aspects. But when I took over the role, I don't think I was ready for that level of attention. It is an odd dynamic for me to be the centre of attention when people on both sides of the House talk to me and through me. My family keeps me grounded. We try to schedule things so we are never apart more than a week at a time. There is a rhythm to it."
He no longer votes on any legislation unless it is to break a tie, as his predecessor did a record six times.
"It is no longer my role to get into the trenches," he shrugs. "My job now is to make sure the system is functioning. I still meet with my constituents and I pass on their concerns to the appropriate ministers, but I don't vote."
He is highly regarded by voters in his riding as down-to-earth, affable and totally unassuming. He fits into the rural landscape as a wholesome Prairie boy and is present — usually with one of his four children in tow — at almost all major community events. He is not above taking part in a good-natured pillow fight with the mayor of Fort Qu'Appelle, standing patiently in line in a church basement for a fowl supper, or showing up in jeans at a threshing bee at the Motherwell Homestead National Historic Site. He is present, never omnipresent, and never expects special treatment.
One of the perks of his office is his official residence, Kingsmere, a sprawling Gatineau estate said to be haunted. It once belonged to Liberal Prime Minister Mackenzie King, who held seances on the property, conjuring up spirits in an attempt to talk to his dead mother. Asked whether he has encountered any ghosts at Kingsmere, Scheer says he is not superstitious, but... "When I first moved in, I heard the place was haunted and that King had died in the bedroom. Perhaps it was my imagination running loose, but one evening when the wife and kids were back in Regina and I was asleep, I awoke to what I perceived to be a very loud whisper saying my name, 'Andrew, Andrew.'"