Christmas Memory. Russian Singing.

It was late Christmas Eve, 1990, and I was sitting in the wondrously beautiful Railway Room in the Centre Block on Parliament Hill.

It was the last caucus meeting of a busy legislative session, and I was one of only two folks there who were not members of caucus. No chiefs of staff; no executive assistants; nobody. The other was my brother in arms, partner in crime, and writing partner, Brian McInnis.

Normally, such caucus sessions were strictly off-limits to non-MPs. But for some reason, which I can’t recall, Bri and I were invited to attend. We felt it was a great honour, and had fortified ourselves beforehand at Sammy’s Cellar bar, on Sparks Street. It was clear many MPs, hankering to board their flights on that terribly cold night back to their ridings, had done much the same.

Brian Mulroney made a typically compelling, personal, moving, and funny speech to the 188 (plus 2) people in the room. He spoke about his Christmases as a child growing up in Quebec, and also about Christmas traditions across the country. The Prime Minister was brilliant about this. He never forgot a name, never failed to understand where in this great country he’d been to, and always had story to tell. Some folks said he was full of Irish blarney. Yeah. He was. But he came by his love of talk honestly.

Anyway, toward the end of his remarks there came the sound of singing through the big doors of the Railway Room. The Prime Minister stopped talking and said “I think there’s something better for you to hear.” Indeed, there was a sound, and a beautiful one.

The meeting ended. We all trouped out into the Hall of Honour, which is the first place you see when you walk through the front doors of Centre Block, and beheld a wonder.

Perhaps a dozen men, the Russian Army Military Choir, standing on two risers, were singing. Big men. Proud. The soloist, an older guy with a big barrel chest, singing with such purity. Old Russian carols, in odd and heart-rending harmonies. You see, Gorbachev was in town, with the big black Zil limousines lurking everywhere, and this was his gift.

There we were. The entire representative Government of Canada (plus two staff writers) in awe. Humbled and so honoured to witness this gesture on such a holy night.

I stood beside Charlie Mayer from Manitoba, a tough dude who was Minister of Agriculture, and Joe Clarke. Both men had tears in their eyes. Pretty near was Barbara McDougall, the extremely tough and capable Minister for Immigration and Employment. She was beside herself. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

At the end of the last carol, there was no ceremony, no handshaking. Just a sense in that great space, the Hall of Honour, that something perfect had just happened. That we had been witness to something sacred, something purely beautiful. Under that cold and clear winter sky, a flagless night of wonder and humanity.

Bri and I walked out into the snow. The MPs and ministers caught their cabs. And the Russians went home.

The next day was Christmas, and I awoke with music in my heart.



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