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Authors: The Honourable Marie Poulin and Jaclyn Legge
When Greg Peters first greets the IOG’s Honourable Marie Poulin outside his office in the new Senate, he is wearing a crisp suit and a warm smile; a brief conversation and a few minutes later, he re-emerges in coattails and bowtie, the uniform of the Usher of the Black Rod.
“This role is the third longest continuously held state office after the Queen and the Governor General,” Peters explains. Canada’s 17th Black Rod, Peters has inherited its long history, and he speaks enthusiastically about it. “It has existed since 1791, so pre-Confederation. But the role of the Usarius – the Medieval Latin term for “doorkeeper” – goes back to 1348, when Edward III appointed the first Usarius.” In those days the Usarius, the usher for the Order of the Garter, carried an ebony cane to match the black capes of the Garter Knights.
Peters is seated at his desk. Behind him, flanked on either side, is the case containing Canada’s black rod, and the glass case holding the Black Rod’s Chain of Office. As with the windowpane looking out to the Peace Tower and its flag, his desk is neatly scattered with telling souvenirs such as English teacups and figurines of Mounties on horseback.
Peters is careful when removing the black rod from its case, well aware that it is not the first: Canada’s first black rod was lost in the fire of Parliament in 1916; the current rod was accidentally damaged by Charles Rock Lamoureux, the Usher of the Black Rod from 1947 to 1970. Through it all, the cane remains an homage to its history. On the knocking end of the rod is the Patron Saint of the Garter Knights, Saint George, slaying the dragon, and the motto of the Order of the Garter, honi soit qui mal y pense – “evil to him who evil thinks” – is engraved into the upper plate.
Though Peters has been Canada’s Usher of the Black Rod for five years, the relationship he has forged with the Royal Family goes back to his “incredible” 32-year career with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He participated in a security detail for the Queen as early as 1984, toured with the RCMP Musical Ride for the first time in 1988, and came to assume responsibility over the RCMP’s ceremonial side as the Director of Strategic Partnerships and Heritage.
Around the time he was preparing to present to Her Majesty a horse named George, named after the Queen’s father, Greg Peters was attending the Institute on Governance’s (IOG) Executive Leadership Program. Peters fondly recalls using the travel time during group study tours to keep working during this busy time in his life.
“We’d be on the train and I’d be dealing with Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace, organizing all that. My classmates got a real education on protocol and ceremonies and planning and fundraising and so on for the presentation of a horse to the Queen.”
“Would you say that with the IOG’s leadership course, you developed an appreciation for the complexities of public governance?” Poulin asks.
“Oh, absolutely.” In the Executive Leadership Program (ELP), which he attended monthly between 2008 and 2010, Peters was submerged in a departmental melting pot of public servants. He insists that this environment made it easier for them all to be open and avoid getting caught in their silos.
“Because of my classmates, whether it be someone representing FINTRAC, INAC, the Competition Bureau, the Public Service Commission, it was a chance for all of us to appreciate one another and compare notes and identify the similarities across departments. And at the end of the day, it all comes back to people… The fears, the hopes, the aspirations across any department are very, very similar, very much the same… We get caught up in our perception of what something is, but you have to get out, you have to experience, you have to share ideas.”
Peters, who graduated from the Institute’s ELP in 2010, went on to plan the celebration of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in the same year, which he says were “very, very successful” as a result. Only a few years later, he would apply his experience in the Executive Leadership Program to his interview for the position of Usher of the Black Rod.
“I was very satisfied with my position at the RCMP. But if there was one role that I thought was tailor-made for what my experience had been up to that point, it was the Usher of the Black Rod, especially with the converging circles of the connection with the monarchy and with the Crown. This course expanded on my experience within the RCMP.”
Specifically, Peters recalls the psychologists with his ELP cohort who had them take assorted personality tests.
“They identified all of our individual personality types for myself and my colleagues; they helped us realize what our strengths are and what our weaknesses are; they ensured we work at strengthening the weaknesses and enhancing our strengths.” Particularly memorable to him were the profiles’ advice for stress management: tips to deflate the stress from overwork and other career challenges, and gentle reminders of the way personality types react to stress. Peters cites this learned self-awareness as extremely helpful during the Black Rod interview process.
“Of course going through the process, one never knows if you’re going to be the successful one at the other end. Now I did get the call that I was the individual who was appointed at the recommendation of the Prime Minister. It was very validating for me personally, but also for having gone through the program. I attribute part of it to having successfully come through the program as well. It was an incredible learning experience, and I gained wonderful friendships which I continue today.”
Recently reappointed as the Usher of the Black Rod, Peters says it feels “wonderful” to receive validation for a very busy five years in the role, especially when he recalls the whirlwind of his first Speech from the Throne, “the largest event that a Black Rod has to oversee”, only three weeks after he was first appointed. But this speech was only the start.
Poulin then says, “You are one of Canada’s best kept secrets. What does the Usher of the Black Rod do in the Senate of Canada?”
“It’s interesting when you tell somebody what you do and you say you’re the Usher of the Black Rod and you get a bit of a blank stare. People wonder, ‘wow, what is that? What is this title, what does it mean?'” Peters muses, perhaps a veteran to the question now.
“The Black Rod is the personal attendant and messenger to the Queen, the Crown, or the Vice-Regal when either are in Parliament,” Peters explains. It is the Black Rod who stands outside Parliament, greets the given Crown representative upon arrival, escorts them to the Centre Block to be greeted by the Prime Minister and government officials, and throughout the building for the duration of the visit.
The Black Rod also oversees the Senate Page Program, through which hundreds of students across Canada apply to be Senate Pages each year.
“These are the best of the best. They’re young men and women from across the country who have an affinity for politics and history. Some are in bio-chem too, they just want to experience the Hill. But Senate Pages are a step above. When we choose these young people, I am amazed at how intelligent they are. They’re extremely hard workers. They’re paid for this part time work, but it’s a real challenge to balance their studies, exams, papers, and so on, with the schedule of Senate and Standing Committees’ sittings. Before we rose for the break, just a week ago, we were sitting late into the night. It’s a real balancing act for these young Pages.”
The schedule of the Senate being as full as it is (now at about 223 events per year and growing), security is an important role year-round for the Black Rod, who liaises with the sergeant-at-arms to ensure the security of the Senate Chamber and Galleries.
“Whether it be for an active shooter scenario or a weather issue, a gas leak, an earthquake, and we have experienced all of these, we must be prepared, in the Chamber.”
On top of all of this, Peters believes that his ultimate responsibility as Usher of the Black Rod is more than the sum of its parts.
“I think a large part of my role is to nourish the relationship between the Crown and Parliament, for my time here. And every chance I get to enhance that, I think it’s my obligation to do it.”
In his first term, he has already made two significant contributions to the history of the Black Rod: the restoration of the rod and the creation of the Black Rod’s Chain of Office.
“I alluded to the fact that the Black Rod had been restored. One could have gone through five years, or whatever the time that I’m going to be here, without restoring the black rod itself.” Peters recounts how, through a series of key conversations within the Royal household, he obtained her Majesty’s approval to replace the darkened rosewood with ebony, thus restoring the rod to its traditional form.
As for the Chain of Office: “It did not exist when I arrived,” says Peters. “In the paperwork when I arrived here, this was on file. There was an attempt, and interestingly enough, Lamoureux was the Black Rod at the time. He’s the same chap who was responsible for the black rod being damaged, right?”
The Chain of Office sits securely in a display case behind Peters’ desk, only to be put to use for special events for the Black Rod such as the Speech from the Throne, a Royal Assent, and parliamentary visits from the Royal family.
Greg Peters is a native of the town of Souris, Prince Edward Island, where he learned and performed First Aid for the local community when he was in high school. He needed permission from his school principal to take Advanced First Aid, and began taking night courses to be an Emergency Medical Technician. He would go on ambulance runs before officially joining the St. John Ambulance Brigade.
While his brother was playing hockey, Peters attended games to tend to injured players.
“I guess I was a bit of a nerd, not necessarily going with the flow, but being true to myself.”
“But that involvement as a teenager has also prepared you for your important role here as the Usher of the Black Rod, with the program of the Pages,” says Poulin. “I’m sure these Pages often come to you for advice. What are your key messages?”
Peters mulls this over for a few seconds, but his mind seems made from the start: there is no replacement for hard work.
“When you’re on stage and you’re in that uniform with the bowtie and you’re a Senate Page, it’s a privilege, it’s not a right, and you’re representing the Senate of Canada. You’re representing all Senators, you’re representing the Black Rod’s office especially because Pages come under the authority of the Usher of the Black Rod. But they’re also representing their areas, because we try to balance Pages from all regions across the country… They’re representing their regions, they’re representing their cultural diversity, they’re representing their gender. This year I’m very proud: it’s the first time in history that we have the Chief Page and Deputy Chief Page being young women. And it’s totally merit based, they won it, hands down. We have eleven young women this year and four men, it’s just the way it happened… And I think the other piece of advice would be using the Page experience as a springboard for them to look at a career in public service.”
Peters’ own journey follows this formula. Originally a STEM student in university, Peters joined the Mounties for a summer, which peaked his interest so that he eventually joined the RCMP, “and the rest is history.”
Poulin asks, “So, what about advice to managers in the public service, based on your training with the IOG?”
“You’re only just beginning,” Peters insists, now 37 years into his public service career. “When we’re mid-managers within the public service, we maybe think that we’ve seen everything. You have to count to ten, take a deep breath, and realize that there is quite a ways to go. Here I am at the beginning of my second five-year term as Usher of the Black Rod. I will be 59 in November. And then I look around me in the Senate Chamber and I see Senators that are 73, 74, with energy levels that are incredible, still contributing. You’ve only just begun. And you have a ways to go.”
“But the second piece would be, take down any boundaries of preconceived notions of how you can contribute. Take a risk. When I look at my leaving the RCMP after 32 years, I could have stayed 35 and longer. Having been in the organization for 32 years, you get quite comfortable. Being willing to take the risk and dip your foot in waters that are slightly unknown, it’s amazing. And when I took this position as Usher of the Black Rod, first day you’re wondering ‘Okay, three weeks before the Speech from the Throne, what have I gotten myself into?’ However, if you trust yourself and what got you to where you are, where you’ve been honoured with the position, if you put faith in yourself and you go forward and you take that risk, the gift back is tenfold in what it will provide you with.
“In this case, for me, having done five years, and now to be humbled and honoured with another five years, it’s incredible to sit here at this desk and look out at the Peace Tower and to consider all of the Ushers of the Black Rod that have come before… it’s a real honour and a privilege.”
Peters remains the young man from Souris; even as he is swept up into the tradition, the protocol, and history of the position. His success begins with allowing his own personal history to guide him just as much.
“My father and grandfather told me this: ‘Never forget where you came from.’ And I think that’s the most important key. You meet the same people on the way down as you do on the way up. Humility, being honoured with positions like these, is extremely important… I am on the shoulders of all those giants that have come before me, like Rene Jalbert, who was rewarded for his bravery at the National Assembly. I’m only the 17th since Confederation, so I’m part of a very narrow ban of individuals that have been privileged with this responsibility. It’s also an opportunity if you take it on in the sense of a public service vocation, with integrity, with honour. How you wear the uniform, how you portray the position… that’s something that I take very, very seriously.”
“You use the word vocation,” Poulin notes. “Do you find that being a public servant – serving the country and serving Canadians the way you do – requires a person with a vocation in his or her heart?”
“I do. I think it helps. There’s the private sector, which is more profit-based and so on, the bottom line. But in the public service, the bottom line is really in helping Canadians… My philosophy is that this is an honourable place to be and we have a responsibility and an obligation to execute this duty with the utmost integrity.”
He isn’t just talking, either; Peters hasn’t missed a sitting day in the Senate since he was appointed, minus one morning when he left to travel to England for an audience with the queen.
“That says right there, it says I’m relatively healthy.” Peters knocks on his wooden desk, perhaps thinking about his next five years as the Usher of the Black Rod and beyond. “A little bit of superstition there,” he admits, “but it also says how much I love the passion I have for the role.”
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