OTTAWA – For Mark Eyking, living with fellow Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner has its perks – especially when your back goes out.
“He helped me with the chores,” Eyking recalled recently of Cuzner, who also hails from Cape Breton, N.S.
“I couldn’t get my socks on.”
Then there are the downsides: Cuzner’s constant forgetting of the keys, his late nights (i.e. past 10 p.m.), and all that Toronto Maple Leafs paraphernalia.
“He had it everywhere, and that was a bit of an issue too, but we got over that,” said Eyking.
“I’m a Catholic, he’s a Protestant. I’m the Montreal Canadiens, he’s Toronto Maple Leafs. I’m Colgate, he’s Crest.”
Cuzner has his own beefs.
“I’ve been able to look past all his shortcomings, his many, many shortcomings,” Cuzner says of his roommate.
“Not even being able to put a new roll of paper back on in the washroom. He’s a successful business guy but the fact that he hasn’t learned that in his 54 years, that still boggles my mind.”
To which Eyking replies: “That’s not true, because I’m the one who always buys the toilet paper.”
For almost 13 years – on, and temporarily off, due to Eyking’s kids moving in a couple years ago (“They were everywhere. They were like earwigs, and I figured it was time to move out,” says Cuzner) – the two MPs have shared an apartment in Ottawa which they dub “The Cape Breton Embassy,” for obvious reasons.
“We’ve gone through a lot together, and we’ve had a lot of fun. You know the story about us rescuing the beaver,” says Eyking.
Ah yes, the beaver: a few years back, the two men found it on Ottawa’s pedestrian Sparks Street and safely guided it back to the Ottawa River, stopping traffic in their wake.
Eyking and Cuzner are not the only platonic old married couple on Parliament Hill. (“You’re like the marriage counsellor,” Eyking tells a reporter).
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Politicians, elected from across the country, must leave their homes – and in many cases, their real spouses – and move to Ottawa, where they live for most of the week before heading home to the riding on the weekend.
Each Parliamentarian is allotted a yearly $28,000 travel allowance to spend on rent, per diems and other expenses. Another rate is given to those who own a house to offset utilities, or who choose to stay with family or friends.
Some live in hotels, but many MPs choose to split an apartment or even a house with their caucus colleagues.
For one thing, it’s a lot cheaper.
Conservative MP Larry Miller, who represents the Ontario riding of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound, lived with Manitoba MP James Bezan for seven years, before moving in to a two-bedroom, two-bathroom condominium with Winnipeg MP Lawrence Toet in 2011.
“I think it goes back probably to my cheap old farmer roots. I just did it as much as anything to save money,” says Miller.
“I was the oldest of seven kids. So I mean, you always had somebody in your room.”
Miller, maybe a little bit messier, does more of the cooking – hamburger with a can of mushroom soup is a specialty – while Toet does more of the cleaning.
Perhaps most important, their wives also get along.
When both men are at home – which is rare – they spend the evenings unwinding over a hockey or baseball game and a glass of wine.
Toet – who has only had one roommate in his life, and that’s his wife of 28 years – said he appreciates the small things about living with a fellow Conservative MP.
It’s the “ability to open up to somebody, without having to be looking over your shoulder or worried about what’s going to be said later,” he said.
“It’s a trust relationship.”
A boys’ floor, and a girls’ floor
Over at “The Manse,” four NDP MPs share a large historic home near the University of Ottawa, within walking distance to Parliament Hill.
It’s named for its previous purpose – as the house for a Presbyterian church minister.
The mixed-gender group of MPs has worked out a system: separate floors.
Dennis Bevington and Peter Julian are on the top floor, while Linda Duncan and Paulina Ayala are on the second.
There’s a common floor where they gather to watch the news some nights, and a large yard with a garden out back.
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“I don’t know how the people who live in the hotel can stand it,” says Duncan, 65, who represents Edmonton-Strathcona.
“I would go berserk. I’m a real homebody. I like to have all things around me and cook my own meals.”
There’s somewhat of a routine to the place: every morning, Bevington makes the coffee, and Duncan and her colleague eat breakfast together.
Ayala, who only speaks Spanish and French, helps the Anglophone MPs with their language skills. “We have very funny conversations because Dennis and I are far from fluent,” says Duncan.
They try to keep it pretty tidy.
“There is the odd time when I have to tell Peter (Julian), ‘Peter, get your bike out of the living room,’” says Duncan.
“We can deal with a lot of issues because we have the men’s floor and we have the women’s floor, and then we have the common floor. So we don’t have to deal with the men’s bathroom,” she says.
“We’ll just leave it at that.”
Of course, in politics as in life, people move on.
Bevington, the MP for the Northwest Territories, lived with former NDP MP Tony Martin for five years. Martin lost his seat in 2011.
“You spend five years of your life, 150 days a year, living with someone. You must like them,” says Bevington.
“The debriefing is extremely valuable between roommates. It’s something that I had with Tony for many years,” he says.
“We’d have everything figured out by the time we walked to work in the morning.”
Conservative MP James Rajotte has lived with both Employment Minister and fellow Alberta MP Jason Kenney, as well as Dean Del Mastro, who recently resigned his seat after being found guilty of violating the Canada Elections Act.
Watch: Dean Del Mastro resigns seat in House of Commons
“Jason is the messiest guy I know,” says Rajotte. (Kenney rebuts with a story about buying new underwear instead of doing laundry, but we won’t go there.)
While Kenney was more of a “cerebral” roommate – they didn’t have a TV – Rajotte describes Del Mastro as much more relaxed, happy to watch a hockey game in his blue jeans or host Italian dinners.
And now, he’s gone.
“You become almost brothers with people you live with like that, because you share a lot of things together,” says Rajotte.
“I know him very well, and he’s such a great guy and person to have as a roommate. He was so easy to live with.”
Even when MPs have known each other for years – they can still surprise each other.
Cuzner recently came home from a Liberal Christmas party later than Eyking, who thought he was being robbed and grabbed a weapon to defend himself.
“I had the broom, that’s all I had. Well I just looked through the door, and there he was,” says Eyking.
He says since moving back in together in November, they’ve gotten used to each other’s habits once again.
“I don’t see any Toronto Maple Leaf stuff hanging around, so there is hope here.”