BLAST FROM THE PAST: The Black Rod Affair, or How I Learned to Love the Upper House

As promised:

As promised:

(An edited version of this story was originally published in the Hill Times on November 10, 1997.)

Last Friday, at nearly the same instant time that MPs in the House of Commons were arguing over whether the Senate vacancy in Alberta should be filled by election rather than appointment, the Red Chamber was engorged in a weighty debate of its own. What burning issue of the day caused such consternation among the aisles of sober second thought? An innocuous-sounding report by the Committee on Privileges, Standing Rules and Orders on the Order in Council of October 17th to change the name of the officer formerly known as the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod to Usher of the Senate.

As alert senate watchers will no doubt recall, the change was made when Prime Minister Jean Chrétien appointed a woman, Mary McLaren, to fill the role upon the retirement of Col. Jean Dore. But, as Liberal Senator Shirley Matheu explained, it wasn’t enough just to remove the “Gentleman” part of the title. “The authorities on the government side did not feel that the title with the French translation of Black Rod should be used. It means “black
penis,” quite frankly, and does not apply to a woman.” The reaction from the Opposition Conservatives to the change was equally direct. “That is so fatuous,” commented Opposition House Leader Lynch-Staunton, upon hearing Maheu’s justification for the name change.

And the battle was on, over the change itself, as well as the larger question of whether the Privy Council even had the right to tell senators what to call their officer. With references ranging from Roman anecdotes (“I wish Senator Gigantes was here. He is somewhat of an expert on the Greek background,” mused Liberal Eymard Corbin, who insisted that the word in question, “verge” was not naughty, but merely a synonym for “baguette”) senators spent the afternoon arguing over just what is in a name – and who ought to have the final word on the matter.

“Someone in PCO was illuminated in some manner that they have gone from tradition of Usher of the Black Rod to this new thing called Usher of the Senate,” commented Deputy Opposition Leader Noel Kinsella. “Perhaps the people in Langevin Block have great insight into the tradition of Parliament, or perhaps they have … decreed that they will change things around in the Senate without any regard.”

Kinsella, for his part, didn’t think much of the alleged prurience of the original title. “The phrase, the terminology and the tradition of the black rod is a long tradition, as has been alluded to, and we should be able to solve the problem of translation … that seems to be an issue left to translators.”

Kinsella admitted that “this is not a great issue of state, and there are many more important things for us to deal with,” but insisted that there is a “serious side. Someone took other advice and made a change, and I think that needs to be assessed.”

Senator Corbin questioned whether, beneath the name change lurked more significant change. “Will the person in question , in her official functions, shoulder the black rod as usual? Does that disappear?”

Liberal Senator Nick Taylor put it into perspective: “If we are going to change names … it should not be done by someone preparing a press release when the usher, if I can shorten it down, was named. It should be done by the Senate itself. I do not like being presented with a fait accompli and told to say “yes” or “no.””

“I remember that 30 or 35 years ago, we used to say that a person was gay when a person was happy,” recalled Senator Peter Bosa. “Today, it has an entirely different meaning .. I think that perhaps the same thing happened with “verge noire” in the French language.”

Lynch-Staunton, on the other hand, saw more sinister motivations behind the sudden gender sensitivity. “If the interpretation of a word is so important and so offensive, why did we wait until a woman was named to suddenly perk up? Why is it alright to use a slang expression when a man holds the office, but when a woman is to hold it, it suddenly becomes offensive? Why in this world of gender equality is suddenly the other sex more or less susceptible to interpretation?”

In a diatribe that brought back memories of university campuses caught in the political correctness craze of the eighties, he asked, “Why not go even further? When a member of a visible minority is named to the position, we will have to be careful about the term “BlackRod.” We may have to use “White Rod“, “Off-Colour Rod“, “No-Colour Rod” or “Neutral Rod“. How far are we to go with this ludicrous exchange?”

After an afternoon of similarly impassioned debate it was Senator Phillipe Gigantes who saved the day, or at least, Ms. McLaren, from unknowingly taking on an unladylike title in French. “There have been many jokes in the press in Québec about the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod,” he admitted. “I have just looked up in le Petit Larousse, and “rod” and “baton” are synonyms in English, “baton” and “verge” are synonyms in French.”

And so, the Senate elected to amend the report. The position shall henceforth be known as “Usher of the Black Rod,” or, in French, “Huissier du baton noire.” Leaving observers to muse over just how the Red Chamber got stuck with a reputation with being out of touch with the times.