Crisis in the mail

Liberal House leader Marc Garneau rose after QP this afternoon on a point of privilege to complain, in very strong terms, that the office staff of a New Democrat MP—Jonathan Tremblay—had erroneously received and then improperly opened and distributed a shipment of toy space shuttles that was meant to be delivered to Mr. Garneau. Apparently the package of toys was to be forwarded on to a charity.

There seems to be some dispute as to whether or not the package was marked for Mr. Garneau, but the Liberal House leader is asking the Speaker to rule that a breach of his privileges has occurred.

Below, the full exchange of points.

Marc Garneau: Mr. Speaker, I rise today on a question of privilege to raise a matter which represents a serious offence against the dignity and authority of Parliament and as such constitutes a clear contempt of Parliament.

Le 24 février dernier, un colis m’étant adressé fut reçu au dépôt de messagerie de la Chambre des communes. Toutefois, bien qu’il était clairement adressé à mon attention, l’expéditeur y avait inscrit l’ancienne adresse de mon bureau, maintenant occupé par le député de Montmorency—Charlevoix—Haute-Côte-Nord.

Le messager s’est donc présenté au bureau du député en question, qui en a accusé réception, malgré que ce soit mon nom qui apparaissait sur le colis. Voyant que nous n’avions jamais reçu ledit colis, nous avons entamé des démarches auprès du service de messagerie de la Chambre et nous avons contacté le bureau du député de Montmorency—Charlevoix—Haute-Côte-Nord, qui a répondu par courriel un message très succinct et sans équivoque. Je cite: « Effectivement, nous avons reçu ce colis au nom du député. Le hic, c’est que le député reçoit régulièrement des objets promotionnels de cette sorte, alors nous les avons distribué. Désolé. »

Il s’agit d’une infraction grave en soi, Qui plus est, ce colis contenait des objets destinés à une oeuvre de bienfaisance.

While a contemptible offence has taken place regardless of what was contained in the package, it is worth noting that the package contained toys intended as fundraising prizes to raise money for sick children from the north who need to come south for medical treatment. Though an offence against the dignity of the House regardless of the contents, the theft of these contents, in my view, is also an offence against common decency.

I wish to quote from section 356 of the Criminal Code under the heading Theft of Mail, which states: “Everyone commits an offence who steals anything sent by post after it is deposited at a post office and before it is delivered, or after it is delivered but before it is in the possession of the addressee or of a person who may reasonably be considered to be authorized by the addressee to receive the mail.”

While the member’s office has admitted to receiving the package addressed to me, opening this package, removing the contents and giving them away, it remains unclear who specifically took part in the offence. In other words, was it the member himself, members of his staff, or both? On this point I will simply note that I have notified the Sergeant At Arms of this situation, and pending his investigation a further complaint to police may be made. Regardless of who committed the offence, this took place within the parliamentary precinct and as such would constitute a contempt of Parliament.

Maingot’s Parliamentary Privilege in Canada, Second Edition, states on page 163: “Each House of Parliament has jurisdiction over its precincts while outside of proceedings in Parliament and parliamentary debate the criminal law applies to members of the House of Commons, the act of doing something within the precinct could constitute a contempt of Parliament.”

Furthermore, the opening and/or theft of the member’s private correspondence or mail are tantamount to past findings of contempt where an invasion of privacy of members has occurred.

Maingot states on page 256: “The invasion of the privacy of a member of the Senate or of the House of Commons within the precincts of Parliament by any person, also constitutes a prima facie question of privilege. This includes the interception of a private communication on the precincts.”

On October 17, 1973 a meeting of the NDP caucus on the precincts was the subject of electronic eavesdropping by a journalist. A question of privilege was raised by the leader of the NDP at the time David Lewis, who stated on page 6942 of House of Commons Debates: “Whether or not it is illegal under the present Criminal Code or any other statute of which I may not know is irrelevant. Certainly it is totally illegal as far as the rules of Parliament are concerned. I hope that those responsible will not find it more offensive that I intend it to be when I say that it is morally and socially wrong in every respect for them to have done this.”

These words are as accurate in describing the present as they were in dealing with that prima facie breach of privilege in 1973.

La procédure et les usages de la Chambre des communes, deuxième édition, en définissant l’outrage au Parlement, indique ceci à la page 82: “la Chambre revendique le droit de punir au même titre que l’outrage tout acte qui, sans porter atteinte à un privilège précis, nuit ou fait obstacle à la Chambre, à un député ou à un haut fonctionnaire de la Chambre dans l’exercice de ses fonctions, ou transgresse l’autorité ou la dignité de la Chambre, par exemple la désobéissance à ses ordres légitimes ou des propos diffamatoires à son endroit ou à l’endroit de ses députés ou hauts fonctionnaires.”

It is, I believe, self-evident that the theft of a member’s mail within the precincts of Parliament undoubtedly represents an offence against the authority and the dignity of the House, as does the cavalier response of the member’s office once confronted and admitting the offence.

I would understand if, in error, the hon. member or his office had opened the package, but what occurred here is not simply an error. They received the package, opened it and once viewing the contents, toys intended for a fundraiser in regard to a cause supporting children, miniature shuttles in this particular case, they did not call and return the contents with an apology for opening the package clearly addressed to me.

No, they instead removed the contents and gave them away. That is not only an invasion of my privacy, it is theft. When contacted by my office, they showed no remorse whatsoever for this offence.

I understand the member is new, having only been elected a year ago, and that his staff may also lack the experience to understand the more complicated nature of privilege, but this is not a complicated matter. Surely the NDP leader’s office has someone responsible for organization who can inform this member and his staff that they do not open packages that are not addressed to them.

While the member and his office are new, there is no excuse for this.

Ce qui est plus triste, monsieur le Président, c’est que ce sont les bénéficiaires de l’oeuvre caritative qui écoperont de cette situation déplorable et inconcevable. Des enfants malades qui doivent bénéficier de ces soins ont vu ces objets destinés à les aider être distribués aux amis du député. Il s’agit d’une action des plus offensantes que je ne peux accepter.

Should you rule in my favour, Mr. Speaker, I am prepared to move the appropriate motion.

Nathan Cullen: Mr. Speaker, I listened with intent to my colleague because he raises a point that is important in terms of the correspondence that we receive.

I have talked to the member concerned about this to find out the facts of the matter. I think there may be some discrepancy as to whether there was actually a name on the box or not. We will get to the bottom of this.

At the point of being respectful to this member who I respect a great deal, it feels like the rhetoric and the use of moral cases in this regard for what appears to be an accident with some toy space shuttles seems to me a mislaying of priorities right now.

I think there are conversations we could have honourably between members to resolve this case. However if we are talking about small toy shuttles that were erroneously and mistakenly distributed to my colleagues’ constituents, in error, then we can seek to find more toy space shuttles to replace those that were mistakenly given away, and find a way to rectify my friend’s sense of dignity in this place.

I am not sure if there is any prima facie case of anything here. It feels like taking up the House’s time for this amount for something that we could try to work out between honourable colleagues would be something we could attempt to do. I am a bit confused about the amount of time we have already taken away and the heated rhetoric over this notion of misplaced toys.

We will make it right in any way that we can.

André Bellavance: Monsieur le Président, je n’ai pas l’intention d’épiloguer très longtemps sur ce dossier parce que le leader à la Chambre du Parti libéral a été très éloquent et très clair. Cependant, la réponse du leader de l’opposition officielle à la Chambre des communes est décevante.

On sait, tout le monde sait, tous les citoyens et citoyennes savent qu’il s’agit d’une infraction d’ouvrir le courrier destiné à une autre personne. Or, la chose à faire à ce moment-là était de retourner la boîte au leader à la Chambre du Parti libéral, ce qui n’a pas été fait malheureusement.

Je pense que votre intervention serait très simple et même le député pourrait y penser sans même votre intervention, c’est-à-dire de tout simplement racheter les objets qui étaient dans cette boîte destinée au député libéral, de les acheter avec son argent et non pas avec son budget, de lui remettre ces objets qui lui appartiennent et de s’excuser d’avoir ouvert du courrier qui ne lui était pas destiné. C’est la chose à faire et le cas est réglé.

Marc Garneau: Mr. Speaker, just in reply to the comment made by the NDP House leader, I want to assure the House that the package was sent from Hope Air and it had my name on it.