The Commons: The silly and the hallowed

An hour and a half in the life of the House of Commons
Conservative MP Mark Warawa, left, is given a handshake from fellow MP Merv Tweed after delivering a members statement prior to question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, April 24, 2013.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

At 2pm, the Speaker’s parade—a ceremonial photo op, a silly show of hallowed tradition—proceeded down the West corridor of Centre Block toward the House of Commons. Preceded by one marching guard and flanked by three more—To protect the Speaker from what? A sneak attack by the Queen?—strode the sergeant-at-arms, carrying the large golden mace that must be in place for the House to conduct its business, and  the Speaker and his clerks in their three-cornered hat and robes. Once the official party was safely inside, the large wooden doors were shut and the official business of the nation began for another day.


Something like a dozen reporters had gathered at the gallery door, anxiously waiting for the House to be called to order. This was something like four times the usual attendance—the larger crowd here in anticipation that one of the duly elected adults sent here to represent the people of this country might stand up in his or her place without having first obtained the permission of the party leader he or she is supposed to support.

There was a statement, from Conservative MP Kevin Sorenson, about World Meningitis Day. NDP MP Don Davies stood to “to bring to Parliament’s attention three occasions of great importance to the Vietnamese Canadian community.” Conservative MP Jay Aspin then stood to lament both the NDP leader’s comments about “Dutch disease” and recent mischaracterizations of FedNor. “I believe that the only disease is the disease the NDP leader has perpetrated,” Mr. Aspin explained. “That is his own foot in his mouth disease.”

From the government lobby, Mark Warawa, having announced to reporters hours earlier that he might take the Speaker up on the invitation to stand and be recognized, shuffled in tentatively with the aid of a cane, apparently having recently suffered a back injury of some kind. He took his seat and was soon visited by Tom Lukiwski, the government’s deputy House leader. Some kind of consultation ensued.

Mr. Lukiwski continued on and Mr. Warawa sat and talked and laughed with his seatmates, Jeff Watson, Merv Tweed and Brad Trost. The House proceeded with the other MPs who were due to speak. Mr. Warawa looked at the Speaker, smiled and gave a thumbs-up. Mr. Watson mocked like he was going to stand up. The NDP’s Marjolaine Boutin-Sweet stood and pronounced shame on the government’s reforms to employment insurance. And then, at 2:17pm, the House now running a bit late and Ms. Boutin-Sweet not quite finished, Mr. Warawa got up. Mr. Watson, in possession of Mr. Warawa’s cane, pretended to give him the hook. Leon Benoit came up from his seat in the front row to take an empty seat behind Mr. Warawa. Mr. Tweed and James Bezan, also seated nearby, pretended like they might seek to be recognized too. But here now the Speaker called on the member for Langley, apparently unchallenged. The backbenchers around him applauded.

“Mr. Speaker,” Mr. Warawa said, seemingly now with the official permission of his party, “I am honoured to be able to tell this House about an incredible event happening in beautiful Langley, British Columbia. It is called ‘Langley has Talent.’ ”

Something like 60 seconds later, he was done. Various Conservatives stood to applaud him.

And that was basically that.

A few moments later, as the NDP’s Charmaine Borg—still barely removed from university, now hectoring the government over privacy breaches—stood, as scheduled, to ask the fifth question of the afternoon, Independent MP Bruce Hyer and Green MP Elizabeth May rose in their spots in the back corner. Ms. May stood up again as Joyce Murray led the Liberal questions. And then again as Ms. Murray asked her second question. And then again as Bob Rae stood to ask a question. And then again and again. Eventually she was joined by Liberal MP Denis Coderre. Though Mr. Coderre noticeably did not jump up when it was a fellow Liberal who was due to ask a question.

That the Speaker would recognize Ms. May or Mr. Coderre when an MP of another party was due to speak seems unlikely, perhaps even unfair—the questions are dispersed among the parties and the independent MPs on a proportional basis. But then perhaps someday some frustrated backbencher might follow their lead and stand when another member of their own side is due to speak and thus force the Speaker to make a choice. On this day, as the Speaker reached the 25th question, the spot lately reserved for the first question from a Conservative, there was no Conservative who stood to challenge Calgary Centre’s Joan Crockatt. And so Ms. Crockatt was, as scheduled, free to remind the House that the government was tremendously supportive of the Keystone XL pipeline and to ask the parliamentary secretary for natural resources to “update us on the latest developments on this important project” and Dave Anderson was thus free, as scheduled, to decry the “narrow, ideologically driven, anti-trade, anti-development, anti-resource, anti-job agenda” of the NDP.

The Speaker might have yesterday allowed for the possibility of procedural revolution, but for at least today the revolutionaries—seekers of their most fundamental right—were quiet.


Amid the rote, there was some life in this place this day.

Of recent mucking about with the danger pay allotted to member of the military stationed in various parts of Afghanistan, the New Democrats had first sent up Elaine Michaud. And Defence Minister Peter MacKay had dismissed her concerns.

“I would ask the member to demonstrate her support and perhaps explain to the House why she continually votes against things like pay increases, education funds for families of deceased members of the Canadian Forces and funding for our Commonwealth war graves,” Mr. MacKay had charged, looking over in Ms. Michaud’s direction.  “We will take no lessons from members of the NDP who continually work and vote against the interests of the armed forces.”

That New Democrats have voted against Conservative legislation is something of a preoccupation for the Conservatives. If you voted against the budget, for instance, you voted against volunteer fighters. But a couple minutes, after Mr. MacKay had pronounced shame on the NDP’s Alexandre Boulerice over a six-year-old blog post about Vimy Ridge and the Conservatives had stood to applaud the minister’s effort, Jack Harris, the Newfoundland lawyer, had stood and wondered aloud if perhaps Mr. MacKay, as a member of the opposition, might have voted against military funding provided for in previous Liberal budget.

Mr. MacKay had been happy for the opportunity to mock. “Here is what we have,” he had said. “Now we have the defence critic for the NDP defending the abysmal record of the Liberal Party, a decade of darkness. He has his facts wrong on the history of the Liberal defence spending, just like his colleague from Quebec has the facts wrong on what happened at Vimy Ridge.”

Mr. MacKay had pointed this way and that and now he swiped his right hand. “The NDP is a joke on defence,” he had declared. The Conservatives, delighted, had stood to applaud and had called out for more.

“Mr. Speaker, it is always the same from the minister,” the NDP’s Jinny Sims had attempted to scold with the next opportunity, only to draw more applause from the Conservatives.

But now, later in the hour, it was Nathan Cullen on his feet. A bit too early in fact. Not, it seems, because he was attempting to join Ms. May and the standers, but because he had lost track of whose turn it was. When the Speaker called for Ralph Goodale, Mr. Cullen returned to his seat. A question and a response later, he was back up. And he was apparently prepared.

“Mr. Speaker, Canadians might be wondering what the Minister of National Defence’s record was on spending before he was the minister,” Mr. Cullen mused. “We went and checked. Lo and behold, it turns out he repeatedly voted against the military.”

“Woaahh!” mocked the New Democrats.

“No, no, it is true,” Mr. Cullen assured the disbelievers. “In 2004, he voted against $792 million for military operations in capital. He voted against $17 million for St. Anne’s (Veteran’s) Hospital.”

“Woaahh!” mocked the New Democrats.

“Against $600,000 for war veterans,” Mr. Cullen reported.

“Ohhh!” groaned the New Democrats.

“Can the minister not see through his own tortured logic,” Mr. Cullen wondered, looking over at Mr. MacKay, “so that he can finally admit that MPs can be opposed to his government’s agenda and still support Canada’s military?”

The New Democrats stood to applaud.

Mr. MacKay stood with a smile and stepped forward, nearly putting a foot out into the aisle. He proceeded to enthuse and gesture assuredly.

“Mr. Speaker, it is somewhat passing strange to hear members of the NDP defending the Liberal decade of darkness,” he mocked. “What I voted against, what many Conservatives, when we were in opposition, voted against was the unmitigated disaster that was the Liberal Party, the dismantling of the Canadian Forces. What we have seen as a government is unprecedented investment in the Canadian Forces, improved morale, new equipment, investments in bases and programs. This member and his party have been against all of those.”

The Conservatives stood to applaud.

Mr. Cullen returned to his feet.

“Mr. Speaker, his answer to the decade of darkness was to cut danger pay to our troops in Afghanistan. Fascinating,” the NDP House leader shot back.

The New Democrats applauded. Mr. Cullen returned to his piece of paper.

“He also voted against $6.3 million for a Canadian Forces health information system, against $2 million to upgrade Goose Bay’s airfield, against $22 million for disability pensions, and he voted against $49 million for public security and anti-terrorism measures,” he recounted.

“Woaahh!” mocked the New Democrats.

“I could do this all day, but I will allow the minister one more opportunity. He must now understand that we can hold government to account,” Mr. Cullen concluded jabbing the air in the general direction of the government, “vote against their bad budgets, and support our brave men and women.”

Up came the New Democrats to cheer once more.

Mr. Cullen slammed the paper on his desk as he returned to his seat. Mr. MacKay stood and leaned forward, placing his right hand on his own desk and his left hand on the adjacent desk. The minister stared at Mr. Cullen. Mr. Cullen stared at the minister,  stern-faced and nodding.

Mr. MacKay straightened up and began his response.

“Mr. Speaker, let me get this straight,” he said, putting his hands together and then furrowing his brow. “This member is now suggesting that because, while in opposition, this NDP government—”

The New Democrats stood and cheered at their apparent promotion. Mr. Cullen shook Mr. Mulcair’s hand and Mr. Mulcair pretended to be quite honoured.

The Speaker called for order and then returned the floor to the minister.

“While in opposition, while they are continuing to oppose these unprecedented investments in the Canadian Forces, somehow this justifies the New Democrats’ ongoing resistance to investments in programs, in equipment, in personnel,” Mr. MacKay now offered, somewhat confusingly. “Somehow that twisted logic justifies their opposition to all of the wonderful things we have done for the Canadian Forces.”

The House moved on and 20 minutes later the time for questions had expired. Mr. MacKay stood then on a point of order. He sought, apparently, to continue via clarification the discussion between himself and Mr. Cullen. Members of the opposition side shouted him down with cries of “debate!”—a debatable matter not being, by the ancient rules of this place, a point of order and this not being the time reserved for debate. Mr. MacKay returned to his seat and he and Mr. Cullen looked at each other and laughed.


In the foyer afterwards, there was much scurrying about. Liberal House leader Dominic LeBlanc arrived at a microphone to pronounce shame on a Conservative mailout the Liberals had obtained (apparently courtesy of a mysterious brown envelope).

“We were obviously surprised to find out that the Conservatives are now using taxpayers’ money to produce and distribute some of the negative attack ads that, previously at least, they had the decency to allow the Conservative Party to pay for,” Mr. LeBlanc explained.

Unfortunately for Mr. LeBlanc, the New Democrats had already been round with a mailout sent in the name of Bob Rae that criticized NDP MP Craig Scott and his legislation to revoke and replace the Clarity Act. And now a reporter was presenting this to Mr. LeBlanc and now Mr. LeBlanc was having to try to explain the difference between what he was complaining about and what his party seemed to have done.

“Well, it’s negative on the irresponsible policy of the NDP,” Mr. LeBlanc offered, expertly using this awkward moment to at least lambaste the New Democrats. “The NDP irresponsible policy is that the country could be broken up on a 50% plus one vote on an unclear question. We find it extremely irresponsible, the substance of the NDP’s view on things like the Clarity Act and the eventual possibility of another referendum in Quebec. We didn’t run a negative household or attacking a person and the experience of Mr. Scott or Mr. Scott’s person.”

A Conservative aide came by with an old Liberal mailout attacking the Prime Minister. Nearby, the questions persisted and so did Mr. LeBlanc.

“If I had written a ten-percenter to say that why does Mr. Scott pretend to be an effective parliamentarian when he only worked perhaps as a camp counselor or when he may have taught bungee jumping or where he once went river rafting in the state of Maine, that would have been a personal attack on Mr. Scott,” Mr. LeBlanc clarified. “If an NDP MP believes and Mr. Scott, the NDP MP, was in fact the person who brought in that completely ridiculous NDP bill to substitute the Clarity Act for some watered down, weak-kneed approach of the NDP to placate the nationalists in their caucus, Mr. Scott should answer for the substance of his reckless and silly private member’s bill. I’m not interested in him answering line by line the summer jobs he had.”

Mr. LeBlanc was then asked if perhaps some rule had been broken.

“Well, if there’s no rule that says you shouldn’t use taxpayers’ resources to distribute partisan attack ads, then we need to change the rules,” Mr. LeBlanc posited. “It’s pretty clear to us that the Conservatives were caught today by a distribution error in trying to use potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayers’ money to distribute a completely ridiculous attack ad where they show pictures of our leader,  deliberately intended to be an unflattering silly attack ad and then are nice enough to include a series of rather silly texts that they can insert, cut and paste, to meet the House of Commons rules. So if you’re asking me is it the right thing to do to waste taxpayers’ money on partisan attack ads, the answer surely is no.”

An hour and a half after the Speaker’s parade had summoned the tradition and the generational responsibility that binds this place together, here was something timeless. Here were the timeless qualities that have filled the air between these walls for decades and will, with any luck, for centuries to come: outrage, scorn, contradiction, belief and principle.