The Role of the Speaker of the House of Commons
University Club of Toronto - October 25, 2001.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Mesdames et messieurs, bonsoir! It gives
me great pleasure to be with you tonight, and I thank you for asking
me to speak on this special occasion.
Having thus dazzled you with my enviable language skills, I will
now proceed to enlighten you (for such is the purpose, is it not,
of these solemn gatherings?) about my role as Speaker of the House
of Commons, and offer you a backstage glimpse of the workings of
democracy. Let me say before I begin that I relish the opportunity
to speak to you on this, or indeed, any topic, since, ironically,
Speakers are rarely afforded the opportunity to speak. The title
of Speaker derives from my duty to speak outside the Chamber on
behalf of all members, not from the role inside the Chamber. Add
to that my well-known reticence, and you can readily appreciate
my delight at being encouraged to break my usual silence.
Let us begin with a thumbnail sketch of my role as Speaker of the
House of Commons. I was elected by the whole House and must carry
out my responsibilities in a non-partisan manner and with strict
impartiality. As the chief presiding officer, I must maintain order
in the Chamber and am responsible for procedural activities. I am
also the Chairman of the Board of Internal Economy, which is responsible
for the administration of the 1,500 House of Commons employees and
its $200 million annual budget. Moreover, as Speaker, I am the representative
of the House of Commons in its relations with the Crown, the Senate,
and authorities outside Parliament. In this capacity, I welcome
many visiting dignitaries and delegations and represent the House
at national events and during visits abroad. In addition, I continue
to carry out my responsibilities as Member of Parliament for the
federal riding of Kingston and the Islands, in Ontario.
I thought that I would focus my attention (and I trust, yours)
on the part of my job that is most like yours. Procedure and protocol
are, after all, fairly arcane topics, but the presiding officer
component to the office of Speaker, is a matter of keeping order
within the organisation, and that is something I know we have in
Order and decorum are essential to the smooth flow of parliamentary
proceedings. There are 301 men and women on the floor of the Chamber
of the House of Commons (not including the procedural advisors and
the pages of the House) and it is a large, large room. The Members
of Parliament are a varied group, from all walks of life, and adhering
to a variety of political views. They come to Parliament with the
desire to bring improvement to the lives of their constituents,
and sometimes encounter frustration and disappointment when they
find they cannot achieve all their goals. That is when tempers flare,
and that is where I come in.
It is said that when the new House of Commons Chamber was built,
the aisle separating the Government from the Opposition was measured
at two and a half sword lengths, in order to prevent any lethal
exchanges. While there were, thankfully, no such encounters, there
has been much verbal parrying and thrusting, necessitating the intervention
of Speakers through the years.
In the 1870s, it was often suggested that the problem of order
and decorum in the House of Commons might have been rooted in the
fact that there was a saloon just beneath the Chamber, where Members
could repair for some "refreshment" to fortify themselves
during the lengthy evening debates. I hasten to add that no such
establishment exists there today, and I am happy to say that the
debates have mellowed since those more intemperate times.
Un-parliamentary language is one of the things for which a Speaker
must be on guard. Since the beginning of Confederation, a list has
been drawn up of words, expressions and sentences that are not to
be used by Members in the House. To employ them is to incur the
wrath of the presiding officer of the day, and the penalties can
be swift and harsh, varying from the stinging "I ask the honourable
member to withdraw that remark", to the brutal "I'm going
to have to name the Member", to the lethal blow: "Mr.
Jones, I have to name you for disregarding the authority of the
Chair." Now, as a humane, civilized man, it is not a task I
relish, but there must be discipline in the Chamber, and I will
take whatever measures, no matter how repressive they may seem,
to quell unrest.
For no other purpose than edification, and with no prurient motive,
I will now list some of the language deemed un-parliamentary since
1876. I caution the more sensitive members in the audience that
they may find the following expressions offensive, and I apologize
in advance for sullying their ears. In the history of the House
of Commons, members have actually called each other:
Honourable only by courtesy
Coming into the world by accident
Inspired by forty-rod whiskey
The political sewer from Carleton county
A parliamentary pugilist and political bully
Scarcely entitled to be called a gentleman
Conversely, the following expressions coined by Members in the
Chamber have been deemed parliamentary, and you will readily see
Obviously, a very different breed of language than the obscenities
I uttered a few moments ago. Although the distinction between what
is acceptable and what is not is made crystal clear by the examples
I have given, I dare hope that all members here are beginning to
understand the delicacy of my position, and the semantic tightrope
I walk every day, as I attempt to steer through the shoals of verbal
sparring in the House
One recent exchange you may actually remember took place in 1997
between then-Reform member Darrel Stinson and John Cannis. The debate
was on Bill C-53, amending the Prisons and Reformatories Act:
Stinson: "Now, I hear the word 'racist' from that side. Do
you have the fortitude or the gonads to stand up and come across
here to say that to me, you son of a bitch? Come on...."
At this point Stinson walks across the floor and is restrained from
getting closer than a few feet from MP John Cannis.
Stinson: "...I will not have some s.o.b. sit there and call
me a racist...."
Beyond un-parliamentary language, some Members, regrettably, have
resorted to using props to get their point across. This is most
definitely not allowed. In the late 1800's, Members regularly engaged
in the throwing of paper, books, and even firecrackers, and combined
this with meowing, whistling, and making music
It was a more
raucous assembly than today, but there was a more recent incident
in the House, in 1985 to be exact, when a member asking a question
about the BC fishing industry placed a dead fish on the Prime Minister's
desk - when questioned about the matter later, the Member said he
did it just for the halibut.
Sometimes, Members become carried away with the violence of their
feelings, and forget themselves in the process. One MP, incensed
at a ruling by the Deputy Speaker, attempted to grab the Mace from
the Sergeant-at-Arms as he was leaving the Chamber. The most terrible
of chastisements then followed; the Member was called to the bar
of the House and the Speaker addressed him thus:
"You stand at the bar of the House because your
peers have decided that the conduct you displayed in the House offended
the privileges of the House of Commons of Canada.
) you left your seat in breach of our conventions, interfered
with the Sergeant-at-Arms, an officer of the House, and you physically
attempted to prevent the Mace from leaving the Chamber.
Mace is the symbol that embodies not only the authority of the House
but its privileges as well
In your statement to the House
earlier you expressed your personal regret and apologized to the
Nevertheless, because of the seriousness of your action
the House has chosen to agree to the motion directing me to reprimand
That you disregarded the rules and practices of this
place and the authority of the Speaker is a matter of grave concern
to this House and to all who cherish and respect this institution.
As Speaker of the House, and upon its instructions, I therefore
reprimand you as guilty of a breach of privilege and of a gross
contempt of the House."
It was first and only time I have ever seen a Speaker resort to
such drastic measures, but clearly, such a blatant demonstration
of mace abuse could not be condoned. The previous anecdote should
be warning enough to those who would be foolhardy enough to attempt
such a disrespectful action. For those of you contemplating admittance
to the ranks of the elected, let me warn you now: DO NOT TOUCH THE
Speaking of ranks of the elected, I thought I might touch upon
the careers of two Canadian politicians, remarkable only for the
brevity in one case, and longevity, in the other of their terms
Douglas Cunnington, once an insurance agent, decided to run (as
a conservative) in the federal by-election called when R.B. Bennett
resigned his Calgary seat. After the Liberal candidate withdrew,
he won by acclamation. Selling his car and packing up his household,
Cunnington went to Ottawa to take up his new duties. He was introduced
to the Parliament on the morning of January 25, 1940: over the lunch
break Prime Minister Mackenzie King dissolved the House and called
an election. Cunnington returned home and gamely fought the election,
but lost to Liberal Manley Edwards. A potentially stellar career
nipped in the bud.
On the other hand, you have Silent Bob McGregor, horticulturalist
and Tory, though not necessarily in that order. First elected in
1926, he was re-elected 8 times, for a total of 36 years. In all
that time, he was renowned for rarely speaking in the House, and
on his birthday in 1960, the Right Honourable John Diefenbaker,
Prime Minister, felt moved to commemorate the occasion:
"If the house will allow me, and I am sure it will - the Hon.
Member for York East (Mr. McGregor) has a birthday today and I should
like, on behalf of all hon. Members I am sure to extend to him the
warmest congratulations. He is the dean of the House, having been
here uninterruptedly for 34 years."
Mr. Hazen Argue, member for Assiniboia, chimed in:
"I should like to add our congratulations to this honourable
gentleman. He does not often delay the proceedings of this House,
but his observations are always very much to the point. We have
certainly had an enjoyable association with him for many years."
Then, to everyone's astonishment, Mr. McGregor stood, and said:
"Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the Prime Minister for bringing
this to the attention of the House. I just want to say this. If
a good many hon. Members made fewer speeches in the House, they
would be here longer."
He little knew how prophetic his words were. In the next election,
he lost his seat.
Bilingualism, too, can be an issue. You will have noted in my opening
remarks that I have a passable command of French. This has proven
extremely useful in the House, as there have been exchanges between
Members that, although apparently harmless, have in fact been linguistic
In 1990, Bernard Valcourt, then Minister of Fisheries, was being
questioned by George Baker on the damage caused by seals depleting
the fish stocks. I should mention at this point that the French
word for seal is P-H-O-Q-U-E, Phoque. As the debated heated up,
Mr. Baker employed the word repeatedly, for emphasis: the English
translation seems benign enough: "Does the minister realize
we have seals here, there and everywhere?" In the original
language, the phrase was a little more startling:
"Est-ce que le ministre sait que nous avons des phoques par-ci,
des phoques par-là, les phoques partout! "
Minister Valcourt was moved to remonstrate, stating, in English
: " The member seems to have discovered this new word in French,
Mr. Speaker, but I want to warn him - you had to warn him about
a word he used previously - that his word is only parliamentary
I would not want to leave you with the impression that Members
of opposing parties are continually at daggers drawn. Nothing could
be further from the truth. I think an outside visitor would be most
astounded by the camaraderie that exists between Members of all
political stripes. A great many members represent far-flung constituencies;
many leave their families behind, to spare them school and job disruption,
and their hectic schedules permit them little free time to socialize.
The House of Commons is an adversarial environment, to be sure,
and Question Period is an ideal forum for heated exchanges that
can become that evening's sound bite. But MPs work together in committees,
they travel together in parliamentary delegations, they may even
room together while in Ottawa, and the friendships that spring from
their close proximity and commonality of purpose are very important.
I try to foster and promote these friendships by holding an MPs'
dinner every two weeks. There I gather twenty or so Members from
different parties, and different regions of the country, and we
spend the evening together in a convivial atmosphere, where stories,
bon mots, and multigrain buns are flung across the table with equal
Over this House, then, I have the privilege of presiding. Although
I have had the pleasure of sitting in the Chamber since 1988, when
I was first elected as the Member for Kingston and the Islands,
there is no doubt that the Speaker's Chair is a very special vantage
point. In fact, it's the best seat in the House.
It now falls upon me to make the toast to the University Club of
Toronto, a duty I am happy to discharge. I have been a member of
this club since 1987, and have much enjoyed the "congenial
association" it offers. Its beautiful architecture, fine artwork
and comfortable surroundings are matched only by its distinguished
membership, and I know that my fellow members share my gratitude
and admiration for those who came before us, and created such a
haven from the storms without. I therefore ask you to raise your
glasses, and join me in a toast to the University Club of Toronto.