Senators and Members - House of Commons The Speaker - House of Commons Canada / Le Président - Chambre des Communes Canada
The Honorable Peter Milliken, M.P.
About The Speaker
Speaker's Rulings
Deputy Speakers
Photo Gallery
Interesting Links
Contact Us

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 common…

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.

Top of Page

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:

  • A blatherskite…

  • Pompous ass…

  • Trained seal…

  • 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 why:

  • Stinker

  • Phoney

  • Hypocrites

  • Unscrupulous

  • The pig has nothing left but a squeak…

  • A momentary mental relapse…

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. … The 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 House… Nevertheless, because of the seriousness of your action the House has chosen to agree to the motion directing me to reprimand you. … 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."

Top of Page

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 MACE. EVER.

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 in office.

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 quicksand…

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 en français."

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 abandon …

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.

Top of Page