Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Threats of Violence in the Canadian Parliament

During Question Period today, Conservative Trade Minister Ed Fast made a gesture in the direction of New Democrat MP Niki Ashton. You can see more on the story here. The video of the CBC story, including the House of Commons video, is embedded below. Shortly afterwards, another New Democrat MP, Dan Harris, raised a point of privilege calling on Minister Fast to apologize for having made a gun-pointing gesture at Ashton while shouting "boom."

Let me begin with full disclosure. Niki Ashton is my friend. I worked on her campaign for the federal NDP leadership in 2012. If you watch the video of her convention speech, I'm the guy in the blue shirt who hugs her as she comes off the stage. I am not unbiased about this story.

My son and I with New Democrat MP Niki Ashton
That said, it isn't particularly clear from the House of Commons video what gesture Minister Fast was actually making. He may simply have been pointing at Ashton. She didn't see the gesture herself because she and Fast are at opposite ends of the House. Harris sits directly across from Fast and seems pretty certain about what he saw and heard, however Fast vociferously denies Harris's description of his gesture or that he made any accompanying sound.

Female MPs, particularly young female MPs, have to put up with a lot of crap that male MPs simply don't have to deal with. Female MPs of all parties have been subjected to overtly sexist criticisms, from Liberal Chrystia Freeland's relatively high-pitched voice (women's voices are pitched higher - get over it) to accusations that Conservative MP Michelle Rempel's Twitter profile picture was overtly sexual (it wasn't). Sexism is alive and well on Parliament Hill. But implied violence during Question Period would be a new low, even for so sexist and patriarchal an institution as Parliament.

Even is one chooses to give Fast the benefit of the doubt (and the evidence isn't there to do more), the situation in the Commons proceeded to deteriorated further. 

First came Fast's response to Harris's accusation. If, in fact, his gesture was not intended to be a pointing gun (and for our purposes here we are giving him the benefit of the doubt), I can understand a vigorous denial. But Fast went beyond that, accusing Harris of making it up. Well, the video is pretty clear that there was a pointing gesture. It is possible that Harris misinterpreted the gesture, but he clearly didn't make it up.

But Fast's response to the Speaker was only the prologue. Next was the spectacle of Conservative backbencher Ron Cannan approaching Harris from the back of the Opposition side of the House. Reporters say he was shouting, and witnesses closer to the altercation say say Cannon expressly threatened violence against Harris. He was eventually restrained by two NDP MPs (House Leader Peter Julian and Northern Ontario MP Glenn Thibeault) and escorted back to his side of the House. Then Fast approached Harris from across the House (at least he didn't sneak around the back of the Chamber like Cannan), apparently also in an aggressive manner.

The initial gesture (if Harris's interpretation is correct) is highly disturbing. But regardless of what gesture Fast made, the behaviour of two Conservative MPs after the fact - one of whom had nothing to do with the issue - was simply outrageous. It is, however, in keeping with recent aggressive actions such as Justice Minister Peter MacKay throwing files on the floor of the House, or appointed Conservative Senators launching vicious personal attacks on elected Members of Parliament.

Considered in conjunction with the recent Conservative attempts at voter suppression through amendments to the Elections Act that have been opposed even by their own conservative elder statesman Preston Manning, it is clear that the Conservative government fears for its future when next it faces Canadian voters. It is not uncommon for governments in decline to respond in ways that are crude, immature and even violent - though fortunately we have been spared the latter in Canada to this point.

But if Conservative MPs are going to continue trying to cow their critics both inside and outside the Commons with both character assassination and physical intimidation, one is moved to wonder what comes next.

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