Government Canada Style – You don’t say by Ray Hudson, Vol. 84

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Ray Hudson
Ray Hudson
Ray Hudson

While the Americans are involved in what appears to be a piranha-like feeding frenzy in their political process, I have been thinking that we Canucks are truly much more reserved than our American friends.

I thought this might be a good time to acquaint, reacquaint or introduce some lesser known aspects of our Parliament with some of the terms and activities of the ‘House on the Hill’ in Ottawa.

Our parliamentary system is based on the British style of government with two chambers, the House of Commons, the place where the elected ‘commoners’ do most of the legislative work, and the House of Lords, comprising the nobles of the realm, in a chamber of sober second thought. In Canada the system has an elected House of Commons and an appointed (by the Prime Minister of the day) Senate.

There are 338 Members of Parliament (MPs) as of the last election, and 105 Senators. Although the Prime Minister is the head of the government, Queen Elizabeth II is the Head of State of Canada, represented by the Governor General.

The House of Commons, referred to as ‘the House’ is presided over by the Speaker, an elected MP who is elected by the members to be their referee. Rulings by the Speaker need to be enforced, and that’s the role of the Sergeant-At-Arms, who symbolically enforces the rules with a big club called the mace. He is also responsible for parliamentary building services and the security of the House.

Every day the House is in session, the Sergeant-At-Arms leads the members into the House of Commons, where he places the mace on a table in the middle of the House.
The Sergeant-At-Arms, little known outside of the House, came to major prominence as the previous Sergeant-at-arms, Kevin Vickers, played a key role in personally taking up fire arms to protect the House, with other police, during the 2014 attack on parliament.

In the Senate there is the Usher of the Black Rod whose duties include the maintenance of order and security within the Senate. The position is analogous to that of Sergeant-at-Arms, but is more ceremonial in nature. The Usher of the Black Rod carries a ceremonial black ebony staff (black rod), instead of a mace, from which the term “black rod” arises.

Hear Hear! This is the parliamentary cheer/chant that often accompanies applause and desk-thumping in the House after a member has made some auspicious statement. The expression, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is a repeated form of “hear him” designed to get the Speaker to pay attention to the member. Whip: This is the party member, in the House, charged with keeping party members informed about House business and ensuring party discipline on attendance and votes in the House. According to Wikipedia, “the title comes from a hunting term “whipping in” i.e. preventing hounds from wandering away from the pack.”

I’ll finish with reference to unparliamentary language. The Speakers of the House and Senate are the arbiters (referees) in determining what language is, and is not, allowed lest it “offend the dignity” of parliament. Interestingly, in this arena truth is not a defense. There are 106 words and phrases prohibited going back to 1875, covering personal insults to accusing a member of being dishonest. You can’t call your “Honourable Colleague” a liar, even if he/she is. Neither can you call the member a ‘coward’, ‘guttersnipe’, ‘hooligan’, ‘liar’, ‘traitor’ ‘git’ and if you search “unparliamentary language” online, you’ll find an entertaining list of prohibited words and phrases.

There is one famous outburst that seemed to escape the Speaker’s prohibition, uttered by the father of our current Prime Minister. He explained he had not uttered an indecent epithet to another Honourable Member using two very colourful words. Indeed, Pierre Trudeau claimed with wide-eyed innocence that he’d only said “fuddle duddle.” That’s were we’ll leave it for this week.