OTTAWA - The right for MPs to say and discuss almost anything they want is one of the central privileges of Parliament, but a couple of divisive debates over the past week tested the thresholds of dialogue in the House of Commons.

In one case, two spokespeople from the Canadian Immigration Forum were barred from speaking at the Commons immigration committee Wednesday because content on their website was deemed offensive — including an interview with Canadian white supremacist Paul Fromm.

In the other, the NDP criticized Prime Minister Stephen Harper for allowing Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth to put forward Motion 312, a controversial proposal that sought to re-examine how Canadian law defines a human being.

The issue of restricting debate on abortion has come up before in other areas — on Canadian campuses, for example. The pro-choice Canadian Civil Liberties Association has spoken out against barring pro-life advertising and activities at universities as a violation of free speech.

Liberal MP John McKay, visibly agitated Friday as he left another contentious question period, said the atmosphere after the vote on the motion earlier in the week was that of a funeral. McKay was one of four Liberals who voted in favour of the motion, which went down to defeat by a margin of 203-91.

"It kind of chills you; you don’t really want to get into it and then you layer that over with the conflicts among colleagues, people with who you normally work," said McKay.

"The parallel that I would draw is to the capital punishment debate. At least there, the parliamentarians had the guts to deal with the issue and I think wisely dealt with the issue, but not us. We walked."

Madi Lussier, one of the two witnesses from the Canadian Immigration Forum not permitted to speak to the Commons committee, wiped away tears as she expressed her frustrations. The group's website is mostly an aggregator of articles on different issues touching on immigration, but divided into provocative sections with names such as "Chinafication" and "Arabization."

She has advocated a moratorium on immigration for 50 years, and warned that "European" values might be at risk of disappearing in Canada.

NDP MP Jinny Sims was the first to argue against the group appearing. She said there are certain lines that cannot be crossed when allowing groups to testify at committee hearings.

"Well, I think (the website) definitely reflects the views of a white supremacist," Sims said.

"We live in a diverse country, and a very inclusive country, and for a parliamentary committee to give due deference to both perspectives at an immigration committee, I think would not do this Parliament very proud."

Conservative MP Rick Dykstra, parliamentary secretary to the immigration minister, said that once the opposition began lumping his party in with the views of the witnesses, it became impossible to have a rational discussion about their testimony.

"Once you stir the dust up to the point you can't see anymore, you've got to clear the room, and I think it was the right decision to make," said Dykstra.

But Arthur Schafer, director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba, says it's disappointing that the committee did not allow the Canadian Immigration Forum to appear.

"Every point of view — however ugly and obnoxious most Canadians might find it — should be allowed to be aired in hearings before our parliamentarians," said Schafer.

"I think it's important, for example, that they understand the passionate racism that exists in some quarters in Canada and understand the reasons and justifications that such people give."

Schafer sees the abortion debate in a different light — not as a free speech issue, but as a political one. Those who feel they shouldn't speak out — or feel the wrath when they do, such as Status of Women Minister Rona Ambrose — are simply experiencing the pressures of electoral politics.

David Eby of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association said he agrees.

"The motion was actually made, it was debated, and it raised the issue and duly elected parliamentarians voted against re-opening the issue," said Eby.

"It's not like it never showed up or was banned from being discussed by elected officials."

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  • Where The Parties Stand On Abortion

    Here's a look at the official position of Canada's federal parties, and how the controversial debate has reared its head in recent years. <em>With files from CBC</em>

  • Conservative Party

    Prime Minister Stephen Harper has repeatedly said that he has no interest in addressing the issue head-on.<br><br>"As long as I am prime minister we are not opening the abortion debate," Mr. Harper said in April 2011. "The government will not bring forward any such legislation, and any such legislation that is brought forward will be defeated as long as I am prime minister." (CP)

  • NDP

    NDP leader Tom Mulcair has stated that his caucus is unanimous in its opposition to the private member's motion calling on Parliament to look at whether a fetus is a human being, but he plans to force his MPs to vote along party lines.<br><br>"We're resolutely in favour of women's right to choose," Mulcair declared. (CP)

  • Liberal Party

    Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae has stressed that the abortion issue is matter of individual conscience. Rae expressed his personal opposition to reopening the debate, but said Liberal MPs will be allowed to vote "their conscience" rather than force them to toe the party line.<br><br>"Our position on reproductive choice, my position on reproductive choice is very, very clear. It has been for decades. The position is it's a person's right to choose." (CP)

  • Planned Parenthood Funding Controversy

    Saskatoon-Humboldt MP Brad Trost tells Saskatchewan's ProLife Association in April 2011 that the federal government has decided to cut funding to the International Planned Parenthood Federation, a decision he says was influenced by anti-abortion supporters.<br><br>"I cannot tell you specifically how we used it, but those petitions were very, very useful and they were part of what we used to defund Planned Parenthood because it has been an absolute disgrace that that organization and several others like it have been receiving one penny of Canadian taxpayers' dollars," Trost said.<br><br>Maurice Vellacott, a Conservative MP from Saskatoon-Wanuskewin, also calls for Planned Parenthood to be defunded.<br><br>Vellacott says the controversy over the funding "exposed the lies and destructiveness of IPPF's agenda."<br><br>"It exposes what this abortion giant is surreptitiously trying to achieve worldwide."<br><br>International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda approves funding. (CP)

  • 'Coerced' Abortion Law

    Conservative Winnipeg MP Rod Bruinooge proposes "Roxanne's Law" in 2010, a bill that would penalize anyone who "coerced" a woman into ending her pregnancy against her will.<br><br>"It's not just as simple as feeling pressured to get an abortion; there is a lot of discussion of sex-selection abortion these days, as well," Bruinooge told the Winnipeg Free Press. "It's part of the overall topic of intimidation that goes towards a pregnant woman."<br><br>Bruinooge insisted the bill wasn't meant to force Parliament to wade into the debate banned by Harper, stating that nothing in his bill made it illegal to abort a fetus.<br><br>But the Liberals and New Democrats saw it as a backdoor entry into the touchy topic.<br><br>"How is an abortion bill not an abortion bill?" said then-Liberal MP Anita Neville. "This certainly introduces discussion into the House of Commons and it is a rather sneaky way of doing it."<br><br>Then-NDP leader Jack Layton echoed her concerns. "You have got to wonder what is really going on here."<br><br>The bill was defeated in December of 2010, with 178 votes for and 97 against it. Harper and many Conservatives voted against it and 10 Liberals supported it. The NDP was unanimously against it. (Handout)

  • Maternal Health

    International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda discloses for the first time in April 2011 that Canada will not fund abortions in its G8 child and maternal health-care initiative for developing countries.<br><br>Keith Martin, then-Liberal MP who had defected from the Tories years earlier, expressed outrage. "People here are perplexed and wondering why Canada is rolling back the clock and depriving women in developing countries from having the same rights to basic health care and access to abortion as women in Canada," he said.<br><br>Then-NDP leader Jack Layton accused the Tories of putting Canada on side with former U.S. president George Bush, who reduced support for abortion-related aid.<br><br>"It's picking up the banner that George Bush used to carry, and I think that that's not something that would be supported by the majority of Canadians, that's for sure," Layton said.<br><br>On June 25, Canada pledged $1.1 billion to a global initiative on maternal and child health for developing countries - a disproportionately high amount compared to other G8 countries. Canada did not allow for its share to be used in the funding of abortions. (CP)