05/10/2013 08:13 EDT | Updated 07/10/2013 05:12 EDT

Assault charge leaves Nova Scotia leaders questioning legislature decorum

HALIFAX - Less than a day after a Nova Scotia cabinet minister was charged with assaulting another member of the legislature, Premier Darrell Dexter suggested it's not unusual for tensions to rise in the house before an election.

"I would not characterize this session as being any different than past sessions that I have seen in similar points in the cycle," the NDP premier said Friday outside the legislature.

But opposition politicians said the case, involving an alleged scuffle between two 65-year-old men inside a washroom near the legislative chamber, was an embarrassing example of how a lack of decorum in the house has hit a new low.

"I'm very embarrassed as an MLA and I'm sure that all Nova Scotians are embarrassed, too," said Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie.

"This place should have a certain level of dignity. ... The events of (Thursday) just reinforce all that's wrong about the negative mudslinging that inevitably leads to something like what happened."

Liberal Keith Colwell alleges he was assaulted by Percy Paris, who resigned as minister of economic and rural development late Thursday after Halifax police charged him with assault and uttering threats.

Paris is to appear in Halifax provincial court June 18 and none of the charges against him have been proven in court.

The NDP caucus office said Paris was not available for comment Friday on the advice of his lawyer.

On Friday, the legislature referred what happened to its internal affairs committee at Colwell's request.

"This improper behaviour by the minister was quite clearly an execution of a threat and intimidation, an attempt to prevent me from performing my function as a legislator, elected representative for my constituents and member of this assembly," he told the house.

Colwell, a member since 1993, said he pursued the case in the house because everyone has a right to feel safe at work.

Paris, who describes himself as the only member of African descent, said Thursday that debate in the house concerning the province's black community had irritated him.

"There were a lot of things that were said (Thursday) that don't set well with me," Paris said before he was charged. He has represented the Halifax-area riding of Waverley-Fall River-Beaverbank since 2006.

Colwell, who represents Preston, a Halifax-area riding with a large number of black constituents, had raised questions in the house Thursday about a mobile mammography unit, accusing the government of failing to send it to his riding.

He asked the premier to apologize to the people of Preston, saying it was "a black community that's not going to get the service this year because it was left off the government's website."

Later, Paris said he had a "heated exchange" with Colwell while the two were near the doorway of a washroom for members of the legislature.

"Things reached a point where I lost my composure for a few brief seconds," Paris said, declining to describe what happened.

In January 2007, Paris said in a speech he was the victim of subtle racism in the legislature.

"Being referred to as `Boss' by other MLAs that are not my caucus colleagues, being invisible to some of the members of the house has been somewhat troublesome to me," he said at the time.

He also said that the level of heckling he encountered during debates seemed to grow in volume when he rose to speak.

The Speaker of the legislature later said he could find no evidence of any form of racism.

Dexter said the internal affairs committee last met 40 years ago after a member of the legislature hit another member with his fists.

In February 1973, a legislative journal says Mike Laffin got up from his seat, walked over to Paul McEwan and struck him several times.

Laffin was removed from the chamber and the matter was sent to a committee that dealt with the rules and privileges of the house. It suspended Laffin from the house for two weeks and ordered him to apologize.

Dexter said Paris would remain in the NDP caucus, dismissing comparisons to former Conservative cabinet minister Ernie Fage, who was suspended in February 2007 after he was charged with leaving the scene of an accident. Fage was later kicked out of caucus after he was convicted and fined $920.

"It's a different matter," Dexter said. "We're not underplaying the seriousness of it, but we're not going to over-exaggerate it either."

The premier said the growing animosity in the house was the result of opposition leaders failing to keep hot-headed members in line.

"They've just shoved them off to the side and haven't really dealt with them," Dexter said.

That comment infuriated Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil, who accused the premier of trying to score political points at the expense of the democratic process.

"There are absolutely no winners here today," he said. "It underscores why Nova Scotians have little faith in what takes place in this place."

McNeil said the premier was wrong to suggest increasing acrimony was routine in advance of an election, which is expected to be called before the end of the year.

"If you've listened to the debates ... the noise, the back-and-forth has been more intense and higher than in the number of years I've been here," he said. "All of us bear responsibility for that tension."

Still, he said there was no excuse for what happened.

"At no time, should anyone have to feel unsafe in their workplace," he said.