When famed travel writer Jan Morris visited Ottawa in 1986, she was struck with immediate impressions of its rugged grandeur, just as most first-time tourists come to see it. From one vantage point she looked out over the Parliament buildings and was filled with awe. "Half a continent looks towards Ottawa ... upon those very buildings on the hill above me."
Morris wrote that, in the midst of the majesty, she viewed Ottawa, "less a city than an abstraction." It's presumed that she meant the capital's great structures housed some kind of impressive spirit and saw them as reflective of Canada's people.
One wonders how many Canadians are left who actually view Ottawa that way, given what erupted in the House of Parliament this week. The sight of a prime minister walking down the centre aisle to compel the Opposition whip to take his proper place, in the process bumping into a female NDP MP, and the melee that resulted came out of the blue to the casual observer. For the seasoned veterans watching the debates and procedural wrangling, however, there was the sense that something was about to explode -- such were the tempers flaring over long and exhausting hours.
I sat in that hallowed House for almost five years and witnessed the kind of antics that you really never wanted to tell your constituents about because it was so, well, embarrassing. I watched various members bolt across the aisle to take someone to task and understood that such eruptions didn't just come out of thin air, but followed days, weeks, even months of partisan rhetoric pushing and pulling the emotions of the members repeatedly to a kind of breaking point. But not once did the prime minister, or any prime minister, take the kind of action Justin Trudeau opted for this week.
Much is being stated about what actually happened, with pundits and partisans labelling it violence against women to something of a mild dust-up, and everything in between. Some things are clear. As the leading elected official, the prime minister erred significantly in his actions, and his subsequent apologies contain a hint of his awareness of how Parliament was belittled through his action. And when NDP members sought to keep the Opposition Whip from proceeding down the aisle with his government counterpart, they too played their own erring part in the twisted plot. So many mistakes were made during that brief melee that the interpretation of the events will be going on for weeks.
Of course people will forget what happened this week, but the sense of idealism that many still retained now carries a sense of innocence lost.
The fallout will linger, but eventually the House will get back to normal -- rancour, resentment, willful obstruction, hyper-partisan language, with a dose of respect, deference, and humour thrown in. This was not the "new normal" Canadians thought they were voting for in October's election and the events of this week, though likely to fall away from Trudeau in the coming months, have nevertheless left a kind of collective shock on the public consciousness and left Parliament tainted with doubt. For Canadians this wasn't about "sunny ways," but a more collaborative governing style that caused them to vote as they did. This week they were confronted with the reality that it might not be transpiring.
Putting aside the political fallout that will inevitably emerge from all the shenanigans, who has truly been hurt by what took place?
For the new Speaker of the House, Geoff Regan, it was a low-water mark so early into a new Parliamentary season. I know him well from our many conversations in Ottawa in previous times and he will take this hard. He was a respected Liberal MP for years, and when elected to his new post by his peers there was the hope that he could use his earned capital to bring the parties to the bargaining table. Trudeau's action, the obstruction of Thomas Mulcair and his cronies, the Conservative members fanning the flames, might not so much have put an end to Regan's hopes but revealed they were never possible in the first place. All offending parties owe the Speaker not only an apology, but a commitment to hearken to his seasoned counsel.
Inevitably the hope of millions of Canadians that a new era of innovation, accountability, even a begrudging respectfulness would instill the House with a sense of purpose has taken a body blow. Of course people will forget what happened this week, but the sense of idealism that many still retained now carries a sense of innocence lost. Their hopes now seem simply naïve as opposed to transcendent.
Jan Morris's sense that this embattled city is somehow an abstraction of the best of the Canadian people now seems a pipe dream. A city of distraction is more like it and only a collective mea culpa in the House can perhaps pull it back from the edge of the deeply partisan dysfunction from which we hoped we had escaped.
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