It was a strong week for Canada on the global stage, but a shocking display of insults and ignorance were not our finest hour in Parliament.
Member of Parliament Iqra Khalid is congratulated by colleagues as she makes an announcement about an anti-Islamophobia motion on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday. (PATRICK DOYLE / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
It should have been a good week for Canada. The Prime Minister cleanly and professionally zipped in and out of Washington, aided by an earlier assist from former prime minister Mulroney. The PM later left for Europe to “seal the deal” on CETA, the trade arrangement with the European Union, which had been initiated by the Harper administration. Momentarily, it appeared partisan politics had been set aside.
But somehow that message failed to reach the House of Commons. Instead, two very disquieting incidents took place with accompanying images of intolerance, nastiness and extreme partisan behaviour.
Why is this happening now? Are we too infected by Trump-era politics? Are the stresses of the Conservative leadership race taking a toll on parliamentary culture? Or are we all simply staggering under the enormous weight of overwhelming churn, causing reactions of fear and anxiety?
The pace of churn is worth considering. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thomas Friedman argues, “we are living through one of the greatest inflection points in history.” Using the simultaneous acceleration of three themes, technology, globalization and climate change, he asks if we are “going just too damned fast.”
His new book, Thank You for Being Late, demonstrates how a chance meeting with an Ethiopian parking lot attendant caused Friedman to take a pause and to reflect. He brilliantly demonstrates that, in this day and age, we must learn from each other, no matter our backgrounds or biases.
Sohi, the Minister of Infrastructure, is a former political prisoner who was arrested, detained and tortured in the Indian state of Bihar. According to a 2015 Edmonton Journal report, Sohi was beaten and held without trial for nearly two years, most of it in solitary confinement.
Born in Punjab, he moved to Edmonton when he was 17. He returned to India in 1988 for studies but was arrested when he became embroiled in a battle for land reform on behalf of impoverished farmers.
His Canadian family contacted their local MP, David Kilgour, who was then a Conservative MP. Both the Mulroney government and Amnesty International espoused Sohi’s cause. After 21 long months in custody, 18 of them in solitary confinement, he was released.
Sohi returned to Edmonton and at one point worked as a bus driver. After serving two terms as a respected municipal councillor, he was elected as the Liberal MP for the riding of Edmonton Mill Woods and was immediately appointed to cabinet. When he speaks in the House, he is normally respected. Until last Tuesday.
He began his remarks by noting that as a former bus driver, he wished to express his deep sympathy for the recent fatal attack on Irvine Fraser, a Winnipeg bus driver. Immediately, loud laughter could be heard coming from the Opposition benches.
What were those members thinking? Demonstrating what appeared to be an elitist response, those who guffawed, demeaned the risks that public transit employees take whenever passengers enter their vehicles. The members also seemed to forget it was a Conservative government that had arranged for Sohi’s return to Canada in the first place. It appeared to be a personal and political insult.
The atmosphere worsened on Wednesday as Iqra Khalid, an MP from Mississauga-Erin Mills put forward her private member’s motion to condemn Islamophobia. A similar motion had unanimously passed in 2016, but surprisingly a heated debate erupted about the text. Words that seemed harmless yesterday were considered to be harmful today.
While the Conservatives introduced a competing motion, the government refused to change a word. Meanwhile, four of the Conservative leadership candidates showed up on Wednesday evening at a meeting at the Canada Christian College, hosted by a right wing pundit who delights in controversial speech.
By Thursday, the beleaguered MP had received over 50,000 emails, many of them unbelievably vicious, cruel and hateful. She read some of the threats out to a sobered House of Commons.
It was a strong week for Canada on the global stage, but it was not our finest hour in Parliament. These incidents do not auger well for the weeks ahead as the Conservatives struggle to find the soul of their party before the May convention. The heritage and the future of their party are at stake, both for themselves and for Canada.
Meanwhile, the rest of us must turn away from the disrupting Trump laser beam of prejudice and intolerance. We cannot ignore its light but we don’t have to be blinded by rage and hate. Canada is built on tolerance and respect for diversity. Let’s pray for dignity as well.
Penny Collenette is an adjunct professor of law at the University of Ottawa and was a senior director of the Prime Minister’s Office for Jean Chrétien.