Mauril Bélanger takes Speaker's chair in 'rare moment of grace' for Parliament
Commons Sketch: Veteran Liberal MP, diagnosed with ALS, presided over House of Commons in one-day tribute
After they had helped him into the Speaker's chair, Liberal MPs John McKay and Greg Fergus stepped back and bowed. And when Geoff Regan came later to reclaim the throne, he bowed.
Certain graces are expected to be minded by members, but this seemed particularly graceful.
This afternoon was, as Tom Mulcair had said earlier, "a rare moment of grace in our parliamentary institutions."
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The daily parade to the House of Commons had been a slow one, the ceremonial guard marching at a noticeably deliberate pace as Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger, in black robe and tricorn hat, pushed a walker behind them. A crowd, including the prime minister and members of cabinet, had gathered to applaud him as he went. TV lights lined the left side of the south hallway that leads to the grand front door of the House.
As he walked through those doors, the guards on either side offered him a crisp salute. MPs had assembled inside to cheer him as he then walked onto the floor of the chamber.
Bélanger had been seeking the speakership four months ago when he informed MPs that the mysterious loss of his voice might require him to withdraw his candidacy. A week later, he reported that he had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the incurable disease that progressively robs one of movement and life.
Days later, Geoff Regan would be elected Speaker. But on this day, by unanimous agreement of the House, Regan stood aside long enough that Bélanger might briefly enjoy the trappings and authority.
"I'm hoping that the House of Commons see this as a celebration of his remarkable service to the people of Ottawa–Vanier, but to Parliament as well," Government House leader Dominic LeBlanc had said earlier. "But it will be also, I think, a sad realization about how this unrelenting illness that affects so many people in such a difficult way is affecting somebody that we know and like a lot."
Bélanger's voice is now gone, and so the House would be directed by the computerized voice of his iPad, Bélanger loading up sentences at the appropriate moment. In French and in English, this voice said the prayer that opens each day and then, this being Wednesday, called on a member to lead the House in O Canada. NDP MP Christine Moore, the chosen singer this day, warbled the anthem with the wording — "in all of us command" as opposed to "in all thy sons command" — proposed by a private member's bill tabled by Belanger in January.
The honorary Speaker proceeded to call, one by one, on the 15 members scheduled to deliver one-minute statements this day about a topic of their choosing — a daily ritual known colloquially as "SO31s," for the standing order that sets out the time in the schedule. Bloc Québécois MP Louis Plamondon, dean of the House, used the first statement to salute Bélanger.
An attentive and generous House heard then about the importance of the steel industry in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., and the Flamborough (Ont.) Chamber of Commerce's 2016 Outstanding Business Achievement Awards and the opening of the Audain Art Museum in Whistler, B.C., and the passing of Rolly Fox (Terry's father) and the contribution of the Portuguese community in the Toronto riding of Davenport, all such stuff seeming poignant in the moment.
On the occasion of the Purple Woods Maple Syrup Festival, Conservative MP Erin O'Toole offered to flip the Speaker a pancake himself if he made it out. Bélanger flashed a thumbs up to the offer.
Bélanger then opened question period, calling on the leader of the Opposition, Rona Ambrose, who asked the prime minister about efforts to end the scourge of ALS, and then NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, who asked what the government could do to further Bélanger's promotion of bilingualism. Bélanger graciously did not cut the prime minister's microphone when his response went over the time limit.
"I salute you, as the honourable member for Ottawa–Vanier and as Speaker," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, "for the dignity and grace that you bring to the House every day as you battle this terrible disease."
Through that computerized voice, Bélanger then thanked members for the "great privilege" and was cheered once more as he slowly descended from the throne with the assistance of colleagues and a cane.
"Thank you, colleagues," Regan said upon the resumption of normal business, seeming very much to mean it.
The daily scene of so much conflict is periodically witness to such moments, formal acknowledgments of appreciation and shared humanity: when Jim Flaherty passed away in April 2014 or when the House resumed after the attack of October 2014.
Such stuff can swell the chest and reflect well on the chamber and its participants, something seemingly transcended by the acknowledgment of greater reality. In such moments it is neither trite nor facetious. And, for the most part, no one is impugned.
Which is to say it is easier to be heartened. But which is not to say that one should only ever be proud of Parliament when it is so united.
In Bélanger's absence, question period would be something like its typically yappy, grumbly salute to self-interested oversimplification, punctuated by bursts of howling and clapping.
Even still, important matters of state and society were raised, in some cases with what might be described as real and genuine concern. That much could be said most days, even if the utility and beauty of politics is regularly obscured by its participants.
Ideally it might be easier to cheer such stuff. But that the daily business of debating the present and future of the country, however necessarily unbeautiful, might still be carried out somehow more gracefully.
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