Politics

John McCallum tells a joke, Michelle Rempel doesn't find it funny

The immigration minister answers mockery with a joke, indignation ensues

John McCallum Question Period

Immigration Minister John McCallum answers a question in the House of Commons in Tuesday. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

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Conservative MP Michelle Rempel had mocked his government's seriousness and John McCallum saw an opportunity for a joke at his own expense in reply.

Laughter would ensue. And then, indignation.

Rempel, the Official Opposition's immigration critic, was preceded in question period Tuesday afternoon by a New Democrat, Jenny Kwan, with similar concerns about access to language training for refugees. And so, after McCallum had stated the government's case, Rempel picked up the thread.

"If there's been no cut to the Vancouver community college, why have they been forced to cancel language training services for over 228 immigrants and refugees? That's shameful," Rempel said.

"Yesterday, when the minister stood here and glibly claimed that he had a plan to address language training, was he looking at these cuts, or was he just planning his next photo op?"

McCallum, 66 years old, hair typically mussed, perhaps a slight hint of a smile on his face, stood and turned to look across the aisle at Rempel.

"Mr. Speaker," he said, "if the government wanted to send somebody somewhere for a photo op, I suspect there are people along this aisle they'd probably send before they sent me."

There were guffaws in the House.

Rempel: this is not a laughing matter 2:30

Few are the comments in Parliament that are both intentionally funny and actually deserving of laughter, but possibly this was one of those rare moments. 

McCallum remained standing for a moment as the laughter continued, as if he might have more to say, but after a few seconds he returned to his seat.

The Speaker stood, chuckled and turned the floor over again to Rempel. But the Conservative MP did not appear amused.

"While the people across the aisle here, Mr. Speaker, laugh at something like this, we have refugees in front of committee who are saying that they are isolated," she said, prompting groans.

Seated along the front row of the government side, Stéphane Dion pointed across the aisle to the opposition to suggest Conservatives had chuckled as well.

"And you're laughing right now too," Rempel said, pointing at the Speaker.

"This is not a laughing matter. The fact that the government has not provided language training for refugees is shameful. When are they going to help the Calgary Board of Education, when are they going to help some of these agencies that cannot provide these services? They've spent over a billion dollars and they haven't got the job done, Mr. Speaker."

His respectfulness now called into question, the Speaker apparently thought it necessary to explain his reaction.

"The honourable member for Calgary-Nose Hill knows," he said, "that members on all sides were laughing at the minister's self-deprecating joke."

From her seat, Rempel seemed to suggest that what had occurred was "disgusting." But with the existence and nature of the joke thus clarified for the official and eternal record, the Speaker acknowledged McCallum.

"Yes, we will put to one side the reason why people were laughing," he said. "I think it was perhaps because they thought I was funny."

"It's not funny, John!" shouted Rempel.

"But in answer to your question, we do not consider anything to do with our resources for refugees to be amusing," he said. "I have mentioned just a minute ago that we have committed $600 million to settlement for refugees in 2016-2017 and an additional $37 million for Syrian refugees. And the language training is important and we have committed the funding for that language training to occur."

Rempel and McCallum have some history. Six months ago, McCallum apologized after responding to a question from Rempel with a suggestion that his Conservative opposite try to be "more cheerful." And the two have been going back and forth at regular intervals over the government's handling of Syrian refugees and the immigration file.

The House proceeded with other issues, but this particular discussion continued online. 

Less than three weeks after the prime minister's disputed foray across the aisle and a little more than a month after a Conservative MP claimed to have seen the "Right Honourable Tongue," the House had itself another minor crisis of manners.

"Disgusting," Rempel tweeted.

Tony Clement, Rempel's seatmate, added his concern.

The NDP's Niki Ashton tweeted with the hashtag #notajoke.

Conservative MP Dan Albas explained the limits of humour.

And Rempel further explained her concern.

Amid the heckling, jeering, applauding, over-simplification, self-congratulation, staged reading, indignation and performance, it is possible to forget that the House of Commons is a forum for serious issues of state and society.

And there is surely a serious matter here worthy of serious concern.

But then there might also be something to be said, amid all else, for self-deprecating levity.

Ideally we might have both.

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