Liberal MP Doug Eyolfson says voters were skeptical last year when he claimed a Liberal government would allow its backbenchers greater freedom to vote as they saw fit.

"A lot of people said, 'I'll believe it when I see it,'" he says. "So now I can look people right in the eye and say, 'Believe it.'"

Still, he admits to some "butterflies" before standing alone.

In a little noted act the evening of April 20, Eyolfson stood and voted against Bill C-10, the government's legislation to amend the Air Canada Public Participation Act. He was the only Liberal to vote nay. And, perhaps most importantly, he says he has not been punished for doing so.

The Liberal promise of free votes

The Liberals committed in last year's campaign that votes related to the party platform, matters of confidence and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms would be whipped. All other matters would be considered free votes for Liberal MPs.

Though it was, and still is, unclear at the time how many free votes that might amount to, Bill C-10 has at least provided one early example.

Doug Eyolfson

Liberal MP Doug Eyolfson was the only Liberal to vote nay against Bill C-10, the legislation to amend the Air Canada Public Participation Act. And he hasn't been punished for doing so. (Courtesy Doug Eyolfson)

Air Canada's existing legislation requires it to "maintain operational and overhaul centres in the City of Winnipeg," but Bill C-10 provides only for a more general level of maintenance in the province of Manitoba. The bill is opposed by both Conservatives and New Democrats (further complaints were raised after the Liberals used a motion of time allocation to limit debate on the bill). 

Eyolfson's concerns are local. The Winnipeg maintenance facility that closed four years ago was in Charleswood–St. James–Assiniboia–Headingley. And Eyolfson, a former emergency-room doctor, is concerned that the new legislation only provides for jobs that are less highly skilled and less highly paid.

"The prime minister had made it clear from the first day that as MPs, our first responsibility is to our constituents," Eyolfson says.

Eyolfson says he met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Transport Minister Marc Garneau to discuss his concerns with the legislation and that, after he decided he wanted to vote against the bill, he met with Liberal whip Andrew Leslie to discuss his intention. He says it was relayed to him that the prime minister was fine with his decision.

Then came last Wednesday evening.

"I'll admit I had some butterflies in the couple minutes coming up to actually standing up to vote," he says. "But the second I stood up to do it, I felt I had done the right thing."

Air Canada Aveos

Aveos maintenance workers protest on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday March 27, 2012. At the time, the workers argued that Air Canada was contravening federal law by not maintaining heavy-maintenance operations in Canada. The Liberal government has now changed what maintenance facilities Air Canada is obligated to maintain. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

He says he did not feel pressured to switch his vote. He says his fellow MPs have been supportive. And he says he has not been removed from his committee assignments — he's a member of the House committees on health and veterans affairs — in the wake of his voting nay (party whips have historically used such punishments and rewards to keep MPs in line).

Rare dissent

Expressed dissent in the House of Commons is still relatively rare.

Votes against the party line on private members' initiatives, so-called votes of conscience and opposition motions are not unheard of. Three Liberal MPs — René Arseneault, Larry Bagnell and Nick Whalen — broke with their party in February, for instance, to vote against a Conservative motion to condemn the boycott, divestment and sanction campaign against Israel.

But such splits are vastly outnumbered by the votes that break strictly along party lines. And Eyolfson becomes one of the rare MPs who has broken with his party on a matter of government business.

He is not, though, an enthusiastic maverick. He argues for the utility of party discipline and working within a team, and says differences of opinion are better aired within caucus. He believes he went about his vote respectfully. 

"I don't want to come off like a rebel, or a loose cannon or anything like that," he says. "I wanted to follow all the processes and procedures, certainly be respectful and to be supportive of the government. Because I am supportive of this government. I have no regrets about having become an MP in this government. But it felt good to have made this statement that my constituents came first."

His polite disagreement has not resulted in anything resembling a furor. The opposition parties have not jumped on his example to criticize the bill. The government has not been confronted with his concerns. That might yet come, but for now, the government has been able to move forward with its legislation and a Liberal MP has been able to represent his constituents.

The outer limits of the Trudeau government's ability to deal with public dissent remains to be truly tested.