Analysis

Justin Trudeau apologetic and castigated after elbowing his way into trouble

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau strode purposefully into a furor of his own making on Wednesday. On Thursday, as he rose again to apologize, the Liberal members did not applaud. Nearly everyone and everything is applauded by at least someone in the House of Commons — but not today.

Opposition MPs take turns condemning the prime minister's actions

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pauses while responding to questions after delivering an apology in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

The Liberal members did not applaud when the Prime Minister stood.

Nearly everyone and everything is applauded by at least someone in the House of Commons. But obviously the prime minister was not due any hint of approval today. At least at the outset.

"Mr. Speaker," he said. He cleared his throat. "I would like to take a moment to apologize for two incidents that took place yesterday in this House."

And so he did.

"I apologize for crossing the floor," he said.

"I apologize to the member and to all parliamentarians for my inappropriate contact," he explained of grabbing the Conservative whip.

"I want to apologize to the member for Berthier—Maskinongé," he conveyed in French of NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau, who he had elbowed. "I sincerely apologize for what I did yesterday ... I would like to offer my apologies to all members of the House, to you Mr. Speaker, for having not acted in an exemplary fashion."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologizes to Conservative Whip Gord Brown and to NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau for his actions in the House of Commons on Wednesday evening. 2:21

Then in English. "I would like to apologize directly to the member for Berthier—Maskinongé ... I apologize unreservedly ...  I apologize to my colleagues, to the House as a whole, and to you Mr. Speaker, for failing to live up to a higher standard of behaviour."

Then, under questioning from MPs, twice more. "I made a mistake, I behaved in a way that is not appropriate for a parliamentarian. I apologize," he said. "I regret it deeply, I made a mistake and I am apologizing and I am asking members to understand how contrite and how regretful I am with my behaviour."

'An affront to every member of the House'

When he returned to his seat, there was great applause from the Liberals, and some applause from Conservatives and New Democrats.

Several Liberals would come by to extend supportive gestures. John McKay, standing over him, offered a few words and then the fatherly act of a stiff pat on the upper arm.

MPs Erin O'Toole, Adam Vaughn, and Murray Rankin join Ottawa Morning host Robin Bresnahan to give their take on what happened in the House of Commons. 5:46
Trudeau sat and looked contrite and listened as Rona Ambrose, the interim Conservative leader, opened the day's debate with an explanation of her concerns.

And, following his own remarks, Trudeau sat and listened as Peter Kent — the Conservative MP involved in Trudeau's previous fit of unparliamentary pique — took his turn at speaking to the question of privilege Trudeau was central to, officially marked in the House agenda as "Physical molestation of the Member from Berthier—Maskinongé."

At 11 a.m., Trudeau stood, bowed towards the Speaker and took his leave from the House. By then, Ambrose had said that what happened "was very unsettling for everyone in this chamber" and "nothing less than an affront to every member of the House." Conservative MP Candice Bergen had questioned the prime minister's temperament and Conservative MP Kellie Leitch had accused the prime minister of "bullying." 

NDP leader Tom Mulcair had asked Ambrose how, "as a woman elected to this House," she had felt upon realizing that Brosseau had been hurt, and Conservative MP Todd Doherty had suggested the prime minister remain in the House to "hear the impact statements from our colleagues in this House with respect to how his actions yesterday impacted us all."

Sometime afterwards, Conservative MP Michael Cooper would suggest Trudeau's actions amounted to "criminal assault." Conservative David Sweet would later reflect on the significance of Trudeau's training in the martial arts. And Conservative MP Diane Watts would lament for the Liberals who were comforting the prime minister as if he was the victim.

This would be a day for solemn speeches and expressed disappointment. And attempts to make use of the vulnerable position the prime minister had put himself in.

'From sunny ways to a dark week'

This, Ambrose said, was for Trudeau to fix. Not merely with another apology, but with action. And she had some suggestions.

"It would be a good time to let members speak on the very few pieces of legislation that the government has without the threat of closure over their heads," Ambrose advised Trudeau. "It would be a good time to withdraw the Liberals' extreme and aggressive motion to strip the opposition of any tools to hold the government to account.

"More importantly, it would be a good time to show some respect for the democratic voice of Canadians when it comes to changing the way we vote in this country."

Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose said what happened "was very unsettling for everyone in this chamber.' (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

In other words, if Trudeau is truly sorry, his government will stop using time allocation, withdraw the motion that would give it greater power over the rest of the spring sitting, and agree to conduct a referendum on electoral reform.

You can't blame Ambrose for trying.

On the second matter, in particular, the Conservatives would attempt to pin Trudeau down, but he would be noncommittal. Several hours later, at the start of question period, Trudeau's House leader Dominic LeBlanc announced the semi-infamous motion No. 6 had been withdrawn.

At question period, the Conservatives and New Democrats would press their advantage, prominently writing Wednesday evening's unpleasantness into a story of Liberal disrespect. "Mr. Speaker, we went from sunny ways to a dark week in Parliament," sighed Gord Brown, the manhandled himself.

(Whatever the stated concerns about whether Trudeau's behaviour would be tolerated in any other workplace, question period would still contain certain amounts of cheering, shouting and heckling.)

Debate on the physical molestation collapsed after question period. The matter is now bound for the procedure and house affairs committee for further study, which will at least extend the official life of this peculiar episode.

Improving the tone

In responding to a question from the NDP's Linda Duncan, Trudeau had hinted at an acknowledgement of the need to do things differently. "I fully hear the desire," he said, "... that we take concrete measures to improve the way the tone functions in this House and the way this government engages with opposition parties as well."

Whether or how that manifests itself remains to be seen. 

In the meantime, whatever one might deem the rhetorical excesses of his critics (and whatever the "mischief" involving the New Democrats and Brown), the prime minister has had a bad day and a bad week. Trudeau has created a bad image and a bad memory that he must now be mindful of not reinforcing with future actions.

On Wednesday evening, Trudeau strode purposefully into an unfortunate, odd and wholly unnecessary furor of his own making. It will linger, but it might pass. Unless it becomes somehow symbolic of something deeply wrong with the Trudeau government.

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail.

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