Mauril Bélanger, MP diagnosed with ALS, takes Speaker's chair today
Liberal MP withdrew from race to be Speaker last fall after diagnosis
Speaking to reporters in his office on Tuesday, Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger explained why he put his name forward last fall to be Commons Speaker, his words carried by the computerized voice of his iPad.
"I wanted to be Speaker in order to be able to fully devote my parliamentary knowledge and expertise to the service of the House of Commons and its members," he said.
"I believed that after 21 years of service as a member of Parliament I had all of the attributes and skills required to be a good Speaker. Also, I wanted to make a difference, notably improving the decorum. Lastly, I wanted to make a priority of mine protecting and enhancing the rights of all members of Parliament in the House so that they can better serve the needs of their constituents and the Canadian public."
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On Wednesday, for at least a few moments, Bélanger will realize his goal of occupying the Speaker's throne and preside over the House of Commons.
Bélanger, an MP since 1995, was forced to abandon his candidacy for the speakership over health after the mysterious loss of his voice and a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, ALS is an incurable neurodegenerative disease that gradually degrades a person's muscle control.
Bélanger was acknowledged by a standing ovation days later when the MPs of the 41st Parliament gathered for the first time to elect the Speaker.
On Wednesday, Bélanger will receive a formal acknowledgement from the House. With the assistance of his iPad, Bélanger will preside over the chamber as an honorary occupant of the Speaker's chair. It is the first time such an honour, which was first announced in December, has been bestowed.
After taking part in the Speaker's parade, Bélanger, who now needs assistance to walk, will oversee 15 minutes for statements by members and the first round of leaders' questions in question period.
"It means everything to him," says Senate Liberal Jim Munson, a good friend of Bélanger's. "He would have loved to have sat in that chair every day as the Speaker."
'Courage and determination'
Whatever limitations imposed by his illness, Bélanger has stayed on as the MP for Ottawa-Vanier.
Earlier this month, he and Munson were in Namibia and South Africa to meet with officials as part of a delegation from the Canada-Africa Parliamentary Association, a group Bélanger co-founded in 2003. He used a cane, walker and wheelchair to move around and communicated with his iPad, hand signals (two thumbs up for yes, a flat hand for no), and a tablet that allows him to write short messages or questions.
Munson says Bélanger displayed "a courage and determination, not to be pitied, but to be accepted. Despite what I'm living with, I'm still living. And I'm still here. And I still want to contribute. That's what I saw."
In January, Bélanger used his iPad to table a private member's bill in the House. The bill, which would change the lyrics of O Canada to replace "in all thy sons command" to "in all of us command," is likely to be debated in the House this spring, at which point Bélanger will be called to defend it.
"He's living in the moment," Munson says. "And he hasn't given up. He has not given up."
Appearing before cameras on Tuesday, Bélanger was asked if his priorities have changed since his diagnosis.
"My priorities have not changed, even after being diagnosed in late November," he said, seeming emotional as his iPad conveyed his words. "I remain committed to serving the constituents of Ottawa-Vanier and representing them in the House of Commons to the best of my abilities, as long as possible."