Mauril Bélanger's O Canada bill set for key debate despite Tory objections

Time is of the essence for Mauril Bélanger's push to change the English lyrics of O Canada. As the Liberal MP's health deteriorates in his battle with ALS, some Conservatives continue to snag efforts to pass Bill C-210 before the summer recess.

'It's the least I can do,' says Bloc MP who gave up Friday slot as Liberal's health worsens

Ottawa-Vanier MP Mauril Bélanger, who has ALS, used a tablet speech tool to kick off debate on his private member's bill to change the lyrics of O Canada. He used a wheelchair to make it to the House of Commons for that debate. Since then, his health has deteriorated further. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger's push to change the English lyrics of O Canada hit another snag Thursday when some Conservative MPs rejected a procedural move that would have allowed another parliamentarian to usher his bill through the House if he's too ill to be there for key stages of its passage.

Time is of the essence for the MP, who was diagnosed with ALS last fall and whose health has deteriorated over the past few weeks. But his determination to see Bill C-210 pass is inspiring people from inside and outside his party to support him.

After question period Thursday, government whip Andrew Leslie sought the unanimous consent of MPs to allow the bill — which would change the line "in all thy sons command" to "in all of us command," making it gender-neutral — to proceed under the whip's name to take some of the pressure off Bélanger.

Enough Tory MPs shouted their objection to deny unanimous consent for Leslie's motion.

"We all love and support Mauril and we understand he's going through a difficult time ... but it's not about Mauril," Conservative House Leader Andrew Scheer told reporters after.

"It's about the bill itself. The vast majority of our caucus are opposed to the bill. They've heard from their constituents," Scheer said, adding there has been no consultation with Canadians on the matter. 

"I signalled to the government long ago that our caucus ... would not be able to help facilitate its passage," Scheer said, reflecting his party's divided ranks. (Other Conservatives do support the bill.)

Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer explains the Conservatives moves to stop Mauril Belanger's O Canada Bill 1:45

"They should be ashamed. The people who denied consent … their heads were down when they said it. They weren't proud of it," Liberal MP Greg Fergus said in an interview with CBC News.

The bill is believed to have more than enough Liberal and NDP votes to pass.

"Why are [Conservatives] delaying the inevitable and denying him the pleasure of seeing this through while he's still in good health?" Fergus said. "What's the end game for them?"

Chief Government Whip Andrew Leslie explains the process to keep the bill moving through the House 1:27

Thursday's move could have meant that Bélanger would need to attend the next stage of debate Friday afternoon — or risk his bill falling to the bottom of the order of precedence, not to be debated again for months.

But late Thursday, Leslie's office gave notice of an amendment that could allow Liberals to continue the debate even if Bélanger is too ill to attend — one of many procedural tools available, Fergus said.

"He has every intention of making it. He wants to be here," Fergus said, noting that Bélanger is very motivated to see the bill pass. "It's giving him a real focus."

If he is able to come, his wife, Catherine, will accompany him. He will need to use a wheelchair and have medical help.

Trading places

Although the Conservatives have blocked efforts to fast-track the bill, its passage has been helped twice this spring by other MPs giving up time designated for their private member's business so his could go first. 

The Bloc Québécois House leader is the latest to surrender his slot to give the bill a shot at passing before summer. Gabriel Ste-Marie's motion on tax havens was set for debate Friday until he was approached by Bélanger's staff last week.  

He decided his issue will wait until next fall.

"It's the least I can do," Ste-Marie told CBC News. "It's such a sad story. I've been very touched by Mauril Bélanger and his disease … He is a great member of Parliament."

The Bloc is abstaining on C-210 because the English lyrics don't concern them. This is about compassion, not the bill itself.

"I am sad to see that there could not be a consensus between parliamentarians to fast-track his bill."

Another Liberal MP, Linda Lapointe, had also given up her May 31 slot so C-210 could have its required second hour of debate and pass its vote at second reading last week.

Committee spat

Following that vote on June 1, the Commons heritage committee met the next day.

The committee heard from only one witness, historian Chris Champion, and then voted 6-3 to report C-210 back to the Commons without amendments. The Liberal and NDP members were in favour, Conservatives against.

That meeting was testy and tense from its outset. Conservative MPs accused the Liberals of skirting the rules and shortchanging debate in an effort to move things along before summer.

"The alacrity with which everyone is dealing with this bill," Liberal chair Hedy Fry said off the top, "has to do with the health of the mover of this bill. His health is indeed critical and we need to deal with this bill as soon as possible."

Conservative vice-chair Peter Van Loan responded by saying he had "the greatest regard" for Bélanger's condition, but "that is not a basis on which public policy is made, especially public policy on an institution or a symbol that belongs to all Canadians."