Trash talk: unparliamentary language has a long history in the House of Commons

The use of unparliamentary language in the House of Commons became an issue again this past week when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau found himself accused of tainting a debate with rude words.

Allegation against Trudeau in the past week echoes charges made against previous prime ministers

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons on Wednesday, May 4, 2022, the day he was accused of dropping the f-bomb in the chamber. (The Canadian Press)

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The use of unparliamentary language in the House of Commons became an issue again this past week when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau found himself accused of tainting a debate with rude words.

The incident served to remind Canadians of the long history of unparliamentary behaviour by elected officials. 

The allegation came up after an exchange between Conservative MP Kerry-Lynne Findlay and Trudeau. Findlay asked Trudeau whether a military plane was used to spy on the convoy protest that occupied downtown Ottawa for weeks in February.

Trudeau said the flight had nothing to do with the protest and called the question "dangerously close to misinformation." The debate quickly turned into a shouting contest on both sides.

Conservatives accused Trudeau of using the F-word. Deputy Speaker Chris d'Entremont said he did not hear what was said. After reviewing the tape, he reported back to the House.

"The Chair listened again to the proceedings during question period and must admit that, with all the noise in the House, I was unable to determine what may have been said," d'Entremont said. "Under the circumstances, I can only ask members to observe the normal rules of debate and decorum in this House and to avoid disrespectful remarks."

It wasn't the first time a Speaker had warned MPs about crossing the fine line of parliamentary decorum.

When questioned afterward, Trudeau evoked the words of his father, Pierre Trudeau. "What is the nature of your thoughts, gentlemen, when you move your lips in a particular way?" he asked reporters.

Pierre Trudeau said something very similar to journalists back in 1971 after he was accused of telling the opposition to "f--- off" in the Commons. "What is the nature of your thoughts, gentlemen, when you say, 'Fuddle duddle,' or something like that?" the elder Trudeau said.

Fuddle duddle incident

51 years ago
Duration 2:15
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau swears he didn't use any four-letter obscenities.

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney was accused of dropping an f-bomb in the Commons in December 1991.

Four Liberal MPs said they clearly heard the prime minister say "f---ing bastard." Mulroney denied the charge, saying he never used the term in the House of Commons.

The Ottawa Citizen quoted Mulroney telling reporters outside the House that "they will search in vain for the offending phrase because it does not exist."

He was right; no evidence of the offending language was found in the official written parliamentary record known as Hansard, nor could it be heard on video recordings of the sitting by Speaker John Fraser. 

Without apologizing or admitting anything, the former prime minister told the House that he regretted inconveniencing the Speaker and any offence caused by his comments.

Maintaining tradition and respect

Obscenities are only one example of unparliamentary language. Provocative or threatening language, personal attacks and insults also fall into that category.

The rules of the House are based on the idea that elected officials should work to maintain a sense of respect for all members of Parliament.

An MP who feels they have been targeted by unparliamentary language can ask the Speaker to investigate. If the Speaker finds the accusation valid, the Speaker will ask the MP to stand and withdraw their comments. 

In most cases, the offending MP takes this route. On Feb. 5, 1998, Bloc MP Yvan Loubier was asked to withdraw language he used to describe then-finance minister Paul Martin as deceptive.

Finance Minister Paul Martin in the House of Commons in 1999. (The Canadian Press/Tom Hanson)

When challenged by the Speaker, Loubier said he was simply quoting the words of a journalist. The Speaker insisted that the language was still unparliamentary. Loubier withdrew the remarks and the matter was closed.

In 2008, Liberal MP Shawn Murphy took that same route when he was called out for comments about hanging Mulroney.

"Get tough on crime, bring forth Brian Mulroney! Hang him high, hang Mulroney! Let's get this Mulroney before the courts as soon as possible and hang him high! We gotta get Mulroney, put a noose on his head, put a noose on his head. Get tough on crime," Murphy said in the House. 

After withdrawing his remarks, Murphy told CBC he was wrong to say what he said and would not try "to defend the indefensible, or excuse the inexcusable."

Some MPs refuse to withdraw remarks

If an MP refuses to withdraw their words, the Speaker can order the offending MP to leave the House for the rest of the sitting or refuse to recognize the MP's requests to speak in the House until the withdrawal has been made. 

That's what happened to NDP MP Jim Fulton when he refused to withdraw remarks he made during question period in the House of Commons in October, 1987.

Then-prime minister Mulroney told the House that members of the Liberal Party and NDP "are opposed to the interests of Western Canada. That becomes clearer every day."

"That's a lie," NDP Leader Ed Broadbent shouted in response. "You're scum. You're lying scum," Fulton added.

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, shown here in 1984 in the House of Commons, was called 'lying scum' by a backbench MP. (The Canadian Press/Ron Poling)

Broadbent withdrew his remarks after question period. Fulton refused. He said he was a third-generation western Canadian and, considering the "really mean spirit with which the prime minister said what he said," he could not take his words back.

Speaker John Allen Fraser refused to recognize Fulton until Nov. 18 that same year, when the MP finally withdrew his remarks. 

Speaker Fraser thanked Fulton and reminded members that while Mulroney's remarks suggesting Fulton was biased against Western Canada were not unparliamentary, many MPs had a tendency to utter words very close to the line.

"There is a fine line and I would ask honourable members to make every effort to try to keep it in mind," he said.

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