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Canadian government

Contempt of Parliament

RCMP Deputy Commissioner Barbara George isn't the first to be accused of the offence

Last Updated February 12, 2008

Contempt of Parliament, according to the House of Commons Procedure and Practice manual, is "any conduct which offends the authority or dignity of the House, even though no breach of any specific privilege may have been committed."

It could be a member of Parliament tossing a beer bottle at the Speaker, or someone threatening to plant a stick of dynamite under the prime minister's desk. It could also be an accusation of misleading the House at a parliamentary committee — which is what landed RCMP Deputy Commissioner Barbara George in hot water.

In appearances before the public accounts committee in February and December 2007, George insisted she wasn't involved in Staff-Sgt. Mike Frizzell's removal from an RCMP-Ottawa police probe into the management of the Mounties' $12-billion pension and insurance plans.

RCMP Deputy Commissioner Barbara George appears before the Commons public accounts committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, April 18, 2007.

On Feb. 12, 2008, the all-party committee issued a report saying George misled Parliament during those appearances. "Deputy Commissioner Barbara George gave testimony that was misleading at best, untruthful at worst," said the committee chair, Liberal MP Shawn Murphy. George put out a news release denying the allegations, but the committee recommended that the House of Commons find her in contempt of Parliament.

Other recent cases: Radwanski and Shapiro

Punishment for contempt of Parliament could land the person in jail, but usually consists of a stern rebuke, assuaged by a profuse apology, which has happened from time to time to both MPs and civil servants.

In 2005, for example, Bernard Shapiro — then the federal ethics commissioner — was accused of contempt of Parliament by a Commons committee over his investigation of a Tory MP. The committee concluded Shapiro violated MP code of conduct rules and also made inappropriate comments in a media interview, but it recommended no sanctions.

In another recent high-profile case, in 2003, a Commons committee accused George Radwanski of contempt of Parliament, saying he provided misleading information about his spending while federal privacy commissioner. The committee accused Radwanski of lying to Canadians, altering documents and falsifying records. Radwanski apologized in the House for his behaviour but MPs later voted to find him in contempt.

In the George case, the committee suggested no further action be taken beyond the finding of contempt by the House of Commons, saying that would be enough of a serious sanction.

The committee's report on the George case provides background information on contempt of Parliament, which it describes as "…conduct that tends to impede the House, its members, committees, or officers in the performance of their duties and functions. As the ways in which operations of the House can be obstructed are diverse and possibly limitless in character, the scope of possible contempts is necessarily broad and cannot be enumerated or classified."

It continues:

"The House and its committees must be able to protect themselves from acts that directly or indirectly impede the performance of their functions. If the work of a committee is to proceed without improper interference, there must ultimately be some sanction against those who offend.

"In order to preserve the integrity of its proceedings, the House retains the power to punish contempts against it or one of its committees. This power is rarely exercised, but it is important that the House does so when necessary to ensure that contempts are discouraged."

Previously sparked by drinking, 'trifling' with committee

A 1999 book by MP Derek Lee — The Power of Parliamentary Houses to Send for Persons, Papers and Records — says people have been declared guilty of contempt of Parliament in the past for:

  • Refusing to be sworn or take upon themselves some corresponding obligation to tell the truth.
  • Refusing to answer questions.
  • Refusing to produce documents in their possession, or destroying documents in their possession that have been sent for.
  • Prevarication.
  • Giving false evidence.
  • Willfully suppressing the truth.
  • Persistently misleading a committee.
  • Trifling with a committee.
  • Being insolent.
  • Being insulting.
  • Appearing in a state of intoxication.

Being accused of contempt of Parliament is nothing new. For example, British House of Commons — from which Canada's system evolved — found a man guilty in 1819 for "willful suppression of evidence, and a high contempt of the authority of this House" for destroying a document after appearing before a parliamentary committee. He was ordered into the custody of the sergeant at arms and held until the next day, when a he was released from custody.

At the time, the Speaker admonished the offender by saying, "This is an offence of the most serious and grave nature, both as affecting the dignity of this House and the ends of justice; and had this offence been committed by you with the deliberate intention of impeding the examination now in process, it would have been the bounden duty of this House to have punished it with the utmost severity."

Unlike in Britain, no one in Canada has been jailed for contempt of Parliament.

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