The House: Departing parliamentarians reflect on the Commons
Wayne Easter and Bruce Stanton are among 20 MPs elected in 2019 not re-offering
Two of Canada's longest-serving MPs say the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated a trend toward a more toxic dynamic in Parliament, but that bipartisanship and collegiality are still achievable.
"I think there's a lot less collegiality at the moment in the House of Commons," said Liberal MP and chair of the parliamentary finance committee Wayne Easter, who has represented Malpeque, P.E.I., since 1993.
"It's been tough the last year and a half because I think it's been a gap that members haven't been able to see each other in person, just like so many other circles in our social activities these days. That has put an extra strain on it," said Conservative MP and deputy Speaker Bruce Stanton.
Stanton, who has represented Simcoe North in central Ontario since 2006, said that there was still a great deal of collegiality in the House and that any personal animosity between members remained an exception to a rule.
"But I would say across the 15 years that I've been there, I do sense a certain increased toxic nature to the debates. It sometimes can get, I think, a little more personal that it needs to be," Stanton said.
LISTEN | Easter, Stanton reflect on the state of Parliament:
Getting back to in-person work a priority
Easter said that along with the virtual nature of much of MPs' work, the prospect of a coming election and the end of the spring sitting of Parliament both contributed to heightened tension in the House of Commons.
But he emphasized that getting MPs back to working in person — and particularly travelling the country together — was a key to reforging a sense of shared understanding and respect in the Commons.
Easter also noted that the lack of in-person interaction had an impact on internal party dynamics, not just relationships across the aisle.
"Sometimes I think [the party leadership] may be comfortable with this because there's no way 10 or 12 of you can get together in your own party" and exert pressure to change policy or party direction, he said.
Stanton agreed that meeting virtually could exacerbate tensions within caucus.
"When you've got a tough situation to deal with within caucus and you can't even see some of your colleagues in person, I think that it allows the tensions to become even greater," he said.
MPs say farewell
So far, 20 incumbent MPs elected in 2019 will not be running in a potential election this year, including veterans like the NDP's Jack Harris, the Conservatives' Cathy McLeod, and newer MPs like Nunavut representative Mumilaaq Qaqqaq and Bloc MP Louise Charbonneau.
"I still have tremendous energy that I will use in other areas of life. Thus, the reason behind this decision not to pursue a second mandate is an urgency to live. However, rest assured, my passion for politics remains intact," Charbonneau said in her farewell address to the Commons.
Qaqqaq excoriated the House and the Canadian political system broadly in her own farewell speech.
"The reality is that this institution and the country has been created off the backs, trauma and displacement of Indigenous people," she said.
'Stay honest and listen well'
With more than four decades of combined experience in the Commons, both Easter and Stanton said there were too many memories to choose a favourite.
But Easter spoke about a trip he had taken to the Nass River valley in B.C. while he was solicitor general from 2002-03, seeing dozens of bald eagles.
Stanton said one moment that stuck out to him was a 90-minute speech by Jack Layton in the House of Commons when the NDP leader, newly named as leader of the Official Opposition, was ill with cancer.
"It was unbelievable. It was one of the best that I've seen in the House," Stanton said.
Asked about any advice for new MPs in their ridings that might be coming to Ottawa before the end of the year, Stanton said: "Stay honest and listen well."
Easter's advice: "Never take yourself too seriously and never forget where you came from."