Jun 4, 2011

What would Stanley say about Brigette Marcelle?


For the last 30 years or so when confronted with a thorny issue I have often asked myself this question: what would Stanley say?  This is the lens I would like to apply to Brigette Marcelle’s actions in the Senate last week.

Marcelle is the young Senate page who during the Speech from the Throne held up sign saying “Stop Harper.”  She said:

“Harper’s agenda is disastrous for this country and for my generation,”… “We have to stop him from wasting billions on fighter jets, military bases, and corporate tax cuts while cutting social programs and destroying the climate. Most people in this country know what we need are green jobs, better medicare, and a healthy environment for future generations.”

I agree with each and every one of these points but I wonder what Stanley Knowles would have had to say.  I had the privilege of working on Parliament Hill in the 1970s and 1980s when Stanley was House Leader for the NDP.

He was without question one of the wiliest and most effective party House Leaders of the 20th century.  He was first elected in 1942 and after losing only one election, retired from politics in 1984.  It is too long to go into the details here, but during the 1956 “pipeline debate,” Stanley’s knowledge of parliamentary procedure helped undermine the Liberal government of Louis St Laurent.  In 1957 John Diefenbaker defeated St. Laurent.  Diefenbaker had been so impressed with Knowles that the Prime Minister offered the CCFer the speaker’s chair – an honour that Knowles declined.

Knowles was a committed social democrat and played a large role in the introduction of the Canada Pension Plan.  But he was also a man of Parliament.  While no one could use the Parliamentary rules more effectively he also deeply believed in the institution and would not tolerate tactics that undermined it.

I believe Stanley would have admired Brigette Marcelle’s courage and been deeply offended at her tactics.

Respect for Parliament and its traditions may seem like an antique notion, but the democratic traditions that Parliament is elected to protect are steeped in antiquity.  The struggle for a sovereign parliament is 1,000 years old and it is a struggle that continues to this day.

If we applaud Ms. Marcelle’s actions, how can we oppose the Harper government’s trampling of Parliamentary traditions?  In the election the Prime Minister excused his Cabinet Ministers lying to Parliament as a mere procedural squabble – a mere peccadillo.  He issued his committee chairs with instructions on how to disrupt the work of Parliamentary Committees.  It is also a struggle going on in British Columbia but that issue is for another day.

I believe the problem we have is not too much respect for Parliamentary traditions, as Ms. Marcelle’s actions would suggest, but far too little respect.

Are there circumstances that would call for actions to disrupt Parliament?  I can think of some.  In the past suffragettes chained themselves to railings to disrupt Parliament in their struggle for the vote.  In 1970 Canadian women shut down Parliament for 30 minutes in their fight for abortion rights.

But these examples are very different from a young women coming to the end of her contract with the Senate as a Page holding up a sign reading, “Stop Harper.”  Which brings me to one other point?  Ms. Marcelle had a contract with the Senate.  It is my understanding that the contract specifically prohibits the sort of activity Ms. Marcelle undertook last week.  As someone who works for a trade union, to me contracts are important.

Ms. Marcelle could have done many things in defense of her beliefs, particularly when her Senate contract was complete in a few weeks.  Just because something is courageous does not make it right.

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