As a Canadian, I was deeply saddened by a recent exchange in the House of Commons between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and members of the Opposition.
Trudeau said, “Conservative Party members can stand with people who wave swastikas. They can stand with people who wave the Confederate flag.”
In fact, interim Conservative Leader Candice Bergen delivered this message to protesters: “Please remain peaceful. Call out and denounce any acts of hate, racism, intolerance or violence.”
In response to Trudeau’s statement, Conservative member of Parliament Melissa Lantsman, a descendant of Holocaust survivors, asked for an apology but didn’t receive one. Her colleague Dane Lloyd asked Trudeau for an apology three more times, but he simply responded by going off on political rants each time.
Clearly, Trudeau wasn’t respecting parliamentary decorum. He was rebuked by House Speaker Anthony Rota, who stated: “I want to remind the honourable members, including the Right Honourable Prime Minister, to use words that are not inflammatory in the House.”
In discussing this issue with my Grade 12 students, I stated: “You will be voting in the next federal election. We, as Canadians, have a right to expect more civil and respectful behaviour from our elected representatives.”
Even though our Parliament has always had the appearance of an unruly classroom, Canadian politicians have traditionally been civil toward each other.
I remember being moved when Justin Trudeau delivered the eulogy at his father Pierre’s funeral in 2000. He spoke of how his father corrected him as a child when he made an unkind comment about another member of Parliament. In French, he told how his father explained that we can disagree on issues, but we must always respect the other person. Pierre Trudeau then introduced his son to the person he’d derided and his daughter, and Justin found them to be very kind, pleasant and congenial.
Perhaps we’re being influenced by the negative tone of politics in the United States, where any remnant of congeniality has virtually evaporated. Recall the inflammatory words of ultra-conservative House of Representatives speaker Newt Gingrich that gained tremendous media attention in the 1990s. Some political experts see this as the beginning of the downward spiral toward polarization in America.
But do we remember when right-wing American media outlets tried to paint then-Canadian Reform Party leader Preston Manning as “Newt-of-the North”? Manning would have nothing to do with this label. Though some of his views were indeed quite conservative, Manning, unlike Gingrich, was a gentleman.
I understand the humanness of our elected representatives. Despite his ideals, Pierre Trudeau is still remembered for the obscene gesture he made to a crowd of Western Canadians. I understand that Justin Trudeau is trying to lead his country through a crisis. It must be disheartening to see “F— Trudeau” written everywhere in Ottawa and perhaps that’s having an impact on him.
We need to remember that Canada has become a great country not because any of our leaders were perfect, not because any one person or any political party had all the right answers, but because we listened to and respected one another. This ideal has resulted in much good legislation in our Parliament.
Former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, after numerous discussions with then-NDP leader Jack Layton, recognized that it was time for the Canadian government to apologize for the crimes committed against our Indigenous neighbours in residential schools. Similarly, John Diefenbaker realized that Tommy Douglas had a great idea with socialized healthcare and supported the program nationally.
As a country, our diversity is our greatest strength. It’s through honest dialogue that we generate our best ideas.
We’re right to expect exemplary behaviour from our elected representatives and we also need to demonstrate it ourselves.
Disagree with ideas but always respect the person who presents those ideas. That’s the Canadian way.
Gerry Chidiac specializes in languages, genocide studies and works with at-risk students. He is the recipient of an award from the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre for excellence in teaching about the Holocaust. For interview requests, click here.
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