Arnold Chan MP on civility in parliament, June 2017

Liberal MP Arnold Chan urged civility in parliamentary debate
Liberal MP Arnold Chan urged civility in parliamentary debate

Arnold Chan, the Canadian Member of Parliament for Scarborough-Agincourt, died of cancer in September 2017 at the age of 50. Chan was raised in Toronto where he earned masters degrees in political science and urban planning. He also had a law degree from the University of British Columbia. Chan first won his seat in a 2014 byelection but was diagnosed with cancer shortly afterwards. He embarked on a treatment regime of radiation and chemotherapy. He felt healthy enough to run in the 2015 federal election and became the Liberal Party’s deputy House leader after they took power.  However, he revealed in March 2016 that his cancer had returned. On June 12, 2017, Chan rose to speak in the House of Commons with his wife and family looking on. He was to address a motion put forward by the Conservative opposition criticizing the Liberal government’s record on the economy, but he used most of his speaking time to implore his fellow MPs to treat one another with civility and compassion in debate and to “ditch” their canned talking points.

“We have to listen to each other”

I have not taken the floor in some time and I am going to ask you, Mr. Speaker, and my colleagues on all sides of the aisle, for some indulgence today. I have every intention of speaking to the substantive motion before us, but before I do that, I have some matters of a personal nature that I have felt in my heart for some time and need to get out, and I am going to simply say them if the House would grant me that dispensation … I wanted to get to a fundamental issue, one that has been raised a substantive number of times in the House, and that is how we comport ourselves.

I am not sure how many more times I will have the strength to get up and do a 20-minute speech in this place, but the point I want to impart to all of us is that I know we are all hon. members, I know members revere this place, and I would beg us to not only act as hon. members but to treat this institution honourably.

Praises Green Party leader 

To that extent I want to make a shout-out to our colleague, the member for Saanich—Gulf Islands [Green Party leader Elizabeth May]. This parliamentarian, who despite the fact we are not in the same party and despite the fact that we may disagree on some substantive issues quite vehemently, I consider to be a giant, not simply because she exhorts us to follow Standing Order 18 [which relates to objectionable language and personal attacks] but more importantly I have observed in her practice that she reveres this place. She is dedicated to her constituents. She practises, both here and in committee, the highest standard of practice that any parliamentarian could ask for. Despite strongly disagreeing, perhaps, with the position of the government of the day, she does so in a respectful tone. I would ask all of us to elevate our debate, to elevate our practice to that standard.

It is only through that practice, which I believe she so eloquently demonstrates, that Canadians will have confidence in this democratic institution that we all hold so dear. It is important that we do that.

Ditch talking points

The other thing that I wanted to speak broadly to is the practice of ditching what I call the “canned talking points”. I am not perfect. I know that sometimes it takes some practice. There are instances where it is necessary for us to have the guidance and assistance of our staff, the ministries, and of our opposition research. However, I do not think it gives Canadians confidence in our debates in this place when we formulaically repeat those debates. It is more important that we bring the experience of our constituents here and impose it upon the question of the day, and ask ourselves how we get better legislation and how we make better laws.

We can disagree strongly, and in fact we should. That is what democracy is about. However, we should not just use the formulaic talking points. It does not elevate this place. It does not give Canadians confidence in what democracy truly means.

Listen to one another

The other thing I would simply ask all of our colleagues to consider is that while we debate and engage, what we are doing right now, when we listen, that we listen to one another, despite our strong differences. That is when democracy really happens. That is the challenge that is going on around the world right now. No one is listening. Everyone is just talking at once. We have to listen to each other. In so doing, we will make this place a stronger place…

We can actually engage in this process without fundamental rancour, without fundamental disagreement, and without violence. That is the difference, and that is why I so love this place. I would ask Canadians to give heart to their democracy, to treasure it and revere it. Of course, I would ask them to do the most basic thing, which is to cast their ballots. However, for me it is much more than that. I ask them for their civic engagement, regardless of what it actually may mean, whether it is coaching a soccer team or helping someone at a food bank. For me it can be even simpler than that.

Common civility

It is the basic common civility we share with each other that is fundamental. It is thanking our Tim Hortons server. It is giving way to someone on the road. It is saying thanks. It is the small things we collectively do, from my perspective, that make a great society, and to me, that is ultimately what it means to be a Canadian. We are so privileged to live in this country, because we have these small acts of common decency and civility that make us what we are. I would ask members to carry on that tradition, because that is the foundation of what makes Canada great.

If I may quote the Constitution, it imbues peace, order, and good government. I would go to my friend from Lanark—Frontenac—Kingston, who would appreciate that particular point. We have much to be proud of, and I would simply ask us to celebrate this incredible institution. By doing those small acts, we will continue to uphold our Canadian democracy and the values that bind us together…

♦♦♦♦♦

Canada. Parliament. House of Commons. Debates, 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. Edited Hansard, No.  192, June 12, 2017. Find full speech HERE:

 

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Dennis Gruending

Dennis Gruending is an author and blogger and a former Member of Parliament based in Ottawa, Canada.

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