Parliament shows its best for Speaker Bélanger

Anyone who tuned into the House of Commons to watch Question Period on March 9th would have seen a rare and moving event.  Instead of Speaker Reagan presiding over the daily ritual in the Commons they would have seen Ottawa-Vanier MP, Mauril Bélanger running the show.  It’s not reasonable to expect the Speaker to be able to preside over every Question Period, so having someone different in the chair is nothing new.  What was unique was that Mr. Bélanger used a voice program on his tablet to communicate.

Some people may be familiar with Mr. Bélanger’s story and how he came to be named an honorary Speaker in the 42nd Parliament, but it is a compelling story that is well worth repeating.  

A long time MP, Mr. Bélanger’s name was all the buzz after the election as the House was set to resume in December.  The first order of business is always to elect a Speaker and it was widely believed that he would easily win the election based on his experience and reputation for being fair and level-headed.  With just days to go before the resumption of Parliament Mr. Bélanger indicated he was having difficulty with his voice and might have a tough time campaigning for the Speaker’s job.  That was followed up by the stunning revelation that he was losing his voice permanently and had been diagnosed with ALS - commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The news was shocking and opened up the race for Speaker, but it also presented the House with a reminder that this disease can reveal itself at a moment’s notice and added a sombre undertone to the election in the Chamber. 

In the few months since, Mr. Bélanger has been a busy MP.  This is not surprising since he has always been a very active Member.  With the assistance of his tablet, he has risen in Question Period, presented Private Members Bills, and travelled on an official delegation as his disease takes away more of his abilities in a cruel and punishing way.

When he led the Speaker’s parade to open Parliament on Wednesday, the halls were lined with onlookers and parliamentarians.  Everybody in the House and greeted him with applause.  In a touching tribute, his proposed changes to the national anthem were sung by MPs during Oh Canada.

Tom Mulcair said that it was rare moment of grace in Parliament and that is true.  I have witnessed a few of these over the years, but this one was uniquely touching.  Having served with Mr. Bélanger on committee I can attest to those qualities that have made him a much admired MP.   His reputation for fairness and level-headed demeanour are well earned.  I would also like to add that he is among the kindest MPs I have worked with in parliament.

I was fortunate to have been on the list to deliver a statement that day and became a bit-player in a part of history when Mr. Bélanger called upon me to speak. Tom Mulcair was absolutely correct in his assessment of Wednesday’s events and Canadians who tuned in were treated to a moment that was free of partisanship and full of the best that humanity has to offer.  I am honoured to have been there to witness it.