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Round Table: Conduct of Members in the Ontario Legislature
Marion Boyd; Sean Conway; Greg Sorbara; Barbara Sullivan

The election of more women to Canadian legislative assemblies raises a number of questions regarding the terminology used in what were formerly male institutions. On May 27, 1992, the Minister Responsible for Women's Issues in Ontario, Marion Boyd, initiated a debate on this topic. The discussion went beyond the issue of language and dealt with some essential features of the parliamentary approach to government including the purpose of question period, the role of the presiding officer, and the concept of parliamentary privilege.

Marion Boyd: Standing order 23 states: "In debate, a member shall be called to order by the Speaker if he or she: (k) Uses abusive or insulting language of a nature likely to create disorder."

In direct response, I suggest: (1) the qualifying phrase "of a nature likely to create disorder" is unnecessary, because any abusive or insulting language is reason enough for a member to be called to order, and (2) "abusive or insulting language" be amended and clarified to include any reference to gender, race, ethnic origin, religion, disability, age or sexual orientation–characteristics that should not be a basis on which to question a member's credibility.

I acknowledge that legislative procedures are by nature adversarial and sometimes hostile. Part of the process is to challenge members of opposing parties and often to question their credibility. Some grounds for these challenges are acceptable and some are not. It is perfectly acceptable to raise in the House the question of a member's record in the House, inconsistencies in his or her party's position, proven or perceived conflicts of interest and other matters of direct relevance to the member's statements and track record, but it is not acceptable to attack a member on grounds of her or his race, ethnic origin, disability, age, sexual orientation or gender–characteristics that are beyond a member's control, that a member need not apologize or compensate for having and, when attacked, only serve to demean that member personally and the group generally. We are here to debate, not to demean.

Let me emphasize that such references do not have to be slurs, epithets or outright insults. Just yesterday one woman cabinet minister had to preface an answer with this: "I have a bit of a problem in that the member continues to refer to me as `Mr. Minister' each time he asks me a question. I have to keep reminding him that the portfolio has changed and that it rests with me now." The opposition member made light of the situation by retorting, "I would love, of course, to call the minister `lady', but I would be in big trouble with her own caucus."

We have to understand that when one member refers to another as "the lady from" rather than "the member from," or, in another recent case, when one member repeatedly calls the second "the honourable lady," he is doing more than violating protocol. He is separating her from the others who sit authoritatively in the House. Above all, he is trivializing her role and legitimacy as an elected representative, the role that allows her to be there in the first place.

The same goes for tone. Recently an opposition member questioned a young woman cabinet minister using an explicitly patronizing tone usually reserved for small children. Rather than legitimately challenging the cabinet minister, his condescension trivialized her authority. It also suggested that he was less interested in getting an answer than in demeaning her.

Considerations of government, opposition and cabinet caucus status aside, a member is a member is a member. All are equal as representatives and all should be treated with respect.

Besides verbal attacks and manipulation of tone, other forms of behaviour clearly discriminate but are harder to quantify. This behaviour comprises a range of efforts to humiliate and intimidate members, usually women, as they fulfil their elected roles in the House. Non-verbal tactics include: significantly increasing volume–that is, more heckling, coughing, and hissing when a woman rises to speak, introducing a wall of sound before she has even started her words; blowing kisses across the floor of the House, and mocking the higher-pitched voices of female members.

Videotapes of House proceedings provide ample evidence of these tactics. As such, they are not the imaginings of overly sensitive women who cannot take the heat of the legislative kitchen. The fact that the noise level suddenly and regularly rises when women stand, especially women cabinet ministers, means there is more than mere coincidence at work. These tactics are employed primarily against women in an attempt to intimidate us, diminish our authority and reinforce the idea that the House is not meant to be our home.

In June 1991, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health and Welfare, Social Affairs, Seniors and the Status of Women released a report entitled "The War Against Women". Among its 25 recommendations were the following:

"That Parliament mandate the Women's Parliamentary Association (WPA) to study, and present a report… on existing systemic barriers to women's full participation within the House of Commons and its support services, and to make recommendations for the elimination of such systemic barriers;" and

"That the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women be invited to conduct gender sensitivity programs for the members of Parliament."

As Minister Responsible for Women's Issues I not only support those recommendations but suggest that similar steps be taken by our Ontario Legislative Assembly.

I also wish to address the issue of language. It is no small consideration that "Parliament" originally meant "talking shop." MPPs must understand that language not only reflects but also shapes thoughts, perceptions and attitudes.

The United Nations has documented that men own over 99% of the world's resources. Given the wealth of psychological and material resources at their behest, men are in a position to be heard. According to Dale Spender, author of Man Made Language, "It is one of the characteristics of patriarchy…that one-half of the population is able to insist that the other half see things its way."

The use of non-sexist language is more than a gesture to accommodate feminists. It is a matter of communicating democratically, with accuracy and fairness. The same is true of language that is sensitive to racial, cultural and religious differences as well as differences in physical capabilities, age and sexual orientation.

I am not recommending that the Ontario Legislature set a new standard for society. I am recommending that it catch up to the standard that society is already setting.

Five years ago, for example, a staff person from the Ontario Women's Directorate was advocating inclusive language to a group of freelance writers and editors. Her suggestions met with indifference and resistance. This year, the same staff person was talking to a group of editors and medical writers, one of whom told her that clients are now insisting on inclusive language. Even when clients do not request sensitive language, the writers themselves do. They know the public is demanding more of communicators, and elected representatives should know that too.

Some argue that exclusionary language and behaviour are subtle things, because they require reading between the lines and rely on the perceptions of the excluded to be understood. In fact, the subtlety of exclusion exists only in the minds of those doing the excluding, intentionally or not. To those being excluded, the message "You do not belong" is loud and clear.

Of course, whether discrimination is intentional or unintentional is irrelevant. Monitoring discriminatory language and behaviour with the aim to reform is crucial to both maintaining and, I suggest, restoring the integrity and efficiency of a Parliament.

As a Parliament we are responsible for getting the people's business done. Imagine how much more business can be conducted when the Speaker does not have to rise every other minute to call a member to order, or when the rules about what constitutes discriminatory language are precise enough that the Speaker need not wrangle with the member about them. This is the value of my suggested amendment to Standing Order 23(k).

As a cabinet minister too, I am accountable to the public. When I answer a question it should be heard. All too often the very person who asked the question on behalf of his or her constituents also participates in a group attempt to drown out the answer. What then is the use of question period?

These observations take us back to my original concern: general disrespect in the House. Not long ago I invited some women to watch me announce a strategy against family violence in the House. They came, they watched and, long before question period finished, they left.

In a letter, one of the women explained why they had departed early. They were so "disgusted" by the "shouting, finger-pointing and name-calling" in the Legislature that even viewing it from the visitors' gallery was too much. "It should be noted," wrote the woman, who is an expert on violence, "that verbal abuse is the same as physical abuse." Her impression of that day in the Legislature speaks volumes to the need for reform now.

Greg Sorbara: The recommendations of the Minister are in some respects inoffensive. The first one sets out a suggestion which recommends removing of the phrase "of a nature likely to create disorder." I think that our Legislature is often characterized by some disorder. The second one suggests that abusive or insulting language be amended and clarified to include a reference to gender.

Having sat in the Legislature for seven years now, for the most part I am unimpressed with the quality of the debate or the conduct in the Legislature. But what I love about the place is its protection of the freedom to say whatever you want as an elected representative.

I think the balance of the submission does not support so much the recommendations as it does represent a complaint that the place is of a demeanour generally that is offensive. I am offended that the Minister suggests it is particularly offensive to women, because I think that is not the case. I think it is offensive to anyone who would be anxious to have a much higher quality of debate.

But to me, the primary principle of a democratic system is the freedom of an elected representative to say even the most scandalous things in the assembly. I am a little bit surprised that a Minister Responsible for Women's Issues would now want to be qualifying language and trying to legislate tone. The reason I say that is because, having been a politician for a number of years and a human being for 45 years and a women's minister for two years, one of the things I know for sure is that all of the great achievements of society in respect to equality for women have been based primarily on women speaking out in what was, at the first point of expression, considered to be scandalous language. Even women suggesting they had the right to vote was at one point considered by the majority of the population to be scandalous thinking.

The Minister made the point that the male population was and still is in control. Thankfully, we have completed a long history of debate on whether or not abortion should be a criminal offence in Canada. That was resolved successfully and miraculously in a tied vote in the Senate. But I remember when it was considered scandalous even to suggest, in a Legislature like our Legislature, 50 years ago that women had that inherent right. I think a member would have been called to order, advocating that women commit a criminal offence.

None of us likes the tone. I think it has much more to do with the subject matter coming out of the mouths of members. I recall many occasions when members, your own leader, our Premier, were standing in the Legislature making eloquent, passionate, articulate, reasoned, thoughtful and well-enunciated speeches on a wide variety of subjects. There would be a hush in the room. The electronic system would not have been necessary because the silence and the attention to the words of the member for York South and many other members.

I think the best way to deal with the problem is for each of us in our caucuses to think a little bit about the extent to which we want to think more before we speak in the Legislature. But there are occasions–and I think of one just today: the point of order raised by our House Leader about the rather insulting comments of the government House Leader concerning our frustration of the business of the House, not in a House Leader's Meeting but to some journalists in the Globe and Mail. It gives rise to a mild degree of disorder because it is so offensive to us. Maybe parliaments will raise the standard of their debate over a period of time, but I am really surprised that one would think in terms of bringing in some sort of constraint in the rules. We have to think very carefully. The Legislature is the one place where a statement which would otherwise be slanderous is permitted.

Well, if we permit that, then should we constrain someone who calls a woman a lady? I fear this is arguing for a kind of political correctness and linguistic correctness that is maybe where we are going and is maybe the path down which we are travelling, but my goodness, to argue that we need a set of rule changes to insulate members from, admittedly, sometimes, the brutality of the Legislature, I think is to attack the foundations–and I believe this strongly–the foundation stone of democracy in a way that truly surprises me, particularly in that it is coming from someone who advocates so strongly on such important issues.

This is, I agree a brutal place. In 1986, I sat in the Legislature day after day while the opposition Tory party tried to make allegations that I was a corrupt individual. Other members of my caucus were the victims of the same brutal attacks, not based on sex, gender, ethnicity or anything else. It hurt so deeply. Let me just give you an example.

None of us likes the kind of catcalling and insults that are often thrown across the table, but if there is anything at all that we should agree on in a non-partisan way as parliamentarians, we should agree not to constrain the right of free–and that includes offensive speech in the Legislature.

A gazillion things happen in a democratic society that are offensive. I think probably the Minister has been involved for much of her life in campaigning against pornography because it is offensive and because it is degrading. But the underlying interest of free speech says that in a democratic society we have to tolerate it, and our efforts to raise the standards and raise the level of humanity have to be done within context. Any time you start to constrain that, and most particularly when you start to constrain that in a Parliament and in the Legislature of a Parliament, you are inherently and by implication advocating that the same constraint be available and be placed on any organization, and worse still, on any individual in society.

We just cannot do that. If we start to do that, to think in those terms in protecting an individual, whether that individual be a woman or a member of a visible minority–I find the expression "visible minority" offensive. Do I have the right, in the Legislature, to require that the Speaker call a member to order when he uses the phrase "visible minority"? Who is ultimately to decide? Is it the government that shall decide whether we shall categorize people and exclude people on the basis of their colour? Is it appropriate to use the word "Negro," or is it only appropriate to use the word "black," and who should decide? In my view, particularly in a Parliament, that decision ought not to be made, and it certainly ought not to be vested in the ad hoc judgement of a Speaker. I reiterate: Sometimes it is an offensive place; sometimes it is a brutal place, and sometimes the conduct of members makes me, and I think every other member of this Legislature, want to simply say, "Mr. Speaker, I resign my seat because I cannot take it any more."

Barbara Sullivan: I think the Minister has brought to the House in the guise of one issue a larger issue. I think what she is generally addressing is the decorum of the House, the evenhandedness of the Speaker's rulings, the sense of discipline that comes as a result of existing rules through the Speaker's rulings dealing with members of the House firmly and with dignity and all members of the House in that situation.

As a woman legislator my experience has been that there is no other job probably in Canada and perhaps in North America that is as free of sexual bias in terms of the demands, the responsibilities, the approach that is expected and required of women who participate in the House. Their responsibilities as legislators, their duties to their communities, the demands that are made from constituents are equal on women, as they are on men, and the responsibilities that are expected are equivalent. I think that women in the House can be as aggressive in their participation and in their decisions to participate or not to participate in any particular activity that forms the ultimate totality of the responsibilities of a member.

I was quite interested at the beginning of the New Democratic Party term of office that there was some speculation, particularly from women legislators newly elected, that the House would become a kinder, gentler place because there were more women involved as legislators. To me, that was itself a sexist remark, because it seems to me the assumption that kindness and gentility is a function only of being a woman is something that should be put to rest. We want, and indeed we need, women to be aggressive in the pursuit of issues of justice, in pursuit of issues of equity, in pursuit of fairness and responsibility in terms of fiscal management of the economy. I found that assumption, as it was expressed, rather offensive as a woman.

As you know, I served here as a backbencher when the Liberal government was in office. I saw both women and men legislators being hounded and viciously criticized on a personal basis by the opposition, including members of the Minister's party and, if I may say, especially members of that party. I think what occurred at that time, and what is still occurring and would not be corrected by the proposals for amendment, is that those attacks were totally apart from the arguments being put forward at the time. The person was never separated from the debate. I think that is a shame and I think it is wrong. Unfortunately, it happened then and it continues to happen now.

I do not think the suggestions would solve that problem, because in fact they are exclusive rather than inclusive. If we are talking about changing the rules specifically in relationship to race, to gender, to age etc, we still do not catch the vicious personal attack. I was reminded, actually, in looking through the argumentation, about what is now considered wonderful wit of Winston Churchill.

In the annals of parliamentary wit it is still referred to as something that is considered to be very funny. In my view, there is a little bit of a sexist nature to that, and in fact there is more than a sexist nature; there is a personal attack there that was inappropriate. On the other hand, the attack that was made by Lady Astor on Winston Churchill was equally personal. I think that under the Minister's rules, neither of those situations would have changed.

When Lady Astor said to Winston Churchill, "You are drunk," he said, "And, madam, you are ugly, but tomorrow I will be sober," that was considered very witty.

I am concerned, certainly, with some of the issues my colleague raised in relationship to the political correctness of language. We know how words and the use of words, particularly as women, have changed over recent years and how some people are offended by not having the "man" or "woman" attached to the word "chair." I always get a chuckle out of Rosie Abella, who talks about being called a chair now, in relationship to being a person, when what else would they call her; perhaps a table or something?

I think the sensitivity of women is one that has been adapted and understood broadly over the past 10 years, largely. Before that I do not think people understood how the use of language could be offensive and seen to be a putdown just in terms of the normal language. In English, the points have been made. The points in other languages and the sensitivities, the political correctness of the use of those words, is a substantially different issue. So in some ways what we are talking about is political correctness in the English language, which also worries me in terms of some of the discussion relating to sexist language in the House.

I do not find the Legislature a sexist place. I am more concerned about the viciousness of personal attacks that are separated from the debate and from the legitimate argument. Indeed, I have said this in this committee before and in other places: What concerns me far more is the lack of depth to the debate, for whatever reason that occurs, whether it is lack of research or lack of preparation or inadequate time. Those are matters that, it seems to me, were the members to put more attention to them, the level of debate generally would be elevated.

Sean Conway: I have been around longer than anyone. I bear the lacerations of 10 years of parliamentary exchange with Dr. Bette Stephenson. I remember well three years of being in a seat with Sheila Copps.

I am trying to think back over my 17 years. I can remember cases of a tripartisan nature where people have been stupid, insulting–where they have, in the main, been called to order, as they ought to have been. I think if I had been in the chair I would probably have called a few more people to order and I would probably have thrown a few more people out.

One of the keys to this whole process is the speakership. There is a great treatise, I think, to be written on the failure of the Ontario speakership. In the main, it has not been a particularly heroic past for a whole series of reasons, one of which I think is just the physical layout of the room.

I have had some very good friends who have occupied the Chair. But it is only in the last two years that we were able to eliminate the appeal of the Speaker's ruling. I would never take a job where my word was not final. I spent a lot of time playing hockey and refereeing hockey. The condition of any refereeing job I would ever take is: Give me a rule book and give me authority to exercise this rule. If Mills is bad, he is going to be sent to the penalty box, and if he gets lippy, I will throw him out. If I heard anybody say what you said was said to the member for St. Andrew-St. Patrick–that is misconduct and that person is out. To me, that is in our rules. If it is not in their execution, then I am all for improving on the execution.

Some really awful things were said publicly. I do not mean to be partisan. I will not mention any names, but boy, they were pretty terrible, and I remember the discipline being applied. Maybe the discipline was not firm enough, and I am quite prepared to say that if someone gets up and says something about someone's native heritage, which was one of the cases I can remember, and someone else gets up and says what you allege was said to the member for St. Andrew-St. Patrick, I do not even want to debate the point. Either I want a total and abject apology or that person is out the door, and we think about terms and conditions for letting that person in. I would like to be the Speaker for that day.

I remember the first question I was asked as a cabinet minister: "Well, do you, Mr. Conway, as an apparently practising Roman Catholic, think you can effect the separate school legislation?" I thought it was a fair question, because I suspected it was a question that a lot of people would have had. I remember my NDP opponents in a few elections saying, "What this riding needs is a family man." I got the point, and people made the choice.

The Legislature of 1992 bears, in many ways, little resemblance to the Legislature I came to in 1975. It is only television that has cleaned up the act to a greater extent, because now you cannot stagger in drunk, as many prominent people did.

The point I want to make is that if some of this is going on, and I do not doubt that it is, it has got to stop. I have a problem as a 40-year-old single male with some of the nomenclature, because I do not know where to start any more. I have seen some good friends of mine get in terrible situations. Some 65-year-old person, born in Upper Canada in 1920, trying in 1986 to talk responsibly in Parliament, and you know, what is bred in the bone must out in the flesh. Some of the language of his formative age or her formative age, which was a generation or two before mine, slips out in the person and sounds very déclassé.

I look at the nomenclature and I think, "I am with Clyde Gilmour." Clyde was on the radio the other day going on about how he refuses at whatever age he is, to refer to friends as pieces of furniture, but he is in a minority. It changes. One thinks of some of the language of 1992. For example, if you were to talk to someone who would be dozing off for 25 years and used the word "gay," the person would not have any clue of what a generation had done to that word.

One of the most interesting things about the English language is that it is dynamic and particularly evolutionary. I do not know; as I say, with certain groups of people now I mutter, because I do not know what the proper phraseology is. I do not want to give offence, and if I do, and I have, I very much appreciate people saying, "That is unacceptable, inappropriate, and I would prefer you not use that." That I think is perfectly fair. If women find "lady" offensive, then I want to know, and I have been told by my friends it is offensive. The correlative of that used to be "gentleman." I guess being sort of a fool sometimes, I might well have argued then we should strike that from the lexicon. I do not think men find "gentlemen" offensive, and therefore by the test I think we could probably agree to, it passes.

I guess the point I want to make is that we are as individuals and as parliamentarians now part of an institution that has virtually no respect left, and we have got to be concerned about that. The world has changed and what was acceptable 15 and 20 years ago is simply not acceptable in many cases today.

Editor's Note: Following further debate Mike Farnan moved that the submission of the Minister and the transcript of the committee proceedings be forwarded to the ad hoc committee on parliamentary reform for its review. The motion was agreed to.

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Last Updated: 2020-09-14