Elizabeth May Speech on Parliament Hill Security

Elizabeth May: Mr. Speaker, I also, with my friend from St. John’s East, do not intend to use the full 20 minutes.

We have been talking in this place this morning about parliamentary privilege and its roots in our Constitution. I just want to review some of them. I want to start by saying that I appreciate the Speaker’s ruling of a prima facie finding of a breach of parliamentary privilege in the delays that occurred and in the indiscriminatory way pedestrian travel and vehicular travel was stopped by the RCMP without regard to whether they were stopping members of Parliament, who have a specific privilege to access Parliament Hill, tourists, or anyone else.

We have already had some very good points made by other members. I will just touch on them briefly.

The House of Commons security officers and the Senate security officers know on sight who is a member of Parliament, who belongs here, and who might be a stranger of whom they should take some note or be concerned about. In an event such as October 22, and let us hope such an event never occurs again, I certainly would have a great deal more confidence in the House of Commons security folks and officers because they actually know which person in the room is a member of Parliament and which person is someone they have never seen before.


Every day, as I approach the House of Commons, and it is not every day I take a taxi, but when I do I encounter obviously lovely young people working in the RCMP who do not know if I am here to clean the floors in the building or wait on tables in the dining room or if I might in fact be a member of Parliament. I feel a lot more confident in the House of Commons security system, and I have a lot of misgivings about the decisions that were made in the rushed-through debate that took place here on February 6.

I also should note again that Bill C-59 would take that rushed debate, in an omnibus fashion, and put in charge of security in the House of Commons, for the first time in our entire history, an RCMP officer and not someone who, as my friend from St. John’s East quite properly pointed out, should in fact, and historically always did, report to the Speaker.

When we talk about these privileges, the privilege that exists in the House of Commons, it has its roots in the preamble of the Constitution Act of 1867, which calls for a constitution similar in principle to that of the United Kingdom. Parliamentary privilege was partially codified in 1689 in the U.K. Bill of Rights, in article 9, in the first act of William and Mary, which has constitutional force in Canada.

The freedom of speech that is referred to in that section was asserted at least as early as 1523, so when we stand in this place and say that parliamentary privilege means something and has a long-standing tradition, we do not mean the last couple of years or the last couple of decades. We mean since 1867. We are talking about historical, rooted parliamentary privilege that goes back to 1523.

Prior to our own confederation, and as to the specific grant from the Parliament of the United Kingdom, the common law principle already well established that privileges were not just incidental to a legislature. They were deemed to exist. In fact, parliamentary privilege today carries the same constitutional weight as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

We have had some litigation and court actions that have further established and ferreted out the questions. If an event occurs in the House of Commons, it is not the same as saying that we as members of Parliament have some sort of diplomatic immunity, that if one were to assault another, there are no laws to cover this. We are not a law unto ourselves. We are in Parliament. That was established in the Vaid decision, which dealt with the human rights concern of a former employee of the Speaker about whether discrimination had taken place. Parliamentary privilege does not extend so far as to say that we cannot exert rights we have under other laws in this place.

I did find it interesting, in going through some research, this finding of one of the great constitutional law experts of this place, Joseph Maingot, who looked back to when parliamentary privilege was asserted in terms of our security. This example comes from 1866, when there was a physical altercation between an assistant librarian and a member of Parliament. I cannot imagine such a thing happening today, but in any case, the member of Parliament raised it in the House, and the Speaker’s remarks make it very clear what the role of the Speaker is in security in this place.

I will cite from the book, Parliamentary Privilege in Canada, found at page 140, citing the journal of the province of Canada, from August 1, 1866 in which the Speaker said:

…it is a power incidental to the constitution of this House to preserve peace and order within the precincts and protect Members of it from insults and assault. This power is necessary not only to insure the freedom of action of Members, but that freedom of discussion which is one of their fundamental rights.

I would point out, once again, that it is not just votes, and I want to underscore this point. According to the most early finding of parliamentary privilege by a Canadian Speaker, it is very clear that freedom of discussion is one of our fundamental rights. Therefore, we should not be prevented, even by seconds, from taking up a spot in a speaking order. We all know as parliamentarians how easily one can find an opportunity for speaking when we come to this place to enter into debate, such as this morning.

We did not know when we showed up this morning from the government orders that the Speaker would have ready for us a finding on questions of privilege raised earlier by members of the NDP, but we adjust ourselves. We come here and as parliamentarians, we passionately embrace the principles of this place and respect the supremacy of Parliament at all times. However, one of our most fundamental privileges and rights as parliamentarians is freedom of discussion. If we are impeded in that, then our rights are infringed and democracy is violated.

I cited a finding from 1866. We know that in the past number of years, the privileges and elections committee of the Canadian House of Commons has always ruled that police forces coming onto the precinct on official business require the permission of the Speaker. Not to belabour the point, and I think everyone in this House knows, but the exclusive privilege of the House has been to regulate proceedings within its own walls, which is a fundamental principle that must be respected. However, we are making changes, clearly from the rushed debate and subsequent vote of early February to the now rushed omnibus Bill C-59 with changes to create security for the parliamentary precinct with a director who shall always be under law a member of the RCMP, who would therefore not be reporting to the Speaker. These are not arcane changes. These are not small matters if we are to think forward to another era.

I agree with my friends who have earlier pointed out that this is not a partisan matter. This is a question of Constitution. For example, another executive could be composed of a party that does not even exist at this point in our parliamentary discourse and no one should take offence. What if we had a prime minister someday who decided that it would be convenient to stop members of opposition parties from getting to the House for votes and was able to ask the RCMP to make it so? There is a fundamental principle of democracy that requires that the privilege of Parliament and the protection of our rights and privileges in this place is vested in the Speaker and never in a prime minister.

We are at the very moment going through a fundamental transition, which is a breach with all principles and all tradition going back more than 500 years, and we are doing it in a rushed fashion. This strikes me as wrong, prima facie.

We have an opportunity today to see that this issue comes to crystallization in a couple of events that could be dismissed as minor.

Mr. Speaker, I urge you and I urge all my colleagues in this place to find that the conflict of RCMP officers stopping members of Parliament from getting to Parliament Hill is not trivial. It is the crystallization of a very dangerous change, which we will not adequately discuss in omnibus bill fashion, but which the PROC could look at and could call witnesses on.

I urge members to vote to send this matter to PROC and to request, for instance, that we hear expert witnesses, including our former Sergeant-at-Arms, current ambassador to Ireland, Kevin Vickers. I would wish to hear his best advice.

I remember very clearly when we rushed through discussion on February 6, and when the opposition raised concerns that it was a mistake to consolidate security of the House of Commons and the parliamentary precinct overall into the RCMP’s hands, without disrespect to that agency, but on constitutional grounds. The response from many members of the Conservative Party was well surely we can all agree. The Auditor General said some years ago, that we need to have a consolidation and better integration of security on Parliament Hill. I do not think anyone would disagree with that. The question is, who gets to be in charge of that improved security?

Why not have the Speaker of the House and the Speaker of the Senate be in control, as they have always been, of a consolidated force where the Sergeant-at-Arms of this place is in charge not just of the physical building, but of the grounds? Why should we have a decision that overturns centuries of constitutional divisions that have a very real democratic purpose: where we meet with the privileges and protections of our rights, liberties and freedoms, that the protection of those rights and liberties and freedoms be vested in the Speaker and never in the executive branch. It is a fundamental question.

Now that we have the opportunity through what might be dismissed as minor incidents, I urge all members to find they give us the opportunity to have proper discussion, thorough review, to call the right witnesses and not allow Bill C-59 as an omnibus budget bill to blast through and create permanent changes, or at least changes until some future government can repeal them, and the dismantling of a system that has worked and served us very well.

I want to close my remarks by thanking the House of Commons security officers and the Senate security officers. These are the officers, particularly in the House of Commons on October 22, who risked their lives and did the most to protect us. Although as other members have noted we do not have reports from what happened on that day, we do know that the gunman was stopped at the door by an unarmed House security guard, Samearn Son. He wrestled with the gunman and stopped what could have been a much worse event by giving others the chance to prepare themselves.

I mean no disrespect to the RCMP, but officers did not notice someone running by them with a gun. When they saw a chauffeur being removed from a limousine and a hijacked vehicle moving up to Centre Block, it is hindsight to say why did they not put on their sirens, but we know there was no warning to our internal security force from our external security force. I want one more time before closing to say again how deeply all of us in this place are grateful to our former Sergeant-at-Arms and the entire security team in this place.