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The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.


In the past couple of weeks, issues around parliamentary privilege have come to the fore in a couple of interesting ways. The first was an Ontario Superior Court decision that ruled that the provisions under the act that enables the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) which limit parliamentary privilege for its members is unconstitutional, and requires a constitutional amendment to do so. The second was Conservative MP Cathay Wagantall being told to leave the Parliamentary precinct because she refused to disclose her vaccination status, given the vaccine mandate for entry into the precinct, and claims that this violates her Charter rights and the will of her constituents. This too is an issue of privilege, but one that does not work out in Wagantall’s favour.

The court challenge to NSICOP was brought forward by an Ontario law professor who has a deep and abiding belief in Parliamentary privilege, and who objected to the way that privilege was limited in this way, particularly given the construction of the committee, which is not actually a parliamentary committee. Instead, it’s a committee of parliamentarians, but they operate under appointment by the prime minister, and that’s a big reason why they are able to limit their privilege in the way that they did—in theory. We have a court decision that says otherwise, but it is fully expected that this will be appealed for a few different reasons. The professor considered this to be a bit of a bait-and-switch, though I wouldn’t necessarily agree. There was a certain logic to building this committee in this way at that point in time—that MPs and senators were not used to handling classified material, so they created a structure that could get them used to it in a manner that emphasized the gravity of their situation. As well, there are physical considerations—there are no secure areas within the Parliament buildings where parliamentarians can receive classified information, or to store such materials in secure servers, or accommodate security-trained staff.

Nevertheless, there is a concern that his whole committee could be unduly influenced by the prime minister and be a place where scandals go to die. There is no evidence of that after several years in operation, and it should be noted that no members have resigned in protest of anything the prime minister did or redacted, which is an important indicator. In fact, when the professor laid out a particular scenario when he launched the court challenge, of a senator on the committee finding out some shocking information, and being blocked at every turn by the prime minister in order to try and raise the alarm about it, nowhere in this scenario did this hypothetical senator and her colleagues publicly resign en masse from the committee in protest, all while not disclosing the details of what they learned, which would have touched off a widening political scandal for that prime minister to try and address. There are always avenues when privilege is curtailed by the very nature of politics, which is why I found both the scenario and the alarm to be overly dramatic.

Regardless, one of the key elements of the court decision was the ability for Parliament to limit its own privileges, which it should have the capacity to do through simple legislation alone—there should be no need to use an amending formula that involves the consent of the provinces because it’s a matter for parliament and parliament alone. Could this have been made clearer in NSICOP’s enabling legislation? Probably, but considering that this is an appointed body of parliamentarians and not a parliamentary committee, there shouldn’t have been the need to declare that this required such a constitutional amendment. There has also been commentary around this court decision that says that if an MP reveals classified information under the cloak of privilege that they can’t be thrown in jail like the legislation currently allows for. This is also wrong—parliament has the ability to enforce its privileges as it sees fit, and if MPs decided that one of their own did something grievous like publicly releasing classified information and endangering national security, then they could vote to jail the offending MP. That is absolutely within their powers.

Which brings me to the issue of Wagantall and her removal from the parliamentary precinct. The House of Commons decided for itself to implement a vaccine mandate for the Parliamentary precinct, and the Senate did the same for the areas under their purview. Parliament setting its own rules is a very big part of privilege, and Wagantall has decided to ignore that to pander either to anti-vaxx sentiment, or because she actually believes it, and I’m not sure which of the two is worse. Whichever the case may be, her Charter rights are not actually being violated for two reasons. The first is that courts have ruled that the infringements of these kinds of public health measures are permissible under the Section 1 of the Charter, which allows for reasonable limits in a free and democratic society, and measures to contain a pandemic fit within that.

The second, and more important reason, is that Parliament Hill is not subject to the Charter because of privilege (which is also why it doesn’t fall under health and safety legislation, or why the NDP can’t set up an actual union for their staff). The need for Parliament to set its own rules overrides all other statutory authority, which is why it’s embedded in the constitution. And just like MPs could jail one of their own for leaking classified information, they have decided to remove Wagantall because she is contemptuous enough of the rules that Parliament has set for itself by ignoring the vaccine mandate.

With regards to NSICOP, it is perhaps time to convert it to a full parliamentary committee, but that doesn’t mean that privilege couldn’t be limited (as happens in Australia) or that the prime minister can’t redact their reports (as happens in the UK). It would nevertheless mean that MPs and senators would have the ability—and responsibility—to sanction their own members for breaching confidences, much like they have sanctioned Wagantall for breaching the vaccine mandate.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.


This content is restricted to subscribers

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.


This content is restricted to subscribers

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.


This content is restricted to subscribers

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.


It was inevitable that hybrid sessions would be returning to the House of Commons after the Liberals and NDP both decided that they were necessary, but in trying to justify the decision, there was a combination of telling on themselves, as well as creating a new and impossible standard that they will one day come to regret. On top of that, they are continuing to set a precedent for ways in which ministers can avoid accountability both from the Commons itself as well as the media, which makes this government’s promises about openness and transparency even more hollow than they already were.

For starters, part of MPs telling on themselves is the fact that this decision is decisive proof that they do not care about the health and safety of the interpretation staff. MPs have been told repeatedly that seventy percent of interpreters have suffered either acoustic or cognitive injuries as a result of the hybrid sittings, and that they are being asked to put their health and safety on the line so that MPs can stay home. They have also been told that the finite number of freelancer interpreters in the country, who have been filling in for those interpreters who are unable to work, have not been afforded the same sick benefits that the full-time interpreters have been, meaning that they are even more at risk because they can’t take the time off when they suffer the same injuries. And MPs have proven that they do not care, and that these interpreters are essentially furniture to them.

The other way that MPs told on themselves was in some of the ways they tried to justify this move as being more than just for the pandemic. NDP MP Laurel Collins took her infant into the Chamber with her, and held her during her speech so that she could demonstrate why she needs hybrid sittings for instances where she can’t travel because of her daughter. Numerous other MPs, past and present, lined up over social media to praise Collins and to insist that this was about work-life balance for young parents – no matter that MPs already can design whatever accommodations they see fit to help them, unlike any other workplace in the country (which is fair, because Parliament is not like any other workplace) – but it proves that this is not about the pandemic. Liberals were trying to institute these hybrid sittings ever since 2015, and were being rebuffed by other parties, and they didn’t let the pandemic go to waste in proving the need for this change. They mean for these changes to be permanent, and that is deleterious to the health of our Parliament going forward.

But aside from this particular bout of telegraphing motives, the overt framing that the Liberals used was to try to kick at the Conservatives for the unknown number of MPs in their caucus who allegedly have “vaccine exemptions” of dubious merit given how statistically improbably any more than one exemption would be, and the fact that at least one MP who has claimed such an exemption – Dean Allison – has also been touting the benefits of ivermectin and has invited any “scientists” who want to dispute the merits of vaccination onto his local call-in show. The most irritating part of this, however, is that the Liberals kept trying to frame this as MPs feeling “unsafe” in the House of Commons as a result. They seem to have picked up this particular rhetorical device from certain segments of the online population who use the term of feeling “unsafe” in order to shut down any content they disagree with, and clearly that was what they were hoping to achieve.

Most concerning out of all of this was the fact that MPs have now set up an impossible standard of perfect attendance that never existed before, and which should not exist. There has been so much hyperbolic rhetoric about MPs not being able to raise the concerns of their constituents in debate or in being able to vote that they have literally just made their lives hell. Yes, representation matters, but there are other avenues than simply name-checking one’s riding during a prepared twenty-minute speech based on directions given to them by the House Leader’s office. Often that input is more seen and felt in the caucus room, which is behind closed doors but sometimes that’s where important work gets done without the need for public performance around it. There are more substantive ways to represent concerns than in giving speeches, which is why the concern is so overblown.

By creating this impossible standard around attendance, MPs have just ensured that their jobs, which are already essentially 24/7, even more demanding so that they can no longer take sick days or a leave of absence if it becomes necessary, as the expectation has been set that they must either attend virtually, or vote remotely. This is neither healthy nor responsible, and it also screws future parliaments because there are sometimes tactical absences necessary to prevent the government from falling on confidence votes when there is a much narrower divide in seats in a hung parliament, where one or two votes can make that difference. Those tactical absences are going to become impossible with this standard set, which could make for far more uncomfortable situations down the road.

This is just one more example of how fetishizing technology intended to solve certain problems only winds up creating other, more serious problems down the road. It’s not like they weren’t warned, or that some of the more forward-looking MPs could see this coming. It’s not like there aren’t voices who are telling them that this will only lead to MPs becoming further siloed, where they won’t be able to interact outside of the Chamber and see each other as human beings, who know that this will only further suffocate collegiality and decorum. MPs will come to regret this move before too long, but by then it will be too late, and all for the sake of trying to score points against the Conservatives.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.


This content is restricted to subscribers

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.