Violence, Gender, and Childishness in the House of Commons

Yesterday’s melee in the House of Commons exemplifes all that is wrong with parliamentary behaviour in this country.

It was ridiculously inappropriate for the Prime Minister to take it on himself to wade into a group of MPs — using language that was both inappropriate for the House of Commons and downright violent — to grab a colleague against that colleague’s will. It goes without saying that such behaviour has absolutely no place in Canada’s parliament, or any workplace for that matter. And it calls into question the Prime Minister’s respect for the institution, ego (it’s the speaker’s job, not his, to move things along), temperament, and judgment. He acted like an entitled child, not a government leader.

Yes the Prime Minister’s elbow to Brosseau was unintended. Yes, he apologized, as he should have. No, I don’t see his actions as exemplifying violence against women. But I do see the PM’s actions through a lens of gender. Trudeau’s behaviour was characteristically male. In my experience women just don’t march into groups and start asserting their will through physical force (of course, not all men do either). It’s called “manhandling” for a reason. Consider what images the term “womanhandling” brings to mind in contrast! Such behaviour has predictable consequences, as we teach our children from a young age. Trudeau may not have intended to hurt Brosseau, but when you march into a crowd and start tossing your elbows around, it’s predictable that someone will get hurt.

Mulcair’s anger was also righteously male and his actions inappropriate in my opinion. It was, again, up to the speaker to restore order not Mr. Mulcair. Mulcair should have expressed his outrage to the House as a whole. The whole knight in shining armour protecting the damsel in distress scenario was a bit much. Mulcair could have waited for Brosseau to return and speak for herself. Was Mulcair going to challenge Trudeau to a duel, for God’s sake? There are reports that he had to be restrained.

Last, and a little remarked upon aspect of this sorry business, was the reaction of the Liberal MPs, who applauded enthusiastically at the Prime Minister crossing the aisle to grab the Conservative whip, and who cleared the benches like a pee wee hockey team thereafter as the PM and Mulcair started yelling at each other.

The saddest thing for me is how entirely predictable that part was. MPs routinely interrupt each other, bang on their desks, yell childish things, and applaud their “team” as if they were at a hockey game rather charged with the responsibility of governing Canada in the democratically-elected House of Commons.

A few years ago I was giving a lecture on Canadian democracy to a group of non-traditional students from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Many of these students are recovering from drug and alcohol addictions, so I’m guessing they have spent a lot of time surrounded by people in altered states behaving badly. Many have lived or still lived on the streets, where I assume decorum does not always prevail. Yet they were shocked by a clip I showed them of day to day behaviour in Canada’s parliament. These (bright, brave, committee) students, who have presumably “seen it all,” were shocked to see that Canada’s MPs act like badly behaved children.

If there was ever a moment to reform behaviour in the House of Commons, this is it.

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