I am now ready to rule on the question of privilege raised by the hon. member for Wild Rose on September 30, 1997, concerning information allegedly denied to him by an official of the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs.
First of all, I want to thank the hon. member for Langley—Abbotsford, the leader of the official opposition in the House of Commons, as well as the hon. member for Fraser Valley for their contribution to this debate.
In his submission, the hon. member for Wild Rose claimed that an official of the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs had deliberately misled him and subsequently denied him information. This, he argued, constituted a contempt of Parliament.
According to the hon. member, on September 16 he was invited to a meeting with the departmental official to receive a progress report on the Stony reserve, a reserve located in his riding. Citizens of the Stony reserve apparently accompanied him. At some point during the meeting he was made to leave by the official because it seemed that he was not entitled to certain information that was about to be disclosed.
When he raised the question of privilege in the House, the hon. member stated that he had requested this meeting to obtain information which he contended was directly related to the preparation of a question which he wanted to ask the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. He added that he had given notice to the minister of his intention to ask such a question.
On October 2 the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development made a statement to provide additional information on this question of privilege. This was followed by further comments from the hon. member for Wild Rose, the leader of the official opposition, the hon. member for Fraser Valley and the hon. member for Langley—Abbotsford as well as the hon. member for Wentworth—Burlington.
The Chair always takes any matter concerning the privileges of members, particularly any matter that may constitute a contempt of Parliament, very seriously.
As Speaker Fraser noted in a ruling given on October 10, 1989 found at page 4457 of the Debates :
—the Speaker does not rule on whether a breach of privilege or a contempt has in fact been committed. The Speaker only determines whether an application based on a claim of contempt or breach of privilege is, on first impression, of sufficient importance to set aside the regular business of the House and go forward for a decision by the House.
Before proceeding, the Chair feels that it might be helpful to explain to members, and especially to new members of this House, the difference between a contempt of the House and a breach of privilege.
Contempts are offences against the authority or dignity of Parliament. These offences cannot be enumerated or categorized. As stated in Erskine May, 21st edition, at page 115:
Generally speaking, any act or omission which obstructs or impedes either House of Parliament in the performance of its functions, or which obstructs or impedes any member or officer of such House in the discharge of his duty, or which has a tendency, directly or indirectly, to produce such results may be treated as a contempt even though there is no precedent of the offence.
Privilege, on the other hand, can be divided into two finite categories: the rights extended to members individually, and those extended to the House as a collectivity. The rights and immunities that are awarded to members individually are generally categorized under five headings. They are freedom of speech, freedom from arrest and civil actions, exemption from jury duty, exemption from attendance as a witness and freedom from molestation and intimidation.
As for the rights and powers of the House as a collectivity they may be classified as follows: the regulation of its own internal affairs, the authority to maintain the attendance and service of its members, the power to expel members guilty of disgraceful conduct, the right to institute inquiries and to call witnesses and demand papers, the right to administer oaths to witnesses, and the authority to deal with breaches of privilege or contempt.
When claiming that a certain action constitutes a breach of privilege, members must specify which of these privileges is affected.
The hon. member for Wild Rose argued that the actions taken by the official from the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs constitute a contempt of Parliament.
Technically, obstructing members in the discharge of their responsibilities to the House or in their participation in its proceedings is considered to be a contempt of the House. As Joseph Maingot writes in his book Parliamentary Privilege in Canada at page 73:
—the member must be exercising his functions as a member in a committee or in the House in the transaction of parliamentary business. Whatever he says or does in those circumstances is said or done during a “proceeding in Parliament”; in other words, while the member is functioning as a member, not in his constituency, but while actually participating in parliamentary business and saying or doing something necessarily incidental to parliamentary business.
Thus, in order for a member to claim that his privileges have been breached or that a contempt has occurred, he or she must have been functioning as a member at the time of the alleged offence, that is, actually participating in a proceeding of Parliament. The activities of members in their constituencies do not appear to fall within the definition of a “proceeding in Parliament”.
In the 21st edition of Erskine May it is stated at page 125:
Correspondence with constituents or official bodies, for example, and the provision of information sought by Members on matters of public concern will very often, depending on the circumstances of the case, fall outside the scope of `proceedings in Parliament' against which a claim of breach of privilege will be measured.
In instances where members have claimed that they have been obstructed or harassed, not directly in their roles as elected representatives but while being involved in matters of a political or constituency related nature, Speakers have consistently ruled that this does not constitute a breach of privilege.
On April 29, 1971 Speaker Lamoureux, in a ruling on a question of privilege concerning rights of members to visit penitentiaries at page 5338 of the Debates stated that:
Parliamentary privilege does not go much beyond the right of free speech in the House of Commons and the right of a Member to discharge his duties in the House as a Member of the House of Commons.
In the same vein I refer members to page 3580 of the Debates of February 26, 1975, where Speaker Jerome clearly stated:
—the classic definition of a question of privilege does not fit circumstances in which a Member in his duties outside this House finds that his scope is being restricted or attempts are being made to restrict his scope of intervention and effective work on behalf of not only his own constituents but his point of view as a Member of the federal parliament.
On the matter of a member's constituency duties, Speaker Sauvé pointed out in a decision delivered on July 15, 1980, at pages 2914 and 1915 of the Debates :
—whatever duty a Member has to his constituents, before a valid question of privilege arises in respect to any alleged interference, such interference must relate to the Member's parliamentary duties.
After careful consideration of the precedents, I conclude that activities related to the seeking of information in order to prepare a question do not fall within the strict definition of what constitutes a “proceeding in Parliament” and, therefore, they are not protected by privilege.
Let me now turn to another aspect of the matter before me. In the statement she gave to the House on October 2, 1997, the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development made reference to the Access to Information Act as well as the Privacy Act. Whether the application of these two acts should be clarified is a matter for the courts, not the Speaker. I concur totally with Speaker Fraser when, in a ruling on March 17, 1987, at page 4262 of the Debates he emphasized that “The extent of the application of any law is a question that the courts should be asked to decide and not the Speaker”.
In the same decision Speaker Fraser further stated: “The Speaker's duty is confined to interpreting the procedures and practices of the House of Commons”.
May I draw members' attention to citation 168(5) of Beauchesne's sixth edition, at page 49, which states “The Speaker will not give a decision upon a constitutional question nor decide a question of law”.
Furthermore, I wish to remind the House that it is not up to the Chair to comment on the behaviour of public servants in the performance of their duties.
In order to fulfil their parliamentary duties, members should of course have access to the information they require. On the other hand, they should be aware of the constraints under which public servants must operate when providing information.
The Chair is mindful of the multiple responsibilities, duties and constituency related activities of all members and of the importance they play in the work of every member of Parliament. However, my role as your Speaker is to consider only those matters that affect the parliamentary work of members.
The hon. member for Wild Rose has explained that this matter touches upon his preparation for questions to the minister. I accept the hon. member's statement just as I accept the minister's explanation of the events.
There is clearly a dispute about the facts of the case and it does not fall to the Speaker to settle that dispute.
I have concluded that this case constitutes a grievance on the part of the hon. member, but since this situation has not actually precluded the hon. member from participating in a parliamentary proceeding the Chair cannot find that a case of a contempt of parliament has occurred.
I thank the hon. member for Wild Rose for his intervention and for bringing this matter to our attention.