Mr. Speaker, I rise today on a question of privilege related to an event that took place a little earlier this afternoon as a number of my colleagues and I were returning to the House of Commons for a vote.
Allow me to preface my comments by saying that as of the events of October last year, and the constant reminders, our admiration and respect for the security forces that govern and protect us on Parliament Hill is consistent for me and my colleagues on the New Democrat benches and all members of the House. We commend them for their work and for their constant courage. They have a difficult task. They maintain access for the public to this institution, this House of Commons, and to all of the parliamentary buildings. They have to maintain an incredibly high level of security, given the world we live in. They also must maintain, as is ordered by this House and our constitution, access for all members of Parliament to the House of Commons in order for us to fulfill our duties on behalf of Canadians.
Today, however, I, and others, was blocked from accessing the parliamentary precinct by an officer of the RCMP. The physical obstruction impeded me from performing my parliamentary duties, which I believe constitutes a prima facie breach of my privilege as a member of this House.
I will remind the House that this a matter that concerns all members of Parliament, and there were, in fact, Conservative members of Parliament on the bus who shared my concern about the actions that took place and our inability to return to the House, because as members will know, today we had a number of votes. The votes we were returning to were taking place a few short minutes from the moment we were stopped from entering the gate onto Parliament Hill.
Erskine May's Treatise on The Law, Privileges, Proceedings and Usage of Parliament defines “privilege” in the following way, on page 75:
Parliamentary privilege is the sum of the peculiar rights enjoyed by each House collectively...and by Members of each House individually, without which they could not discharge their functions....
We take this, of course, very seriously. It is the foundation of our democratic principles in this place.
Let me explain what happened. I think that will set the ground for a ruling perhaps later today or in the future.
Earlier today I was denied reasonable, timely access to the parliamentary precinct by an officer of the force. At the time, I was coming to the House of Commons to attend a vote to adjourn the House of Commons.
When the bells started ringing for the vote, I was in the Valour Building for a meeting of the Standing Committee on Finance. I was chairing the meeting at the time. We had remained with a number of MPs to entertain the witnesses we had who were discussing the important issue of terror financing. Once the committee adjourned its meeting, with sufficient time to return to the House so that all members could make it in a reasonable time, I went outside onto Wellington Street and took one of the official shuttles of Parliament to get back to the House immediately for the vote. There were some, I want to approximate, seven or eight minutes until we were voting, which is certainly sufficient time.
As the shuttle approached the East Block entrance to the parliamentary precinct on Wellington Street, an officer refused to allow the shuttle to turn into the security area, leaving us in the middle of Wellington, in the left-hand turn lane. I am sure members are familiar with it.
MPs from both sides of the House, Conservatives and New Democrats, particularly my Conservative colleagues, I should say, from my recollection, raised their concern about the need to proceed to the House immediately. The time was approaching perhaps five minutes before the vote was to take place. They raised their concern and asked the driver to allow us, if we could not turn into the parliamentary precinct, to at least disembark from the bus.
Not surprisingly, though, the driver of the bus was unable to do so, because we were in the middle of Wellington Street, and that would have been entirely unsafe for all members, and we were denied that permission, which was of course right.
We then asked the driver, some of my Conservative colleagues, to drive onto the sidewalk portion. For those who are familiar with the parliamentary precinct, there is a small buttress before one hits the gate where the RCMP member was standing and denying access. The driver also indicated that this was not possible. It was not permitted by the security conditions of the House, and the RCMP was not allowing that option either. We were literally not stuck in traffic but stuck in the middle of the road, unable to proceed onto Parliament Hill.
This is, I presume, part of some security protocol that was going on at the time, but that was not explained to us when we eventually were able to pass through.
The RCMP officer signalled to our driver, and then through him to us, that it would be another three to five minutes before he would allow us to proceed in the shuttle.
As members can imagine, this caused a certain amount of consternation among me and my colleagues, more so from my Conservative friends because every minute as the bells are ringing and time is ticking down is a precious one. When the votes commence they are not done again if someone is unable to attend, once a vote is taken.
We were not told what reason led to the officer denying us access to the parliamentary precinct, but many other MPs were on the shuttle with me. The member for London—Fanshawe, whose office is in the Valour Building, was also on that shuttle, trying to make every effort to get to the vote and perform her duties. Members can check this against their own memories, but I am almost certain that the member for North Vancouver and the member for South Shore—St. Margaret's were also on the bus, as well as one other colleague, whose name I am misplacing right now, from the Conservative caucus. I am sure if they seek it, they would have an opportunity to intervene in this debate because, as I have said a few times, they showed a certain amount of consternation.
At one point, one of my Conservative colleagues said that if this were a confidence vote the government could fall and this is unacceptable. While it was not a vote of confidence, we have had confidence votes in this place that have been decided by one or two votes on one side of the House. We all remember our dear departed friend, Mr. Cadman, who cast a vote in this House on a motion of confidence and that night in the House of Commons the government was to fall or continue based on that one singular vote.
There are a number of precedents for this. As members know, the second edition of the House of Commons Procedure and Practice says on page 110:
In circumstances where Members claim to be physically obstructed, impeded, interfered with or intimidated in the performance of their parliamentary functions, the Speaker is apt to find a prima facie breach of privilege has occurred.
Incidents involving physical obstruction—such as traffic barriers, security cordons and union picket lines either impeding Members' access to the Parliamentary Precinct or blocking their free movement within the precinct—as well as occurrences of physical assault or molestation have been found to be prima facie cases of privilege.
To reiterate, security cordons, traffic barriers or any kind of picket line would all qualify as reasons why we would find a prima facie case of a breach of privilege.
The second edition of Parliamentary Privilege in Canada by Joseph Maingot states on page 230, “Members are entitled to go about their parliamentary business undisturbed”.
Members have experienced this on the grounds typically as they approach a security cordon or any of the entrances to the House of Commons that many conduct ourselves with our parliamentary pins or a ring or some indication. However, that of course is not the rule. The security precinct is also required to be able to identify us as we come in. As I look around the House today, I see that members on both sides, including me, do not carry our pins at all times. Identification is paramount to allow us to enter. I notice the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons missed his pin today, but he of course has free and unobstructed access to the House and is granted that permission every time he comes in.
In fact, this is not the first time we have raised this matter. Every time, we are told again and again by the establishment that the matter will be looked into, yet we see little or no improvement. Examples of prima facie cases of breach of privilege abound. I will remind the House of Speaker's rulings in similar instances.
The first occurred on March 15, 2012 when, during the visit of a head of state, members who were not carrying their identification with them—not just the pin but some form of picture ID—were barred from accessing Parliament Hill by the security forces.
The second happened again basically two years later on September 25, 2014 when the member for Acadie—Bathurst was delayed in accessing Parliament Hill by a similar roadblock set up to allow the motorcade of the then president of Germany to pass. The obstruction again occurred while bells were ringing for a vote on time allocation presented by the Conservative government of the time, and the member was nearly denied his right to vote.
In both of these previous cases, Mr. Speaker, you ruled that these instances were prima facie breaches of privilege. The House was returned with the message that those things, in both cases, would not happen again, that things would improve and certain measures were made, but clearly not enough.
We must remind the House that some people will ask what it matters if an MP is unable to return back to vote. We on this side believe that right and privilege is the central tenet of how a democracy functions, that members must absolutely be able to return and vote at the earliest possible convenience and cannot be barred from entering the House to vote.
Let us again remember the scenarios. It may not mean much to members today because many votes are decided not beforehand, but there is a majority in the government right now and the Conservatives are able to cast ballots and win the vast majority of those votes. However, it was not that long ago that we were in minority parliaments, and we may return to them again in the future, in which every single vote that is cast has a contributing factor to the outcome, either on the passage or the denial of a bill, or in the very sustaining of a government or having that government fall and have Canadians return to an election.
I raise this question in the context of the larger issue that has previously been raised in the House of Commons, which is becoming increasingly relevant following the adoption of a motion that the Conservatives pushed through, under closure I might add, related to the general security of the parliamentary precinct. This motion instructed both Speakers of Parliament to invite the RCMP to lead all operational security throughout the parliamentary precinct and the grounds around Parliament Hill.
Mr. Speaker, jurisdiction is no longer clear. I refer to the fact that although the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Speaker of the Senate are in fact masters of the parliamentary precinct, you will then be forced to delegate the authority for all operations, maintenance and security to the RCMP, to PWGSC and other agencies. Let me remind you that in the case of our security forces, we have been put in the situation, not by negotiations reached by all parties, which has been the tradition of the House of Commons here, the House of Commons in England, and virtually every parliamentary precinct that has a functioning democracy, that when speaking of issues of security the best and really the only good solution is arrived at by all members of the House because there is no partisan interest, there is no vote to be gained, there is no advantage to be taken by having one security version over another. However, that was not done here. A motion was pushed through the House under closure to come to the situation that we are in right now.
I believe this contradicts the second edition of the House of Commons Procedure and Practice on page 323, which states:
One of the fundamental privileges of the House is to regulate its own internal affairs, exercising exclusive jurisdiction over its premises and the people within.
Let me remind us of that statement, that our own guidelines, the instructions that we have to follow as parliamentarians, instruct us that the masters of our fate must be guided here. That includes issues regarding security. They cannot be outsourced or given over to another. The function of Parliament is unique, as are the functions of any other part of government. The free and fair access to voting, and the security systems that are informed by the members who are here are exclusive to here. The government has chosen a different path that we think is a precarious one.
I also refer the House to page 170 of Parliamentary Privilege in Canada by Mr. Maingot, which states:
...the House of Commons is not a department of the government of Canada but exists as a constituent element of Parliament.
He goes on further to say:
Each House of Parliament is entitled to the administration of affairs within its own precincts free from interference.... Control of the accommodation and services within the Parliament Buildings is therefore vested in the Speakers—
You, the Speaker of the House:
...on behalf of their respective Houses. Thus Public Works and Government Services and other government departments act only on the advice of officials of each House.
Therefore, in our rules and guidelines around parliamentary function it clearly states that the design of security and the function of this House is guided by who we elect to the Speaker's office, both here and in the Senate. It cannot be sourced out. This is not some department and it cannot be controlled by the government of the day, regardless of what the Conservatives are trying to do.
Mr. Speaker, I think you would be the first to agree that all members of Parliament are equal in their privileges in this House and no member should be interfered with or disadvantaged in any way in accessing the Hill to conduct his or her duties as a member of Parliament. I could only imagine that, if a group of government members were denied access to a vote that they sought to win and they lost that vote because a certain number of members were kept at a security cordon, this exact same privilege being raised by my friends would cut across all partisan interests because our central interest is to allow us to do our democratic duties.
Mr. Speaker, I would ask you to consider my question of privilege and the facts I just related. I believe you will find that my privilege was breached and that I was prevented from carrying out my functions as an elected member of the House of Commons. If you find that there was a prima facie breach of my privileges as a member, I am prepared to move the appropriate motion.