On December 13, 2019, the member for New Westminster—Burnaby raised a question of privilege alleging that the government was in contempt of the House, this because, in his opinion, it was not in compliance with a motion calling on the government to abide by a decision made by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal to compensate residential school survivors.
I am now ready to give my ruling on this alleged contempt.
As this is my first ruling, I would like to share with the House how we could deal with future questions of privilege and points of order.
While they are not the same, both questions of privilege and points of order involve a perceived departure from established norms, either with respect to the authority of Parliament and its recognized rights, immunities and powers, or with respect to the rules, practices, and traditions of the House—all of which rely heavily on precedent.
As Speaker, my role is to protect the privileges of members and this House, and to interpret the rules when they are questioned or challenged.
In carrying out this responsibility, my objective will be to assist the House in facilitating the conduct of its business. To do this effectively, what I need understand is the objection that is being made by a member through a question of privilege or a point of order.
With the assistance of the House, I need to understand the nature of the complaint, to grasp what is in doubt. This is really the core of the issue, and it should be sufficient in most circumstances to allow me to make a ruling. It will not always be necessary to hear more arguments for or against the objection in question, particularly those reciting precedents available through the authorities.
As your Speaker, I am bound to be impartial and follow the rules, practices and precedents that I will interpret to the best of my ability. Also, in service to the House, I believe it is best to render rulings quickly, rather than to leave these challenges to privilege or rules and practices in suspension for an undue length of time.
In this case, the member for New Westminster—Burnaby made a clear and succinct statement identifying his complaint, for which I sincerely thank him. As he is alleging that certain actions from the government constitute a contempt, I believe it is useful to define what is meant by contempt of Parliament.
The third edition of House of Commons Procedure and Practice, at page 81, defines it as, I quote, “an offence against the authority or dignity of the House, such as disobedience of its legitimate commands or libels upon itself, its members or its officers.”
As it was the contention of the member for New Westminster—Burnaby that there is “a clear contradiction between the direction set by the House and the government's response,” the central question then becomes whether the motion adopted by the House on December 11, 2019, was in fact a legitimate command that compels the government to act in a specific manner or whether it was the expression of an opinion of the House. In other words, was the motion an order or a resolution?
The motion in question begins by stating that the House calls upon the government to comply with the ruling of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. This wording, calling upon the government to take some action, is quite common in motions adopted by the House and is typical of a resolution.
House of Commons Procedure and Practice, 3rd edition, reminds us, at pages 536 and 537, that “[a] resolution of the House is a declaration of opinion or purpose; it does not require that any action be taken, nor is it binding.”
Even if the wording of this motion had been somewhat different, it would have remained a non-binding resolution, the effect of which stands in contrast to the compulsory nature of an order or, even more so, legislation.
For a motion to constitute an order of the House, it would have to pertain to those matters where the House, acting alone, possesses the power to compel an action. This is true, for example, when the House sends for persons, papers or records, or when it regulates its own internal proceedings. Only in such circumstances will the Chair determine whether disregard for the order in question constitutes a prima facie case of contempt.
In the present case, the motion is clearly a resolution expressing the opinion of the House that the government should take certain steps. It does not order the government to take these actions, nor could the House do so by way of resolution. Consequently, the motion cannot be viewed as binding upon the government.
In support of this conclusion, I would refer honourable members to a decision made by my predecessor in a very similar context, when on October 16, 2018, at page 22460 of the Debates, he stated:
The House regularly adopts motions, by unanimous consent or by a simple majority, intended to allow members to express themselves on all sorts of matters. Depending on their intent, these motions take the form of a resolution or an order. Resolutions...are intended, regardless of their precise wording, to be expressions of opinion and do not order or require that measures be taken by the government.
Such motions can not bind the government or prevent it from pursuing a particular course of action.
Based on this analysis and following established precedent, I cannot conclude that the matter raised by the hon. member for New Westminster—Burnaby constitutes a prima facie contempt of the House.
I would like to thank the members for their attention.