I am now ready to rule on the point of order raised yesterday by the House leader of the official opposition concerning today's statutory debate being held pursuant to the Emergencies Act.
In his intervention, the member asked for the Chair's interpretation of the provisions found in subsection 58(6) of the act, which state that the motion is to be debated “without interruption”. He argued that the plain meaning of these words is that once the debate begins, it cannot be interrupted for any other business and the House is required to sit continuously until it is concluded. He also cited past examples of statutory debates that had similar provisions, but noted that those statutes contained explicit wording allowing for such interruptions, provisions that are absent in the Emergencies Act.
The role of the Chair in arriving at a decision is to draw on procedural information and precedents. When it comes to statutes, my predecessors have consistently explained that it is not up to the Chair to rule on matters of either a constitutional or of a legal nature. In a past ruling, one of my predecessors stated on October 24, 2011, at page 2405 of the Debates:
…it is important to delineate clearly between interpreting legal provisions of statutes—which is not within the purview of the Chair—and ensuring the soundness of the procedures and practices of the House…— which, of course, is the role of the Chair.”
As pointed out by the Opposition House Leader, in many past statutory debates, the House decided on how to interpret a statutory provision in the parliamentary context by adopting a motion regarding the parameters that would govern a statutory debate. This is, of course, part of the House’s undoubted privilege to control its own proceedings. But absent such a motion, he contended that the House is bound to follow the plain meaning of the law.
The member cited a number of principles to follow in interpreting statutes. I would suggest that a critical one often cited by the courts is the principle of contextual construction. It is described by Driedger in Construction of Statutes, second edition, at page 87: “the words of an Act are to be read in their entire context in their grammatical and ordinary sense harmoniously with the scheme of the Act, the object of the Act and the intention of Parliament”.
Following Sullivan in Statutory Interpretation, second edition, one reads this at pages 58 and 59:
There are problems with the plain meaning rule. In the first place, the distinction it draws between reading and interpretation is illusory.... Second, the plain meaning rule expressly requires courts to distinguish between clear or plain meaning on the one hand and ambiguous or doubtful meaning on the other. This distinction has no solid basis.
To understand how the wording “without interruption” came to be, the Chair has reviewed the evidence given at the legislative committee on Bill C-77 in the second session of the 33rd Parliament. Originally, this section of the bill provided that the motion be debated for three days without interruption. A member moved an amendment to strike the three-day limit, arguing that he did not want to see a mechanism for time allocation built into the act. He instead suggested that it be subjected to the normal rules of the House. Another member explicitly asked if the provision as drafted meant that the House would need to sit for 72 hours straight to consider the motion. The response given, both by the parliamentary secretary and by the official present, was that the provisions of the act had to be interpreted within the context of the House’s rules. Therefore, any extension to the House’s sitting hours would have to occur pursuant to the normal procedures. This was clearly the understanding of the members of the committee when they removed the three-day limit on debate. I refer members to the evidence of the committee from April 12, 1988, especially pages 945 and 946.
The amendment was adopted and the provision was further amended at report stage to arrive at the current wording of the act.
Given the clear intention of the legislators who adopted these provisions, the Chair has difficulty accepting the argument that this motion must be debated non-stop until the House is ready to come to a decision.
Instead, I propose to treat the matter as an order of the day having priority over all other current orders of the day and to continue to apply the schedule of the House as laid out in our Standing Orders. This means that the House will consider items such as Routine Proceedings, Statements by Members, Oral Questions, Adjournment Proceedings, etc. at their usual time, and will adjourn at its usual time.
The Chair recognizes that this is an important debate on an urgent matter and that many members will wish to express their views. If parties feel the current rule should be adapted to this context, I strongly encourage the parties to follow the practice used in past statutory debates and arrive at an agreement.