Greg Fergus will need to be a gentle giant, but not too gentle

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The new Speaker has a reputation across party lines as a sunny, friendly force. But that positivity must be tempered by a strong arm during Question Period.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on October 9, 2023.

OTTAWA—There is a reason people love politics.

The adrenalin of the fight, the rollercoaster ups and downs make it a show worth watching.

The majority of Canadians don’t spend every waking moment focused on Question Period. They live their lives, struggle with family and financial issues, and focus on Ottawa when casting a ballot every four years or so.

For political junkies like me, we watch politics because we love the thrust and parry. Last week was a sight to behold.

The country went from the abyss to the mountaintop in a single vote. The House of Commons morphed from a forum that applauds war criminals to a place that elected the country’s first Black speaker.

Concurrently, Manitoba voted for massive change by choosing the first ever First Nations leader to head up its legislature.

The elections of Greg Fergus on the Hill and Wab Kinew in Winnipeg are reasons to celebrate this fragile construct called democracy.

Members of Parliament were shouting with joy on the choice of Fergus, and some wiped tears from their eyes on witnessing the election of the first Black Canadian House Speaker.

The same optimism met Kinew’s landslide victory, some likening it to the “orange crush” of 2011 which saw then-federal NDP leader Jack Layton come ever so close to forming government. The reaction of Indigenous leaders last week was compelling. This is what real reconciliation looks like.

Manitoba voters overwhelmingly rejected a government that sadly ran an election campaign ad on not exhuming the bodies of two murdered Indigenous women believed to be buried in a landfill.

Does anyone think that would have been a campaign poster if those women had been white? The outgoing government launched a blatant attempt at racial wedge-politics that failed miserably.

That is why elections matter and why—as Canadians—we can be proud of the choices made at the ballot box last week.

Of course, some pundits can even find a negative twist on those votes.

“Why not sooner?” said some, while others fear the Speaker’s election was just tokenism. Those were some of the brickbats sent his way within moments of Fergus being ceremoniously dragged into the job.

The Quebec MP quickly showed us why he is not a token choice.

With wit and depth, Fergus got to work, warning MPs to treat him like a new car and avoid denting him on the first day.

All and sundry rose to pledge fealty and gentleness, promising they would do their best to make the House of Commons a more civil place.

That might not last too long. I give it two weeks. And that because during one of those weeks the House will not be sitting.

The debates ahead will make the House of Commons a place worth watching, where speeches are measured by the depth of ideas, not the talons of tongues.

Fergus may follow the Peter Milliken school of speakership. Milliken, the longest serving speaker who was elected in successive Liberal and Conservative government terms, understood that some heckling can stand the House in good stead.

It is a bit like the valve on a pressure cooker. Letting out a little steam is the only way to avoid a major explosion.

Most importantly, Fergus needs to treat all Members of Parliament, and political parties, equally.

The last House Speaker not chosen by secret ballot was John Bosley, who served in the chair for the first two years of prime minister Brian Mulroney’s majority government.

The opposition felt Bosley’s rulings were too one-sided (present company included), and a raucous parliamentary period prompted changes to the standing orders—or House rules—which resulted in the election of speakers by secret ballot.

The first speaker so chosen was Progressive Conservative John Fraser. The British Columbian MP was so popular that he was re-elected and served almost eight years.

He combined a wry sense of humour with taut control over decorum in the House.

Fraser and Milliken garnered the respect of all members. That is the challenge facing Fergus.

A lifelong Liberal, who served as a political assistant and party organizer before being elected, he will have to leave his partisan hat at the door.

His sunny personality will be a help there as Fergus has a reputation across party lines for being a positive, friendly force.

That positivity must be tempered by a strong arm in the oversight of Question Period.

Fergus will need to be a gentle giant, but not too gentle.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.