By Matt Barrett
Without a hint of hyperbole, the House of Commons descended into a scene resembling a Blue Jays–Rangers dugout-clearing brawl on the afternoon of May 18th. According to Peter Mansbridge, “We’ve never seen anything like this in the House of Commons.” Prior to a vote on the assisted-dying bill, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau crossed the floor, entered a crowd of MPs and took the arm of Conservative Whip Gord Brown. During the jostling, NDP MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau stated she had been “elbowed in the chest by the prime minister.” When NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair subsequently confronted Trudeau in an intense exchange, several Liberals left their seats as well until tensions cooled.
An incredulous Peter Julian, NDP House Leader, declared, “There is not a parallel in contemporary Canadian history.” Calling Trudeau’s action “an extraordinary example of physical intimidation,” Conservative Peter Van Loan added, “I have read about this stuff in history books from the 19th century. I have never seen such a thing in my lifetime.” Ironically, four years ago, Van Loan himself reportedly “stormed across the aisle” to yell and wave his finger at the NDP Opposition. Although for the most part attacks in the House of Commons are of the verbal variety, historically, physical confrontations between MPs are nothing new. Even a cursory look through the 149-year history of the Canadian Parliament reveals numerous incidents of insults, threats, intimidation, scuffles and even sporadic violence.
On the floor of the House, divisive political debates can at times reach a boiling point in which participants threaten to come to blows. Following the debate over conscription and the toxic wartime election in 1918, an aggravated Liberal-turned-Unionist MP challenged a rival, “we can settle it right now, or outside if he likes.” A month before the 1995 Quebec referendum Bloc MP Michel Bellehumeur accused his Liberal colleague Patrick Gagnon of having invited him to step outside for a fight.
Occasionally, quarrels have led to real violence. In November 1919 war veteran Colonel Jack Currie stood as the self-professed champion of returned men and the most outspoken advocate for the controversial $2,000 soldier bonus. Frustrated by Currie’s outbursts on the issue, members from the Government backbench shouted, “Better get back to your dugout,” referring to a well-known story in which Currie was alleged to have hidden behind the lines during the German gas attack at St. Julien in April 1915. The enraged colonel immediately assaulted one of the hecklers, Dr. W.D. Cowan, with several punches and slaps to the face. Cowan managed a few cracks of his cane across his attacker’s head before the pair were separated. Cowan later admitted the fight “certainly doesn’t add to the dignity of a member of Parliament.” Meanwhile, an opponent of Currie derisively taunted, “the hon. member… is wanting in those principles which constitute a real man.”
This most recent episode was not so overtly hostile, but it did cause me to reflect on the meaning and implications of physical altercations between parliamentarians, particularly in such a historically male-dominated institution. What is often at stake in such confrontations is not simply disagreement over a given argument or debate; instead the goal is the conspicuous reaffirmation of masculine identities and reputations. As many historians of gender have argued, masculinity represents an ideological and historical process of defining male identity in society through a culturally specific code of attributes and behaviours. The pervasive hegemonic form of masculinity constructed and reinforced from at least the late nineteenth century has traditionally associated the concept of “natural” manliness with confidence, assertiveness, aggression and dominance. Effeminacy by contrast is linked to deference and passivity. Despite changes and shifts in Canadian society, basic assumptions and stereotypes about what constitutes a “real man” remain firmly embedded in how popular culture and media portray gender identities.
Prior to the 2015 federal election, Conservative strategists attempted to impugn Trudeau’s masculinity through ads that portrayed the new Liberal Leader as less manly in demeanour and effeminate in appearance. Trudeau deflected such perceptions in part by cultivating an image of himself as an athletic boxer, and more recently, through various feats of strength. Thus, at the same time as presenting himself as a modern man and self-declared feminist, Trudeau can also still engage in more traditional masculine-affirming behaviours. As a result, both the cooperative and aggressive forms of masculinity can be praised by followers. Once he had physically directed Brown toward his seat, Trudeau for example returned to a standing ovation from fellow Liberals. By placing himself in the fray of Opposition MPs, Trudeau had evidently demonstrated his position as a powerful, take-charge leader.
The inadvertent contact with Brosseau, however, illustrates the figurative collateral damage that can result from a reflexive attempt at an aggressive, masculine performance. When Trudeau returned to apologize to Brosseau, an outraged Mulcair shouted “What kind of man elbows a woman?” and Niki Ashton called his behaviour the “furthest thing from a feminist act.” While Mulcair’s point appears based in a traditional interpretation of gender relations (acting in a gentlemanly manner towards women), Ashton’s comment is more instructive as a reminder that self-declarations of feminism do not necessarily make politicians immune to charges of bravado. The issue was not simply that the prime minister “manhandled” one MP and accidentally elbowed another. A more interesting issue is how his actions reinforce an underlying assumption that in order to be taken seriously as a decisive leader, a politician must publicly appear to act in a physically forceful, assertive manner. As critics called the incident “inappropriate,” Trudeau later admitted his intervention “was inadvisable as a course of action.”
At a time when a number of female MPs have raised troubling concerns about the sexist, male-dominated culture of Parliament, the image of the prime minister forcing his way through Opposition members does little to challenge ideas about how leaders express their authority and strength. Forcefulness and assertiveness in appropriate contexts have an important place in political debates, but parliamentarians and indeed people in all professional settings must be conscious about the social messaging conveyed through their actions. Facilitating a culture change in Parliament that addresses many of the gendered assumptions historically rooted in Canadian politics will perhaps help to remove the incentive for politicians to engage in an environment of heckling and jostling that lacks respect–or decorum.
Matthew Barrett is a PhD candidate in history at Queen’s University. His research focuses on public perceptions of shell shock. He is currently working on an online project to profile every battalion commander in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.