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Senator Plett raises a Point of Order in response to Senator McPhedran's accusation of "bigotry"
February 15, 2017

Hon. Donald Neil Plett: Honourable senators, I am rising today on a point of order. Yesterday in this chamber, a senator in her maiden speech, her first speech in the Senate, accused me of bigotry, a charge that is so incredibly insulting, offensive and, of course, inaccurate that I struggle with even dignifying the comments with a response.

This was done yesterday, of course, Your Honour, and I wasn't in the chamber yesterday, so this would be my first opportunity to rise on this issue.

I do want to make it abundantly clear, Your Honour, that I have never made comments of a bigoted nature in this chamber, and I will never do so. To attribute such a serious charge as bigotry to the phrase "these people" is preposterous, and I will read what I said so that we are all clear. This was in reference to Senator Wetston's speech last week. I had a question, and the question was this:

Thank you, senator, for allowing this question. You spoke at the end of your very eloquent speech about gender diversity and gender parity, ethnic parity. In light of that, have you given consideration to what Bill C-16 is going to do as far as gender diversity and expression? When you talk about gender parity, and there is a male who identifies as a female, or a male who identifies as no gender, or an ethnicity that identifies as no ethnicity, where do we put these people in the realm of gender parity?

When proponents of the legislation I was asking about said, "These people have waited long enough," or "These people deserve equal protection under the law," I trust that the senator would not insinuate that those comments were of a bigoted nature. They have waited long enough, and these people have rights under the law.

I have been in this chamber for eight years. I have disagreed with many senators throughout that time. Debate and respectful discourse is quite literally the nature of our responsibilities as senators.

Colleagues, this is not about me. This is about this chamber and the comments that were disparaging to this chamber.

Many of us were here when we debated Bill C-14, the assisted suicide bill. I said, in my last speech on assisted suicide that in my years in the Senate, this was the most respectful debate that we had had in this chamber. We had passionate views on that issue. I wanted no assisted suicide. To me, this bill went too far. Senator Joyal didn't think the bill was open enough and he wanted it more open, and we debated that. I have the highest regard for Senator Joyal. I do not believe he would call me bigoted for anything that I said in those debates, nor anyone else here.

We debated passionately because of how we felt; our values were being talked about — my values and yours.

While I welcome Senator McPhedran to this chamber as a colleague from Manitoba, along with my other Manitoba colleagues, I have not had the opportunity to personally meet her, and that is certainly my fault, and I apologize for that. I should have reached out and welcomed her. Apparently she said yesterday that she knew me. Well, I'm sorry; I will get to know her, I'm sure. But nevertheless, when I know her or not, these comments were out of line.

I would like to kindly remind the senator and all of us that this type of discourse — personal attacks — is not how we do things in this chamber. Personal attacks have a lasting impact. We cannot put the genie back in the bottle. Hansard is a public document in which our grandchildren — yours and mine — and future generations will have the opportunity to read about the important work we have done in this chamber, work that I am sure we are all proud of.

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On a personal note, it bothers me tremendously that my grandchildren and my great grandchildren will read that I was accused of bigotry on the chamber floor.

I will not ask for a personal apology because not only are solicited apologies insincere but an apology is not owed to me. It is owed to this chamber.

Senator McPhedran disrespected the chamber with her unparliamentary language and should withdraw her comments forthwith.

Your Honour, pursuant to Rule 6-13:

All personal, sharp or taxing speeches are unparliamentary and are out of order.

Accusing someone of bigotry is a personal attack of the highest order, and, as such, Your Honour, it is my assertion that these comments in fact were out of order.

Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear.

Hon. Joan Fraser: There are good reasons why our Rules — Rule 6-13(1) — provide that all personal, sharp or taxing speeches are unparliamentary or out of order, as we have just seen that the climate created when people believe that they have been personally and unfairly attacked does not help in our deliberations.

I do not believe that Senator McPhedran actually intended this to be a personal, sharp or unduly taxing speech. I mean, some taxing rhetoric is common in political debates, but I do not believe she intended to go over the line here.

Her words, if I may quote her, were:

. . . Senator Plett referred to "these people" or "those people," and, to my ears, I heard "othering." Othering can be understood as an indicator of bigotry. Colleagues, bigotry does not strengthen an inclusive democracy.

She did not say that Senator Plett was a bigot. She suggested that his language could be woundingly interpreted. In turn, I think we have seen very clearly that her language has been, so to speak, woundingly interpreted, but I do believe that we need to accord some latitude, in particular, to maiden speeches, to people who are new to this chamber, and give them the benefit of assumption that their intentions are honourable and parliamentary.

My acquaintance with Senator McPhedran, although we first met many years ago, is, in fact, more recent, but I have never had any reason to believe that she was the kind of parliamentarian who would launch wilfully and knowingly unparliamentary attacks.

Rule 6-13 says that "A senator who has used unparliamentary words and who does not explain or retract them or offer an apology acceptable to the Senate shall be disciplined as the Senate may determine." In other words, it is perfectly possible for a senator who is found to have used unparliamentary words, even if the intention was not unparliamentary, to make an apology, and the Senate can then accept that apology or not, as the case may be.

We all have sympathy with a senator who feels that he or she has been unduly attacked. In the heat of debates, sometimes it has happened to many of us. I do not think that this matter rises, however, to the level of a Point of Order. If Your Honour suggests that it does, I have suggested a remedy.

Hon. Leo Housakos: Colleagues, I think we're not questioning the intent of the senator in this particular instance. I think what Senator Plett is questioning is the result of it. I think that, clearly, the language was unparliamentary, and I will, of course, allow the Speaker to rule on that. I have to weigh in, as a former Speaker, and remind all colleagues that the most unparliamentary act that was conducted here yesterday was referring to a senator who wasn't present in the chamber.

That in itself, as we all know, is the biggest breach of the parliamentary basic rules and principles we have in this chamber. We don't refer to a colleague when that colleague particularly isn't present.

Hon. Marilou McPhedran: Your Honour, thank you for this opportunity. I'm very sorry to hear that Senator Plett feels that I called him a bigot. I did not. My comment was addressed to a practice that can slip into many a debate, either here or elsewhere, of othering, and the damage that can happen when that becomes a practice. I've reviewed both the language that Senator Plett used last week that I referred to and some of the other comments of some other senators who have expressed concerns about transgender rights, such as impact on their ability to use a bathroom, impact on their ability to express themselves.

When I said that — and I do appreciate the observation from Senator Fraser — I wanted to be very clear that it was as much tone as it was word. To my ears, I heard othering.

I then went on to indicate that it "can be" — I did not say that it "was" in this instance — an indicator of bigotry. And that, in a very general statement, was what I intended.

Then I went on to say that bigotry does not belong in an inclusive constitutional democracy.

Again, my intention was a general statement. What I was trying to do was to bring my own perspective as a human rights specialist, wanting to respect individual senators and the debate but also wanting to make a general observation about language that can slip into a damaging territory, perhaps not even with intent.

Senator Plett, actually, we have met. We have met on more than one occasion. What I would like to say to you, though, senator-to-senator, is that I do regret the experience that you've had from my words, and I hope that the clarification that I'm offering as to the general nature of my comment will be helpful in reducing the hurt that you've expressed.

Hon. Yonah Martin (Deputy Leader of the Opposition): Your Honour, yesterday, I made the error of referring to a senator who was not in the chamber. As Deputy Leader, when I rose to make note of what I had heard and how it appeared to me, the end of Senator McPhedran's speech was very unsettling.

I had wanted to rise on a Point of Order during her speech, but, out of respect, I remained seated only because, on the item that was called, which was the Throne Speech, when Senator McPhedran began, very eloquently, in her speech and then as she began to talk about Bill C-16, which we had previously adjourned because it is an item that is currently on the Order Paper, it seemed outside of what she was speaking about at the time within the item of the Throne Speech.

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I'm very sensitive to language, as we all are, but on a personal level, as someone of ethnicity, with a very close-knit community that at times can be quite ethnocentric, married to a Caucasian male who has been, on occasion, confronted about his cultural sensitivity, and yet sometimes reverse racism or reverse prejudice has occurred.

I am very sensitive to the fact that we are all, especially as senators, held to the highest standard of decorum and parliamentary behaviour, and what we say in this chamber is permanent; it is recorded. At the end of the senator's speech what was left was a very unsettling feeling, because what I heard was an unfair use of combined words that was an attack which the senator has explained was not intended, but that's how it was perceived. I rose at the end of it to put that on record.

I stand with Senator Plett on his point of order today, as he expressed in his response, that what he read had taken place in this chamber was unparliamentary. I encourage this chamber to stand with Senator Plett and encourage our new members to think about their words and how impeccable we must be. Those words should be withdrawn from our record because the combination of those words was an unfair characterization of an honourable member of our chamber who has been passionate and fair. We don't always agree, but I respect everyone in this chamber to have those differences of opinion.

I urge you, Your Honour, to consider this point of order and rule in favour of our colleague, Senator Plett.

Hon. André Pratte: As much as I very often disagree with Senator Plett on many things, including on Bill C-16, and I'm anxious to hear Senator Plett to understand why he disagrees with Bill C-16, I feel the need to say that I have absolutely no reason to think that he is what he was described as being in the Senate yesterday.

I'm not an expert. In fact, I'm a newbie in procedure. So, Your Honour, I would not pretend to tell you whether or not this is a valid point of order. Even though there was subtlety in the words, I certainly perceived this as unparliamentary language. I know that if I had been the target of those words, I would have felt very unsettled and profoundly insulted. I understand Senator Plett's feelings today.

Hon. Elaine McCoy: Thank you, Your Honour. Let me say, first, that from a procedural point of view, frankly I do not believe this is a point of order. I think it goes beyond the procedural matter. What is obvious to all of us, as we sit here, is the power of language, and the power of language is in how we hear it.

Senator Martin just told us an example of her listening to words, and she had taken a perception from words that were spoken yesterday. Senator Pratte said he took a perception from words that were said. Senator McPhedran took a perception from words that were said last week. I'm sure she went back and checked the record, as Senator Plett did. Senator Plett has also taken that perception.

It's very true that the rule about unparliamentary language is there for a reason. We are not here to cast aspersions upon the character of one another. We are here to reinforce the respect that an honourable senator should be given. We are here to have a competition of ideas, and that competition, we hope, is vigorous and well-based.

What I would hope we can do is use this as a learning experience and move forward. If the senator wishes to withdraw comments that were made yesterday, that would be a very generous gesture. But I do receive her explanation as to her intent as a gesture from the heart, and if we go forward I would invite all of us to back away from the abyss, if I can say that, and to take this as a moment to remind us, as we are debating several bills in the next few weeks that are very important and are going to touch our hearts as well as our brains, of how we will deal with one another in a way that gives us full scrutiny and exploration of legislation with the hope to improve it for the betterment of all Canadians.

Senator Fraser: Two quick points, Your Honour. There are various ways to handle matters when we believe that we have been wronged. When I had not been here very long, I was literally reduced to a flood of tears in this chamber by a personal attack from a member of the opposite side which was, believe me, completely unfounded. After I was able to dry my eyes, I did not raise a point of order; I wrote her a letter. And that seemed to be the end of that.

On a small point, for the record, in this matter of referring to senators who are not in the chamber, it is my understanding that it is a practice, a tradition that we not refer to the absence of someone who is not in the chamber, but we may refer to that senator's words, speeches or acts. What happened yesterday was that Senator McPhedran referred to a speech by a senator, then Senator Martin referred to the fact that that senator was not in the chamber.

I don't propose to raise a point of order for her. You'd probably throw it out. I just wanted new senators, in particular, to get that distinction straight.

Hon. Daniel Lang: Colleagues, I've been listening to the debate. We had better cut to the chase here. I think Senator Pratte said it very well. It's very easy to watch a senator being attacked personally and to sit here and rationalize why another senator would do this.

Quite frankly, what's happened is totally unacceptable. I would ask, as a senator, to my new friend, Senator McPhedran, to stand up in her place and withdraw her remarks.

Senator McPhedran: Let me just say that the general point I was making about othering can stand without reference to any individual senator, that the language that is othering can be understood as an indicator of bigotry, and bigotry has no place in an inclusive democracy. I'm certainly prepared, given what I've heard from Senator Plett, to ask if any reference to Senator Plett could be removed — that would be the first two sentences — and leave a general statement about language that is othering.

I hope that that will be experienced as sufficient to make it clear that there is no evidence in the words that I spoke yesterday that I called Senator Plett a bigot. I did not. May I suggest that by removing any reference to Senator Plett and leaving the point I was trying to make about the power of language and about the way in which we can even unintentionally use language in a very damaging and negative way, it could be left without any reference whatsoever to Senator Plett.

The Hon. the Speaker: I believe I've heard enough, Senator Lang.

I want to thank all senators for their input into what is a very important issue that has been raised. I will take the point of order under advisement. I will review the transcripts of today and yesterday. I assure senators that I will render a decision in due course.

 
 
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