When A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum debuted on Broadway in 1962 Stephen Sondheim could not have imagined his opening song would be descriptive of the slapdash façade of parliamentary procedure exhibited by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights (Justice Committee) last month. But, for the nine December sitting days that closed out Canada’s Parliament in 2020, it was.
In the 1966 movie of the same name, Zero Mostel as Pseudolus introduces the central characters to the audience while singing Sondheim’s ‘Comedy Tonight’ as prologue. Pseudolus, a Latin name meaning liar, gave voice to words that proffer unfortunate and apt description to what took place at the Justice Committee’s study of Bill C-6, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (conversion therapy). The initial verses of Pseudolus’ introductory ditty suggest the behind-the-scenes chicanery that would follow in a performance contrived around, and dependent upon, the audience’s expectation of the usual, used as the underpinning for deception.
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!
Nothing with kings, nothing with crowns;
Bring on the lovers, liars and clowns!
Second reading passage of Bill C-6 in the House of Commons initiated the familiar process of referring a bill designed to amend the Criminal Code to the Justice Committee for study and review. The process ordinarily involves hearing witnesses, as well as receiving and reviewing written submissions from Canadian individuals and organizations with an interest in the legislation. Because of the parliamentary calendar’s configuration, such a study might take months.
But something peculiar happened between Bill C-6 being referred on October 28 and the Justice Committee’s report back to the House of Commons a short six weeks later.
While other committees have been tangled up in filibusters and procedural wrangling, the Justice Committee managed a remarkable six week period in which it completed studies on two pieces of life-and-death influencing criminal legislation.
First, the committee prioritized Bill C-7, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (medical assistance in dying) (MAiD). Despite its own legislatively imposed parliamentary review process for MAiD to be completed by June 2021, the Trudeau Government chose to saddle itself with submitting to court-imposed deadlines rather than appeal the decision of a single judge of the Superior Court of Quebec in Truchon c. Procureur général du Canada. The Government could have justifiably used the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms ‘notwithstanding clause’ (s. 33) to provide a healthy timeline for comprehensive deliberation on their own 2016 legislation, including judicious revision as needed to the MAiD law. But the Government opted to bow to the court – one judge – rather than exert parliamentary authority.
There were three-and-a-half hectic weeks of hearings on MAiD, including sitting during a break week. 68 witnesses were heard and 108 written briefs submitted.
Next up for the Justice Committee was Bill C-6 (conversion therapy).
The committee held three two-hour public hearings, starting December 1. The first two hours were dedicated to government officials and the public proponents who advocated for introduction of the bill. Subsequent witnesses were given five minutes each, making presentation in mixed assemblages of those in agreement and those seeking amendment, followed by limited questioning by committee members.
In addition to hearing witnesses, the committee established a December 6 deadline for written submissions.
290 written submissions were received by the deadline.
A quick review of the individuals and groups making submissions suggests the subject matter of C-6 was of interest to millions of Canadians. Because the committee decided to hear from only 32 witnesses, the opportunity for written submission was particularly appealing.
Due to parliamentary requirements, written submissions are not provided to committee members until they are available in both official languages. Once translated and available in English and French, submissions were posted on the parliamentary website ourcommons.ca and emailed to members of the Justice Committee.
30 of the 290 briefs received were translated, posted and emailed prior to December 6. 260 additional briefs remained queued for translation. Puzzlingly, four days after the submission deadline, the committee decided to finalize its report to the House of Commons.
That’s when the appealing ―i.e. the opportunity to make written submission for consideration― was transitioned by the peculiar action of the Justice Committee into the appalling. A majority of the committee decided to issue a final report on C-6 prior to it being logistically imaginable members could have considered roughly 220 of the 290 submissions made by Canadians.
Members of the Justice Committee knew three-quarters of written submissions were outstanding, awaiting translation. There was no imposed deadline for completing the study. Still, the report was finalized December 10 and tabled in the House of Commons December 11.
Technically, parliamentary procedure was observed. But it was most unparliamentary in practice.
In this minority Parliament, the Justice Committee is composed of twelve Members of Parliament (MPs): six Liberal MPs, including the chair; four Conservative MPs; one New Democrat MP; and, one Bloc Quebecois MP.
The December 10 fourth and final meeting for the committee’s study on C-6 heard briefly from select government officials and was then used to prepare and vote on the brief final report, delivered the next day to the House of Commons.
Do you think those twelve MPs, elected to represent Canadians, read the 151 submissions posted December 9? 106 of them were not available until after 4:00pm.
Do you think those MPs glanced at the 27 submissions posted December 10, 5 after the committee finalized its report?
We can be quite certain they didn’t get to the 40 submissions posted in the days after the report on Bill C-6 was presented to the House on December 11.
Why the rush? It was the Justice Committee members who set the December 6 final date for submissions. Some members requested the committee hold off reporting until after Parliament’s scheduled return in the last week of January 2021 because of the substantial number still in the translation process. The motion to do so was defeated by the Liberal and NDP members of the committee.
Why would a majority of Justice Committee members push to complete their report after little more than six hours of hearings, and the day before the five week parliamentary break? Five weeks, rather than four days, would have given translators time to complete their work (the last translated brief was posted December 17), and MPs opportunity to at least skim the thoughts prepared and presented by constituents nationwide.
Here are a few paragraphs from one of the briefs that was made available to MPs at 7:22 a.m. on December 10, the day the committee’s report was unexpectedly finalized.
This committee, the Parliament of Canada, and the government are encouraged to do what each says it does and desires to do. Listen to Canadians. Then, act accordingly within the constitutional authority of Parliament to provide leadership and good governance.
The Constitution Act,1867, section 91, gives the federal government, with the advice and consent of Parliament, broad powers in regard to matters of national concern based on the provision to “make laws for the Peace, Order, and good Government of Canada” (POGG).
The governance concept of peace, order, and good government pre-dates our constitution, and is found in constitutions of former British colonies around the world. The POGG obligation has long been understood as vital for responsible government.
In his 1988 book Foolishness to the Greeks, Lesslie Newbigin, commenting on Augustine’s early fifth century A.D. Christian classic The City of God, summarizes thoughts about good government for a peaceful and ordered society:
But peace is only possible when there is order, and order depends on proper government; but government in which one is sub-ordinated to another is only right if the one who is called to govern does so for the sake of those he governs—as their servant.
Good government requires providing sound structure to Canadian society, protection and support for individual Canadians and the institutions of society, and continual establishment of conditions for personal and societal flourishing. Wisdom and fairness are expected from our government and all parliamentarians, acting with regard for the well-being of all Canadians.
Here are a few of the 220 ignored submissions, generated by Canadians from coast to coast to coast: PFLAG Canada (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays); Canadian Centre for Christian Charities; Canadian Association of Social Workers; Women’s Human Rights Campaign (chapters from: Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, B.C. and Yukon); Pride Therapy Network of Montreal; Parents as First Educators; Nova Scotia Rainbow Action Project; The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada; YWCA Canada; Children’s Aid Society of Toronto; International Federation for Therapeutic and Counselling Choice; International Pastors and Leaders Forum; Planned Parenthood Newfoundland and Labrador; Associated Gospel Churches; Christian Legal Fellowship; Pour les droits des femmes du Québec; Free to Care; Centre for Gender and Sexual Health Equity; Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms; LGB Alliance Canada; Nanaimo Pride Society; and, nearly 200 more from individuals and organizations.
Parliamentary traditions and procedures are intended to protect the common person (hence House of Commons) from capricious acts of unconstrained, absolute rulers, as kings were in the days before parliaments. MPs, the elected representatives of Canadians, are responsible to deliberate on legislative action with the intent of serving the common good of all Canadians, accountable to the people to do so. Uncharacteristic of MPs and Senators I have known, members of the Justice Committee here generally disregarded tradition and procedure.
Will the House of Commons do the right thing and send Bill C-6 back to the Justice Committee to complete its study with integrity, to do justice to the efforts of Canadians? Disappointedly, we shouldn’t expect so. Instead, C-6 will likely pass Third Reading and head to the Senate.
The Senate of Canada is often described as the parliamentary chamber of sober second thought, where legislative proposals are to receive careful consideration before becoming law. Canadians were noticeably intent on communicating with parliamentarians about this bill. Hopefully when Bill C-6 arrives senators will provide what a cadre of MPs did not, the sober first thought Canadian voices deserve in the people’s Parliament.
In the absence of kings and crowns, to return to Sondheim’s lyrics, I leave it for you to form your own opinion about whether the report tabled in the House of Commons by the Justice Committee fits the description of having perhaps been hastily composed by lovers, liars and clowns. From the evidence, we know most in this group of MPs were not interested in giving even the appearance of consideration to the expressed concerns and contemplations of the people who elected them.
As the work of the Justice Committee played out, the audience caught a disillusioning glimpse behind the curtain of Canada’s 43rd Parliament. The comic nature of requesting written submissions and then completing a final report before allotting time to even give the pretext of considering those submissions is not a comedy. Unlike Sondheim’s musical, this deception is a tragedy.