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Parliament was strangely relevant this summer. But the past few months were merely a prelude to what could be one of the most consequential periods in Canadian politics in recent memory.
The weeks between when the House of Commons adjourns in June and when it reconvenes in September tend to be quiet around Parliament Hill, with only tourists and the odd committee hearing breaking the silence.
But from mid-July to early September this year, seven different committees of the House held a total of 21 meetings and hearings to study a half-dozen matters of real public concern — including allegations of political interference in the investigation of the 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia, the federal government’s decision to return a Russian turbine to Germany, the service outage that struck Rogers customers in July, and delays at Canada’s airports.
The Heritage committee took up concerns about Hockey Canada’s handling of sexual misconduct; those hearings likely were among the most-watched parliamentary proceedings in recent years. In August, the justice committee met to hear from Michelle O’Bonsawin, the first Indigenous justice in the history of the Supreme Court.
The extent of that parliamentary scrutiny over the summer somewhat undercuts initial fears that the confidence-and-supply agreement between the Liberals and New Democrats would mean much less accountability for the government. The Hockey Canada hearings also showed what can happen when MPs apply the powers of Parliament to a shared concern.
Even more extraordinary, the parliamentary summer has now concluded with a special two-day sitting to mark the death of Canada’s head of state. The last time Parliament had to respond to such an event, Louis St. Laurent was prime minister and George Drew was leader of the Opposition. And the passing of Queen Elizabeth inspired not only gracious tributes to the woman herself but reflections on the parliamentary system predicated on her office.
WATCH: Trudeau, members of Parliament pay tribute to Queen Elizabeth
Trudeau, MPs pay tribute to Queen Elizabeth
MPs took a break from arguing in the House of Commons for a special session to honour Queen Elizabeth, which included tributes from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.
“Around the globe, democratic institutions are being challenged, but Canadians can rightly be proud of living in one of the strongest democracies in the world.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the House on Thursday.
“It is this very strength and stability, represented by the Crown and embodied by the Queen, that Canadians have always benefited from, and we, as parliamentarians and Canadians, dedicate ourselves each and every day to those democratic principles.”
Pierre Poilievre, the new leader of His Majesty’s loyal opposition, said that Elizabeth’s “humility reminded us that government is not about us. It is about those we serve. We are, indeed, servants and not masters.”
There was a sense in those speeches of two leaders eyeing each other across the aisle before the main event begins.
A coming clash of partisanship and personality
The Liberal and Conservative parties may now be more ideologically distinct from each other than they have ever been. And they’re being led by two of the most interesting characters in recent Canadian political history — with all due respect to Stephane Dion, Andrew Scheer and the other leaders who have come and gone over the past two decades.
Poilievre and Trudeau are individuals with fundamentally different visions and they will be seated across from each other, in the two most important seats in the House, at a uniquely challenging moment for this country and the world.
The recovery from the global pandemic has been harder than anyone imagined. The costs of housing and food are the overriding concerns of many Canadians. The tenor of our political debates — driven by the anger machines of social media — is increasingly worrisome. The threat of climate change continues to bear down. The future of liberal democracy feels very far from guaranteed.
Every era has its share of seismic concerns — but this moment bears comparison to a lot of other pressure points in our history.
In Parliament, the agenda will be set broadly by that historic agreement between the Liberals and NDP. Unpredictable events will intervene. The official inquiry into the first-ever use of the Emergencies Act — to clear the “freedom convoy” protests that took place this past winter — will begin sometime this fall. At some point, the newly independent Senate might make its presence felt.
Not all of it will be pretty or genteel. The individuals, the issues, the stakes and the differences of opinion will lead to conflict. Whether that conflict can remain within healthy boundaries is another pressing question.
The noise level in politics often can be a reason to tune it all out, or even to despair. But what happens in the months ahead should still matter to the average person — because it will have consequences.
Part of the genius of a constitutional monarchy is that it allows its citizens to go through life without worrying much about the head of state. As Conservative MP John Nater noted on Thursday, the Crown has been described as the “dignified” part of our government.
Sometimes it’s nice when politics doesn’t demand our constant attention.
But this is not one of those times.