Anthony Rota stepped down as Canada’s thirty-seventh Speaker of the House of Commons on September 27, for reasons pretty much the entire world knows. Between his unprecedented resignation and the election of Greg Fergus to take up that fancy oak and velvet chair, the electorate was treated to some familiar headlines. “Who Can Bring Back Commons Decency?” the Toronto Star asked on its front page. “Being Speaker Isn’t Easy,” the CBC reminded us. “And It Just Got a Lot Harder.”
For years, we’ve heard about the “raucous House,” as the Hill Times put it in May, in an article that, if you squinted just a little, read an awful lot like “How Do You Get Decorum in the House?” from a 2006 edition of the same paper. “Heckling and hollering in the House is nothing new,” the Hill Times noted back then. “It’s tradition.” As is the tradition of saying so.
Depending on who you ask, the parliamentary way, especially during Question Period, is akin to a “bloodsport” (the columnist Andrew Coyne), to “Christians being thrown to the lions” (the senator Andrew Cardozo), to “bad high school theatre” (the Green Party leader Elizabeth May), or to a “nuthouse” (the erstwhile Speaker Rota). But personally, whenever I watch the verbal jousting that plays out on the House floor, my mind drifts to a gathering of unruly birds, courtesy of Geoffrey Chaucer.
The great English poet likely wrote the 700 or so lines of his Parliament of Fowles in 1381 or 1382, around the time young Richard II was competing for the hand of young Anne of Bohemia. Structurally, the poem consists of three distinct parts: a rather unadorned prelude, a more elaborate garden scene with allusions to Dante, and an increasingly funny and rowdy demande d’amour, or love debate, that unfolds “in a glade upon a hill of flowers.” Occupying the Speaker’s chair, as it were, and trying to keep a handle on things, is “that noble goddess men call Nature.”
The satiric session revolves around three high-ranking male eagles, each prepared to declare his love for an attractive female: “She excelled / In grace and beauty of the tenderest, / And was of every virtue well possessed.” But even Nature, that “vice-gerent of our mighty Lord,” lacks the wherewithal to ensure that a conclave of bored, disorderly, and opinionated mortals consistently abide “by laws of mine and by my government.”
Chaucer’s three tercels remind me of strident party leaders assuring voters that their vision for the country is the only pure one. The first tercel proclaims, “I love her more than others do.” The second responds, “I love as fervently. / I’ve served her longer in my own degree.” The third assures the assembled, “I believe I am her truest man.” The stakes may be high, but the rhetoric is generally sophomoric. Is this what passes for discourse in Plantagenet Westminster?
“From the morning did the speaking last / Till evening, when the sun descended fast,” Chaucer tells us. It’s no wonder the rest of the birds start acting out. “Have done, and let us go!” some shout from the backbench. “You’ll bring us all to woe!” others yell. “This curst debate must stop!”
Such interjections devolve even further, into silly squawking: “Kek‑kek! Quack quack! Cuckoo! Cuckoo!” At one point, almost forgetting the issue at hand, the falcon calls the duck a “low-class fellow,” whose speech comes from “the dunghill.” Then he accuses the owl — whose “breed is of so low a wretchedness”— of blindness. Ad hominem attacks, it would appear, are also nothing new.
Despite it all, little of consequence gets done. The tercels talk around one another in circles, the goose and the sparrow hawk and the turtledove can’t agree on anything, and Nature more or less gives up, essentially proroguing the chamber before the lady makes her decision.
Seemingly since the beginning of time, elected officials and observers alike have lamented or lampooned the state of play in Parliament, and they have suggested countless ways to improve the situation: enforce rules on prepared speeches, limit the power of the whips to decide who answers questions, treat one another with charm rather than with rancour, cultivate stronger inter-party relationships.
Surely, Fergus will have such ideas on his mind over the coming weeks. “Respect is a fundamental part of what we do here,” he said after Justin Trudeau and Pierre Poilievre escorted him — the first Black Canadian to be elected Speaker — to his new perch in the House of Commons. “There can be no dialogue unless there’s a mutual understanding of respect.” As Chaucer might remind the member from Hull–Aylmer, however, there is dialogue and then there is productive dialogue. Fergus is in charge now. Can he make history in more ways than one?