A few days ago, the Prime Minister of Canada apologized to the aboriginal peoples of Canada for the way we’ve treated them. The leaders of the aboriginal people wanted to respond, but that wasn’t allowed for in the Parliamentary procedure. Luckily, an aide for the New Democratic Party whispered, “Committee of the whole,” and it was so. Parliament re-constituted itself in a less formal configuration and enabled the “outsiders” to be heard.
Four little words were all it took to end a logjam over whether aboriginal leaders would be allowed to respond to the government apology for residential schools from the floor of the House of Commons on Wednesday.
New Democratic Party Leader Jack Layton had been pushing for this day for more than a year – it was even the first topic he raised when he met Prime Minister Stephen Harper in October 2007 to discuss the throne speech.
Just last week, he sent a letter to Harper suggesting what the apology should include. He was given a copy – whose content he shared with Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations – and called Harper to suggest some changes.
But opposition parties had slammed the government for refusing to give the aboriginal leaders a chance to respond, and the rhetoric continued right down to the wire.
Stepping outside to pose for a photo about an hour before the historic occasion was to begin, Layton told NDP press secretary Ian Capstick he feared the impasse would taint the moment with partisan pride.
“He expressed his great concern to me that an opposition party would move forward with an aggressive motion on the floor of the House of Commons, and that Conservatives would feel compelled to shut it down,” Capstick said yesterday.
Then came those four words.
“Committee of the whole,” Capstick said he told Layton, and the leader called Harper to save the day.
That phrase meant Parliament could take its ceremonial mace off the table, let the Speaker of the House sit in a regular chair and otherwise shed some of the formality that would have prevented the aboriginal leaders from responding.”It provides the House with a unique opportunity to have a more fulsome debate, without being constrained by party rotation, without being constrained so tightly by time limits and a whole host of different things,” he said.