Liberal Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi is lamenting what he described as an "unfortunate" expression of laughter erupting from the opposition Tory benches in the House of Commons this week after he spoke about his past as a bus driver in Edmonton.
"It was a very unfortunate expression of ... laughter that was done by the opposition," Sohi told reporters after the daily question period in the Commons on Thursday. "Whether they apologize or not, that’s up to them, but we are focused on my work and we are here to focus on delivering the commitments that we made to Canadians."
The laughing incident arose after backbench Liberal MP Don Rusnak, who represents a federal riding in the Thunder Bay area of northwestern Ontario, asked Sohi if he could talk about the benefits of the government's efforts to support public transit.
The question fell under the category of what is known in federal politics as a "planted question" asked by a government backbencher. These types of issues are regularly raised by the government in the House of Commons, normally designed to elicit a pre-rehearsed response or soundbite that promotes a government policy.
Sohi began his answer to Rusnak's question on Tuesday by highlighting his past work as a bus driver and then expressing condolences for a Winnipeg bus driver who had been stabbed the night before.
A video of Tuesday's incident shows that several opposition MPs laughed after Sohi spoke about his previous job. Several Liberal ministers shook their heads in disgust over the laughter. But it wasn't immediately clear if the laughter was over Sohi's former job, or whether the Tories were expressing skepticism about the minister's sincerity.
Sohi said he didn't want to allow the laughter to distract from his message and his current job to deliver billions of dollars in new federal infrastructure money to Canada's communities.
"Well, I rose in the House to convey my deepest condolences and thoughts and prayers with a Winnipeg bus driver who was stabbed while performing his – his duty and service to his community, and I wanted to do that as a former bus driver who have seen, you know, violence happening on transit facilities," he said. "Obviously, I did notice the laughter, but I was there to convey a very, very important message, and that message was to show our support and thoughts and prayers with the person who was stabbed while serving – serving his community."
Sohi is one of only four Liberals elected in Alberta and he was appointed to cabinet by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after also serving as a city councillor in Edmonton.
"These kind of expressions of disrespect are not going to stop me from focusing on what I need to focus on, which is delivering on behalf of Canadians," said Sohi.
Responding to a Liberal complaint about the laughter on Wednesday, former Conservative cabinet minister Candice Bergen, now the opposition house leader in the Commons, dismissed suggestions that her Tory colleagues were disrespectful.
"We all come from various backgrounds, and that is why we are called the House of Commons. We represent the people: farmers, bus drivers, receptionists. We represent everybody," Bergen told the Commons on Wednesday. "There is all kind of laughter that occurs here. We absolutely respect and honour all of the jobs that we have done, and the experience that we bring to this House."
The incident comes during a week in which the Tories were hammered by the Liberals for not supporting a motion in the House of Commons to denounce racism. Conservative leadership candidate Michael Chong distanced himself from his colleagues by supporting the motion that was introduced by Liberal MP Iqra Khalid to denounce Islamophobia.