Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy came to Canada looking for support for his war against Russian aggression. Instead, he got a front-row seat to one of the biggest blunders in Canadian political history when Speaker of the House of Commons Anthony Rota described a 98-year-old Ukrainian Second World War veteran sitting in the public gallery — one who fought for a Nazi Germany unit, as it turned out — as a “Canadian hero.” With friends like these, Zelenskyy must have thought, who needs the Russians?
That neither the Speaker (who finally resigned Tuesday) nor his staff could do the basic historical algebra here and figure out that a Ukrainian fighting against Russia was almost certainly fighting for the Nazis is embarrassing enough and ought to be grounds for both their termination and his resignation. Even worse is the propaganda win it handed to the current Russian government, one that has consistently argued its invasion is really about “de-Nazifying” Ukraine. But the collateral damage done to the reputation of Canada’s Parliament might be this fiasco’s most lasting effect — one that all the apologies in the world won’t be able to repair.
In fairness, that reputation wasn’t exactly unblemished to begin with. There was a different speech a week or so before Rota’s unfortunate contribution to the ages that underscored just how debased the democratic interactions of our elected representatives have become. Shuvaloy Majumdar, the star Conservative Party of Canada candidate for Calgary Heritage who won July’s byelection with ease, gave his first speech in the House on Sept. 18. He arrived with much fanfare, given his extensive background in international relations and foreign policy, and he was greeted with a warm round of applause from his Conservative colleagues. And what did he decide to use that moment to talk about?
“After eight years of raising carbon taxes on the farmers and truckers who bring us our food,” he said, “potatoes are up 68 per cent. Now he wants to quadruple the carbon tax to 61 cents per litre. How much more will that add to the price of potatoes?”
For those who don’t know the riding, the only potatoes grown in Calgary Heritage are the ones in people’s backyards and gardens. The federal carbon tax, meanwhile, has only been in place since 2019, which makes it four years, not eight. And as it happens, the price of potatoes is up more than 60 per cent over the last year in Idaho, a key potato-growing region that doesn’t have a carbon tax. The actual source of that price spike, ironically, is “prolonged high heat in much of the West,” which has hurt yields for a crop that tends to prefer cooler weather.
Majumdar’s second entry in the parliamentary record wasn’t much better. “The carbon tax is an attack on our way of life,” he said. “It is an attack on the many Calgarians I have met who are wondering how they are going to put food on the table. The prosperity they need rests with our energy sector, yet the very tax crushing them comes from right across the aisle.” That energy sector, of course, just finished a year marked by record-high profits on record-high production, and will deliver similar numbers in 2023. If this is a government “attacking” or “crushing” this way of life, we must have different definitions of those two words.
You might think, given the ongoing tensions with India both during and after the prime minister’s trip there, Majumdar might weigh in with his perspective on the issue. There are any number of other foreign policy files that could use his acumen and experience. Instead, he’s handed a script with turgid talking points about the carbon tax and asked to parrot the party line.
Maybe, in time, he’ll be allowed to actually showcase the talents and intellect that his supporters say are there. And maybe Majumdar is happy to play the role he’s been handed and wait until his party forms government, where he’d almost certainly be sitting on the front bench as a cabinet minister. But there’s clearly a tradeoff happening, one in which principle and personality are exchanged for the possibility of power. It happens on both sides of the aisle, among Conservatives and Liberals (and even New Democrats). And it diminishes the promise of public service and the appeal it holds to anyone with an independent spirit or a desire to do something other than stand and clap at the right (and sometimes horribly wrong) moments.
Speaker Anthony Rota's decision to invite a former Nazi into the House of Commons was an international embarrassment. But as a newly elected MP's performance shows, it's already well on the way to becoming a national one.
Things like democratic reform and parliamentary procedure are deeply unexciting to most voters, who would rather our elected officials focus on things like climate change, the cost of living and other issues that affect them directly. But the ongoing decline in Parliament’s relevance and respectability (and, yes, its collective intelligence) informs all of those issues, and the ability of our leaders to address them effectively. I don’t hold out much hope that either the Trudeau Liberals or the Poilievre Conservatives will fix this, given the former’s fatigue and the latter’s refusal to think in terms longer than a slogan. But at some point, we’re going to need to fix the way we do democracy in Canada and find ways to attract more and better people to its practice. If we don’t, the price of potatoes will be the least of our concerns.