Bigotry in the Senate?



February 21, 2017
There was an emotional debate in the Senate last week about language and choice of words. On the feature this week, we present an edited version of that debate, which started when Manitoba Senator Don Plett rose on a point of order.


Senator Plett: Yesterday in this chamber, a senator in her maiden speech, her first speech in the Senate, accused me of bigotry… To attribute such a serious charge as bigotry to the phrase “these people” is preposterous, and I will read what I said so that we are all clear. This was in reference to Senator Wetston’s speech last week. I had a question, and the question was this:

“When you talk about gender parity, and there is a male who identifies as a female, or a male who identifies as no gender, or an ethnicity that identifies as no ethnicity, where do we put these people in the realm of gender parity?”

When proponents of the legislation I was asking about said, “These people have waited long enough,” or “These people deserve equal protection under the law,” I trust that the senator would not insinuate that those comments were of a bigoted nature.

Colleagues, this is not about me. This is about this chamber and the comments that were disparaging to this chamber….

Hansard is a public document in which our grandchildren – yours and mine – and future generations will have the opportunity to read about the important work we have done in this chamber.

It bothers me tremendously that my grandchildren and my great grandchildren will read that I was accused of bigotry on the chamber floor.

Your Honour, pursuant to Rule 6-13: All personal, sharp or taxing speeches are unparliamentary and are out of order.

Accusing someone of bigotry is a personal attack of the highest order, and, as such, Your Honour, it is my assertion that these comments in fact were out of order.

Senator McPhedran: Your Honour, thank you for this opportunity. I’m very sorry to hear that Senator Plett feels that I called him a bigot. I did not. My comment was addressed to a practice that can slip into many a debate, either here or elsewhere, of othering, and the damage that can happen when that becomes a practice. I’ve reviewed both the language that Senator Plett used last week that I referred to, and some of the other comments of some other senators who have expressed concerns about transgender rights, such as impact on their ability to use a bathroom, impact on their ability to express themselves.

And…I wanted to be very clear that it was as much tone as it was word. To my ears, I heard othering.

I then went on to indicate that it “can be” – I did not say that it “was” in this instance – an indicator of bigotry. And that, in a very general statement, was what I intended.

Then I went on to say that bigotry does not belong in an inclusive constitutional democracy.

Again, my intention was a general statement. What I was trying to do was to bring my own perspective as a human rights specialist, wanting to respect individual senators and the debate but also wanting to make a general observation about language that can slip into a damaging territory, perhaps not even with intent.

Senator Plett, what I would like to say to you, though, senator-to-senator, is that I do regret the experience that you’ve had from my words, and I hope that the clarification that I’m offering as to the general nature of my comment will be helpful in reducing the hurt that you’ve expressed.

Senator Daniel Lang: Colleagues, I’ve been listening to the debate. We had better cut to the chase here. I think Senator Pratte said it very well. It’s very easy to watch a senator being attacked personally and to sit here and rationalize why another senator would do this.

Quite frankly, what’s happened is totally unacceptable. I would ask, as a senator, to my new friend, Senator McPhedran, to stand up in her place and withdraw her remarks.

Senator McPhedran: Let me just say that the general point I was making about othering can stand without reference to any individual senator, that the language that is othering can be understood as an indicator of bigotry, and bigotry has no place in an inclusive democracy. I’m certainly prepared, given what I’ve heard from Senator Plett, to ask if any reference to Senator Plett could be removed — that would be the first two sentences — and leave a general statement about language that is othering.

I hope that that will be experienced as sufficient to make it clear that there is no evidence in the words that I spoke yesterday that I called Senator Plett a bigot. I did not.

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That debate happened last Wednesday. On Thursday, Senate speaker George Furey issued his ruling…

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The Hon. the Speaker George Furey: I know that we do give some leeway to new senators, particularly in their first speech. However, the remarks alluding to Senator Plett were outside the bounds of acceptable parliamentary debate. They were hurtful and inappropriate.

The language in Senator McPhedran’s speech of February 14 can, in the context it was used, be characterized as unparliamentary. The point of order is well founded. I strongly urge Senator McPhedran to avoid offensive personal language. Colleagues, let us continue to engage in respectful debate and avoid, at all times, personal attacks.

The transcript above is of the debate as we edited it for time on the program.  Many more things were said, and the full debate can be found online at the Senate Hansard website.

For the debate on Wednesday, click here.

For the full text of the Speaker’s ruling, click here.

In both instances, you’ll need to scroll down the page to “Orders of the Day.”

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