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An oral history of Elbowgate

How the event unfolded—and the reaction, in all its hyperbolic splendour—as told by our elected representatives


 
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, face towards the camera left of centre of the frame, is shown near Opposition whip Gordon Brown in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Wednesday May 18, 2016. Footage from the Commons television feed shows Trudeau wading into a clutch of MPs, mostly New Democrats, and pulling Opposition whip Gordon Brown through the crowd in order to get a vote started. (CP)

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, face towards the camera left of centre of the frame, is shown near Opposition whip Gordon Brown in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Wednesday May 18, 2016. (CP)

The House of Commons has witnessed many a cringe-worthy spectacle, but none quite like the drama of May 18. The Liberal government had a motion pending to limit debate on Bill C-14, the contentious legislation to allow physician-assisted suicide. More remarkable than the motion were the Prime Minister’s actions when he perceived that opposing MPs were trying to impede members from taking their seats to vote. Here is how the event unfolded—and the reaction, in all its pearl-clutching splendour—as told by our elected representatives. Unless otherwise noted, MPs spoke directly to Maclean’s:

Mark Warawa (CPC, Langley–Aldergrove) [not pictured]: “There was a lot of tension in the air. Bill C-14 was going to be debated on Monday; I was one of the members who was going to speak. But that didn’t happen because of procedural games in Parliament. C-14 is probably the most important piece of legislation I’ve debated in my 12½ years in the House of Commons. This is such an important bill, with the looming deadline of June 6 [set by the Supreme Court]. When members of Parliament who are ready to speak and at the last minute the government changes what’s going to be debated, that’s going to create tension.”


Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, face towards the camera left of centre of the frame, is shown near Opposition whip Gordon Brown in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Wednesday May 18, 2016. Footage from the Commons television feed shows Trudeau wading into a clutch of MPs, mostly New Democrats, and pulling Opposition whip Gordon Brown through the crowd in order to get a vote started. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-House of Commons **MANDATORY CREDIT**Charlie Angus (NDP, Timmins–James Bay): “You need to put this in context of a day that was spiralling from the get-go. [The Liberals] were introducing motions that would give enormous power to the ministers. That was basically putting a nuclear weapon on the table. They could call a debate at two in the morning with a vote at three. It became a very torturous, toxic place. That’s not how the Westminster system works. As opposition, you have very few tools. Sometimes you have a slow vote—it’s a tactic. The Speaker hadn’t made any move that there was a problem. The vote had been delayed all of 30 seconds or a minute.”


Linda Duncan (NDP, Edmonton Strathcona) [not pictured]: “A number of members clearly took it upon themselves to stand there and not sit down immediately. It’s not like this was a concerted, agreed-upon thing. They were standing there chit-chatting, and I would say it was rather convivial, between our members and the Conservative whip, Gordon Brown. I think he knew exactly what was going on, and you certainly didn’t hear any jeering by his gang, like, ‘Get out of his way.’ There certainly wasn’t any pushing or shoving or to-and-fro until the Prime Minister arrived.”


Warawa: “When you have 338 people coming into a room, and people are moving around—I think that obstruction was unintentional. I’d seen the Liberal whip walking into the House. So I’m looking to my left and I’m wondering, where’s Gordon, our whip? And out of my periphery I see somebody coming, and it’s the Prime Minister. He’s marching with a very determined look and at a very brisk pace.”


Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, face towards the camera left of centre of the frame, is shown near Opposition whip Gordon Brown in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Wednesday May 18, 2016. Footage from the Commons television feed shows Trudeau wading into a clutch of MPs, mostly New Democrats, and pulling Opposition whip Gordon Brown through the crowd in order to get a vote started. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-House of Commons **MANDATORY CREDIT**Justin Trudeau (Liberal, Papineau), to the Commons at about 5 p.m. on May 18: “As we were gathered here for a vote, after the time had counted down, I observed our whip walking down the aisle to proceed with the vote. I had noticed that the official Opposition whip seemed to be impeded in his progress down the hall. I felt that this lacked in respect for Parliament, and indeed for the function that the official Opposition whip is endeavouring to deliver on behalf of all of us. Therefore, I walked over to encourage the member to come through, and indeed, offered my arm to help him come through the gaggle of MPs standing there impeding his progress down the aisle, and impeding our ability to move forward with this important vote.”

Related: The Trudeau touch: The line from palming babies to shoving MPs


Deb Schulte (Liberal, King–Vaughan), as told to Canadian Press [not pictured]: “What I witnessed was the Prime Minister striding across and coming to the group that was gathered and blocking the way of the Opposition [Whip]. As he strode across, the group moved apart and he reached through and moved the [whip] through. At the point that he did, he did bump into another member. I believe there was no intent to harm anyone, or to actually bump into anyone.”


Angus: “He came over like a freight train. I sort of jumped back. He was really intent on getting there. He’s a very strong guy. I never sort of saw that in him until he came pushing past me. He went from zero to 100. He said to two of my colleagues, ‘get the f–k out of my way!’ You just can’t do that. You can’t do that in a normal workplace. You certainly can’t do that in the House of Commons.”


Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, face towards the camera left of centre of the frame, is shown near Opposition whip Gordon Brown in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Wednesday May 18, 2016. Footage from the Commons television feed shows Trudeau wading into a clutch of MPs, mostly New Democrats, and pulling Opposition whip Gordon Brown through the crowd in order to get a vote started. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-House of Commons **MANDATORY CREDIT**Alexandre Boulerice (NDP, Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie): “He looked very, very angry and he pushed some people, grabbed the arm of the whip and pulled him saying stuff like, you know, ‘get the f–k out of my way,’ and when he turned back he hit Ruth Ellen Brosseau and she was shocked and hurt. So he pulled [Brown] to the end of the room.”


Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, face towards the camera left of centre of the frame, is shown near Opposition whip Gordon Brown in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Wednesday May 18, 2016. Footage from the Commons television feed shows Trudeau wading into a clutch of MPs, mostly New Democrats, and pulling Opposition whip Gordon Brown through the crowd in order to get a vote started. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-House of Commons **MANDATORY CREDIT**Tracey Ramsey (NDP, Essex): “He said, ‘Get the bleep out of the way.’ There was some resistance by the whip and on the final pull he elbowed Ruth Ellen Brosseau and knocked her over. Ruth Ellen was clutching her breast and her chest and she had a big red mark on her chest.”

Related: Scott Gilmore on our MPs’ most shameful behaviour


Duncan: “Ruth Ellen was clearly upset. There’s no doubt in my mind that she was completely humiliated by what happened. I could tell just by watching her—she’s a very composed woman, generally speaking. I think any woman would be humiliated. She had to leave to collect herself. Of course, by then, people were shouting.”


Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, face towards the camera left of centre of the frame, is shown near Opposition whip Gordon Brown in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Wednesday May 18, 2016. Footage from the Commons television feed shows Trudeau wading into a clutch of MPs, mostly New Democrats, and pulling Opposition whip Gordon Brown through the crowd in order to get a vote started. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-House of Commons **MANDATORY CREDIT**Ruth Ellen Brosseau (NDP, Berthier–Maskinongé), to the Commons: “I was standing in the centre talking to some colleagues. I was elbowed in the chest by the Prime Minister and then I had to leave. It was very overwhelming and so I left the chamber to go and sit in the lobby. I missed the vote because of this. I just wanted to clarify and make sure it is clear to all members in the House that it did happen.”


Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, face towards the camera left of centre of the frame, is shown near Opposition whip Gordon Brown in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Wednesday May 18, 2016. Footage from the Commons television feed shows Trudeau wading into a clutch of MPs, mostly New Democrats, and pulling Opposition whip Gordon Brown through the crowd in order to get a vote started. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-House of Commons **MANDATORY CREDIT**Marilyn Gladu (CPC, Sarnia–Lambton): “I don’t know what the matter was. He was raging. It was incredible to me. Tom Mulcair was calling across to Justin, ‘You’re pathetic.’ My reaction was, ‘Are you kidding me?’ This is totally unacceptable. I’ve worked in business for over 32 years. If you grab somebody like that, you can be fired. It’s very serious.”


Angus: “The Prime Minister returned to his seat. He was very, very calm, which to me was just as surprising as the anger a moment before.”


Elizabeth May (Green Party, Saanich–Gulf Islands) [not pictured]: “He didn’t realize he’d come into contact with Brosseau until he got back to his own seat, and then someone told him. He turned quickly and looked very distraught, quite mortified by what had happened. [Brosseau] was coming toward me, very teary, and he was coming behind her saying, ‘I’m so sorry, I didn’t see you. I’m so sorry,’ words to that effect. He looked absolutely distraught and mortified.”


Trudeau, to the Commons at 5 p.m. on May 18: “I admit I came in physical contact with a number of members as I extended my arm in, including someone behind me who I did not see. I certainly did not intend to offend or impact on anyone. I was simply concerned that, unfortunately, the decorum of this place has been impeded by this kind of prevention of the work that the whips are doing. If anyone feels that they were, um, impacted by my actions, I completely apologize. It is not my intention to hurt anyone. It is my intention to get this vote done.”


Duncan: “Then the Prime Minster dragged Brown away from those who were standing in the chamber—dragged is the word I would use—and he charged back to his seat. All of this was happening rather rapidly. I was watching Ruth Ellen, and then I turn around and all of a sudden the Prime Minister is coming toward where I am again. It’s at that moment that a lot of people became involved. I noticed a lot of the Liberals leaving their seats, cabinet ministers, and getting into the fray. There were very heated words between my leader [Thomas Mulcair] and the Prime Minister.”


Boulerice: “The Prime Minister came back and I think he was trying to say something to Ruth Ellen Brosseau, but she was already in the lobby. This is where there was the altercation between Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Mulcair, and some MPs, Liberal and NDP, came in. I saw Nathan Cullen getting between Mr. Mulcair and Trudeau. I was just standing there. If you see the video I was not moving because I was just shocked. What’s going on here? We are not a school for children. It was just, like, really, really strange. Mr. Trudeau looked like he lost completely his temper.”


Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, face towards the camera left of centre of the frame, is shown near Opposition whip Gordon Brown in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Wednesday May 18, 2016. Footage from the Commons television feed shows Trudeau wading into a clutch of MPs, mostly New Democrats, and pulling Opposition whip Gordon Brown through the crowd in order to get a vote started. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-House of Commons **MANDATORY CREDIT**Nathan Cullen (NDP, Skeena–Bulkley Valley): “I only saw the moment where Mr. Mulcair and Trudeau were directly engaged with one another. I was pleasantly chatting with two Liberal cabinet members by their seat. I heard the cursing before I saw anything. It took me a moment to understand what was happening, but clearly tempers were up quickly.”


Gladu: “Then Trudeau and Mulcair got into it. I thought it was going to become a boxing match. The Prime Minister has a precedent in that area. The Prime Minister was so angry. That’s the part of this that’s surprising. He really lost control.”


May: “Brosseau left the chamber and he turned back to go to his own seat, and then he was circled by a bunch of people, including Mr. Mulcair. Things continued to degenerate—it got a bit ugly at that point. But no further unpleasantness ensued.”


Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, face towards the camera left of centre of the frame, is shown near Opposition whip Gordon Brown in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Wednesday May 18, 2016. Footage from the Commons television feed shows Trudeau wading into a clutch of MPs, mostly New Democrats, and pulling Opposition whip Gordon Brown through the crowd in order to get a vote started. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-House of Commons **MANDATORY CREDIT**David Sweet (CPC, Flamborough–Glanbrook), to the Commons: “The Prime Minister is active in martial arts. He is a proven boxer, and that fact he does not hide. In fact, he pretty well promotes his prowess in the martial sport quite actively and publicly. All those people I have known who have been trained in combative sports and martial arts have always made a covenant with themselves, knowing that their capability is greater than the average person to harm someone. They take double restraint and ensure that they do not take any kind of action that would cause harm to someone. It is not only the Prime Minister’s position, but it is by the very fact that he is trained in these martial arts, he has a double duty to be responsible for the kind of strength that he wields. This should have been known by the Prime Minister and should be one of his highest commitments to himself.”


Gladu: “That whole time [after Trudeau made his first apology] the Prime Minister and their House leader, Dominic LeBlanc, were talking back and forth. It was clear that the House leader was telling the Prime Minister that ‘You’re in trouble here. You better apologize.’ He was a lot more contrite the second time. But it was too little, too late.”


Trudeau, to the Commons, at 5:17 p.m. on May 18: “I want to take the opportunity now that the member is okay to return to the House right now to be able to express directly to her my apologies for my behaviour and my actions. Unreservedly. The fact is that in this situation I noticed that the opposite member whip was being impeded in his progress. I took it upon myself to go and assist him forward, which I now see was unadvisable as a course of action, and it resulted in physical contact in this House that we can all accept was unacceptable. I apologize for that unreservedly. I look for opportunities to make amends directly to the member and to any members who feel negatively impacted by this exchange and intervention because I take responsibility.”

Related: Liberals withdraw controversial Motion No. 6


Ramsey: “Initially my concern was for Ruth Ellen. As soon as the vote was completed we went out into the lobby and I saw her and we hugged. And she really composed herself and I think it’s worth noting how the Prime Minister’s aggression was in complete opposition to Ruth Ellen’s composure and grace when she came back into the House and made her statement. We’ve been emailing back and forth. She’s been doing fine and she’s been doing well. She was thanking all of us for staying in the House.”


Note: Maclean’s reached out to many Liberal MPs, whose seats afforded them a view of some portion of the confrontations, or who could be seen in footage participating. They either declined to be interviewed, said they had seen nothing of significance or did not respond.

—By Meagan Campbell,  Jonathon Gatehouse, Charlie Gillis, Aaron Hutchins, Martin Patriquin, Shannon Proudfoot and Zane Schwartz


 

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