The government’s attempt to improvise a new limit on the Westminster system will have its first test this morning when the Prime Minister’s director of communications is scheduled to testify at the ethics committee. Once again, as in the matter of Parliament’s demand to see documents related to Afghan detainees, there is the small matter of the actual laws of this land.
If you should be so curious, the power of Parliament to “send for persons” is explained in chapter 20 of the second edition of House of Commons Procedure and Practice. A committee of Parliament can issue a summons to any individual, ordering their attendance at a specific time and place. Only the Queen, the Governor-General, provincial lieutenant-governors, members of Parliament, members of provincial legislatures and individuals not residing in Canada are, in practice, granted immunity from such a summons.
Those who are rightfully summoned, but fail to appear can be disciplined by the House—Parliament’s powers in this regard explained in chapter 3 of second edition of House of Commons Procedure and Practice. Chapter 3 includes a subsection entitled “taking individuals into custody and imprisonment,” which reads, rather seriously, as follows.
The House of Commons possesses the right to confine individuals as a punishment for contempt, although it has not exercised this authority since 1913. In the years immediately following Confederation, the House ordered the Sergeant‑at‑Arms to take individuals into custody on four occasions and ordered the imprisonment of others. Again in 1913, the Sergeant-at-Arms was ordered to imprison an individual.
In May 1868, Henri Joly (Lotbinière) who was chosen Chairman of a select committee failed to appear when the committee was sworn in and a motion was adopted in the House ordering him to be taken into custody by the Sergeant‑at‑Arms. The Sergeant‑at‑Arms informed the House that he had been unable to comply with the Order because Mr. Joly was absent from the city and no further action was taken. In 1873, two Members, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald and Frederick Pearson (Colchester), failed to appear when they were to be sworn in as members of a committee. A motion was adopted in the House to have them taken into the custody of the Sergeant‑at‑Arms. When Mr. Macdonald appeared, Dr. Charles Tupper (Cumberland) read an affidavit into the record, stating that the Member was unable to perform his duties for medical reasons. Mr. Macdonald was discharged. No further action was taken against Mr. Pearson, the Sergeant‑at‑Arms having informed the House that he had been unable to comply with the Order, due to Mr. Pearson’s absence from the city. Also in 1873, Alderman John Heney of Ottawa was held in custody from November 4 to November 7 while waiting to appear at the Bar of the House on the charge of attempting to bribe a Member. In 1891, the House adopted a motion ordering the Sergeant‑at‑Arms to take Thomas McGreevy (Quebec West) into custody for failing to attend in his place to answer questions. The Sergeant‑at‑Arms reported back to the House two days later that he had been unable to locate the Member. In 1913, the House ordered the imprisonment of R.C. Miller after he appeared at the Bar and refused to answer questions. He remained in prison for some four months until the end of the session.
In case you were wondering, Mr. Miller’s original offence in this case was refusing to answer questions of the Public Accounts Committee.