The Commons: A remarkable, if insignificant, vote

Parliament, in a roundabout way, passes judgment on the war in Iraq

The Scene. Yeas 137, Nays 110. The morning papers, let alone history, may make little mention of that tally, but there you have it. In a format sports fans can understand, here is the closest this Parliament of Canada may ever get to an explicit and complete denunciation of the war in Iraq.

The Speaker called the members in shortly after 3 pm this afternoon and, as luck would have it, most were already there, having just sat through another spirited session of Question Period. (In case you were wondering, the government would still rather you stop asking about the former foreign affairs minister’s choice of date.) What proceeded was altogether unbecoming so seemingly momentous a moment.

Liberal leader Stéphane Dion had packed up his things and was on his way out when party whip Karen Redman reminded him of his democratic responsibility. He turned and sat back down. The Prime Minister was not so encumbered, government whip Jay Hill apparently powerless to keep Mr. Harper from slipping away quietly before the vote could be taken.

The recorded division involved a rather coy opposition motion from the immigration committee that reads exhaustively as follows: “The committee recommends that the government immediately implement a program to allow conscientious objectors and their immediate family members (partners and dependents), who have refused or left military service related to a war not sanctioned by the United Nations and do not have a criminal record, to apply for permanent resident status and remain in Canada; and that the government should immediately cease any removal or deportation actions that may have already commenced against such individuals.”

The subtext is blessedly a bit more straightforward.

Since the United States invaded Iraq some five years ago, various enlisted Americans have arrived in Canada, seeking refuge from their military duty. The opposition parties, questioning the legality of the war and fearing for the welfare of those who’ve sought safe haven, have suggested we find a way to let them stay. The present government, and various levels of the judiciary, have said we’ve no obligation to offer sanctuary.

“We believe that the invasion of Iraq was unjust and that the resulting humanitarian situation has had a massive impact,” one former sergeant told the committee in Decemeber. “I and many resisters didn’t come here to have an argument with the Canadian government. We respect the Supreme Court’s decision, but we also believe, as do tens of thousands of Canadians, that there can be a political solution to this.”

Apparently feeling likewise, Liberal Jim Karygiannis and New Democrat Olivia Chow put together a motion and got it to a vote. A non-binding vote the ruling party will almost certainly ignore, but a vote all the same.

“Who are all these people on the other side?” Conservative Rick Dykstra chirped as everyone settled in. “I don’t recognize them.”

A night earlier, the Liberals had largely surrendered the Commons so as to spare Canadians a summer election. For such a perfectly selfless act of servitude, they were, once more, ridiculed by the government side—jibes that might mean more if the Conservatives, as just noted, ever bothered to recognize the votes these Liberals do honour.

As the clerks prepared for the roll call. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty unfolded the Financial Times and caught up on his reading. John Baird’s nose was studiously buried in One Canada, the memoirs of John G. Diefenbaker. As the clerks began calling names, various inattentive members had to be poked by their seatmates when it came time to be counted.

“Where were you last night?” yelped a voice from the Conservative side at the Liberals. Another mumbled something to do with letting “criminals into Canada.”

“Do you guys still want to go to Iraq?” Liberal Omar Alghabra wondered aloud. “Where’s the PM today?”

Though the Prime Minister can’t be expected to attend to every vote—things to do, people to see, cabinets to be shuffled and ministers to be stage-managed—this seemed an odd one for Canada’s highest-ranking supporter of the Iraq war to miss. You’d have thought the man who once told Americans that his country’s refusal to join the invasion was “a serious mistake,” might’ve wanted to be there. Never mind a man who once fashioned himself a great defender of Parliamentary will.

Nonetheless. With the PM away, Joe Comuzzi was given the honour of leading the government nays, insufficient as they were. And when the clerks read the tally—137-110 in favour of the motion—there was applause from the opposition benches, Liberals Bonnie Brown and Sue Barnes notably clapping toward Chow in the far corner.

Out in the foyer, the talk was of other things entirely. Pierre Poilievre was reciting his lines into the nearest microphone, Jim Prentice was refuting allegations of economic disaster and Denis Coderre was, well, doing as Denis Coderre does. If not for a tall Reuters reporter and curly haired francophone, the vote might have gone entirely uncommented upon.

“I think Canada has always been a place which has welcomed those who seek peace and seek freedom,” offered Bob Rae.

“Canadians have always taken independent positions,” Jack Layton, Chow’s husband, was eventually coaxed to say. “If anything, I think that that elevates the respect in which many Americans hold Canadians.”

Indeed, as luck would have it, this Parliament, the Canadian public, the majority of Americans and the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate now find themselves in approximate agreement on the war in Iraq. And so suddenly, symbolic vote or not, this government seems rather alone.

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