OTTAWA – Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger has sat in the House of Commons for 21 years, but when he arrives Wednesday, where he sits will make history.
In an unprecedented tribute, the Member of Parliament for Ottawa-Vanier will take the chair as honorary Speaker of the House of Commons.
It was a job he wanted permanently, but a devastating diagnosis sidelined his plans late last year.
“I wanted to be Speaker in order to be able to fully devote my parliamentary knowledge and expertise to the service of the House of Commons and its members,” Bélanger said in an emotional statement on Tuesday. “Also, I wanted make a difference, notably improving the decorum, lastly I wanted to make a priority of protecting and enhancing the rights of all Members of Parliament in the House so they can better serve the needs to their constituents and the Canadian public.”
Weeks after the election, Bélanger was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The ALS Society of Canada describes it as “a progressive neuromuscular disease in which nerve cells die and leave muscles paralyzed.”
The disease started its attack on Bélanger’s voice – an essential tool for the Speaker of the House of Commons, who is the impartial referee tasked with maintaining order in the chamber.
Bélanger was a strong candidate and in his two decades as MP he has sat everywhere in the House of Commons serving as part of the government, official opposition and the third party. He also has a reputation for knowing the rules and enforcing them.
But on the advice of his doctor, Bélanger pulled his name from the race on November 30, 2015.
“That was heart-breaking,” said Bélanger’s long-time friend Alain-Michel Sekula. “The fact that he could potentially be named Speaker of the House of Commons would be the peak of his career.”
Instead his parliamentary colleagues passed a motion to have him act as honorary Speaker on Wednesday – a bittersweet tribute from his friends and colleagues.
“What most of his constituents will be thinking is they will be sad that he couldn’t be the real Speaker because he would have done such a great job,” said Bélanger’s campaign manager and constituent Francis LeBlanc. “He has the gravitas. He has the knowledge of Parliament. He has the respect of his peers. He has the sense of the job and the role of the speakership that would have made him a terrific Speaker.”
Conservative Senator Raynell Andreychuk said the Speaker’s Chair is fitting for Bélanger, who puts his job as a parliamentarian above any party lines.
“People should know there are parliamentarians who are very party loyal, who are constituency loyal but who get the bigger picture of what a parliamentarian is,” she said.
On Wednesday, Bélanger will preside over 20 minutes of House of Commons procedure, including member’s statements and the leaders’ portion of question period with the help of a voice generator – a tool that has also become an integral part of how he works.
Bélanger used the voice generator once before in January when he introduced a private members’ bill to make the lyrics to “O Canada” gender neutral. The same bill was defeated the last session of Parliament.
Sekula friend said the re-introduction of the bill, despite added physical obstacles, speaks volumes about Bélanger.
“Once you get over the shock…you start to see the man come through,” Sekula said. “He’s got things he wants to get done on it. He is very determined and that was one of the first things. You can tell, nothing is going to stop him.
Bélanger’s path to Parliament
It has been that way since he and Bélanger met at as students at the University of Ottawa and served on the student federation together.
“He did say at that time, he wants one of those…MP jobs on the Hill and he went for it,” Sekula said.
It wasn’t a direct path. He worked as a stockbroker for awhile, before working behind the scenes for federal and regional politicians. Supporting Bélanger along the way has been his wife, Catherine.
By 1995, he was ready to run for MP in Ottawa-Vanier. He first had to win the nomination – a contest that saw him go up against a team of Young Liberals, including current MP for Hull-Alymer, Greg Fergus.
Bélanger beat the keen young Liberals handily, but it cemented a friendship between him and Fergus.
“To Mauril’s everlasting credit…he never held it against anybody,” said Fergus, who was helping Bélanger campaign for Speaker.
Since that election Bélanger has won seven others. Fergus explains his success by quoting an arts community line: “It took me 30 years to become an overnight success.”
“He has worked long and hard in the community…he had earned his stripes and that’s why people came out and thought he would be a great MP,” Fergus said.
A 21-year parliamentary career
On Parliament Hill, Bélanger has served as minister for portfolios including internal trade, democratic reform, and official languages. When not in government he served as critic for cooperatives, official languages and infrastructure. He also travelled to Africa last week as part of his work with the Canada-Africa Parliamentary Association.
One of the most enduring areas he works in is francophone issues – a passion passed on from his mother who was an advocate for the francophone community in the small northern Ontario town of Mattawa.
Off the Hill, LeBlanc said Bélanger is passionate about connecting with immigrant communities and the many Inuit Canadians in the riding, supporting Ottawa’s francophone hospital and establishing historically significant landmarks.
While becoming Speaker would have been a career highlight, Bélanger said his priorities haven’t changed.
“I remain committed to the constituents of Ottawa-Vanier and representing them in the House of Commons to the best of my abilities as long as possible. That being said, I go to work every day and endeavour to advance important files for the riding and also files that are important for our country,” Bélanger said on Tuesday.
And now part of that work will include being a public face in the fight for a cure for ALS.
© 2016 Shaw Media