‘I’ll smack your chops’: A history of Canadian politicians behaving badly
Canadian parliamentarians tend to fight more with words than with fists.
But coming to blows is not exactly unheard of.
As MPs denounced Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s actions in the House of Commons Wednesday, when he grabbed one MP and bumped another with his elbow, it’s worth remembering some other times the House of Commons got rowdy.
Trudeau himself has had a bit of a temper in the past. He once called then-Environment Minister Peter Kent a “piece of s–t” during Question Period in 2011. He apologized and withdrew his remarks minutes later, saying that he had lost his temper.
Conservative Peter Van Loan got up in NDP MP Nathan Cullen’s face in 2012, crossing the floor of the House of Commons, waving his finger and according to New Democrats, swearing at Cullen. Other NDP MPs, including Tom Mulcair, stood up in Cullen’s defence. The Toronto Star reported that according to Conservatives, Mulcair swore right back.
The fight was broken up before it came to any physical blows.
When called a racist by a Liberal MP in 1997, Reform MP Darrel Stinson shot right back.
“I hear the word “racist” from that side. Do you have the fortitude or the gonads to stand up and come across here and say that to me, you son of a b—h? Come on.”
Liberal MP John Cannis didn’t take him up on the offer.
Sometimes politicians do get physical though: in 1987, Conservative MP Dan McKenzie shoved Liberal John Nunziata during a late-night debate on a back-to-work bill for postal workers.
According to an article by the Canadian Press, dug up by the Library of Parliament, Nunziata claimed that McKenzie “seemed to be seriously impaired by alcohol” – a charge that McKenzie later denied, though he did apologize for the incident.
Canada’s early Parliament
Politicians have settled disagreements with their fists since before Confederation. John A. Macdonald, who would go on to become Canada’s first prime minister, once engaged in fisticuffs with a rival, Oliver Mowat, in a legislature in Toronto.
According to one historian, he was pulled off of Mowat, shouting:
“Come back here you damn pup, I’ll smack your chops!”
That same historian, Arthur Milnes, said that Macdonald once dealt directly with a heckler during a debate – by wading into the crowd and punching him.
Of course, this kind of violence was more common in Macdonald’s time. The bar underneath the House of Commons likely had something to do with it.
“There were fights in the post-Confed period when the liquor flowed freely, but it came to an end in the twentieth century,” said John English, a former MP and Canadian political biographer.
When MPs debated banning the sale of alcohol on Parliamentary premises in 1881, one MP quoted a newspaper article which suggested that without alcohol right outside the chamber door, “the brawls and scenes which have disgraced not only this but previous Parliaments would never have been witnessed.”
At the time, many of the MPs objected, saying that they had never witnessed such scenes.
“No man ever saw me the worse of liquor, I do not say it boastingly; I can take my glass of wine or beer when I like – or I can take two or three – and I do not feel the worse of it,” said Thomas Robertson of Hamilton.
“I have been here for thirteen years and I have never seen any brawls here as the result of indulgence in intoxicating liquors,” said Lachlin McCallum of Monck, Ontario. “I, as a member of the this House and one who does not drink himself, would no more think of preventing members from taking a glass in the evening than I would of depriving them of their cup of tea.”
By tradition, the width of the aisle between the two sides of the House of Commons (3.96 metres) is approximately two swords’ length. Sometimes, that’s not far enough.
Of course, Canadian brawls – at least recently – have nothing on those in some other countries. This month alone has seen legislators scuffling in South Africa and Turkey.
And the Ukrainian parliament is particularly pugnacious.