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Bloc, Tory MPs call for Fergus to resign as Speaker as Liberals accept his apology

OTTAWA — House Speaker Greg Fergus apologized to a committee of MPs on Monday for a video he made that was shown at a recent Ontario Liberal Party convention, and said he's implementing a new communication protocol in his office to ensure it doesn't
House of Commons Speaker Greg Fergus appears as a witness at a standing committee of Procedures and House Affairs on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Dec. 11, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — House Speaker Greg Fergus apologized to a committee of MPs on Monday for a video he made that was shown at a recent Ontario Liberal Party convention, and said he's implementing a new communication protocol in his office to ensure it doesn't happen again. 

Fergus, whose role as Speaker is non-partisan, has been under scrutiny for recording the video in his office while wearing his ceremonial robes. 

"I know I messed up and I won't do it again," Fergus said, adding that if the House of Commons decides he's not up to the job, he will abide by that decision. 

All members of Parliament voted unanimously last week to send the issue to the committee on procedure and House affairs, which is set to report back the House of Commons later this week. 

The committee scheduled five hours of hearings Monday with witnesses that also include House clerks and John Fraser, the Ontario member of the provincial parliament who was the subject of Fergus's video. 

He was interim leader of the provincial Liberal party until Bonnie Crombie was named leader Dec. 2. 

Fergus said a member of Fraser's family contacted him on Nov. 27, asking him to send a video message to commemorate his time as head of the provincial party. 

He said he recorded the video on Nov. 30 in his office between meetings, and he did not ask his chief of staff or the House clerk about whether he ought to do so.

The Speaker said he was told it would be shown at a private event on Dec. 1 with members of "Fraser's team," and he had no idea it would be played publicly or included in a party convention. He has agreed to provide the committee with copies of related correspondence. 

Fraser told reporters that his wife asked Fergus to make the video, which was part of a larger tribute shown at the Dec. 2 event where the Ontario Liberals announced their new leader. 

He also said there was no private event held on Dec. 1 and that he thinks there was a miscommunication about the date and the purpose of the video.

In what amounted to a personal tribute, Fergus spoke about his long friendship with Fraser and their work over the years. 

But his words were introduced at the event as a tribute from the Speaker of the House of Commons. 

Fergus said he recognizes now that he should not have made the video in the first place, and that he did not understand how talking about his past political work could be seen as partisanship.

The committee itself was divided along partisan lines Monday, with the Liberal members defending Fergus and accepting his apology. 

Terry Duguid used part of his time to ask Fergus to share his reflections about being the first Black Speaker in Canadian history, while fellow Liberal Sherry Romanado talked about receiving letters of support for Fergus. 

MPs from the Conservative party, the NDP and the Bloc Québécois said the incident has caused them to question Fergus's judgment. The Bloc and Conservatives have called for him to resign.

"It might be better for you to decide to leave of your own accord, because yes, you made a mistake. It is not a small mistake. It is a grave one," said Bloc MP Claude DeBellefeuille in French. 

She reminded Fergus that his predecessor learned that lesson the hard way. 

Anthony Rota resigned in late September after initially resisting calls from opposition MPs for him to step down. 

The scandal began when Rota invited a 98-year-old Ukrainian veteran of the Second World War to the House of Commons and honoured him as a "hero" during a visit by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. 

After the event, it was revealed that the veteran, Yaroslav Hunka, fought with the Nazi unit known as the Waffen-SS Galicia Division and Rota eventually resigned amid international scrutiny. 

Fergus was elected Speaker of the House on Oct. 3 and pledged to work to restore respect and decorum to parliamentary debate. 

Former Speaker and Conservative MP Andrew Scheer, who joined the committee for Monday's meeting, said Fergus had a "hyper-partisan" past as an MP and said he seems to still be too close to that partisanship.

"The fundamental rule of being Speaker is also one of the easier rules to follow, and that is, you just don't do partisan things," Scheer said. 

"If you were a hockey player and you were about to play a game, and you just saw the referee in his uniform giving a pep talk to the locker room of an opposing team, it wouldn't matter what the context was, would it? You wouldn't want that official refereeing your game."

Fergus responded that he thinks it is important to note that as an MP from Quebec, he and Fraser were in "a different league." 

"I also recognize that the member is right," he said. 

Fergus said he's put in place a protocol to get advice from the House administration on any future communications from his office. 

Eric Janse, acting clerk of the House of Commons, told the committee Monday morning that he was not consulted about the video. 

"I think my advice would have been to probably not proceed in this manner, or at a minimum to perhaps canvass the parties," Janse said, adding that he felt "perhaps this was going a bit too far into the partisan sphere."

Janse said the House administration team is considering whether it should provide more education to Speakers about non-partisanship in the future.

The committee will make recommendations about whether Fergus should be sanctioned for his actions, and it will be up to the House of Commons to determine what happens next. 

Fergus acknowledged that his colleagues may call on him to resign. While MPs cannot force the Speaker to step down through a vote, he said he will accept the decision of the House. 

"If the House decides that they don't have any further confidence in my work, that I cannot regain the confidence of MPs, that I can't execute the responsibilities of the Speaker by learning about this mistake, with a profound and sincere desire to fix it ... absolutely, I will leave," he said in French.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 11, 2023.

Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press