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House of Commons elects Liberal MP Greg Fergus as first Black Canadian Speaker

OTTAWA — Greg Fergus first came to the House of Commons as a page, sitting at the foot of the Speaker's chair and serving water to MPs — only one of whom is still a sitting member of Parliament.

OTTAWA — Greg Fergus first came to the House of Commons as a page, sitting at the foot of the Speaker's chair and serving water to MPs — only one of whom is still a sitting member of Parliament.

On Tuesday, he sat in that chair himself, now tasked with restoring confidence in the chamber in a role that Fergus described as a continuation of his "lifelong love" of Parliament.

Fergus said he subscribed to Hansard — the daily transcripts of debate in the House of Commons — at 14 years old. 

Now, 40 years later, the 54-year-old Quebec Liberal MP has become the first Black Canadian to serve as Speaker.

After MPs elected him to the role by secret ballot, he promised them that he would lead with respect, and encouraged them to respect each other, too.

Canadians are watching, he noted. 

"The Speaker, to use the old hockey analogy, is nothing more than a referee," Fergus said in his first speech from the chair. 

"And if there's one thing I know, it's that nobody pays good money to go see the referee. They go to see the stars: you."

The rare mid-session election was held to replace Anthony Rota, who caused an international uproar over his actions during a recent visit by Ukraine's president.

The former Speaker invited a veteran who served in a Nazi unit in the Second World War to the House of Commons chamber, and asked parliamentarians and dignitaries to applaud the man as a hero. 

He has since apologized and remains a Liberal caucus member. However, he was not in his seat during the Speaker election, with a seat-filler in his place instead.  

Fergus was first elected to represent the Quebec riding of Hull-Aylmer in 2015, and has served as parliamentary secretary to the prime minister and treasury board. 

All MPs gave Fergus a standing ovation as he was announced the winner of the vote, and members of the Liberal, NDP and Bloc Québécois caucuses shook his hand and hugged him, as did a small number of Conservative MPs.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Fergus was elected to help parliamentarians remain civil in debates "and remind us that we are all here for the same reason, which is to serve Canadians."

"They expect us to behave to the highest standards. Mr. Speaker, I know you will help us rise to meet this moment," Trudeau said in the House of Commons Tuesday. 

In his own speech, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh described Fergus as one of the friendliest members of Parliament who always has a smile on his face. 

"I want to acknowledge the incredible weight that you now bear and the incredible feat that you achieved," said Singh, who said his election is a powerful moment for many.

"There's kids who have maybe come here and have not seem themselves on the walls. And that's going to change now."

In the days leading up to the election, some Tories had drummed up attacks against Fergus. 

A top adviser to Tory Leader Pierre Poilievre, Jenni Byrne, noted that Fergus had vocally defended Trudeau during "elbow-gate" — when Trudeau inadvertently elbowed an NDP MP during an uproar in the House in 2016.

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner also pointed out on social media that Fergus had been found earlier this year to have breached the Conflict of Interest Act while serving as a parliamentary secretary to Trudeau. He wrote a letter in support of a TV channel's application to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission for mandatory carriage — something those in such positions are not allowed to do.

The other six candidates for Speaker had called for civility and rule-following in speeches ahead of the vote. 

Fergus promised he will improve decorum and insist on respect so that MPs can take on friendly, respectful and passionate debate. 

"I'm going to be working hard at this, and I need all of your help to make this happen," he said, adding that he will be meeting with deputy Speakers Tuesday to discuss how to improve decorum.

As is tradition, the new Speaker was "dragged" to the chair in the House of Commons by the prime minister and Opposition leader after votes were counted Tuesday afternoon.

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre congratulated Fergus. He said he knows Fergus has strong enough arms for the job, noting he had "the difficult task of dragging you all the way to that chair.” 

He then shifted his speech to criticize the Liberal government, describing it as "excessively" costly and "overly greedy."

"So now, more than ever, the role of Parliament in restraining the power of the prime minister is primordial. And we will continue to carry out that role proudly on the floor of the House of Commons because we will always remember we’re servants, not masters," Poilievre said. 

Among those Fergus beat out for the chair were Conservative MP Chris d'Entremont, a deputy Speaker, and two assistant deputies — the NDP's Carol Hughes, from Ontario, and Liberal Alexandra Mendes from Quebec.

Other candidates included Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and two other members of the Liberal caucus: Prince Edward Island MP Sean Casey and Quebec MPs Peter Schiefke. 

Liberal MPs had gathered early in the morning for a caucus meeting with Trudeau to discuss the vote.

When the caucus meeting concluded, Trudeau and Fergus were two of the last few to leave the room.

As he emerged from their meeting, Fergus had said he was nervous about the day, but optimistic. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 3, 2023.

— With files from Laura Osman.

Mickey Djuric and Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press