Ailing MP’s push for gender-neutral O Canada threatened by Tory opposition

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Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger’s push to change the English lyrics of O Canada hit a roadblock Thursday when some Conservative MPs rejected a procedural move that would have allowed another parliamentarian to usher his bill through the House if he’s too ill to show up for debate.

After question period Thursday, government whip Andrew Leslie sought the unanimous consent of MPs to allow the bill — which would render the national anthem gender neutral — to proceed under his name so as to lessen the burden on Bélanger, who was diagnosed with ALS last fall.

Enough MPs shouted their objection to deny passage of Leslie’s motion and now Bélanger must attend Friday and move the bill to the next stage or it could die on the order paper.

Bélanger’s is required to be in the chamber for key stages in the bill’s passage, which forced the Ottawa–Vanier MP to arrive by ambulance ahead of his last appearance in the House.

“We all love and support Mauril and we understand he’s going through a difficult time … but it’s not about Mauril. It’s about the bill itself. The vast majority of our caucus are opposed to the bill. They’ve heard from their constituents,” Conservative MP Andrew Scheer told reporters, saying there has been no consultation with Canadians on the matter.

Scheer explains Conservative opposition to Belanger Bill1:45

The Conservative move prompted condemnation from supporters of the bill on the Liberal benches.

“They should be ashamed. The people who denied consent … their heads were down when they said it. They weren’t proud of it,” Greg Fergus said in an interview with CBC News. “Why are they delaying the inevitable and denying him the pleasure of seeing this through while he’s still in good health? What’s the end game for them beside a loss of goodwill?”

Leslie also balked at Scheer’s suggestion that there has been little consultation on the issue. “I would like to remind all Canadians that this has been an eight-year process, so there’s been lots of discussion on the subject already. Mauril’s bill has been alive for a significant period of time,” he told reporters in the foyer.

Leslie updates reporters on the next step for Belanger’s Bill1:27

Despite some Conservative opposition, Bélanger’s bill continues to benefit from help from other opposition MPs.

A Bloc MP was the latest to surrender his slot to give the bill a shot at passing before summer.

“It’s the least I can do,” Gabriel Ste-Marie told CBC News. “It’s such a sad story. I’ve been very touched by Mauril Bélanger and his disease … He is a great member of Parliament.

“I am sad to see that there could not be a consensus between parliamentarians to fast-track his bill.”

‘He wants to be here’

Another Liberal MP, Linda Lapointe, had also given up her May 31 slot so C-210 could have its required second hour of debate and pass its vote at second reading last week.

Friday’s debate at report stage is the last time the veteran Ottawa MP is required in the chamber. After that, it can proceed without him present.

“He has every intention of making it. He wants to be here,” Fergus said, noting that Bélanger is very motivated to see the bill pass. “It’s giving him a real focus.”

If he is able to come, his wife, Catherine, will accompany him and he will need to use a wheelchair and be accompanied by medical aides.

Tory tension

Earlier this spring, worried for Bélanger’s health and knowing how important the legislation was to him personally, some Liberals, seeking to support what had become somewhat of a legacy project for the ailing MP, approached the other parties seeking a deal.

The Conservatives, who are split on the bill, would not go along. At several points, requests in the House for unanimous consent have been denied.

“I signalled to the government long ago that our caucus … would not be able to help facilitate its passage,” Scheer said Thursday.

During the first and second hours of debate last month, several Tory MPs explained their opposition to changing the lyrics, saying their constituents want O Canada left as is.

Following the second reading vote on the bill on June 1, the Commons heritage committee chaired by Liberal Hedy Fry met the next day to review it.

The committee, on which Liberals have a majority (the NDP also supports the bill), heard from only one witness, historian Chris Champion, and then voted 6-3 to report C-210 back to the Commons without amendments.

That meeting, however, was testy and tense from its outset. Conservative MPs accused the Liberals of skirting the rules and shortchanging debate in an effort to move things along before the summer recess.

“The alacrity with which everyone is dealing with this bill,” Fry said off the top, “has to do with the health of the mover of this bill. His health is indeed critical and we need to deal with this bill as soon as possible.”

Conservative vice-chair Peter Van Loan responded by saying he had “the greatest regard” for Bélanger’s condition, but “that is not a basis on which public policy is made, especially public policy on an institution or a symbol that belongs to all Canadians.”

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Ailing MP’s push for gender-neutral O Canada threatened by Tory opposition

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