Global Warming Hecklers Not First to Disrupt House

October 29, 2009 Updated: October 29, 2009

The event that sparked parliamentary charges of contempt, a media furor, and left six young environmentalists banned from Parliament for a year, was noted in the official transcript of the House of Commons debate only as “Disturbance in Gallery.”

It was the second such disturbance in recent weeks, preceded in September by a similar event involving three women dressed as nuns seated in the visitor’s gallery. They shouted remarks about the seal hunt during question period and held banners that read, “The Seal Slaughter is a Bad Habit.”

A search of Parliament's Hansard, the official transcript of all debates in the House, reveals no other such incidents in the previous four years. But when asked for any records of similar incidents, the Library of Parliament found a media report of a protest in 2001 with surprising similarities to this most recent outburst.

The most recent happened on Monday, when around 120-200 environmental protesters watched question period silently until NDP leader Jack Layton rose to speak. Then one shouted “Bill C-311,” and others started yelling, “sign it, sign it, sign it.” As they were dragged off by Commons security guards, many more joined in.

Bill C-311, the Climate Change Accountability Act, is an NDP bill that commits Canada to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to a level 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, among other requirements.

The bill passed a vote to go to second reading on April 1 by a somewhat narrow margin of 141 yeas to 128 nays. The Conservatives have opposed the bill saying it would impose unrealistic timelines and severely hurt the economy.

While September's seal hunt protest passed with little discussion, Monday's outburst has been subject to additional discussion and has raised allegations of NDP involvement.

The NDP has repeatedly denied any connection to the protesters. Speaking to reporters directly after the incident on Monday, Mr. Layton said that he had met with some of the people involved before the incident but did not know what they were going to do.

Reports emerged later that one protester is NDP MP Paul Dewar’s volunteer political events co-ordinator and another is a former Alberta provincial NDP candidate who now works for Greenpeace.

The protesters have denied any connection with the NDP, but the Conservatives point to the fact that the room in which they met was booked by an NDP MP and the fact that Mr. Layton met with protesters that day as evidence to the contrary.

House leader Jay Hill said the incident infringed on the Parliamentarians' work and called for NDP leader Jack Layton to be reprimanded.

“I charge the member for Toronto-Danforth with contempt for his involvement in this incident. It has now become quite clear that the people who disrupted the proceedings of this House were guests of the leader of the NDP.”

Mr. Hill said the group had a room in Parliament booked by the NDP for two hours before question period the day of the protest, and that Conservative MPs at an environment committee meeting in the room next door heard the group practicing their chant.

Liberal MP Paul Szabo took an opposing stance and suggested the young people were within their rights to shout from the gallery seats above where members sit to debate. He likened the protest to little more than the regular filibustering of MPs.

“Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms gives Canadians the right to express their freedom of expression. That is what happened here…. I would just indicate that freedom of speech is not just for parliamentarians—it is for all Canadians,” said Mr. Szabo.

The exchange and suggestions of conspiracy are similar to another incident that happened over eight years ago.

Though not recorded in the Hansard, the disturbance happened on May 2, 2001, when two anti-free trade protesters were arrested when they unfurled a banner and threw teddy bears at the government benches from the galleries above.

Although opposition MPs in the Alliance Party—one of the forerunners to the Conservative Party of today—joked about the “stuffed animal attack,” the government of the day did not.

Don Boudria, the ruling Liberals' house leader at the time, said the bears came from the opposition's spectator gallery and he intended to get to the bottom of the incident.

"This is Parliament, not a recreation centre, not a demonstration hall, or not a barricade, and any use of the building for anything other than parliamentary purposes is wrong," he said, according to the Canadian Press.

"Somebody in the opposition, or somebody's office in the opposition issued a gallery pass. I want to know who it is, were they aware, was a member aware, whether it was a member of staff, and so on."

It emerged that an Alliance staffer issued the passes, a routine affair, she said.

For Mr. Layton's part, when asked about Monday's outburst and if he condemned the disruption, he told reporters “No, no, I think a lot of people are very emotionally concerned about the issue.”

“It is not the first time there has been a protest.”