The Speaker of the House of Commons is not supposed to be the problem.
The Speaker of the House is the individual chosen by their fellow members to preside over their business, check their behaviour, protect their privileges and represent the institution. The Speaker is the officer in robes overlooking the proceedings from his throne, the one responsible for dealing with problems and demanding apologies from MPs who can’t restrain themselves — for protecting and upholding the reputation of Parliament.
What makes all of this especially bad for Anthony Rota is the context and the gravity of the error for which he apologized on Monday. He didn’t merely invite a Ukrainian-Canadian veteran of a Nazi-aligned military unit to Parliament to witness the remarks of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He also called on every parliamentarian in attendance to recognize and applaud that man.
So Rota’s mistake was not merely hurtful and embarrassing. It was highly public — and it handed a propaganda victory to the Russian regime that invaded Ukraine.
All that explains why Rota sounded so stricken when he addressed the House at the earliest opportunity on Monday. It also explains why Rota is now only barely hanging on to his speakership.
“I wish to apologize to the House,” the Speaker said, “and I am deeply sorry that I have offended many with my gesture and remarks.”
‘We trusted you’
Rota sounded choked up a moment later after Government House Leader Karina Gould, who is Jewish and whose grandfather was imprisoned at Auschwitz, expressed her disappointment.
“I would say that as parliamentarians, we place our trust in you, Mr. Speaker,” Gould said. “There are many times when we recognize people in the gallery, and we do so on your good advice … All of us here did that in the chamber on Friday, because we trusted you on that.”
Gould noted that Monday was Yom Kippur, a day of atonement and repentance. But then NDP House leader Peter Julian stood and, sounding quite saddened himself, called on Rota to resign.
“While we appreciate the Speaker’s apology yesterday and his comments today, it is with great regret and sadness that I say that I do not believe it is enough,” Julian said.
If Rota’s speakership was hanging in the balance, this was clearly a shove.
Bloc Quebecois MP Alain Therrien, speaking next, merely called on Rota to search his own soul. But less than two hours later, BQ Leader Yves-François Blanchet released a statement calling on Rota to resign.
If the Conservatives did not immediately issue their own call for the Speaker’s resignation, it’s only because they’re apparently intent on blaming the prime minister.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre was pointing the finger at Justin Trudeau and the Liberal government even before Rota took responsibility on Sunday. But Rota’s admission did nothing to push the Conservatives away from their original position.
“State visits are organized by the government,” Conservative House Leader Andrew Scheer, himself a former Speaker, said Monday.
That may be true — but that doesn’t mean the government has purview over the Speaker or decides who gets to attend Parliament. In fact, it would raise serious questions about the sovereignty of Parliament if the government was able to exert such control over access to the parliamentary precinct and the House of Commons.
By question period, the Conservatives were pointing to the fact that the director of the Parliamentary Protective Service, which is responsible for security on Parliament Hill, is a member of the RCMP who reports to the commissioner of the RCMP on operational matters (the RCMP commissioner then reports to the minister of public safety).
It’s not clear whether anyone at the PPS or RCMP would have flagged this individual as a security risk, as opposed to a political risk. But the Parliament of Canada Act also states that the Speakers of the Senate and House of Commons “are, as the custodians of the powers, privileges, rights and immunities of their respective Houses and of the members of those Houses, responsible for the [Parliamentary Protective Service].”
A statement issued by Rota’s office also said that the names of guests invited to attend a special address to Parliament — those invited either by the Speaker or by a political party �— are not shared with the Prime Minister’s Office.
“It was my decision and my decision alone,” Rota said on Monday. “This was a constituent who wanted to be here, and I recognized him. It was my decision and I apologize profusely.”
But in their zeal to damage the prime minister, the Conservatives spared Rota from facing a united front of all opposition parties — representing a majority of MPs — on Monday.
Is Rota’s eventful turn as Speaker nearing an end?
Rota is hardly the first Speaker to run into some kind of trouble. Speaker Louis-René Beaudoin faced a motion of censure and offered to resign during the infamous Pipeline Debate in 1956.
But Rota’s mistake was a glaring one and it would be an embarrassing end to his nearly four years of service as the 37th Speaker since Confederation.
Rota was elected Speaker by his peers in 2019 — beating out four other contenders — and re-elected in 2021. Within months of taking the chair, he was presiding over a pandemic-era Parliament. He then oversaw the transition to virtual and hybrid sessions — an innovation that may prove to be a permanent part of how the House of Commons conducts its business.
When the Liberal government sought to challenge in court Parliament’s power to compel documents, Rota became the institution’s public defender.
“I want to confirm that the argument is that the legal system does not have any jurisdiction over the operations of the House. We are our own jurisdiction,” Rota told the House in 2021. “That is something we will fight tooth and nail to protect, and we will continue to do that.”
And all the while, Rota evolved into a more aggressive enforcer of decorum during question period, one who was willing to take questions away from an unruly party or even eject an MP.
But on Monday, the main topic at question period was what Rota had done — even as the Conservatives were trying to blame someone else. That’s an uncomfortable position for the Speaker of the House of Commons to be in. It might also be an untenable one.