Ailing MP fulfills Speakers’ dream

The Canadian Press
Joan Bryden

OTTAWA—Mauril Belanger no longer is able to talk but he managed to speak volumes yesterday about the desperate need to find a cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis as he accepted an unprecedented tribute from his peers in the House of Commons.
The long-serving Ottawa MP presided briefly over the Commons as honorary Speaker—a distinction never before accorded to anyone but unanimously bestowed upon Belanger by colleagues from all parties.
Belanger was diagnosed last November with ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, an incurable, progressive, neurodegenerative disease that causes muscle weakness, paralysis, and eventually respiratory failure.
The Liberal MP had been the favourite to become Commons Speaker—a role he’d long dreamed of playing until the devastating diagnosis forced him to withdraw his candidacy.
He got a chance yesterday to fulfil his dream, however briefly.
Although hardly able to walk, Belanger insisted on taking part in the traditional parade from the Speaker’s office to the Commons—wearing the Speaker’s black robe and tri-corner hat.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was among the cabinet ministers, MPs, senators, Parliament Hill staff, family, and friends who lined the corridors to watch, applaud, and cheer as Belanger, clutching a walker, shuffled laboriously behind the sergeant-at-arms bearing the ceremonial gold mace.
Trudeau—eyes brimming with tears—rushed to embrace Belanger’s wife, Catherine, who had been filming the procession.
Other MPs and ministers followed suit, some of them weeping openly.
In the chamber, Belanger needed the assistance of six MPs to ascend the four stairs to the podium on which the Speaker’s ornate chair sits.
Once ensconced in the chair, he used a tablet computer that converted pre-programmed text into computerized speech to open the day’s sitting of the Commons with a prayer and the singing of “O Canada.”
He shed tears during the anthem—the English lyrics to which he has proposed (in a private member’s bill) changing to make them more gender-neutral.
Belanger then presided over members’ statements and the opening round of question period, interrupted repeatedly by prolonged standing ovations.
“I will start off by saying that you look great up there,” Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose told Belanger, adding that he has “achieved in a very short period of time what many Speakers dream of, which is a well-behaved chamber.”
Ambrose recalled having a bucket of ice dumped on her head in 2014—part of an awareness and fundraising campaign for ALS—and asked Trudeau to join her in urging all Canadians to support organizations dedicated to finding a cure.
Trudeau, who similarly recalled being both the “dumpee and dumper” in the ice-bucket challenge, willingly echoed Ambrose’s call for donations.
And he saluted Belanger “for the dignity and grace that you bring to the House every day as you battle this terrible disease.”
NDP leader Tom Mulcair, meanwhile, praised Belanger’s tireless work on behalf of minority francophone communities across the country and asked Trudeau to follow his example.
Belanger, gave a thumb’s up at several junctures; at other times he wiped away tears.
“It’s a rare moment of grace in our parliamentary institutions where we can all stand behind someone who’s going through a very tough illness and try to make him have a day where he gets to do one of things he’d always hoped to be able to do,” Mulcair said outside the Commons.
Government House leader Dominic LeBlanc said the special tribute to Belanger was meant to be both a celebration of the veteran MP’s “remarkable service” but also a way to raise awareness about the “terrible toll” ALS takes on many people.