The first televised proceedings of the House of Commons of Canada began in 1977, fully two years before C-SPAN began televising the United States House of Representatives. Our equivalent of C-SPAN, CPAC, has now uploaded online all the video footage going back to the late 1970s and the first ministry of Pierre Trudeau. CPAC’s archives provide a window into the past. Don – “Welcome to the Brooooaaaaaadcaaast” – Newman has observed that the House of Commons changed starkly after the election in 1993, which wiped out the old Progressive Conservative Party and saw the rise of Quebec nationalism in the Bloc and Western alienation in the Reform Party; having now watched far too many of these videos or listened to them in the background whilst working on other things, I have begun to grasp what he means. The House of Commons truly did seem more collegial – and therefore more witty and entertaining – and full of banter rather than truly bitter acrimony during the Trudeau and Mulroney governments than it has since at least 2000 or 2004; I would regard the 35th and 36th Parliaments elected in 1993 and 1997 as a transitional phase. Chretien, in his rhetorical clumsiness, seems to have popularised the practice of speaking from notes in the House of Commons of Canada, while Trudeau and Mulroney could carry out quite eloquently without them.
For instance, I notice that MPs in this era, including the Prime Minister and Leaders of the Opposition themselves, would usually look directly at each other while posing and responding to questions rather than looking at the Speaker the whole time. Even the placement of the cameras and the different camera angles in this footage (perpendicular instead of diagonal to the prime minister) accommodates the old ways. In contrast, Stephen Harper usually looked diagonally to the Speaker’s chair as if to demonstrate through the corner of his eye his contempt for the members opposite. In the 1980s, MPs often lapsed into the second person and addressed their counterparts directly and not through the Speaker, and the Speaker rarely intervened to impose the third person.
The 32nd Parliament elected in January 1980 marked Pierre Trudeau’s triumphant return to the premiership and consummated Joe Clark’s abject failure. Trudeau famously congratulated himself by proclaiming, “Welcome to the Nineteen-Eighties!”
He gained a second wind in his second ministry and patriated the Constitution Acts, imposed the National Energy Program, and went back on his earlier promise of voluntary Metrication to make the Metric System mandatory under the threat of criminal prosecution. The 1st session of the 32nd Parliament held the record until 2019 as the longest single session of a parliament of Canada, lasting from 14 April 1980 to 30 November 1983.
At the close of this marathon session, Pierre Trudeau put his rhetorical prowess on full display on 12 September 23 and “welcomed” Brian Mulroney, then the newly elected leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada and the Member for Central Nova after Elmer MacKay temporarily lent him his seat, on his first day as a member of the House of Commons. He reminded the House that he had already faced a plethora of Conservative leaders and defeated them all from 1968 to 1983 and intimated that Mulroney might suffer the same fate. None can match Pierre Trudeau’s eloquent and erudite condescension, least of all his son. I have taken the liberty of isolating some of the most amusing 5 minutes which have transpired in the House of Commons for your entertainment.