I DON’T usually watch debates in the Manitoba legislature. But I did watch last Thursday as the government introduced Bill 56, a bill that would have the effect of restricting smoking and vaping on First Nations and which will almost certainly be challenged in the courts.
The conduct in the legislature over the reading of this bill was strikingly combative and hostile. The best comparison I can make is to sittings of the House of Commons just prior to a federal election, when MPs tend to be rambunctious and combative, testing out speaking lines and thumping their chests in anticipation of a hard-fought election. The difference here is the next Manitoba election is slated for October 2023, not tomorrow.
The bill in question would amend the province’s Smoking and Vapour Products Control Act. Introduced by newly appointed Minister of Mental Health, Wellness and Recovery Audrey Gordon, Bill 56 aims to extend restrictions on smoking and vaping as well as advertising for these products to areas under federal jurisdiction, including First Nations which currently enjoy a carve-out from those regulations.
As could be expected, the bill received a big thumbs-up from anti-smoking advocacy groups such as the Manitoba Tobacco Reduction Alliance and the Canadian Cancer Society. But the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs condemned the bill for intruding on areas of First Nation jurisdiction, arguing that First Nations should be free to set their own rules with respect to smoking.
The Progressive Conservatives and NDP have long disagreed on whether First Nations should receive a carve-out on provincial smoking restrictions. In 2006, a motel owner who had been convicted under the act for allowing smoking in enclosed areas challenged the constitutionality of the law, arguing that the exemption for on-reserve businesses violated his Section 15 equality rights.
Robert Jenkinson won his case in Court of Queen’s Bench, but that decision was subsequently overturned by the Manitoba Court of Appeal.
The then-NDP government argued in response that the carve-out was necessary since First Nations fall under federal, not provincial, jurisdiction, so the federal government should be responsible for regulating smoking and tobacco advertising on-reserve. But the then-Conservative federal government disagreed, arguing that provincial regulations should also cover First Nations.
Fast-forward 15 years, and Brian Pallister’s Progressive Conservative government has finally gotten around to implementing this long-held view into law by erasing the carve-out for First Nations. As expected, the NDP is opposed to the bill. The Opposition was also justifiably annoyed that, while the bill was introduced in November, the text was only distributed last week, an intolerable practice by the current government.
After the introduction of the bill, NDP MLA Bernadette Smith and Liberal MLA Jon Gerrard pressed Gordon on whether the government had consulted with First Nations about Bill 56. These thoughtful critiques made it obvious the government had not consulted extensively before introducing the bill. Indeed, Arlen Dumas, Grand Chief of the AMC, claims the government didn’t bother to tell Manitoba chiefs it would be introducing the bill.
Media outlets picked up on and ran with Smith’s and Gerrard’s critiques. When interviewed over Bill 56, Opposition leader Wab Kinew emphasized this lack of consultation. This all demonstrates that opposition criticisms don’t have to be histrionic or over-the-top to attract attention and hold the government accountable.
But in the legislature, Kinew’s MLAs went much further than this. Gordon was subjected to a litany of questions and attacks from NDP MLAs. That’s fine, but high-volume attacks in the legislature are generally reserved for Question Period, when the opposition can most effectively hold the government accountable for its actions. When these tactics bleed into other legislative business, especially on committees, the results can be far from desirable and even result in legislative paralysis.
Meanwhile, some of the NDP MLAs sitting in the legislature heckled Gordon while she was speaking. This was loud and aggressive, and one opposition MLA identified ministers by their names, which is not allowed. The acting speaker was forced to call MLAs to order several times, and seemed to be justifiably exasperated.
Adversarialism is healthy in democratic chambers, and I am far from a shrinking violet on this. And some of the issues involved in the debate over Bill 56 are obviously contentious and long-standing.
That said, some recent conduct in the Manitoba legislature, both in the debate over this bill and on other occasions, has been abysmal. The same Opposition MLA who was aggressively heckling during this debate was recently booted out of the chamber by the speaker for not following the rules. And, of course, this all follows on the government’s decision to withhold the content of its bills for several months rather than letting the public see what it had in store for us.
Perhaps it’s time for everyone in Manitoba politics to take a deep breath.
Royce Koop is an associate professor in the department of political studies and co-ordinator of the Canadian studies program at the University of Manitoba.