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The Globe and Mail

If found in contempt, Ontario Energy Minister may end up in rare company

Former Ontario Attorney-General and current Energy Minister Chris Bentley speaks during a press conference in this photo from Oct. 1, 2008.

NATHAN DENETTE/Nathan Denette/The Canadian Pres

Ontario Energy Minister Chris Bentley will be in rare company if he is ultimately found in contempt of Parliament over his refusal last May to hand over documents to a legislative committee relating to the government's decision to cancel a power-plant project.

Only two individuals have faced such a censure in Ontario over the past century, and the first incident did not even involve an elected member of the legislature. It was a journalist named Hector Charlesworth who offended the honour of the House back in 1903 over a letter he wrote to Henry Pettypiece, an MPP.

Mr. Charlesworth, described by The Globe and Mail as the country's best-known newspaperman, was a drama critic for the paper, an editor of Saturday Night magazine and the founder of public broadcasting in Canada as chairman of the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission. He bore a striking resemblance to King Edward VII, according to writer Robert Fulford, and was nicknamed Old Heck by artists such as A.Y. Jackson whose work he failed to appreciate.

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Mr. Charlesworth has also gone down in the Ontario legislature's history over the letter he wrote to the MPP. The attorney-general at the time described the letter as "an insulting and grossly improper communication," according to the Journals of the Legislative Assembly. However, there is no mention in the journals of how exactly Mr. Charlesworth committed, in the words of the Attorney-General, a "grave" offence against the legislature.

His punishment? At 3 o'clock on the afternoon of June 24, 1903, he was hauled before the bar in the House – literally a large piece of wood that creates a physical barrier between the chamber itself, where MPPs sit, and the entrance to it. Mr. Charlesworth offered the following explanation: "It was a personal communication passing between old and intimate acquaintances, containing but one offensive word – which I should not have used under any circumstances." Also, he said, it was written under "extreme provocation" and was an attack on Mr. Pettypiece's ideals as a journalist.

Mr. Charlesworth apologized to the Speaker and MPPs, and more than three decades would pass before anyone else was found in contempt. On March 17, 1936, William Price, an MPP, stated in the legislature that fellow MPP Augustus Roberts was "willing and anxious to kiss any part of the body of Dr. Godfrey, which he might expose."

It is not clear from the legislative journals what provoked the outburst, but Mitchell Hepburn, premier at the time, moved a censure motion against Mr. Price for his offensive language.

There have been 14 other attempts to find someone in contempt but none has succeeded. In May, 2003, the Progressive Conservative government broke with convention by presenting its budget outside the legislature. The document became known as the Magna budget because it was tabled at the company's training centre in Brampton. In March, 2010, opposition MPPs complained that the governing Liberals caused them to be late for the delivery of the budget papers in the legislature.

Flash forward to today, where the fallout from the Liberals' decision to pull the plug on two power plants west of Toronto has left the legislature in limbo. The daily Question Period was cancelled on Tuesday as MPPs debated a motion to refer the contempt matter to a legislative committee.

Premier Dalton McGuinty was in Oakville, Ont., home of one of the cancelled plants, where he accused the opposition of being "obstructionist" for pushing to have Mr. Bentley censured.

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"I'm hoping the opposition will have their fun and come to their senses," he told reporters.

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