Mauril Bélanger wanted badly to be Speaker of the House of Commons. He spent years collecting the experience and cultivating the skills that made him the prohibitive front-runner to fill the big chair when it became vacant after the fall federal election.
But as MPs were deciding which of their number would wear the Speaker’s robes for the current session of Parliament, Mr. Bélanger, 60, was being robbed of his voice by an incurable disease that was also stripping away his ability to move the rest of his body.
He was diagnosed in November with ALS – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease – a rare neurological condition that is generally fatal within three to five years.
Mr. Bélanger could not be a Speaker if he could not speak.
On Nov. 30, 2015, the man who has represented Ottawa-Vanier for two decades in the House of Commons said he was withdrawing his name from contention – an announcement that shocked MPs of all stripes. By a unanimous vote, they agreed the next month to let him sit as Speaker for a day, a role he will play on Wednesday when he presides as “honorary Chair occupant” during members’ statements and into the start of Question Period.
Mr. Bélanger “would have been a superb Speaker had he not been hit with ALS,” said Geoff Regan, the Liberal MP who was elected to the job after his friend stepped aside. “But what I think is wonderful is that so many members were keen to see this happen, to see him recognized in this way.”
A few minutes in the Speaker’s chair is, no doubt, small consolation for the tragic turn his life has taken. But Mr. Bélanger says he is grateful.
On Tuesday, a small group of reporters was invited into his office on the fifth floor of Parliament’s Centre Block to ask a set of prepared questions and listen to the emotional MP, who has not actually spoken since January, respond using a text-to-speech software on his tablet.
“Receiving such an honour is highly appreciated, since this is a dream coming true amidst the health challenges which I am facing. I look forward to serving my day, this March 9, in the Speaker’s chair,” he said via a computerized male voice.
As for being an MP, Mr. Bélanger said his priorities have not changed since his diagnosis.
“I remain committed to serving the constituents of Ottawa-Vanier and representing them in the House of Commons to the best of my abilities as long as possible,” he said, reaching for a handkerchief to dab tears from his eyes. “That being said, I go to work every day and endeavour to advance important files for the riding and also files that are important for our country.”
One objective is to obtain Parliamentary approval for his private member’s bill that would make the lyrics of the English version of the national anthem, O Canada, gender neutral. The words “In all thy sons command” would become “In all of us command.”
An identical one he introduced in 2014 was defeated when almost all of the Conservatives, who then held a majority, voted against it. But the numbers are different now and Mr. Bélanger is hoping for a different outcome.
He is also hoping for a halt to the progress of the disease which, to this point, has been swift.
It started during the election campaign when his voice began to give way. By the time Parliament resumed in late January, he was communicating with his staff in writing only.
A few months ago, he was striding the corridors of the Centre Block. Today, he shuffles with a walker.
ALS “attacks the muscles, so it started with the throat and it’s going down through the rest of the body, the limbs. Slowly but surely, he is losing control,” said Alexandre Mattard-Michaud, Mr. Bélanger’s chief of staff. At the same time, “the brain is there 100 per cent. He’s in there.”
In fact, Mr. Bélanger went to Africa last week to fulfill his duties as co-president of the Canada-Africa Parliamentary Association. “It was a challenge,” Mr. Mattard-Michaud said. But “as long as he is able to perform his duties, he will stay and function, he will remain an MP.”Report Typo/Error