Quebec Liberal MP Greg Fergus, who has worked closely with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, was elected Speaker of the House of Commons on Tuesday, a week after the last Speaker resigned over his decision to invite a man later revealed to be a former member of a Nazi unit to an official visit from the Ukrainian President.
Mr. Fergus, who is Black, will be the first person of colour to hold the position of Speaker. He was elected on a secret, ranked ballot on Tuesday, beating out three other Liberal MPs, as well as a Conservative, a New Democrat and a Green MP.
Less than two weeks ago, Mr. Fergus was Mr. Trudeau’s direct parliamentary secretary. He had just been removed from that position and appointed parliamentary secretary to the Health Minister and Treasury Board President. MPs are appointed to those roles by the Prime Minister to act as representatives of the government. Among the Liberal candidates for Speaker, Mr. Fergus was the only parliamentary secretary.
The Conservatives had strongly opposed Mr. Fergus’s candidacy for Speaker. They publicly questioned the amount of credibility he would bring to the role, considering the fact that the Speaker has a duty to be impartial and separate from government.
In addition to his role as parliamentary secretary, Mr. Fergus has often been the government’s defender in controversies. He has helped the Liberals filibuster committee work, in order to stall opposition bids for more scrutiny of the government.
After the vote, he was warmly welcomed in speeches from Mr. Trudeau, the NDP and the Bloc Québécois.
His election was precipitated by now-former Speaker Anthony Rota’s unprecedented resignation last week, after international outcry over his decision to invite Yaroslav Hunka to the House for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech on Sept. 22. Mr. Rota also apologized for the error.
In a speech after his election as Speaker, Greg Fergus said MPs should show mutual respect for each other during debates.
Mr. Rota introduced Mr. Hunka to the House, calling him “a Ukrainian hero and a Canadian hero” of World War II. But he did not provide those in attendance with the name of Mr. Hunka’s unit. The 98-year-old had fought with the Nazi Waffen-SS Galicia Division.
The audience, including Mr. Zelensky, twice rose to give Mr. Hunka standing ovations. Video of this was used by the Kremlin to lend credibility to its unfounded, often-repeated claim that it invaded Ukraine to stamp out neo-Nazism in the country.
“What brought us here today requires a response,” Mr. Fergus said in a speech to the House before MPs voted on Tuesday. He promised to “bring back the honour to this chamber.”
After his election, he promised to work collaboratively with all MPs. He described his role as being similar to that of a referee, and pledged to enforce the House’s rules, which he urged all MPs to respect.
The secret-ballot process meant no party was able to whip its MPs’ votes. But two Liberal MPs told The Globe and Mail they were asked to rank the four Liberal candidates in any order of their choosing before selecting candidates from other parties.
Three Conservative MPs told The Globe Mr. Fergus will have to prove he is able to put his partisanship behind him.
The Globe is not naming the MPs because they were not permitted to disclose internal party deliberations.
The Speaker’s role is to preside over the proceedings of the House of Commons and adjudicate disagreements over the chamber’s rules. They are expected to act independently of the government and to treat members of all political parties impartially. They are also responsible for the House’s staff and budget.
The post comes with many perks, including an official residence in the Gatineau Hills, and a $92,800 salary top-up to an MP’s base pay of $194,600.
Mr. Fergus has a more partisan background than past Speakers and is considered a “loyal Liberal,” Carleton University political science professor Jonathan Malloy said.
“Mr. Fergus will certainly have to build his credibility with all sides of the House, not just his existing party,” Prof. Malloy added.
Lori Turnbull, a professor at Dalhousie University’s faculty of management, said she wasn’t surprised by Mr. Fergus’s election and doesn’t consider him more partisan than the other candidates who were vying for the post. Despite Mr. Fergus’s promises to restore decorum and honour, she said, the Speaker has limited power to deliver on those pledges.
Prof. Turnbull said the House is in a “serious crisis of relevance,” stemming not from the Speaker’s role but from the increased emphasis from voters and MPs on party leaders. She said this has had the effect of lessening the power of individual MPs and the House more broadly.
Mr. Fergus was first elected in 2015 as the MP for Hull-Aylmer. Decades earlier, he held a post as a parliamentary page. He told MPs he first subscribed to and read transcripts of House of Commons debates when he was just 14.
So far, only one woman has ever held the Speaker’s chair. In speeches to the House, both Mr. Trudeau and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called Mr. Fergus’s appointment as the first racialized person in the role a milestone.
Mr. Singh called Mr. Fergus “one of the friendliest members of Parliament” and said he hopes the new Speaker can establish decorum and restore the prestige of the House.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre told MPs he believes the power balance between Parliament and the government has shifted too far away from the House. He said his party’s priority will be “restraining the power of the Prime Minister.”