MP Mauril Belanger takes Speaker's chair for the day
Josh Elliott, CTVNews.ca
Published Wednesday, March 9, 2016 6:26AM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, March 9, 2016 4:10PM EST
ALS may have robbed Liberal MP Mauril Belanger of his ability to speak, but that didn’t stop him from taking the Speaker’s chair in the House of Commons.
Belanger received special recognition on Parliament Hill Wednesday, as he was welcomed into the House of Commons to a chorus of clapping as honorary Speaker of the House for the day.
MPs from all parties stood and applauded Belanger as he entered the House as part of the daily Speaker’s parade, with the assistance of a walker. Belanger was also carrying a handkerchief in one hand.
As Belanger took his seat, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau broke from the crowd of MPs and crossed the aisle way to embrace Belanger’s wife. Several other MPs also came forward to take turns hugging her.
Mauril Belanger is making his way into the house with the help of a walker. He's also carrying handkerchief. pic.twitter.com/DrRKsMba0e— Katie Simpson (@KatieSimpsonCTV) March 9, 2016
Belanger used that same handkerchief yesterday to wipe tears from his eyes during interviews with reporters. Lots of tears in HOC now— Katie Simpson (@KatieSimpsonCTV) March 9, 2016
Belanger is suffering from the onset of ALS, which recently robbed him of his ability to speak. He had previously campaigned to become Speaker after the last election, but dropped out of the running when he was diagnosed with the disease in November.
During his brief time as honorary Speaker, Belanger used a text-to-speech program to acknowledge Prime Minister Trudeau, Conservative Opposition Leader Rona Ambrose, and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair at the opening of question period. All three leaders hailed Belanger for his efforts to promote and protect the French language in Canada, and for his 21 years of service as an MP.
Ambrose cracked a friendly joke at the beginning of the session, as she acknowledged Belanger in the Speaker’s chair. “You’ve achieved in a very short period of time what many Speakers dream of, which is a well-behaved chamber,” she said.
“I salute you,” Trudeau told Belanger, “for the dignity and grace you bring to this House every day, as you battle this terrible disease.”
Trudeau also joined Ambrose in urging Canadians to devote time, money and effort to organizations searching for a cure for ALS. Trudeau and Ambrose each pointed out that they took part in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge last year, to promote awareness and raise money for researching the disease.
“I would like to thank you all, dear colleagues of this House, for the great privilege you have bestowed on me to serve as Speaker of the House of Commons today,” Belanger said, with the help of his text-to-speech program.
MPs applauded for at least a full minute as Belanger left the House, and Speaker Geoff Regan took his place.
ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a neurodegenerative disease that kills nerve cells and leaves muscles paralyzed. As the disease progresses, a patient is often left unable to move any part of the body, unable to eat without a feeding tube, and unable to communicate with anything but the eyes. There is no known cure for the disease.
Belanger, who has been an MP since 1995, has begun using a chalkboard or an iPad to communicate with others.
Belanger says he’s determined to continue his work as an MP, including representing his riding’s needs, and pushing for a bill to amend the lyrics of “O Canada” to make them gender-neutral.
ALS is the same disease that afflicts Stephen Hawking, the brilliant astrophysicist, who uses a text-to-speech tool in his motorized wheelchair to communicate.