Allegations of a 'coup' and 'feeding vodka' to staffers fly after contentious Hill meeting
OTTAWA – The aftermath of an acrimonious parliamentary association meeting spilled onto the floor of the House of Commons Wednesday, with Conservative MPs accusing the government of "hijacking" the meeting, and the Liberals alleging the Tories were "feeding vodka" to their staff who interrupted the proceedings.
A special meeting of the Canadian NATO Parliamentary Association was called for Tuesday night as the Liberals pushed to remove floor-crossing MP Leona Alleslev from her position as chair. By the end of the night Parliament Hill security had to be called in to diffuse the situation after Conservative MPs protested their newest caucus member’s ouster by breaking into song, alongside staffers, with songbooks and red cups in hand.
"I've never seen anything like that in my 19 years here," said Liberal MP Wayne Easter, rising to speak to the incident in the House of Commons Wednesday afternoon.
Easter was responding to a point of order that was raised by Conservative MP John Nater, who denounced what he called the "unlawful and illegitimate" meeting that was held Tuesday night.
What happened at the meeting
The details of the evening are in dispute, but in a nutshell: Alleslev had held the role as chair of the non-partisan Canadian NATO Parliamentary Association, but following her September defection from the Liberals to join the Conservative Party, the governing party wanted to replace her with Liberal MP and vice-chair Borys Wrzesnewskyj.
A special meeting was called for Tuesday night, to hold a vote on a new chair, citing that the existing chairperson "no longer has the confidence of the members." The room was packed, with more members than typical for the association’s semi-regular meetings, with both sides hoping to have the numbers to either keep, or oust Alleslev.
Alleslev called the meeting to order, and immediately procedural wrangling began over whether or not the rules were being followed. She attempted to adjourn the meeting, and at some point Wrzesnewskyj took over chairing, keeping the meeting going. There was a balloting process overseen by another member, and eventually Wrzesnewskyj was named the new chairperson.
In protest of this process, which Conservative MP Erin O’Toole has called "farcical", a handful of Conservative MPs, including Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen, Todd Doherty, Cathay Wagantall, and Garnett Genuis, and staffers broke out into song in the room.
As seen in a video taken by one Liberal MP, the Conservatives were singing "Take Me Home, Country Roads" by John Denver, holding binders which appeared to hold lyrics, some with red cups in hand.
Parliament Hill security was called in to try to get the situation under control, as the staffers were in the room at what the Liberals still considered an ongoing meeting of parliamentarians.
Allegations of a 'coup'
While the chair position does not come with any additional salary, it offers opportunities to travel globally to meet with fellow NATO groups and be a part of policy conversations.
Historically, the chairs of these kinds of parliamentary associations are members of the governing party.
Now, the Conservatives are questioning the validity of the entire process. Several MPs spoke to this in the Commons on Wednesday.
Nater called the entire meeting a "coup" to dethrone Alleslev, arguing that she properly adjourned the meeting, and it never should have bene re-convened by Wrzesnewskyj because at that point many members had already left the room. He called the re-convened portion of the meeting in which he was elected chair, a "sham" that was done in complete breach of the association's bylaws.
He accused the Liberals of orchestrating a "political show execution" to knock out Alleslev from a position she previously was acclaimed to.
Conservative MP Mark Strahl noted that it is quite rare for association goings-on to boil over into the House in this way, but it was necessary because, as he alleged, the Liberals violated the rules in multiple ways.
"What happened last night… was an absolute disgrace to this Parliament," Strahl said.
O’Toole is asking for Wrzesnewskyj's actions to be looked into, describing his taking over of the chair as "hijacking."
The Liberals believe the rules have been followed and Wrzesnewskyj is now the chair. The association's parliamentary website has been updated to reflect this change to their executive.
In her floor-crossing speech, Alleslev took issue with Canada's current foreign policy and defence commitments. Liberals consider her to be someone who broke their trust and with a NATO Parliamentary Assembly gathering happening in Halifax next month, one source speaking on background said there was a desire to make sure Canada’s current position is being put forward.
Now, the Conservatives are exploring every avenue to dispute the validity of the election, and uphold her title as chair, including "judicial recourse."
They are asking for the Speaker to undo any parliamentary records related to this meeting and have the Speaker advise that parliamentary assembly that Alleslev will lead the Canadian delegation.
Conservatives 'feeding' staff alcohol
After several Tory MPs offered their side of the evening’s events, Liberal MP Rodger Cuzner, who was in attendance, offered a rebuke of the Conservative outrage, pointing to the singing and drinking that was happening in the room.
When the Conservative MPs and staffers broke out into song in protest, many were holding red cups, which Cuzner alleged contained vodka.
"I saw young staffers in that room and I was going to say being 'ginned up'. But I know it wasn’t gin. When you check the video… The process certainly wasn’t enhanced when members of the Conservative party were feeding vodka to their staffers who were singing and had to be escorted out by security," Cuzner said.
"It was one of the most shameful and deliberate attacks on the democracy of those types of groups and they should apologize to the House for it," he continued.
The Canadian Press spoke with Genuis who admitted to drinking alcohol alongside Conservative staffers at the meeting. He defended it by saying there are regularly events on the Hill where MPs, staff, and others consume alcohol, but that it’s done so legally, as he said it was on Tuesday night.
CTV Power Play host Don Martin asked Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer to comment on there being vodka being passed around, to which he replied: "I imagine everyone needed a stiff drink after they saw the undemocratic actions of a Liberal MP dumping a well-respected former armed services veteran," Scheer said.