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'I know I messed up': House Speaker Fergus challenged by MPs probing video controversy

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A repentant Greg Fergus testified Monday before his peers about what he says was his unintentional participation in a partisan provincial Liberal party event in early December, telling MPs that as the House of Commons Speaker, he knows he "messed up."

"I made a mistake," Fergus said at the Procedure and House Affairs Committee (PROC), restating as he did one week ago in the House, that he was unaware that the video he recorded for long-time close friend and outgoing interim Ontario Liberal leader John Fraser was going to be played at the provincial party's Dec. 2 leadership announcement.

He told MPs that one of Fraser's family members phoned his office on Nov. 27 to request the "personal video for a private surprise," and he "quickly recorded it" between meetings when he became aware of the request on Nov. 30. Still, Fergus acknowledged Monday, even if the video was meant for a private audience, he said he "should never have recorded it."

"I've been pining over this moment in my mind, over and over again. I wish I had just taken a moment to think about it. Sometimes in politics, and I think we all do this… we go from one event to another, to another. We don't take the time sometimes to just take a step back and think about it," Fergus said. 

"I made the wrong decision. I am here today to say that I will do better… I will set up a more rigorous protocol to make sure that it never happens again," Fergus continued, vowing to rely more on House staff and internal experts if future similar requests arise.

MPs have said Fergus making this video in his Speaker's robe and in his official office—as well as his subsequent trip to Washington D.C. amid the acrimony where he again referenced his Liberal roots in a speech bidding farewell to an American colleague— has undermined his required impartiality.

After spending hours in the House last week putting their concerns on record, as MPs were given an opportunity to question Fergus in-person over two hours, some stated directly to him that he'd lost their trust either through his initial actions or how he's comported himself in addressing it.

Others sought to elicit from Fergus what his motives were.

"What was going through your mind? And I say this with respect, that I know as a member of Parliament that I can't film partisan videos in my constituency office, in my Hill office, we take careful attention to do that the precedents is vast. We all know that it is wrong," asked NDP House Leader Peter Julian.

Fergus said that it was not about feting a fellow Liberal, and that while he wouldn't do it now, in the moment he would have recorded a video for any friend, regardless of political stripe. "It was not a partisan video," Fergus said.

Fergus also made an effort to implore how meaningful being elected as the first Black Canadian to hold the prestigious role was to him, given his lifelong love of the institution of Parliament, but was challenged on and defended his decision to hire Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's long-time former executive assistant as his chief of staff.

"As many colleagues have mentioned, you are trusted to make on-the spot-decisions without time to run things through filters or decision making trees, and we have to trust that that's coming from a non-partisan and objective place," said Conservative House Leader and former House speaker Andrew Scheer during the hearing.

"And I would suggest… you're too close with these partisan players, that you don't see that from members of other parties, it would be a problem." 

In passing the motion that prompted this committee study, all MPs collectively agreed that Fergus committed "a breach of the tradition and expectation of impartiality required for that high office, constituting a serious error of judgment which undermines the trust required to discharge his duties and responsibilities."

The Conservative and Bloc Quebecois caucuses have been calling for Fergus to resign, while the New Democrats and Liberals have said they would be reserving their decision until the study is completed so they can hear all of the relevant information before landing on best next steps.

Fergus' testimony wrapped up with the committee requesting he turn over a series of relevant documents including emails and records of communication regarding the video.  

HOUSE CLERK WOULD HAVE ADVISED AGAINST

PROC began meeting at 8:30 a.m. Monday, and continued to hear from key witnesses into the early afternoon as they seek to complete an expedited probe into the matter by Thursday.

First to testify was newly-confirmed permanent House of Commons Clerk Eric Janse, who is the head of House administration and top adviser on the rules and procedures of Parliament.

His hour-long appearance included several revelations, including that Fergus did not consult him prior to recording the video at issue, and had he ran the idea by him first, Janse would have suggested he not do it because of the potential impact on his perceived impartiality.

"I think my advice would have been to probably not proceed in this manner, or at a minimum to perhaps canvass the parties… as to whether or not he should proceed," Janse said, going on to state that in his view this video was "going a bit too far into the partisan sphere."

He told MPs he became aware of the video on social media as the controversy began simmering two weekends ago, and after the issue surfaced, there were exchanges between his office and Fergus' staff about next steps. This culminated in Fergus' initial statement to the House apologizing last Monday.

"Invariably, by the nature of our parliamentary and electoral systems, Speakers have to walk a tightrope, balancing their duties in the chair, their role in representing the interests of their constituents, and the fact that they are still members elected under the banner of a party," Janse said. "This challenge is perhaps even greater in the age of social media."

The clerk indicated one early takeaway for his office is that they plan to "beef up" the material the House administration provides incoming Speakers regarding their impartiality requirements.

In MPs' questioning of Janse, it also came to light that Fergus' official trip stateside while the House was in session—not a common move for Speakers—had been in the works for weeks, stemming from a prior commitment he had made to travel before becoming Speaker.

FRASER CITES FAMILY MISCOMMUNICATION

On Monday afternoon, PROC heard from Fraser, the subject of Fergus' video, who told MPs that it was his wife that had reached out to ask for Fergus to record the message. Specifically, she spoke on the phone to Fergus' chief of staff, Tommy Desfossés about the request.

The Ontario MPP said the clip was then sent to a volunteer who was pulling together various video messages and pictures for the Liberal tribute marking his time as interim leader coming to an end.

He said while the intention was for the clip to play at the party event, it was not clearly communicated to the Speaker's office and he regrets the trouble the "innocent request" caused the man who used to babysit his children.

"I know that Greg is a person of integrity, generosity, and kindness," Fraser said, coming to his friend's defence, before going on to be unable to provide much more detail into the initial request, suggesting PROC ask Desfossés for more insight.

Fraser's testimony was followed by an appearance by Simon Tunstall, the chief returning officer of the 2023 Ontario Liberal Party Leadership election, who said he was not aware of the Fergus video until more than an hour after it aired.

During his hour of testimony, Tunstall could not speak to the genesis of the clip and was unable to provide names of the party staff or volunteers who may know more, frustrating certain opposition party members.

MPs on this committee are reconvening after question period behind closed doors to begin drafting their report ahead of the Thursday deadline.

Per the House of Commons' unanimous agreement, this study was undertaken with the aim of coming back to MPs with suggested remedies. This could include recommending Fergus' resignation, other specific individual sanctions, or overarching procedural changes to prevent a similar incident from happening again. 

As MPs have noted throughout Monday's hearing, whatever they recommend will be precedent-setting, as while some provincial and territorial legislatures have studied the sanctity of a Speaker's impartiality before, the Fergus situation is the first of its kind federally.

Amid the calls for his resignation, speaking briefly to reporters gathered outside of the committee meeting room, Fergus said he's waiting for the committee to provide its report to the House and for all MPs to decide what happens next, indicating that he will accept MPs' decision. 

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