Wednesday 15 June 2011

The young Senate page was wrong what she did

Each year, 15 young Canadians are chosen from hundreds of youths through a national competition to work as a page for the Senate of Canada. Pages are primarily responsible for assisting Senators and table officers throughout sittings of the Senate by fulfilling various requests as well as those of various dignitaries, Supreme Court Justices, the Prime Minister, and the Governor General when visiting the Senate. Pages are responsible for numerous tasks in relation to Chamber and Committee duties such as: distribution of files and documents, relaying messages, and administrative and procedural duties, fetching water, photocopying documents. Pages attend to and assist with the proceedings of notable events such as Royal Assent, Speech from the Throne, and State Visits. Pages must be university students to hold the job. Senate pages are hired for one to two years to work in the upper chamber. It goes without saying that it is a great honour for a young person to be given the opportunity to serve in this manner. Only the crème de crème get chosen for this honour.

Alas, sooner or later it was going to happen. One of the pages was not the crème de crème. She was sour milk that curdled right in front of everyone in the Senate chamber. It happened on June 3, 2011.

Brigette DePape, 21, one of the pages in the Senate and who is a recent University of Ottawa graduate, while carrying a sign (shaped like a stop sign) which had the words "Stop Harper" (Canada’s prime minister) walked out in front of Governor General, David Johnston as he read the throne speech.

Pages tend to be politically engaged, but this type of protest was unprecedented. DePape went as far as to prepare a news release, which a friend distributed after she was removed from the Senate chamber by security. The release identified her as Brigette Marcelle, but the Senate website and her email address identify her as Brigette DePape.

DePape said in the release."Harper's agenda is disastrous for this country and for my generation.We have to stop him from wasting billions on fighter jets, military bases, and corporate tax cuts while cutting social programs and destroying the climate. Most people in this country know what we need are green jobs, better medicare, and a healthy environment for future generations.”

Senate Speaker Noël Kinsella said the page's actions constituted a contempt of Parliament. He also said, "All employees of the Senate are expected to serve the institution in a non-partisan manner, with competence, excellence, efficiency and objectivity. The incident raises serious security concerns which the Senate will fully investigate."

When appointed as a page, Brigette DePape swore an oath of loyalty. While it is laudable that she has strength of her political convictions, her violation of that oath clearly shows that she is a person without integrity. Her fellow activists should question if she is worthy of their trust or if she will readily turn on them when the journey they will undertake becomes arduous. Her word is certainly not her bond. What if she had been carrying anthrax instead of a 'Stop Harper' sign?
Needless to say, the young page was fired. She was fired from the page program two months shy of the end of her contract in August. That's probably why she didn’t care about the consequences.

The Senate's page program website says DePape is from Winnipeg and studying international development and globalization. She interned last summer at the Manitoba office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and wrote about travelling in a van with other activists to the G20 protests in Toronto last June.

Mike Duffy, a Conservative senator, said, "Stunts such as the one DePape pulled Friday hurt democracy, rather than further it. These things are unfortunate because every time there's some kind of event like this it means security gets tightened. And we want this to be the people's place, where people can come and talk to politicians and make their point, and so now who knows what the end result will be, but it will not be more relaxed security. It will mean tighter security.”

Liberal Senator Jim Munson says everyone in the chamber seemed startled by the small protest. He said, "The GG (Governor General) didn't flinch, and as senators we just kept looking at each saying, 'Did this really happen?'

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said. “The protest was inappropriate and in the wrong place.” She then added, “I sympathize enormously with youth in this country who feel they've been abandoned when the single greatest threat to their future isn't mentioned in the speech from the throne, and that, of course, is the climate crisis." She used the ‘page’ incident to further her own agenda.

Manitoba Liberal Senator Sharon Carstairs, who mentored Ms. DePape as part of her university scholarship program said that her protest on the Senate floor was "unacceptable" and violated the oath she took as a page to respect the procedures and decorum of the Senate.

Carstairs said further, "She is a strong social activist and she has very clear ideas of how she thinks the world should be and she is very concerned that Mr. Harper's agenda is not in the best interests of Canadians. She is entitled to those opinions, she's just not quite entitled to do what she did this afternoon."

Ms. DePape was quickly grabbed by the House of Commons sergeant-at-arms Kevin Vickers and in 20 seconds, whisked out of the chamber and turned over to Parliament Hill security. She was promptly arrested but not charged.

As I see it, she failed in her attempt to delay the proceeding in the Senate. She didn't upstage anyone or anything. She succeeded in absolutely nothing of consequence other than violating her priviledges as a page in the Canadian Senate. It wasn't a slap in the face of Harper or his government because that is not where he sits in Parliament therefore it was the wrong venue to go against him. The Senate belongs to the Queen and as such, it was an offense against the Queen and her representative (the Governor General). This foolish young woman had no respect for the role she played in the Senate. The Governor General did right to not interrupt his speech and to carry on. He was professional, whereas she was not.

Most Canadians will now have seen the striking image of Brigette DePape. The determined solitary young woman, surrounded by the highest ranking public officials in the land, stood in silence holding her crumpled ‘Stop Harper’ sign, as the Governor General read the Conservative government’s throne speech.

Reaction has been swift and strong. Brigette DePape has been criticized for her disrespect of a time-honoured tradition. Liberal Senator Sharon Carstairs questioned why the intelligent young DePape would jeopardize a promising future. Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett said Brigette should have taken her protest out “on the lawn”. Jason Kenney, Conservative MP and Minister of Multiculturalism, Citizenship and Immigration showed his colours when he described the intelligent and highly credentialed young DePape as “a lefty kook”.

However many Canadians have been deeply moved by Brigette’s courage and conviction. People of all ages are praising Brigette for taking a stand. Like-minded youth in particular have been quick to call Brigette their hero. Not surprising. Brigette’s quiet, peaceful protest comes at a time when many young Canadians are disengaged from the political process and/or deeply disillusioned with a system that allows our country to be governed by a political party elected by less than half of its voters and committed to the destruction of much that Canadians have struggled to build over many long decades.

Brigette was fortunate to have found herself in an unusual position – privileged yet powerless. On the one hand, she was honoured to have been selected as a Senate page, a position difficult to attain and one coveted by students dreaming of political careers. But for someone with Brigette’s integrity and passion for justice, the excitement of being a page soon wore thin. At some point she realized that it presented a creative way for her to turn a completely powerless position into an opportunity to express her political views with the hope of raising awareness and mobilizing toward change.

If she wanted to express her concern about the manner in which Prime Minister Harper is conducting the affairs of Canada, she should have waited until her job with the Senate was finished and the next time that the Canadian Parliament sits, she could stand up in the galleries across from where the prime minister sits and hold her sign up in front of him so that he and his ministers would see it.

I believe that this young person’s action will be a blip in history, written off as some silly act of youthful defiance. Admittedly, she has made her mark in history but it could come back to haunt her when she seeks full time work. Her future employers will wonder if they too will be embarrassed if she pulls a stunt like the one she pulled in the Canadian Senate.

She might have been right in her opinion of the prime minister but what she did in the Canadian Senate was improper. There is a place and time to speak and acting as a page in the Senate is not her role to speak out against the prime minister. She got her 15 minutes of fame but she will be remembered as someone who betrayed the trust given to her as a page in the Canadian Senate.

There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the young woman is intelligent. She applied to the program bolstered by an accomplished résumé, having won a $75,000 scholarship to the University of Ottawa to study international development and globalization. As a teenager she launched her own theatre company performing one-woman plays at fringe festivals around Canada, including playing a "librarian-cumadult film queen" in a 2008 play at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival. But as we all know, brilliant people have been known to really act stupid on occasion.

What makes her deed really repulsive is that she breached the trust that is given to all young persons who are given the honour of serving as pages in the Canadian Senate.

I don’t know what her future is going to be but if she ever chooses to run for political office and is in my area, I would never vote for her. We have all known of politicians who have betrayed the trust given to them by their constituents and as such, lack integrity. This young woman fits the mould the bad politicians have created for her.

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