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Hill Life & People

Dedication, duty, and devotion: the Arnold Chan speech that captivated the House

By Liberal MP Arnold Chan      

Liberal MP Arnold Chan, who's battling a second bout of cancer, delivered an emotional and powerful plea to MPs in the House of Commons last week.

Liberal MP Arnold Chan, right, and his parents Sandra and Anthony Chan, pictured June 12, 2017, in the House foyer shortly after he delivered his emotional speech in the Commons. The Hill Times photograph by Rachel Aiello
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HOUSE OF COMMONS—I have not taken the floor in some time and I am going to ask you, Mr. Speaker, and my colleagues on all sides of the aisle, for some indulgence today. I have every intention of speaking to the substantive motion before us, but before I do that, I have some matters of a personal nature that I have felt in my heart for some time and need to get out, and I am going to simply say them if the House would grant me that dispensation.

Let me first take the opportunity to introduce some of the most important people in my life, whom I have the pleasure of having in Ottawa today. That is my parents Sandra and Anthony Chan, my brother Dr. Kevin Chan, and of course my beloved wife Jean Yip. Unfortunately, our three children Nathaniel, Ethan, and Theodore could not join us. The older two are currently in examinations, although Jean and I will be very pleased to welcome our youngest child Theo on Wednesday when he comes to Ottawa for his graduating field trip. We are very much looking forward to that.

First and foremost, it is a tremendous honour to serve as the Member for Scarborough-Agincourt.

All of us treasure the privilege that we have serving in this particular place. I am so grateful to my constituents of Scarborough-Agincourt for having given me a mandate twice to serve in this wonderful place.

While it is a very proud thing to serve as a Member of Parliament, there is only one thing that makes me more proud and that is to simply let my parents know my greater pride is reserved for being first and foremost their son, and being Kevin’s brother, and, most importantly, the spouse of my beloved wife, who has been there every step of the way. I simply could not ask for a better partner in life.

As I mentioned, one of the difficult things that often confronts us, and it is not unique to Canadians but obviously it is a challenge for those of us who serve in public office, is the sacrifices that are made by our families. If I have any failings to my children, such as having missed some of their important milestones, like recently missing Ethan’s jazz concert at his school in order to perform my function here in the House of Commons, I ask them to forgive me, but I will explain the important reasons for why we do what we do.

The most important people in my life have taught me three important lessons and they are the concepts of dedication, duty, and devotion.

On dedication, my parents, and be that very much at an early age, instilled in both my younger brother and I the concept of doing our best. I have to say, and I would acknowledge, that I am one who has perhaps not achieved the same standard that my younger brother has achieved in terms of dedication. Dad has often reminded me that I often relied far too much on my talent and not enough on hard and diligent work, but I would like to think that was an important lesson that was imbued on both of us.

On the second point of duty, the point I want to make here is that it was not necessarily done by way of word. It was done by way of practice, through the daily way in which my parents lived their lives.

Duty, of course, was paramount for them. I hope that Kevin and I have discharged our duty. I have the privilege of serving as a public office holder. My brother does it in a different way as a pediatrician, as a physician, who has travelled the planet to serve the least fortunate children in the world. I am very proud of the accomplishments he has made so far and the accomplishments he will achieve in the future on behalf of the most vulnerable children around the world.

Finally, my parents also taught us devotion. I also had another very important teacher in that, and that is my wife Jean. As many members know, I have been going through this challenge with my health for the last number of years. I simply could not have asked for a more devoted partner in life as I have walked through this journey. I will steal a line from a former prime minister of ours, the right honourable Jean Chrétien, in referencing his partner Aline: “Without you, nothing.”

I wanted to get back to a more fundamental issue, one that has been raised a substantive number of times in the House, and that is how we comport ourselves.

I am not sure how many more times I will have the strength to get up and do a 20-minute speech in this place, but the point I want to impart to all of us is that I know we are all honourable members, I know members revere this place, and I would beg us to not only act as honourable members but to treat this institution honourably.

To that extent, I want to make a shout-out to our colleague, the member for Saanich—Gulf Islands. This parliamentarian, who despite the fact we are not in the same party and despite the fact that we may disagree on some substantive issues quite vehemently, I consider to be a giant, not simply because she exhorts us to follow Standing Order 18, but more importantly, I have observed in her practice that she reveres this place. She is dedicated to her constituents. She practises, both here and in committee, the highest standard of practice that any parliamentarian could ask for. Despite strongly disagreeing, perhaps, with the position of the government of the day, she does so in a respectful tone. I would ask all of us to elevate our debate, to elevate our practice to that standard.

It is only through that practice, which I believe she so eloquently demonstrates, that Canadians will have confidence in this democratic institution that we all hold so dear. It is important that we do that.

The other thing that I wanted to speak broadly to is the practice of ditching what I call the “canned talking points.” I am not perfect. I know that sometimes it takes some practice. There are instances where it is necessary for us to have the guidance and assistance of our staff, the ministries, and of our opposition research.

However, I do not think it gives Canadians confidence in our debates in this place when we formulaically repeat those debates. It is more important that we bring the experience of our constituents here and impose it upon the question of the day, and ask ourselves how we get better legislation and how we make better laws.

We can disagree strongly, and in fact we should. That is what democracy is about. However, we should not just use the formulaic talking points. It does not elevate this place. It does not give Canadians confidence in what democracy truly means.

The other thing I would simply ask all of our colleagues to consider is that while we debate and engage, what we are doing right now, when we listen, that we listen to one another, despite our strong differences. That is when democracy really happens. That is the challenge that is going on around the world right now. No one is listening. Everyone is just talking at once. We have to listen to each other. In so doing, we will make this place a stronger place.

I have some comments that I want to speak broadly to Canadians on before I get to the substantive issue that was introduced in the main motion by our friend from Selkirk-Interlake-Eastman. I know that sometimes, for example, when we are about to enter Question Period, and I have to be honest, I am one who is beginning to find it challenging to watch, maybe it is because I am on the government side. I have certainly participated with some glee at times on the opposition side, but I recognize that, and maybe my perspective has changed now that I have had a change of position in this place in the House, although I do not face the daily barrage, unlike members of the government.

I believe strongly that, despite what we see in this place, what gives us strength is the fact that we can actually do it. We can actually engage in this process without fundamental rancour, without fundamental disagreement, and without violence. That is the difference, and that is why I so love this place. I would ask Canadians to give heart to their democracy, to treasure it, and revere it. Of course, I would ask them to do the most basic thing, which is to cast their ballots. However, for me it is much more than that. I ask them for their civic engagement, regardless of what it actually may mean, whether it is coaching a soccer team or helping someone at a food bank. For me it can be even simpler than that.

It is the basic common civility we share with each other that is fundamental. It is thanking our Tim Hortons server. It is giving way to someone on the road. It is saying thanks. It is the small things we collectively do, from my perspective, that make a great society, and to me, that is ultimately what it means to be a Canadian. We are so privileged to live in this country, because we have these small acts of common decency and civility that make us what we are. I would ask members to carry on that tradition, because that is the foundation of what makes Canada great.

If I may quote the Constitution, it imbues peace, order, and good government. We have much to be proud of, and I would simply ask us to celebrate this incredible institution. By doing those small acts, we will continue to uphold our Canadian democracy and the values that bind us together.

Liberal MP Arnold Chan delivered this speech in the House on June 12. It has been edited for style and length. 

The Hill Times 

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