This week in the Canadian Parliament, a federal cabinet minister was laughed at in the House of Commons for his former working class job. Amarjeet Sohi, the minister of infrastructure and Liberal Member of Parliament (MP) for the Edmonton Mill Woods district, rose in the House on Tuesday to speak about transportation. He began his speech by acknowledging that, as a former transit driver, he was shocked and saddened to learn of the stabbing death of a Winnipeg bus driver earlier that day.
“Mr. Speaker, as a former bus driver,” Sohi began. Immediately, sharp, loud laughter can be heard coming from the opposition benches. It visibly upset other ministers and parliamentary secretaries. In the video recordings of the government session, a man can be heard asking, “What’s the matter with that?”
Indeed, what is the matter with that? As a politician who must deal with the public, it’s actually rather refreshing to learn someone in charge of transit projects not only worked in transit, but interacted with the public on a daily basis. I am not, of course, implying that Canadians should elect inexperienced, lying businessmen to their government, but to laugh at a working class man is incredibly elitist of these Conservatives. I’m glad to know they’re the opposition party in Canada, and not the actual governing party, because they obviously disrespect a job that many Canadians proudly hold.
On Wednesday, another Liberal MP Adam Vaughan called for the laughter to be withdrawn from the official record, and the Conservatives should issue an apology, calling it offensive to the House, the values of Canadians and the country’s diversity.
“Laughing at the previous employment status of a member of this House is offensive, especially when that service was a public service to the people of this country,” Vaughan said, stating that he believed he spoke for other members of the party as well. Conservative House leader Candice Bergen refused the formal apology but agreed with the message of inclusion.
“We all come from various backgrounds, and that is why we are called the House of Commons,” Bergen said, “We represent the people: farmers, bus drivers, receptionists. We represent everybody. There’s all kinds of laughter that occurs here,” “So we absolutely respect and honour all the jobs that we’ve done, and the experience we bring to this house.” Although Sohi wasn’t personally upset by the laughter, he felt Bergen’s statement fell short of what was required.
“I take pride in my background,” Sohi shared, “I think it does demonstrate a streak of elitist attitude in the Conservative party, where maybe they don’t appreciate we have working-class people in Parliament in the Liberal government who are making a difference in the lives of Canadians.”
With all the recent talk of diversity in politics- getting women involved, people of all ethnic backgrounds- perhaps professional experience and education should be added to the list of these invisible barriers. As Kai Chan, a distinguished fellow at the INSEAD Innovation & Policy Initiative and the author of Canada’s Governing Class: Who rules the country? notes, politicians tend to be “cut from the same cloth.” It’s a real sore point when discussing politicians.
“I would say we do have too many lawyers, too many MBAs,” Chan says, “It’s a real shame.” Around half of Canada’s politicians have the same pedigree. They went to the same schools, take the same programs, and get the same degrees. I think the same can be said of American politicians as well. When everyone is from the same circles, they all have a certain way of thinking, a way of seeing problems, and this leads to extremely limited perspectives on how to address the problems we face as a country.
Think about it this way: who has the best perspective on how to tackle issues facing agriculture? Someone who studied agriculture in school, or someone who worked for years on a farm. With Trump’s pick of highly unqualified Betsy DeVos for education, it’s clear where our government stands. But having a former bus driver handling transit and infrastructure plans makes a ton of sense to me.
Unfortunately, it looks like logic doesn’t always prevail with our northern neighbors. Although there are reports arising that the bus driver was facing sexual assault charges, it doesn’t change the fact that a politician was trying to express regret and convey well-wishes to a family who lost a person who was simply doing his job at the time of the attack. It’s rather disgusting to think members of a political party would laugh at someone just because he used to drive a bus. If anything, this is more impressive to me, that someone who immigrated and didn’t have the same education background as the lawyers and MBAs has worked hard to get where he is. That’s really what the North American dream is about. Work hard, and improve your life. It’s shameful that Canadian Conservatives seem to think otherwise.