In addition to my role as the MLA for the constituency of Roblin, I am also the Speaker of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly. I was first elected to this role by my peers in 2016 and again in 2019. During this time, I have learned so much about the importance of the role of a presiding officer and the rules created to ensure MLAs are able to complete their democratic duties and act as the voice of their constituents.
Some might be interested to know that while the role of Speaker does indeed behave as a sort of referee, there is some leeway for comments outside of what one might expect in a debate. Heckling is allowed in our legislature, just as it is allowed in all legislatures across Canada. Heckling can be a method through which representatives express themselves. Often, the heckling is light-hearted, and stops with a simple reminder from the Speaker calling for order.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Manitoba Legislative Assembly has shifted and adapted along with the health restrictions. We were among the first in Canada to initiate a hybrid virtual/ in-person sitting for MLAs. This was a massive undertaking by the Speaker’s Office, the Clerk’s Office, and many more offices within the Legislative Assembly to quickly align the needs of MLAs participating in a virtual format with what the in-person MLAs had access to. This is important to ensure that all MLAs have the ability to fully represent their constituents without any undue impediments. I am proud to say that MLAs were able to represent their constituents in the house while participating virtually as if there were present in the house physically. One large difference is that virtual members were not allowed to heckle.
While opposing views are always allowed to be spoken, this must be done in a civil way. It is my duty as Speaker to monitor heckling and ensure that it does not reach a noise level that impedes MLAs from asking and answering questions, or myself and the Hansard transcribers from hearing the words spoken on the record. Heckling is never allowed to be a personal attack or to be used for cruelty. There is a line to be drawn between appropriate and inappropriate heckling. As the Speaker, it is my job to draw that line to keep decorum and civility in the chamber which at times is an extremely challenging task.
Civility is something that I notice outside of my legislative role as well. I enjoy the many benefits of social media. Through it, we are able to connect with each other, highlight happy moments in our lives, and stay in touch with people we otherwise would not. Social media can be used for good and positive purposes. Unfortunately, there is a negative undertone with many social media platforms. Some people choose to use platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and others to be cruel, unkind, and to say things from behind their keyboard that they would never think to say in person. We must always remember that our words matter. What we say to each other either in person or online has an impact.
I often wonder what the younger people around us think of civility either in person or online. Social media plays a larger role in the lives of the generation growing up now than it has ever before. We have never been so connected and so “logged in”. While that can be a great thing, the other side is that now, more than ever, younger people are exposed to the incivility, toxicity, unkindness, and negativity that exists on social media.
In my role as Speaker, sometimes restoring civility and calm to a debate is a matter of reminding members with the word “order”. It is a different matter online. I encourage everyone to follow positive accounts, block any negative accounts, and report accounts that cross the line. Remember to limit your time on social media if you find that it is taking a toll on your mental health. And importantly, lead by example. Choose to be kind to others; choose to use your words for positivity. Our words matter.