“Wacko.” “Phony.” “Petro-puppet”.

These are just some of the words parliamentarians have hurled at each other in the past few months of debate in the House of Commons.

And if you’ve been thinking political discourse has been feeling especially mean-spirited lately, you wouldn’t be wrong.

2024 is on track to be the year with the most “unparliamentary language” in the House since 2006, according to a new data analysis by the IJF.

Questions over unparliamentary language made headlines earlier this week after Speaker Greg Fergus ejected Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre from the House of Commons on Tuesday during question period.

Poilievre refused to withdraw his comment after branding Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a “wacko prime minister.” Instead, he pushed back against the Speaker’s request to avoid personal attacks by offering to substitute in the adjectives “extremist” and “radical.”

Tuesday’s question period was already tense as another Conservative member, Shadow Minister for Canadian Heritage Rachael Thomas, had been earlier thrown from the House by Speaker Fergus.

Just the day before, Poilievre was asked by the Speaker to withdraw his words after swearing in the House of Commons — a request with which he complied.

The Conservative Party did not respond to questions for Poilievre sent by the IJF.

“The improvement of decorum and respect in the Chamber is an ongoing challenge, but I was elected by my peers to address these issues, and I remain committed to restoring order by enforcing the Rules of Procedure,” said Speaker Fergus, in a statement to the IJF. “I firmly believe that parliamentarians can have impassioned debates that focus on policies and ideas rather than resorting to personal attacks.”

Fergus said that since being elected Speaker he’s met with his provincial counterparts to discuss best practices and has frequently paused proceedings while waiting for order to return to the House.

“I will continue to work with all Members to enhance collegiality and ensure that decorum and respect reign both inside and outside of the Chamber,” added Fergus.

Unparliamentary language is speech in the House of Commons determined to be disrespectful to another member of the House or to the House itself. For example, “personal attacks, insults and obscenities” may be deemed by the Speaker to be unparliamentary, as explained in House of Commons Procedure and Practice, a handbook used by MPs.

Language that is “offensive, provocative, or threatening” may also be ruled unparliamentary.

For instance, Conservative MP Michael Cooper was reprimanded earlier this year for using the phrase “what the hell” in the House. Poilievre also used the acronym “WTF” in a separate incident in February. Poilievre later claimed the acronym stood for “where’s the funds?” when called out by the Speaker.

The Conservative Party has since started selling branded t-shirts with the phrase.

The front and back of a t-shirt with the phrases "W.T.F. Where's the Funds?" and "Pierre Poilievre: Bring It Home."
T-shirts being sold by the Conservative Party in its online merch store. (Credit: Conservative Party of Canada)

It’s not just Conservatives who have a record of cussing in the Commons. In 2011, while an opposition MP, Trudeau was forced to apologize and withdraw a remark after swearing at Peter Kent, the then-Conservative environment minister in the legislature.

In general, however, what counts as unparliamentary language is less about the specific word or phrase used and more about the context in which it is used, a call that remains up to the discretion of the Speaker.

“In dealing with unparliamentary language, the Speaker takes into account the tone, manner and intention of the Member speaking, the person to whom the words at issue were directed, the degree of provocation, and most important, whether or not the remarks created disorder in the Chamber,” the handbook reads. “Thus, language deemed unparliamentary one day may not necessarily be deemed unparliamentary on another day.”

Unparliamentary language is by no means a modern phenomenon. Searching House debates using the LiPaD database, a project by several University of Toronto researchers that has digitized the official record of parliamentary debate known as Hansard, turns up hundreds of matches for unparliamentary language since February 1901, the first month of available records.

For example, in 1903, the deputy Speaker admonished a Conservative MP for referring to Liberal government members as “hirelings.” In 1904, a Liberal-Conservative MP was forced to withdraw comments for alleging the Liberal minister of agriculture was guilty of “trickery and deception.” 

Poilievre is the MP in the House with the most cases of unparliamentary language so far this year, according to the IJF’s analysis. Poilievre has been warned or disciplined by the Speaker on at least six separate occasions for using unparliamentary language since the start of the year.

This is far more than the other reprimanded MPs, each of whom has only been admonished by the Speaker once.

Alex Marland, a professor of politics at Acadia University, said cuss words becoming more common in Parliament isn’t surprising given that swearing is now generally seen as less taboo. “I would say that society is less parliamentary than it used to be,” said Marland.

However, Marland said the real problem in politics is “name-calling.”

“The principle of not calling each other names I think is a really important one to uphold. And it’s important that whoever happens to be Speaker doesn’t back down on that,” added Marland. 

“MPs are increasingly now doing performance theatre in the legislature, no longer just for trying to get on the evening news but because they’re trying to create these video clips that then can circulate on social media,” said Marland.

However, Marland suggested that convening a cross-party committee of MPs to make recommendations could be a good first step in improving the tone of House debates.

“It’s the members of the legislature who make the rules as a group, as a collective,” said Marland. “It’s actually the members themselves who need to get together and talk about what it is that they can do to make changes, to improve.”

How we did this story

The IJF analyzed speech recorded in Hansard and published digitally on the House of Commons website. Using the publications search tool, the IJF counted cases of unparliamentary language by calculating how many times speech was labelled with the “unparliamentary language” tag under the database’s “procedural term” filter. 

Given that a single “instance” of unparliamentary language might involve several quotes from MPs being tagged, as members debated back and forth about the appropriateness of a given comment, the analysis above calculated the frequency of unparliamentary language by the number of days on which at least one tagged quote was found.

The IJF calculated how often cases of unparliamentary language occurred in a given year as a percentage of days Parliament was in session due to the wide range in the number of sitting days per year. For example, between the start of 2024 and Apr. 30, there have been 37 sitting days, while 2012 and 2022 both had 129 sitting days. Data on the number of sitting days comes from the Parliament of Canada website.