Transport Minister Lisa Raitt (left) prompts Green Party Leader Elizabeth May to stop her speech and leave the stage at the Annual Parliamentary National Press Gallery

Press gallery dinners can make headlines

Booze, jokes, politics: gallery dinner making news since Parliament's early days

  • May. 11, 2015 3:00 p.m.

By Jennifer Ditchburn, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA – Alcohol, politics, risque jokes and sometimes even real news —it’s all been on the menu for the parliamentary press gallery dinner since at least the 1870s.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May finds herself in interesting company as one of the revellers over the years whose remarks have grabbed headlines.

May apologized for her remarks at Saturday’s dinner, which closed with her saying that convicted terrorist Omar Khadr had “more class than the whole f—ing cabinet.” A stunned crowd watched as a shoeless Transport Minister Lisa Raitt coaxed May offstage.

But as far as major news goes, May pales in comparison to other incidents in the gallery annals. A few events at gallery dinners marked watersheds in Canadian politics.

The origins of the dinner date back at least to the early 1870s, with references in some newspapers to Sir John A. Macdonald attending.

A Toronto Evening Star recounts how in the 1880s the former mayor of Ottawa Charles Mackintosh, once the gallery president, showed up in full regalia including a ceremonial ball and chain.

“The dinner committee held a hurried consultation and decided that the ball and chain was too reminiscent of slave-driving,” reads the article. “So Mr. Mackintosh was gently, but firmly, escorted outside.”

The all-male crowd back then sang and played music, recited poetry and drank of course. Sir Wilfrid Laurier is said to have attended starting in 1886, along with contemporaries such as Robert Borden, John Thompson and Mackenzie Bowell.

“As he sat down, he said, ‘With great pleasure I drink the health of the Canadian Parliament as revised and improved by the press gallery’,” former gallery member M.O. Hammond wrote of Laurier’s speech in 1906.

Charles Lynch, the late political columnist, recalled in his autobiography the dinner of 1948, when then-prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King made a startling announcement in the presence of then-governor general Viscount Alexander and the full gallery.

“Willie rose to his feet — and announced his retirement, to the great consternation of his listeners, all of whom were deeply into the sauce and unprepared for a news development of these proportions late on a Saturday night and at an off-the-record dinner,” Lynch wrote.

The 1963 dinner was held two nights before the government of John Diefenbaker was defeated. A major controversy was swirling over Diefenbaker’s refusal to accept U.S. nuclear weapons on Canadian soil and the gallery staged a withering skit about the PM and his cabinet.

Lynch recounts that then-defence minister Doug Harkness decided that night to resign from cabinet the next day, “sealing the fate of the government.”

“Never again will I attend your dinner!” Diefenbaker thundered, according to former Toronto Telegram reporter Peter Dempson.

Four years later, Diefenbaker would tell a special gallery dinner held in his honour that he was leaving politics.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau attended the dinners with little joy and began snubbing them in 1981. In 1984, he claimed in the Commons to have been misquoted in a story, and said “it’s another reason I don’t want to go to the God damn press gallery dinner.”

A major part of the angst for leaders and governors general is that they are expected to deliver a speech with a tricky alchemy of humour that is at once self-deprecating, au courant and ribald. The dinners went on the record about 20 years ago, making the task even tougher.

The late gallery reporter and political aide Tom Van Dusen wrote that former governor general Jeanne Sauve, “did an imitation of the Queen, little girl voice and all, which some found inappropriate.”

Former Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe stopped attending the dinners after reporters threw buns at him during his flat, overly political speeches.

Former governor general Michaelle Jean also gave the dinners a pass after a tongue-in-cheek speech in 2005 created an uproar in Quebec. She joked about then-Parti Quebecois leader Andre Boisclair’s former cocaine use, saying “he always follows the party line.”

Gov. Gen. David Johnston, bucking tradition, has never attended the dinner.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has boycotted the event since his party formed government in 2006, but was more game as opposition leader. He once appeared on stage wearing a Darth Vader helmet and doing a decent impression of the renegade jedi.

“The stories about what happens before, during and after gallery dinners have become legion,” Dempson wrote.

“Most of them are true.”

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