TORONTO — Two recent incidents that saw visitors wearing pro-oil and gas shirts banned from touring the Senate have industry watchers questioning the clarity of rules at legislatures across Canada.
Twice this month, visitors to parliament buildings were asked to remove items of clothing sporting the slogan “I love Canadian Oil and Gas.” In both cases, the men involved said security personnel told them the shirts contravened rules barring props or clothing items with political messaging in legislative buildings.
Political communications strategists and scholars said the incidents ought to provoke a national conversation about what regulations are relevant in today’s political institutions, as well as how Canadians engage with their civic leaders in the modern era.
“The proliferation of social media, …the ability of people to get directly involved in debates online particularly is making it really tough to know in some instances what constitutes political activity and what constitutes a wardrobe choice,” political communications consultant Tim Abray said in a telephone interview. “We’re struggling with it a bit, there’s no question.”
The issue caused a national stir earlier this month when oil company executive William Lacey was taking a tour of the Senate.
Security staff told Lacey his “I love Canadian Oil and Gas” T-shirt flouted the rules, prompting Lacey to both turn the shirt inside-out in order to complete his scheduled tour and file a formal complaint to members of Parliament and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The Parliamentary Protective Service sent Lacey an apology and said staff misinterpreted the message on his T-shirt. But days later, media reports said Chris Wollin, of Calgary, was ordered to remove a pro-oil sweatshirt on the same grounds. Wollin did not respond to a request for comment.
Parliamentary Protective Services acting chief of staff Guillaume Vandal said the department is reviewing its practices, but provided no other details.
“Our goal is to avoid such incidents from reoccurring,” he said in a statement.
Industry watchers said there is little debate as to why strict rules around public props and clothing have been implemented in Canada’s legislative buildings.
Alex Marland, professor of political communication at Memorial University of Newfoundland, said the regulations are meant to ensure political business is conducted in neutral, non-threatening spaces.
“You wouldn’t want the galleries of a legislature to become a forum for political advocacy,” he said. “They’re meant to be a place for transparency so members of the public can see what’s occurring, but they should not at all interfere with what is occurring on the floor of the chamber.”
Abray agreed, noting the rules also exist to enable legislators to do their jobs without fear of intimidation. But he said that principle is harder to uphold nowadays.
He said formerly only those with money and clout had the means of directly connecting with their elected officials, but social media has opened the door to a greater number of potential influencers with a wider array of messages to share.
As a result, Abray said, nearly any topic can be construed as political in nature. He said free speech advocates are not wrong to feel their rights to expression are being partially curtailed, but limitation in this case serves a broader purpose.
“What it’s attempting to do is allow the speech of the legislature itself to prevail,” Abray said. “I think that’s worth a conversation at some point. That we use moments like this to try and educate people about why the rules are the way they are rather than just talking about freedom of speech. Talking about the context is important.”
Nearly every Canadian legislature bans visitors from wearing clothing sporting slogans deemed to be either in bad taste or conveying a partisan message.
In Manitoba, the rules also encompass clothing that bears only a partial message on their own but that could be combined with other props to make a complete statement.
Quebec’s rules for visitors include a list of banned garments, such as tank tops, caps, and all shorts other than bermudas.
The Ontario legislature, which is currently reviewing its security policies, acknowledges that current events play a role in dictating what’s acceptable in the visitors’ gallery.
“Clothing that have slogans etc. that are intended to convey a political message (usually observed during a relevant or current debate) may not be permitted especially inside the chamber while the debate is being heard but each situation is determined on a case by case basis,” Ontario Legislative Assembly sergeant-at-arms Jackie Gordon said in a statement.
Current visitors found in breach of the rules will be provided with a plain white T-shirt to wear while observing the proceedings, she added.
Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press