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Equal Under the Law? "Elbowgate" Trivializes Something Important

May 21, 2016

A number of years ago, then Prime Minister Chretien was directly faced by a protester who had managed to breach the RCMP security detachment protecting him.  Chretien literally took matters into his own hands by gripping the protester in a choke-hold and throwing him to the ground.  This take-down did not cause much grief to Chretien, in fact, he experienced a bump in the polls.

If an ordinary citizen were to put a choke-hold on someone standing in their way, the result would have most likely been a lawsuit.

Fast forward to the present, in which the current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, also engaged in a physical means of force in order to achieve a goal. I am not referring to what has become known as “Elbowgate”, which involves the PM’s accidental elbowing of MP Ruth Ellen Brosseau.  (However, the sexist vitriol that has been since directed towards MP Brosseau is anything but trivial.)  Nor am I referring to any side in the “who is to blame” argument for the actions surrounding the NDP and Conservative MPs blocking the Conservative Whip from taking his seat in order for a vote on C-14 to begin.

I simply would like to point out that once again we have a Prime Minister who saw a situation that he did not like and then took physical action to resolve it to his satisfaction.  It must be stated that Trudeau did use, however slight, physical force to achieve a goal; the PM grabbed a member of Parliament and then led him to his seat.

If a CEO in a boardroom was not pleased with the actions of board members and then went over and physically led a member to his seat, that would no doubt result in a serious reprimand.  If a school teacher used physical means to put students in their seats, that would no doubt result in a serious reprimand. This list could go on and on.  When asked whether Trudeau's actions in the House of Commons would be acceptable in the workplace of Public Servants, government spokespeople offered "no comment".

The ethics of this are rather simple: if a leader does it, and you think that it is okay, then is it okay for the ordinary citizen to do it? 

Clearly in some cases the answer will be no.  For instance, if there are issues of national security at stake, then a leader would no doubt be granted some dispensation or at least a kind of sliding scale would apply.  Perhaps even in the everyday cases, an extraordinary situation may arise.  We would no doubt not blame someone for pulling a person along if the surrounding scene was one of violence.

But in the two cases involving the PMs, it is doubtful that such heavy qualifications like national security apply.

We should always remind our leaders that, unless extraordinary conditions apply, they are just as accountable for their actions as the rest of us. If Trudeau can do what he did and be excused on the basis of an apology--however heartfelt--then that should apply to the CEO who physically handles employes or the school teacher and so on.  If we brush off bad behaviour by our officials or let them off in ways that we would not allow for each other,  then we will, as the old saw goes, get the leaders that we deserve.  


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Dr. Feist      May 24, 2016 at 10:35
Thanks for the comment. Perhaps my article was not clear. I am not saying that a heartfelt apology is necessarily insufficient to exonerate PM Trudeau. I am saying that if a heartfelt apology exonerates the PM, then a heartfelt apology should also exonerate the CEO in a boardroom who grabs an employee. Had Trudeau as a high school teacher grabbed a student, he would have faced very serious disciplinary action--and a heartfelt apology would not have absolved him. The same rules should apply, ceteris paribus, to those with massive power, like a PM, those with less power, like a CEO -- and, of course, to the rest of us.
Nathalie Poirier      May 23, 2016 at 10:23
Interesting turn of events for Mr. Trudeau and MP Brosseau this week. I was indeed unnerved by the actions of our Prime Minister in his "elbow gating", however I do find these actions relevant in the sense that we must remember that we are all abundantly human and can all make bad judgements and react to situations instead of responding to them. I do think that Mr. Trudeau needed some humbling and this hopefully has done exactly that! I do agree with you professor that any physical aggression is uncalled for and deeply unethical however where I do not agree with you is in saying that a "deeply felt" public apology is not enough. It would be nice to see that parties in conflict could learn to resolve issues without involving the good tax payers money in legal processes, so if Mr. Trudeau and MP Brosseau can show leadership in solving their issues, maybe this is a good way to go in a world where we leave responsability of our actions in the hands of institutions.