Today in Canada's Political History - May 12, 1982: MP Margaret Mitchell’s famous moment

Vancouver voters sent the NDP’s Margaret Mitchell to represent them in the Commons four times. And on this date in 1982 she made her most famous intervention in the House. It seems unbelievable from today’s vantage point that what she said was revolutionary.

The Globe and Mail recalled the moment in their obituary of her in 2017. It is worth quoting at length.

“Ms. Mitchell had served on the Standing Committee on Health, Welfare and Social Affairs, which had heard over a period of several months about the suffering of battered women who had limited legal recourse and no safe place in their community to escape from their abusers,” the Globe recalled. “During question period, Ms. Mitchell rose to ask the minister responsible for the status of women what action the government will take to protect battered women. She began by stating that ‘one in 10 Canadian husbands beat their wives regularly,’ but she could get no further because of an outbreak of laughter and heckling that drowned her out. ‘Madam Speaker, this is no laughing matter,’ she pushed on defiantly after a pause.

In her self-published memoirs, No Laughing Matter (2008), she does not name the ‘Honourable Members’ who behaved so callously that day, but noted that they were Tories. One said within earshot: "I don't beat my wife. Do you, George?’

“The minister responsible, Judy Erola, replied that she did not find the men's derision amusing ‘and neither do the women of Canada.’ She promised to fund more transition houses under the Canada Assistance Plan. Ms. Mitchell next asked the solicitor-general to take action to require that the courts and law-enforcement agencies start to treat spousal assault as a criminal offence. Out of 10,000 incidents of violence, the joint standing committee had learned, only two convictions had been obtained.

The incident topped the evening news and made her name. It has now achieved everlasting life on YouTube.

The next morning, she moved for an apology from the House, but according to her memoirs, ‘some MPs refused, defeating my motion.’

"’Margaret took a private problem and turned it into a public issue,’" commented her life-long friend Darlene Marzari, a former Vancouver alderman. ‘What was once unmentionable now could not be denied. Women's shelters were established, programs to train judges how to deal with domestic violence were introduced, all in the context of the new Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Her response to the men's laughter was a foundational moment of the women's movement in this country.’”

Arthur Milnes is an accomplished public historian and award-winning journalist. He was research assistant on The Rt. Hon. Brian Mulroney’s best-selling Memoirs and also served as a speechwriter to then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper and as a Fellow of the Queen’s Centre for the Study of Democracy under the leadership of Tom Axworthy. A resident of Kingston, Ontario, Milnes serves as the in-house historian at the 175 year-old Frontenac Club Hotel.