Nahanni Fontaine remembers the day she was accused of a dress-code violation in 2016, soon after she was elected to the Manitoba Legislative Assembly.

Nahanni Fontaine remembers the day she was accused of a dress-code violation in 2016, soon after she was elected to the Manitoba Legislative Assembly.

She was wearing a stylish, indigo, one-piece pantsuit/jumper that she bought at a shop in London, England.

"It's a gorgeous piece," says the self-proclaimed fashion lover and NDP MLA for St. Johns.

NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine at rally with midwives on June 30, 2016, two months after being elected, wearing the outfit that was the subject of a complaint to the speaker later that day after question period. (Supplied)

NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine at rally with midwives on June 30, 2016, two months after being elected, wearing the outfit that was the subject of a complaint to the speaker later that day after question period. (Supplied)

After speaking at a midwives' rally on the legislature steps, then attending question period, the NDP house leader called her over.

"He took me outside and said, 'A complaint has been made to the Speaker's office about what you're wearing.'"

Fontaine was taken aback.

"A man complained to Speaker's office about what I was wearing?" she says. "As a woman, I took offence to that. That was a man in the chamber policing what I wore."

Her alleged dress-code crime?

"The back opens a little," she says.

That complaint follows a litany of chamber dress-code violations over the years involving men in somewhat less-than-appropriate attire, including a military helmet, jeans, a snowmobile suit and a turtleneck.

Orange hoodies and the right to bare arms

In 2019, Quebec National Assembly member Catherine Dorion left the chamber after her colleagues chided her for showing up in jeans and an orange hoodie. The Québec Solidaire member was later admonished for disrespecting the chamber when she posted a photo of herself sitting on the central desk in the assembly wearing a mini skirt.

In 2019, Quebec National Assembly member Catherine Dorion left the chamber after her colleagues chided her for showing up in jeans and an orange hoodie. The Québec Solidaire member was later admonished for disrespecting the chamber when she posted a photo of herself sitting on the central desk in the assembly wearing a mini skirt.

That same year, B.C. spelled out the rules after the legislature's sergeant-at-arms told at least three women that the dress code required them to cover their arms and not wear sleeveless outfits, causing an uproar. Another legislature employee was told to wear a slip under her dress because her dress was “clinging to her legs.”

The new dress code says MLAs, including those who do not gender identify are required to wear professional, contemporary business attire. Neckties for men and sleeves for women are optional. Clothing and badges with brand names, slogans, advertising or political messages, it says, should not be permitted in the chamber.

In Ottawa, the "rules of order and decorum" for MPs state that “all members desiring to be recognized to speak at any point during the proceedings of the House must be wearing contemporary business attire.” It says male MPs are required to wear “jackets, shirts and ties” unless they're in military or clerical garb.

In March 2020, the Speaker affirmed that a Mi’kmaq MP could wear a beaded medallion instead of a tie.

In recent years, Speakers have asked MPs who tucked dress shirts into jeans to change their pants.

Yet there are no specific suggestions for female MPs.

In 2020, when Michelle Rempel Garner, the Conservative MP for Calgary-Nose Hill, wore a white sleeveless dress during question period, it garnered more attention than the question she was trying to ask to hold the federal government to account.

During the pandemic, the Speaker has repeatedly asked MPs to "uphold the dignity of the House" by "being judicious" in how they dress. A handful have forgone neckties without being called out, though the Speaker chided an Ontario MP for wearing a red hoodie under his suit jacket in January.

In February, New Zealand MP and Maori party co-leader Rawiri Waititi was ejected from Parliament by the house Speaker for violating the dress code. Rather than wearing the prescribed necktie — which he called "a colonial noose" — Waititi wore a traditional Maori pendant. Following an outcry and support from other MPs, including Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Parliament made an exception to the rules and Waititi returned to the chamber.

— with files from Dylan Robertson

In the 21st century, men in the Manitoba legislature are expected to wear a necktie and a jacket but there's no specific dress code for women or members who don't identify as male or female, says house Speaker Myrna Driedger. To change the standard practices, there needs to be a consensus from the house leaders, she said.

"Not all of the standard practices of the assembly are set out in the rules of the house," Driedger wrote in an email. Some of the customs "have become accepted practice."

"The dress code for the Assembly requires that the male MLAs wear a tie and jacket and that female MLAs wear a corresponding type of attire."

The practice has also been to discourage blue jeans, T-shirts and runners from being worn in either the house or the committee room, she wrote. There's no mention of women showing a bit of their bare back.

"The Speaker doesn’t make these rules or practices — only upholds them," Driedger wrote.

Proper wear, no matter where

Although the bylaw is vague, and there have been a few gentle prods for wardrobe changes before meetings, Winnipeg's city councillors are pretty good about following the rules.

They're required to “dress appropriate to the office of a member of council” while participating in meetings. In other words, jackets and ties for men and business attire for women.

Although the bylaw is vague, and there have been a few gentle prods for wardrobe changes before meetings, Winnipeg's city councillors are pretty good about following the rules.

They're required to “dress appropriate to the office of a member of council” while participating in meetings. In other words, jackets and ties for men and business attire for women.

“I think that society has gotten less formal in terms of business attire during the pandemic. And I have to say that the attire in the chamber has remained professional,” says council Speaker Devi Sharma.

“It’s part of respect for the role and the important matters of debate.”

Councillors can choose to attend meetings remotely because of the pandemic. And while no one has logged on in their PJs, Sharma (Old Kildonan) says she and city clerks have had to step in on a few occasions.

“We certainly have reminded a member of council or two that… whether you are participating by Zoom or in the chamber, a jacket and tie is expected,” she says, adding the issues have been dealt with proactively before the live recording of the council meeting begins.

There was also a recent reminder to one councillor to not wear jeans in the chamber, she says.

Council makes some exceptions to the dress code, allowing politicians to wear T-shirts acknowledging special events, such as the Pink Shirt Day anti-bullying campaign.

And members occasionally approve motions to allow them to take off jackets when summer weather heats up the heritage building.

Sharma says she's open to reassessing the dress code to consider changes but hasn't received any requests.

 

-- joyanne.pursaga@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @joyanne_pursaga

Uphold them the Speaker does.

On April 29, MLA Adrien Sala was in his office, about to speak in the house virtually, when the deputy Speaker filling in for Driedger cut him off. The NDP member for St. James was wearing a suit jacket and dress shirt but no necktie, a no-no according to the rules of the chamber, even for members working outside of it.

On March 8, when Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont rose to speak in the house, the Speaker immediately cut him off.

"I’m going to have to point out to the honourable member for St. Boniface that he is not dressed according to the code of the legislature," she said. "I’m going to have to tell the member that he needs to have a tie to be in the chamber and to be acknowledged."

Lamont apologized and left the chamber to put on a tie.

"I was bringing forward a motion of contempt of the legislature for the fact that the government had brought in 19 blank bills that I thought was a violation of democracy," he says.

"When I came back wearing a tie, I was not allowed to compete my speech. It was more frustrating to me to have my motion ruled out of order.

Dougald Lamont, leader of the Manitoba Liberal Party, is more concerned about what's said in the chamber than what the people saying it are wearing. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Dougald Lamont, leader of the Manitoba Liberal Party, is more concerned about what's said in the chamber than what the people saying it are wearing. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

In 2018, he wore jeans in the legislature and was required to change after Fontaine complained that his informal attire violated the chamber's dress code.

Hold on... the same Fontaine who, two years earlier, took offence when someone complained about her outfit?

She says when she saw the newly elected Lamont wearing jeans, she rose in her role as the NDP house leader and asked the Speaker if the rules had changed.

"We all know we’re not allowed to wear jeans," she says.

And it's an apples-and-oranges argument, she says; the expensive designer outfit that another MLA complained about her back — behind her back — didn't violate any stated rules.

"In the context of the chamber, so often men can do what they want," she says. "I’m always going to make sure men are challenged on the stuff they’re doing."

Lamont, for his part, is more concerned about what's said in the chamber than what the people saying it are wearing.

"The clothes aren't the problem," he says, adding he loathes heckling in the chamber and the "colossal lack of respect, in general."

"We work in an environment where people are talking about really important issues and it can get very hot, very fast and people get personal," he says. "All these rules are really in place to keep fist fights from breaking out."

He's not kidding.

In one memorable 1996 violation, Kevin Lamoureux donned an army helmet when the chamber felt like "a war zone."

"There were threats of violence," says Lamoureux, then the Liberal MLA for Inkster, recalling debate on privatizing Manitoba Telephone System under Gary Filmon's Progressive Conservative government.

"Gord Mackintosh walked across the floor and some of us thought he was going to hit the premier."

Not so, says the former NDP cabinet minister and MLA for St. Johns.

"I would never do such a thing," Mackintosh says. "That's so far-fetched."

Filmon "held his composure and didn't react; he stared into space," says Lamoureux, now the Member of Parliament for Winnipeg North.

He also opposed privatization and was prepared for battle — and publicity — donning the helmet he'd brought into the house for such a moment, and put his hands up in surrender.

"I was trying to emphasize that it was turning into a war zone... and somehow, in a humorous way, get people to calm down."

During April 1997's paralyzing blizzard, Liberal MLA (The Maples) Gary Kowalski donned a snowmobile suit and cross-country skis and made his way from his home in The Maples to McPhillips Street, where he hitched a ride to the legislature with a stranger plowing through the snow-blocked streets in a four-wheel-drive truck. (Winnipeg Free Press files)

During April 1997's paralyzing blizzard, Liberal MLA (The Maples) Gary Kowalski donned a snowmobile suit and cross-country skis and made his way from his home in The Maples to McPhillips Street, where he hitched a ride to the legislature with a stranger plowing through the snow-blocked streets in a four-wheel-drive truck. (Winnipeg Free Press files)

Mackintosh says it was a serious matter; then-Speaker Louise Dacquay wasn't recognizing Opposition members or letting them speak, so he got up and crossed the floor to get her attention, not to shake his fist in the premier's face.

He cites a Nov. 28, 1996 Free Press report of the previous day's events describing how he "waved his finger just inches from Filmon’s face…"

"I waved at the speaker," recalls Mackintosh, who says Lamoureux "looked like a buffoon" wearing the helmet, and "it was silly and inappropriate."

Lamoureux doesn't argue the point.

"It wasn't a shining moment in the Manitoba chamber," he says.

Another member's attire was in the spotlight a few months later when the city was buried by April 1997's paralyzing blizzard. Work at the legislature continued, sort of.

Having been subjected to some previous heat in the press for spotty attendance, Liberal MLA Gary Kowalski said he wasn't going to let the weather keep him away from the house.

He donned a snowmobile suit and cross-country skis and made his way from his home in The Maples to McPhillips Street, where he hitched a ride to the legislature with a stranger plowing through the snow-blocked streets in a four-wheel-drive truck.

"He made it to the assembly when so many other members couldn't get in," recalls Mackintosh, a history buff who's written about Manitoba's legislature and its customs and traditions.

Kowalski, a police officer before being elected in the Maples, says he detested taking part in question period, preferring to work with constituents.

"I was ticked off we were having a sitting, that they hadn't cancelled," he says.

Inside the chamber, still in his snowmobile suit and without the requisite necktie, Kowalski rose and asked for leave (unanimous consent) to waive the dress code. It was granted, and he was allowed to remain, wearing his snowsuit unzipped and pulled down to the waist.

"It's the only time the dress code was waived, that I know of," says Mackintosh, who was deputy clerk of the legislature before being elected.

The dress code, he says, was reviewed in 1969 when an MLA was called out for wearing a turtleneck in the house. The member made a motion to get rid of the dress code but it was ruled out of order.

The rules committee then decided men were required to wear a suit jacket and a necktie in the house. It didn't bother with a rule for women.

Fontaine, who serves as NDP justice critic in addition to Opposition house leader, has never again worn her fashionable, though objectionable — at least to one member — outfit to work.

"There has to be a measure of professional attire, but there has to be flexibility," she says. "When people are supposed to look a certain way when they're doing their job, you'll inevitably leave someone out," she says.

In the middle of the largest health and economic crisis in a century, in a country struggling for reconciliation with its Indigenous people, discussing rules of dress for legislative assemblies may not be a priority but it is important, she reckons.

"I think legislatures have to be more reflective of all the people they're representing in the house," she says, adding the rules were set by generations of white men for white men.

"They were never meant for women or Indigenous people." she says.

 

 

 

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

   Read full biography