After serving for nearly four decades as a member of Parliament, New Democrat Stanley Knowles has come to be known as the “conscience of the House of Commons.” The 75-year-old MP is famous both as a dogged campaigner on behalf of the elderly, the poor and the unemployed and for his encyclopedic knowledge of parliamentary rules. During his long career Knowles three times rejected moves to make him Speaker of the Commons and he contemptuously dismissed offers of a Senate seat. After suffering a stroke in 1981, Knowles announced that he would not run in the next election. But Knowles will always have a job in the Commons. Last week Parliament, at the request of Prime Minister Trudeau, unanimously made the former United Church minister an honorary officer of the House with a seat permanently available for him at the Clerk’s table. Obviously moved by the gesture, Knowles violated the Commons’ rules, which forbid MPs from using names in the chamber (the “Honorable Member” or “Right Honorable Member” are the terms used), by calling Trudeau by name. “Pierre, Pierre,” said Knowles, “I want to thank you so much. You have given me a chance to live.”
Born in Los Angeles of Canadian parents, Knowles moved to Canada when he was 16 and obtained a divinity degree at Manitoba’s Brandon College, where T.C. (Tommy) Douglas, the future premier of Saskatchewan and later national leader of the NDP, was also a student. In 1942 Knowles won the riding of Winnipeg North Centre for the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, the forerunner of the NDP, and he has held the seat in all but one election—the 1958 Diefenbaker sweep. In Parliament Knowles’s persistent efforts helped to bring about improved old age pensions. “I have tried to make life a little easier for older people than it used to be,” said Knowles last week. “That has been the thing that I worked hardest on and that I am most pleased about.”
The position of honorary officer of the Commons has been awarded in Canada to retiring Clerks of the House— but never to a sitting member of Parliament. And Knowles clearly intends to continue to be useful when Parliament resumes after the next election. “Even if I cannot stand up and make speeches in Parliament, I can sit there and listen to the MPs and know what they are doing,” said Knowles. “I hope that by talking to people, I can make them work harder still.” He has already set the standard.
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