Parties agree to mix of in-person, virtual House sittings in light of COVID-19 pandemic
OTTAWA -- After a day of debate made darker by the mass shooting in Nova Scotia, MPs have decided what the coming weeks of parliamentary session will look like amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Going forward until at least May 25, members of Parliament will hold one in-person sitting per week, supplemented by additional virtual meetings once the technology required to do so securely is in place, which is expected as early as next week.
The agreement on how the House of Commons is to conduct its business while respecting the measures needed to limit the spread of a respiratory virus that’s shut down societies worldwide was not unanimous but the government secured the majority of votes needed to make it so.
With Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam suggesting Parliament, “like other essential workplaces,” needs a plan to ensure physical distancing, proper hygiene and other infectious disease controls are in place, the Liberal minority government put a proposal on the table that received the backing of the New Democrats, Bloc Quebecois and Green Party. The Conservatives voted against the motion that spelled out how the sittings will be structured for weeks to come.
The agreement comes as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged the “heartbreaking year” 2020 has been so far, a comment made during a series of special tributes to the victims of the mass shooting in Nova Scotia, a tragedy that sent sombre shockwaves through what otherwise was poised to be an acrimonious gathering of MPs.
After more than a month of near-daily updates on Canada’s response and aid measures aimed at combatting the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, Trudeau’s morning address from Rideau Cottage made no new announcements. Instead, he focused on the sadness many Canadians are feeling on two fronts, with the loss of lives due to “senseless violence,” as Trudeau put it, as well as the still-growing number of COVID-19 cases.
“This is something that we are dealing with right now that is heartbreak on top of other heartbreaks,” Trudeau said, vowing that Canadians will get through it, even though they are physically apart.
As of late Monday afternoon, there were 36,777 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Canada, with 1,685 deaths.
A tenth of MPs arrived on Parliament Hill Monday where it was decided by a vote of 22 to 15 that, going forward, MPs will hold one in-person sitting a week on Wednesdays with limited staff and parliamentary services, and once the technology is in place, there would be 90-minute virtual sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays, where as few as seven MPs can question the government.
Liberal House Leader Pablo Rodriguez presented the motion at the beginning of Monday’s sitting, saying he thinks it strikes a responsible balance between allowing Parliament to play its role while respecting the public health limits given the current reality. He thanked the parties who supported it, saying the day was not one for partisanship.
The Conservatives had suggested an amendment, to add Tuesday in-person sittings as well, but that was defeated. A study is ongoing into how a more formal virtual convening of the House of Commons could be conducted.
Reacting to the proposal’s passage in an interview on CTV’s Power Play, outgoing Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said accountability can’t wait for the digital tools to be ready.
“One day is not enough in this cycle,” Scheer said to address the ever-evolving policy proposals being put forward.
“If ministers can go to the grocery store, ministers can provide briefings to the media every day… if all of that can happen then why not allow for the constitutionally-mandated institution that is designed to make sure that government’s get things right.”
These future virtual sittings will be held through a “Special Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic” that considers all 338 MPs members, and would centre its efforts on questioning the prime minister and members of cabinet as well as studying the latest policy proposals.
“On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the committee shall meet by videoconference and members shall participate by videoconference and on Wednesdays, the committee shall meet in the chamber and members shall participate in person, provided that meetings by videoconference shall be subject by such limits as the House administration may indicate are necessary,” reads the lengthy motion agreed to, in part.
MPs also agreed that all upcoming sittings will be televised; MPs can present documents during the virtual sessions and they will be deemed to have been tabled before the House; any future pieces of emergency legislation would be presented days in advance under embargo to opposition parties; and adjustments have been made to the fiscal supply period schedule.
In his Parliament Hill press conference Monday morning, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh spoke of how all Canadians are “reeling and grieving together,” before pivoting to discuss how his party was in favour of the government’s proposed House of Commons sitting schedule. Singh said in his view it allows enough time to pass any urgent legislation in-person, while allowing MPs to raise issues of their constituents and offer suggestions to the government to catch those falling through the cracks with a minimal health risk.
Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet said the average person doesn’t care much about what MPs are up to in Ottawa, nor is it his top interest at the moment either. He said in French that the impasse that lasted all weekend made elected federal officials look out-of-touch, and was confident the new way of working would work out.
During his morning remarks, Scheer also offered his condolences before restating his party’s desire for more in-person sittings. The role of an opposition in a crisis moment is essential and would lead to better policy outcomes for Canadians, as evidenced by the two emergency sessions to pass bills doling out billions of dollars in financial aid, Scheer said.
“If the NDP and Bloc Quebecois have joined forces with the Liberals to limit accountability, they can explain themselves to Canadians in the coming weeks. Conservatives believe in oversight and accountability. Millions of Canadians are going to work every single day to help their neighbours get through this pandemic, parliamentarians should be doing the same,” Scheer said.
Trudeau had indicated, as had other federal leaders, that the Conservatives’ desire for more in-person time was irresponsible given public health officials are asking as many Canadians as possible to stay home and adapt their work.
Some committees are already meeting virtually, though connectivity issues remain a concern. House Indigenous and Northern Affairs Committee will be joining the House finance, health, industry, human resources, government operations, and procedure committees in holding virtual meetings.
The House of Commons administration estimates that each day’s in-person sitting requires a minimum of approximately 55 staff to support MPs in areas including translation, procedural and security services.
The Senate announced Friday that it has decided to extend its adjournment period until June 2, barring any additional urgent recalls needed to pass further emergency legislation. It had initially agreed to suspend until April 21, but had since agreed to allow certain committees conduct teleconference or video conference meetings to study matters related to the COVID-19 crisis.
“This decision was taken as part of the Senate’s efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The Speaker will continue his consultations with Senate leadership as the situation unfolds,” said Senate Speaker George Furey in a statement at the time.
Further, on Monday the House of Commons administration decided that the shutdown of the West Block and precinct to visitors and tours, suspension of committee travel, and cancellation of all functions and events would remain in effect “until further notice.”