OTTAWA -- With the exception of possible emergency recalls to pass pressing legislation, Liberal, NDP and Green MPs voted Tuesday to suspend all regular sittings of the House of Commons until September. In their place will be a continuation of the special all-party COVID-19 committee, with four meetings a week until mid-June and then four special House sittings over the summer.

This decision comes after two days of debate featuring approximately 50 of the 338 MPs that ended with a vote of 28-23, with the Bloc Quebecois and Conservatives in opposition. 

The minority Liberals needed another major party to come onside to secure enough support to see their proposal for the structure of what remains of the spring parliamentary session, and they appeared to have done so by committing on Monday to push the provinces to develop a plan that would see all workers receive at least 10 days of paid sick leave. 

Going forward, the newly agreed to format will take a hybrid approach, with a limited number of MPs participating in-person inside the House of Commons in Ottawa, while the remaining representatives can log in and participate virtually from their ridings, appearing inside the Chamber on two large video screens. 

These meetings will be, for procedural rule and parliamentary privilege purposes, meetings of the special committee and not a meeting of the House of Commons. The number of meetings is increasing, up from three to four days a week. This means that until June 17, Monday through Thursday, MPs will get the chance to question the government on its latest COVID-19 efforts, or any other topic.. 

On June 17 the special committee will cease to exist, and MPs will meet in a moderated format in the Chamber to pass the next cycle of scheduled federal spending—otherwise known as the supplementary estimates or supply—to tie overall regular federal departments until the fall. 

The plan would also see MPs attend four additional special sittings over the summer— on July 8, July 22, Aug. 12, and Aug. 26— before remaining adjourned until Sept. 21.

One of the major limitations yet to be worked through, and contributing to the reasons why the government opposed resume regular sittings, is how to allow MPs to vote remotely. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cited this issue during his press conference on Tuesday, saying they are working on it. 

“Before we move forward on voting we want to try and make sure as much as possible that we are able to bring in remote voting… I think it would be important to ensure that Canadians across the country have an ability to make their voices and decisions heard in Parliament through that process,” Trudeau said. 

This question is one that the Procedure and House Affairs will be diving deeper into. Through the motion that passed Tuesday they are being asked to evaluate how a formal hybrid House of Commons session could occur, the rule changes required to allow that, and what it would take to implement a remote voting system. The committee has been given a June 23 deadline to report back to their colleagues. 

The government has argued that Parliament has continued to function through the pandemic, noting that under the new structure, the government has and will face more questions from the opposition than it would have under normal House sitting parameters.

However, the Conservatives—characterizing the special committee as essentially a knock-off of Parliament—wanted a more robust resumption of sittings that would have allowed for more accountability on the massive government policies being rolled out over the last two months while respecting the health and safety of all on Parliament Hill.

Over the last two days, Conservative MPs accused the Liberals of using the COVID-19 crisis to “shut down” parliamentary accountability, and the point was made that many of the usual functions of the House—including advancing private members’ bills and filing order paper questions—have been on pause for more than two months now with no plan in sight to resume those aspects of House business.

Until Tuesday, the Bloc Quebecois had appeared agnostic on the latest round of negotiations, then Yves-Francois Blanchet told reporters in French that while his caucus was prepared to support a unanimous agreement, the fact that what was proposed and ultimately passed did not have the backing of all, was in his view an improper shutting down of Parliament amid a crisis.

The House of Commons first adjourned its regular sittings in mid-March when MPs voted to suspend its work in an effort to limit the spread of the virus, as many other sectors of the country shut down. Since then there have been a handful of emergency sittings to pass pressing COVID-19 aid bills and deliberate how MPs could continue to legislate amid a pandemic that has forced the end of large gatherings. 

The Senate is currently suspended until June 2.