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Rota re-elected speaker as new Parliament kicks off with friction over vaccine mandate

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OTTAWA -

Friction over the new mandatory vaccination policy already was front and centre on Monday, with Parliamentarians back to work in Ottawa, making it one of the first issues re-elected House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota will likely soon be weighing in on.

Liberal MP Rota was elected as the first and main order of business Monday, in a secret and ranked ballot election. It’ll once again be his role to oversee the goings-on in the Chamber and act as the impartial adjudicator over all House business.

“Thank you again for the confidence that you have placed in me as Speaker for a second term. I am very honoured to be up here… I guess one of the good things of being Speaker is, I have probably upset both sides equally so I appreciate you,” the Nipissing-Timiskaming, Ont. MP said to laughter and applause, after beating out six other contenders for the role, which comes with a with a nearly $89,000 salary top-up.

The first day of the 44th Parliament saw a mix of new and re-elected MPs return to the House of Commons for the first time in five months, and two months after the 2021 federal election.

The energy was decidedly that of a first day at school, with colleagues excitedly greeting one another, some for the first time, and others potentially for the first time in-person in more than a year.

“I wish to remind members to keep their masks on at all times, and to practice social distancing,” Bloc Quebecois MP Louis Plamondon reminded his colleagues as he oversaw the Speaker election as five-time dean of the House, aka the MP with the longest continuous service.

In his first remarks of the 44th Parliament, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau congratulated all who were elected and said that Canadians “chose a Parliament that would work together to get big things done.”

“It is no small thing to build a better, stronger future. So, there will be moments where we will get caught up in heated debate,” Trudeau said in the chamber Monday evening. “When that happens we will have you, Mr. Speaker, to guide us back on track.”

'STATISTICALLY IMPROBABLE'

Monday was also the first day that new rules requiring anyone entering House of Commons and Senate buildings be fully vaccinated or have a valid medical exemption were in place, and the Liberals were quick to cast doubt on how the Conservatives are abiding by the policy.

The rules state that in order to enter Hill buildings, all MPs and their staff, as well as all others who work on the Hill, either have to be fully vaccinated or have a valid medical “contraindication.” In order to get inside, those with exemption have to show a recent negative test result to the House authorities who have been put in charge of confirming who is cleared to come onto the premises.

The Liberals, New Democrats, Greens, and Bloc Quebecois have all said their members are all fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

After Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said that his entire caucus would be able to take part in the opening day, the Official Opposition benches were nearly full on Monday, meaning that O’Toole’s MPs have either been vaccinated or have an exemption.

“Isn’t it wonderful to see a full chamber in the House of Commons?” O’Toole said Monday to applause from his benches.

The party continues to refuse to specify how many of its members fall into the latter category, with previous unconfirmed indications that approximately a “handful” of the caucus is unvaccinated.

“I understand there to be multiple members, that's how it has been categorized,” Government House Leader Mark Holland told reporters on Monday during a press conference in West Block.

“Let's be frank, from the chief medical officers of health, the likelihood that you have a medical exemption from a vaccination is one to five in 100,000. The Conservative caucus is 119 people. Statistically the likelihood that they would have multiple people who are exempt on that basis is extraordinarily low,” he said.

While speculating on the number of Conservative MPs with exemptions, as he said he does not actually know how many may be unvaccinated, he said “the math doesn’t add up.”

While one Liberal did have an exemption, that member has since been immunized, Holland said.

He’s now suggesting that the policy, which he championed and helped pass, may need reworking to ensure that the House administration is verifying medical exemptions based on a limited number of physician-supported reasons.

Holland said when the Board of Internal Economy decided on this policy earlier this fall, he didn’t expect many, if any, exemptions would be requested, and now the letters providing proof “may be insufficient.”

“The only thing that they can do is receive a letter saying that that the person has a medical exemption. They can't know what the nature of that exemption is, or whether or not it actually constitutes... a legitimate exemption,”Holland said in an interview on CTV News Channel's Power Play.

Responding to Holland’s comments, Deputy Conservative Leader Candice Bergen said he was “disparaging the House of Commons officials and medical experts tasked with overseeing the vaccination verification process.”

In outlining his key priorities for the new Parliament, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said that at a time with so many pressing issues, including the ongoing flooding disaster in British Columbia, the Conservatives’ handling of the vaccination policy is “a pretty huge indictment of their complete lack of priorities.”

“We know the evidence is really clear that if someone's not vaccinated, they pose a higher risk to other co-workers, the people that are with them. So yeah, absolutely it's a concern. I'm concerned not just about my MPs, I'm concerned about other MPs in the House, I'm concerned about workers, people that work in Parliament… that might have contact with some of these folks,” Singh said.

In a statement, Bloc House Leader Alain Therrien said that his party expects all members to be fully vaccinated and called on the Conservatives to be transparent about their statuses.

Further, Therrien said he welcomes the House conducting cross-checks of any exemptions offered by the Conservatives, whose members will be seated next to Bloc MPs in the Chamber.

“All throughout COVID, we have deferred to medical professionals, and when a physician grants a medical exemption, I think that we have to defer to their medical expertise,” said Conservative MP Michael Barrett on his way in to West Block on Monday.

With the Conservatives already indicating an intention to this week raise a question of privilege over the Board of Internal Economy’s decision to impose the House vaccine mandate, deciding on whether or not the current policy will stand or be modified in any way will likely fall on Rota, who oversaw the introduction of the rule in the first place, but has also been known to make rulings siding with the opposition in the past.

According to House officials, while it may be unorthodox to entertain a question of privilege before the opening motions are dealt with, it will be up to the Speaker to determine how quickly this issue could be raised and dealt with.

The deputy and assistant deputy speakers will likely be named in subsequent days, and generally are decided upon by consensus amongst the party leaders.

NO HYBRID SITTINGS, YET

Tied to the vaccine mandate, Holland also expressed frustration that after weeks of talks, no consensus has been reached to reinstate what’s supposed to be a temporary, COVID-19-necessitated hybrid sitting structure.

The government has the backing of the NDP in wanting to see the hybrid sittings resume, though both the Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois have said they are ready for a full resumption of in-person proceedings.

Without all-party backing, it’ll likely mean that a motion will have to be presented in the next few days that is debated and then voted on before members could resume participating and voting virtually from their ridings.

Holland said that with the Conservatives resisting reviving hybrid sittings, it could mean MPs will be disenfranchised from participating in-person if they have to isolate, as is the case with at least one Conservative this week: Beauce, Que., MP Richard Lehoux, who is fully vaccinated but tested positive for COVID-19 just days after attending an in-person caucus retreat in Ottawa.

“It's important for people to feel safe here, and it's frustrating to me that they would not provide that information and then say this place should be sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, force a vote with every member in the Chamber, and they're not even telling people what their status is,” Holland said. “That's not fair.”

Conservative spokesperson Josie Sabatino told CTVNews.ca that on Monday other than Lehoux, “any Conservative MPs not in the House of Commons are away due to reasons unrelated to COVID-19 or the HOC vaccine mandate.”

Barrett said that all caucus members who were in the meeting have been told to, and are following Ottawa public health guidance for COVID-19 exposures.

FEDS OUTLINE PRIORITY BILLS

The main event of the opening of a new Parliament is always the speech from the throne, which will take place on Tuesday afternoon in the Senate. There, Canadians will hear what Trudeau’s key priorities and commitments will be for the months ahead.

Many of the key issues facing parliamentarians in 2021 are the same as those that the previous Parliament was occupied with: The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and proper health and economic responses to it, affordability, Indigenous reconciliation, and climate change.

“This next chapter of our work together is about finishing the fight against COVID-19, taking bold action against climate change, investing in affordable and accessible child care for families all across the country, walking the path of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, supporting better health and mental health care, and so much more,” reads the latest Liberal fundraising email sent Monday morning.

This new minority Parliament’s makeup is quite similar to the previous minority Parliament, with Canadians sending back to Ottawa a near-identical number of MPs from each party as were elected in 2019, requiring the government to find allies across the aisle to help pass their initiatives.

The Liberals have a lot to get going on with just 20 days on the sitting calendar before the holiday break.

Holland told reporters Monday morning to expect a few key bills be tabled imminently, including: the anticipated extension of COVID-19 aid benefits and implementation of 10 days of paid sick leave for all federal workers; a new bill imposing criminal sanctions on those who threaten health care workers or medical facilities; as well as the long-promised ban on LGBTQ2S+ conversion therapy practices.

“I think with goodwill, all of the things that I've mentioned are possible in terms of adoption by the end of the Christmas period,” Holland said.

Singh said that while these priorities are also efforts the NDP support and will likely help to pass, they’ll still be looking for amendments to take certain promises farther.

“We're open to looking at ways to speed up the passage of bills that we agree with that will make life better for Canadians. So we're open to that, and we've got discussions that are ongoing with our House leader and our whip's office,” Singh said.

While the debate on the throne speech can take up to six days, it's up to the government to decide when they are allotted or whether all six will be used, meaning they don’t have to be consecutive. This means that bills could be tabled early this week and advanced even if debate on the throne speech has not concluded.

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