After more than a month of near-daily updates focused exclusively on Canada’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s remarks on Monday focused on the pain being felt by Canadians after the tragic shooting in Nova Scotia, as MPs came together to deliberate the future of parliamentary sittings.
Trudeau made no novel coronavirus aid updates, instead speaking solely to the violent crime spree that unfolded over the weekend. His remarks come the same day a limited number of MPs from all parties returned to the House of Commons where the news of the East Coast crime spree made for a sombre mood and saw all sides offering their condolences.
Trudeau said today is not the day for arguments in reference to the inability to find a consensus on the way forward for MPs, using his remarks to highlight 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 and I know that everyone will be looking for ways to demonstrate their solidarity without putting further at risk communities, first responders, our health professionals, and our seniors,” Trudeau said.
“We’re going to get through this together. I promise.”
A tenth of MPs are back on Parliament Hill on Monday after the weekend came and went without an all-party deal to adapt the House of Commons sitting in light of the national public health emergency.
The day’s proceedings got underway at 11 a.m. and debate has begun on the Liberal government’s proposal to hold one in-person sitting a week with limited staff and parliamentary services, and once the technology is in place, additional virtual sitting where MPs can question the government.
The New Democrats and Bloc Quebecois are on-side with the proposal, and it will come to a vote by day’s end. Already, the Conservatives have suggested an amendment, to add Tuesday in-person sittings as well.
If the motion passes — as it is expected to, given the number of MPs who are on-side — going forward, the House of Commons would not sit for the rest of this week. When sittings resume next week, there would be one in-person session each Wednesday; and once the technology is in place, there would be 90 minute virtual sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
These future sittings are being proposed to 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.
The flag on the Peace Tower is being flown at half-mast until further notice, in memory of the victims.
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 is 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.
So far, the Conservatives remain opposed to the government’s proposal, despite all other opposition parties coming on-side, saying the role of an opposition in a crisis moment is essential and will lead to better policy outcomes for Canadians.
During his morning remarks, outgoing Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer also offered his condolences and for the resumption of Parliament, Scheer offered no indication his party is willing to budge on their position.
“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 and other leaders have indicated they believe the Conservative approach is 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.
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.
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 his MPs will be focused on drawing attention to the real-life concerns top-of-mind for Canadians at this time.
Blanchet said in French that the current impasse makes elected federal officials look out-of-touch, and while the role of Parliament is essential, he thinks a new way of doing business can be found.