Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Chrystia Freeland looks for a seat as Minister of Finance Bill Morneaua and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wait for a session of the Special Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic to begin in the Chamber of the House of Commons in Ottawa, Wednesday May 13, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Chrystia Freeland looks for a seat as Minister of Finance Bill Morneaua and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wait for a session of the Special Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic to begin in the Chamber of the House of Commons in Ottawa, Wednesday May 13, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

COVID-19 dominates the rhetoric, and the reality, of MPs on Parliament Hill

In a pandemic Parliament, business is not going on as usual

Bright spotlights, metal girders and the stone backdrop of West Block’s interior courtyard give the temporary home of the House of Commons the feel of a movie set.

Perfect, some have observed, for the political theatre that usually unfolds on the floor.

On Wednesdays, it’s normally a raucous show.

The sitting always follows the weekly meetings of party caucuses and usually all 338 seats are filled with MPs ready to fire on all cylinders at their political foes.

In a pandemic Parliament, business is not as usual, though the hallowed institution is trying.

Around 20 MPs were present Wednesday for the latest COVID-19 era sitting of Parliament, this one called to deal with a bill to help the dairy sector.

They were scattered through the chamber like pieces on a checkerboard, respecting the physical distancing measures now in place countrywide.

Parliament, like much of the country, adjourned back in mid-March as the number of COVID-19 cases in Canada started rising.

READ MORE: NDP calls for universal sick-leave benefits as people return to work

On a table inside the House of Commons, a relic of those times: a dusty pile of paper copies of the projected order of business for Thursday, Mar. 12. It was the last full day before the pause. The centrepiece, a debate on an NDP motion concerning pharmacare.

The schedule, a procedural document, gives no hint of the anxious energy that was coursing through the halls power that day as the government — and Canadians — had no real clue of what lay ahead.

It would later become clear government action was needed, and that required new laws. Parliament has now been recalled three other times to pass aid packages creating billions in new spending and new support programs.

The Opposition demanded more. With so much money, and life-and-death decisions being made, they called for — and won — more oversight. They forced the creation of a special House of Commons committee that, among other things, provides an extended period for them to grill the Liberal government about its COVID-19 response.

That committee meets three times a week, virtually on Tuesday and Thursday, and in person, in that interior courtyard, on Wednesday.

So this Wednesday, a twofer: two-plus hours for the special COVID-19 committee, and then into the next sitting of Parliament.

COVID-19 dominates, in rhetoric and reality.

Gone are the pages who fetch water or pass notes between MPs, who must hand over necessary documents to the clerks themselves.

The heckles remain as the leaders face off with each other, but there’s no thunderous applause or thumping on the desks after every question or answer.

On Wednesday, Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, having finished a round of getting under the skin of Liberal Finance Minister Bill Morneau — some things do not change in politics — proffered a box of antibacterial wipes to fellow Tory MP Jag Sahota sitting several seats away.

Only one MP wore a mask: Conservative Scott Reid.

READ MORE: Trudeau not ready to talk about extending U.S. travel ban, even as deadline approaches

On the opposite side of the aisle, government House leader Pablo Rodriguez gave up what subtlety he’s deployed in the past to tap which Liberal will answer a question from the Opposition.

For one, with just a handful actually there, there are fewer choices.

But two — with his caucus mates spread out, a small hand wave might not work. So it was a gentle shout, startling deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland up from the paperwork she was reading on her desk a few rows over.

Some traditions have been preserved. The 2:30 p.m. eastern time sitting of Parliament began as all sittings do, with the Speaker’s parade.

The doors were thrown open with their usual pomp, as the sergeant-at-arms, carrying the mace, led the Speaker and clerks into the House.

But this day, their sharp and precise steps were taken two metres apart from one another, and fewer Commons’ officials joined the parade.

Also missing, the political or parliamentary staffers, throngs of media, herds of tourists and lobbyists who often end up squished against the walls as the parade marches by.

The bill before MPs Wednesday would let the Canadian Dairy Commission borrow $200 million more to finance purchases of more of the dairy products stuck on farms as demand for cheese, butter and milk has curdled.

READ MORE: China pushes back against efforts by Canada to get Taiwan access at WHO

Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau rose to speak to the need for the extra funds.

“We absolutely have to be there for our farmers, they are essential our food security and they deserve our full support,” she said.

She and the government have received constant criticism for not doing enough, or fast enough, for the agriculture sector.

Conservative agriculture critic John Barlow pointed out that upwards of $2.6 billion has been requested by farmers and ranchers and growers as they struggle with fallout from COVID-19.

Government support is nowhere near that level, he said.

“The farmhouse is burning down and the Liberal government is offering a bottle of water.”

In keeping with an expedited process now in place for COVID-19 response, the bill received a single day’s debate Wednesday before passing the House of Commons. The Senate will take it up Friday, when it is also expected to be dealt with swiftly.

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

CoronavirusParliament

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

People skate on a lake in a city park in Montreal, Sunday, January 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
The end of hugs: How COVID-19 has changed daily life a year after Canada’s 1st case

Today marks the one year anniversary of COVID-19 landing in Canada

Wet’suwet’en supporters and Coastal GasLink opponents continue to protest outside the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Thursday, February 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
‘We’re still in it’: Wet’suwet’en push forward on rights recognition

The 670-km Coastal GasLink pipeline was approved by B.C. and 20 elected First Nations councils on its path

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Employers might be able to require COVID-19 vaccination from employees: B.C. lawyer

‘An employer must make the case’ using expert science, explains lawyer David Mardiros

The COVID-19 outbreak at the two Coastal GasLink workforce lodges has officially been declared over. (Lakes District News file photo)
COVID-19 outbreak at Coastal GasLink worksites declared over

In total, 56 cases were associated with the outbreak in the Burns Lake and Nechako LHAs

Toronto-based director Michelle Latimer was recently scrutinized after years of claiming she was of Algonquin and Metis descent. (CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)
Haida activist calls for hefty fines, jail time against those who claim to be Indigenous

Filmmaker Tamara Bell proposing the Indigenous Identity Act – to dissuade ‘Indigenous identity theft’

British Columbia Health Minister Adrian Dix looks on as Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry addresses the media during a news conference at the BC Centre of Disease Control in Vancouver B.C. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)
B.C. announces 485 new COVID-19 cases, fewest deaths in months

‘The actions we take may seem small, but will have a big impact to stop the virus,” urges Dr. Henry

Royal B.C. Museum conservator Megan Doxsey-Whitfield kneels next to a carved stone pillar believed to have significance as a First Nations cultural marker by local Indigenous people. The pillar was discovered on the beach at Dallas Road last summer. Museum curatorial staff have been working with Songhees and Esquimalt Nation representatives to gain a clearer picture of its use. (Photo courtesy Royal BC Museum)
Stone carving found on Victoria beach confirmed Indigenous ritual pillar

Discussion underway with the Esquimalt and Songhees about suitable final home for the artifact

Former Vancouver Giants forward Evander Kane is seen here in Game 7 of the second round of the 2009 WHL playoffs against the Spokane Chiefs (Sam Chan under Wikipedia Commons licence)
Gambling debts revealed in details of bankruptcy filing by hockey star Evander Kane

Sharks left winger and former Vancouver Giants player owes close to $30 million total

Othman “Adam” Hamdan, pictured in front of Christina Lake’s Welcome Centre, was acquitted of terrorism related charges in 2017. He has been living in Christina Lake since November 2020. Photo: Laurie Tritschler
Man acquitted on terrorism charges awaits deportation trial while living in Kootenays

Othman Ayed Hamdan said he wants to lead a normal life while he works on his upcoming book

B.C. Premier John Horgan wears a protective face mask to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 prior to being sworn in by The Honourable Janet Austin, Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia during a virtual swearing in ceremony in Victoria, Thursday, November 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Premier Horgan calls jumping COVID vaccine queue ‘un-Canadian’

Horgan says most people in B.C. are doing their best to follow current public health guidelines

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, and Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart share a laugh while speaking to the media before sitting down for a meeting at City Hall, in Vancouver, on Friday August 30, 2019. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)
Vancouver mayor, Health Canada to formally discuss drug decriminalization

Kennedy Stewart says he’s encouraged by the federal health minister’s commitment to work with the city

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Downtown Fernie is pictured after a snowfall.

Most Read