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

The first tree – a Sitka spruce – in the second phase of Fort Langley’s Memory Grove was planted on the morning of Thursday, Jan. 21. (Kurt Alberts/Special to the Langley Advance Times)
Second phase of Memory Grove planted at Fort Langley

The first trees started going into the ground on Thursday, Jan. 21

B.C. MInisterial Order 425 and the list of permitted exemptions to wearing face masks in retail businesses and other public spaces. (B.C. Government website)
LETTER: Langley newspaper criticized for doing story on maskless encounter

Local letter writer shares opinion on video of unmasked man in grocery store

Two schools in the Langley School District have reported COVID-19 exposures. (Joti Grewal/Langley Advance Times)
Two Langley schools added to COVID-19 exposure list

Public Health will only contact those who were exposed

Jessica Simpson speaking to Langley Township council as a delegate in 2019. (Township of Langley/Special to the Langley Advance Times)
Health privacy breach claimed by controversial Langley woman

Jessica Simpson is suing Fraser Health over an alleged breach in her health info

Construction on the main foyer at the soon-to-be opened Clayton Community Centre. (Photo courtesy of HCMA Architecture + Design)
Clayton Community Centre opening delayed again

City says Provincial Health Order reason for latest delay

Businesses continue to struggle under COVID-19 restrictions as the pandemic reaches the one-year mark. (B.C. government)
Another 564 COVID-19 cases, mass vaccine plan coming Friday

15 more deaths, community cluster declared in Williams Lake

Premier John Horgan leaves the podium following his first press conference of the year as he comments on various questions from the media in the Press Gallery at B.C. Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Monday, January 13, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Interprovincial travel restrictions a no-go, Horgan says after reviewing legal options

The B.C. NDP government sought legal advice as concerns of travel continue

Gem Lake Top, at Big White Ski Resort, seen at Jan. 8. (Big White Ski Resort)
Big White cancels $7.3M in lift tickets, accommodations due to COVID-19 orders

Since November, the ski resort has been forced to make several changes

Jan. 21 marks the 21st day of the 21st year of the 21st century, according to some. (Black Press Media file photo)
The 21st day of the 21st year of the 21st century is upon us

Milestone won’t be back for another 100 years

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Darlene Curylo scratched a $3M ticket, BCLC’s largest ever scratch and win prize. (BCLC)
Kelowna woman in shock after winning BCLC’s largest-ever instant-ticket prize

Darlene Curylo couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw the amount of money she’d won from a scratch ticket

While each person has different reasons for becoming homeless, a UBCO study shows they learn through their interactions with different services to perform ‘as homeless’ based on the expectations of service providers. (Contributed)
Kelowna homeless forced to ‘perform’ for resources, says UBCO study

One participant in the study said ‘It is about looking homeless, but not too homeless’

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette takes the royal salute from the Guard of Honour as she makes her way deliver the the throne speech, Wednesday, September 23, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand
Gov. Gen. Julie Payette resigns, apologizes for ‘tensions’ at Rideau Hall

Payette, who is the Queen’s representative in Canada, has been the governor general since 2017

Grounded WestJet Boeing 737 Max aircraft are shown at the airline’s facilities in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, May 7, 2019. WestJet will operate the first commercial Boeing 737 Max flight in Canada today since the aircraft was grounded in 2019 following two deadly crashes. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Passengers unfazed as WestJet returns Boeing 737 Max to service on Vancouver flight

After a lengthy review process, Transport Canada cleared the plane to return to Canadian airspace

Most Read