OTTAWA — Members of Parliament will make history today as a few dozen of them gather in the House of Commons where they’ll be joined by the other 300-odd MPs participating via videoconference.
The new hybrid of in-person and virtual proceedings goes into effect after the NDP joined forces Tuesday evening with the Liberals to waive normal sittings for another four months while the country continues to grapple with the COVID-19 crisis.
Instead, they voted in favour of a government motion to continue with an expanded version of the special COVID-19 committee that has acted as a stand-in for the Commons over the past month.
The committee has been meeting twice a week virtually and once a week with a small group of MPs physically present.
Starting today, all special committee meetings will be a mix of virtual and in-person, with most MPs participating via big screens set up on either side of the Speaker’s chair.
And there’ll be four meetings each week, Monday to Thursday, until mid-June.
MPs will also meet twice in July and twice in August to question the government on its response to the crisis.
The Commons has been largely adjourned since mid-March, when the country went into lockdown to curb the spread of the deadly virus that causes COVID-19. It has met only briefly to pass emergency aid legislation and several times, including Monday and Tuesday this week, to come to agreement on how the chamber should function while the pandemic continues.
Conservative and Bloc MPs voted against the motion setting up the hybrid special committee format, arguing that it’s a poor substitute for the real thing, which gives them more tools with which to hold the government to account. They had wanted the Commons to resume normal operations, albeit with a reduced number of MPs in the chamber.
However, Liberals and New Democrats argued that normal Commons proceedings can’t resume until a way is found to allow MPs to vote electronically from remote locations. Until that happens, MPs who weren’t in the chamber would be prevented from voting, depriving them of their right to represent their constituents.
Tuesday’s vote gives MPs and Commons administration until Sept. 21, when the House is to resume, to come up with a solution.
The first session of the new hybrid proceedings is likely to be dominated by the horrific report on conditions in some Ontario long-term care homes, where COVID-19 has spread like wildfire.
The report was compiled by the military, which is helping battle the pandemic in five Ontario homes. It found people left in filth for weeks, others left on the floor where they had fallen, cockroach infestations, people choking while being improperly fed, patients with brutal pressure sores, and seniors pleading for help for hours to no avail.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the report “extremely troubling” and promised that the federal government will do whatever it can to help provinces improve conditions, while respecting their sole jurisdiction over long-term care facilities.
The issue is expected to dominate Trudeau’s weekly conference call with premiers later in the week.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 27, 2020.