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

West Kootenay SAR crews rescue injured mountain biker near Rossland

Crews were called in to help after the biker seriously injured himself at around noon Saturday

City of Rossland looks to implement mail ballot voting

City said new procedure could make voting easier and more accessible for residents

Suspected fentanyl and cocaine seized during RCMP search in Castlegar

Two men were taken into police custody during the search warrant

Morning start: This is the fastest growing city in the Kootenays

Here is your Kootenays’ morning start for Monday, May 25

A second wave of COVID-19 is probable, if history tells us anything

B.C.’s top doctor says that what health officials have learned this round will guide response in future

Kelowna man charged with harming a hamster

The 20-year-old Kelowna man faces several animal cruelty charges

High tech fish transport system set up to ‘whoosh’ salmon past Big Bar landslide

Fish will spend roughly 20 seconds inside the system, moving at roughly 20 metres per second

Trudeau to seek 10 days of paid sick leave for Canadian workers, says talks are ongoing

Paid sick leave is key to keeping COVID-19 spread under control, prime minister says

Snowbirds jets will not be leaving Kamloops, just yet

The Snowbirds have been in Kamloops since May 17 when a plane crashed killing Capt. Jennifer Casey

COVID-19 checkpoints ‘up to them,’ Bonnie Henry says of remote B.C. villages

Support local tourism economy, but only if you’re invited in

Vancouver Island hasn’t seen a new homegrown case of COVID-19 in two weeks

Island’s low and steady transmission rate chalked up to several factors

Eight people arrested in Victoria homeless camp after enforcement order issued

Those living in tents were given until May 20 to move indoors

Most Read