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

Thirty-four unionized workers represented by MoveUp started rotating job action at VantageOne Credit Union's two Vernon locations Monday, Dec. 14, 2020. Workers are calling for basic job protection and fair security. (Jennifer Smith - Vernon Morning Star)
VantageOne staff urged to take tentative deal in Vernon

It’s been more than one month since union workers went on strike

A part-time staff member at Vernon’s Chartwell Carrington Place Retirement Residence has tested positive for COVID-19, the seniors home’s general manager said Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. (Chartwell photo)
COVID-19 case confirmed at Vernon seniors home

An employee at Carrington Place has tested positive; Interior Health is not declaring an outbreak

Vernon's Noric House long-term care facility is dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)
Vernon COVID-19 care home deaths now up to 13

Another member of Noric House has passed

Interior Health reported 91 new COVID-19 cases in the region Jan. 20, 2021 and three additional deaths. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)
95 new COVID-19 cases in Interior Health, two deaths

Another member of Vernon’s Noric House has passed

Robert Riley Saunders. (File)
Disgraced Kelowna social worker faces another class-action lawsuit

Zackary Alphonse claims he was not informed of resources available to him upon leaving government care

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

A specialized RCMP team is investigating a suspicious trailer, which might have connections to the illicit drug trade, found abandoned outside a Cache Creek motel. (Photo credit: <em>Journal</em> files)
Police probe U-Haul trailer linked to illicit drugs left outside Cache Creek motel

Hazardous materials found inside believed to be consistent with the production of illicit drugs

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

Kevin Lee Barrett is charged with attempted murder and aggravated assault. (Facebook)
Court hears of victim’s injuries in West Kelowna attempted murder trial

Two-week-long trial continues for Kevin Barrett, accused of trying to kill mother in West Kelowna

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

A mother hold hands with her daughter while sharing about her struggles with addiction during Overdose Awareness Day. (Jesse Major/Black Press file)
Overdose and suicide support group starts in Penticton

Penticton was one of the province’s communities hardest hit by the overdose crisis in 2020

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

The steel mills in the Hamilton waterfront harbour are shown in Hamilton, Ont., on Tuesday, October 23, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Dyer: Stay the course on Carbon pricing

Kristy Dyer has a background in art and physics and consulted for Silicon Valley

Voting is the number one, bare minimum way to have your voice heard by government. (File photo)
Jocelyn’s Jottings: Want to make change? Here are some suggestions

As a citizen you have a voice, you just have to know who to talk to

Most Read