Motion to Extend Hybrid Sittings to April 30, 2022, Adopted
March 31, 2022
Honourable senators, I rise to speak in support of Motion No. 28, and I do so on behalf of my Progressive Senate Group colleagues. On this issue we are unanimous. We support this motion and, in fact, we would support extending the motion until the end of June at this time.
However, we do agree to proceed with this motion as it is today, and wish to re-evaluate the COVID-19 situation and the hybrid measures again before the end of April.
Honourable senators, while I’m keen to return to fully in‑person Senate sittings and committee meetings, I’m also well aware that some senators are immunocompromised or have immunocompromised family members. We should be sympathetic to our more vulnerable colleagues who don’t feel comfortable participating in the chamber at this time. They don’t want to risk their health or the health of their loved ones.
We must also be cognizant that if we continue in a hybrid setting, we are better placed to have the infrastructure in place in the event of another wave. Ottawa’s Medical Officer of Health just yesterday warned that the level of COVID here in Ottawa is rising, with the level in waste water rising dramatically over the last two or three weeks. Dr. Vera Etches said in her special statement:
The pandemic is not over and we are currently experiencing another resurgence.
In my home province of Nova Scotia, 5 members out of 55 members of the legislative assembly now have COVID. The legislature is currently discussing a move to hybrid sittings, and there are concerns about it because it cannot happen instantly while the legislature is sitting.
Given these obvious warnings, we must keep in mind that it is easier to maintain hybrid until the end of June than it would be to convert back to hybrid if COVID cases rise significantly here in Ottawa or in our own provinces and territories.
Finally, I don’t think I am telling any secrets to say that many of us in this chamber are in the age group that is more susceptible to poor COVID outcomes than are members of Parliament. It is also interesting to me that the other place continues with their hybrid model until the end of June. Why shouldn’t we do the same here in the Senate?
Hybrid sittings, and settings, do not prevent anyone from attending Senate sittings in person. If a senator wants to be here, as most of us are, they can be. But an in-person-sitting-only environment, at this time, will certainly prevent some of our colleagues who are immunocompromised or who have immunocompromised family members from being able to fulfill their responsibilities as senators.
To be clear, hybrid sittings should not be a long-term occurrence. We all want to be in Ottawa in person with our colleagues, in this chamber and in committees. But I do not want to negatively impact the health and well-being of my colleagues or Senate staff to do so. I believe it is absolutely essential to remember that these decisions not only affect senators but our staff and Senate staff as well.
I will support the current motion, and I look forward to re‑evaluating the Senate’s position at the end of April. Thank you.
I would like to ask Senator Cordy a question, if she’d take one.
Senator Cordy, you asked why we should not follow the House of Commons in continuing hybrid until the end of June. I would say to you that the problem we have in the Senate is that, unlike the House of Commons, we clearly do not have the adequate resources to support our committees while we’re in the hybrid mode. You understand that those resources are interpreters, technical operators and camera operators. That limits us to one committee meeting per week.
So I would like to ask you this: Would you agree that until we get adequate resources to allow our committees to do the important work that Senate committees do, we should not be embracing the hybrid motion because it’s crippling our ability to do our committee work?
Thank you very much. You raise a really good point.
We all would love to be sitting in our committee meetings. For those of us who normally sit twice a week, it’s now down to once a week. We all understand.
But you also have to recognize that a number of our staff have developed COVID as a result of working in circumstances with a lot of people around. We know there are senators who have contracted COVID, whether that’s in the Senate Chamber, getting on an airplane and flying to Ottawa or whether it’s when they’re at home. We don’t know that, and it’s very challenging to figure out where the contacts have come from when you’ve been on an airplane, in an airport or even in the Senate Chamber as a whole.
It would be great if committees could sit twice a week, but I don’t go back on what I believe, which is that we should, at least until the end of June, maintain hybrid. I’m willing to support this motion, but I think it should be the end of June when we could better make an evaluation. We should, in fact, go along with the House of Commons — and I don’t often say that. However, in this case, I believe the motion should be until the end of June.
Would the senator take a question?
Thank you for your speech, Senator Cordy. As some of you may know, in the month of March alone, there have been 23 cases of COVID in the Parliamentary Precinct: 12 in the Senate family, 7 in Parliamentary Protective Service and 4 in Public Services and Procurement Canada.
As we all know, the Parliamentary Precinct pretty much operates in an integrated fashion, so when cases are compiled and reported they include all of those I just mentioned, including, of course, employees of the House.
Given this integration, senator, do you think it would make sense for the Senate to transition back to in-person sittings before the House does? Would this not just simply be increasing the risk, not only for ourselves but for the entire precinct?
I absolutely agree that it would be best if we followed the House in this matter and that we ought to continue hybrid until the end of June.
The numbers you’ve presented to us today are not surprising, but they are startling. They certainly give one cause to pause. They suggest that if you wish to be here in person, you can be in person, but if you are immunocompromised or if you are really nervous about going to an airport and flying, then you can certainly fulfill your functions as a senator via the hybrid model.
I spoke earlier and told you that five MLAs in Nova Scotia have COVID, and that’s out of 55 members of the legislature. In Nova Scotia, the Conservative Premier Tim Houston said:
We’re in a pandemic and you’ve got to be willing to roll with it. . . . Very strongly in favour of a hybrid session to make sure that every voice, every Nova Scotian has a chance to be heard through their MLA.
And I would say the same thing would be true in Ottawa Every senator has the responsibility to work on behalf of their constituents in their provinces, and every senator should have the ability to do that in the middle of a pandemic. The numbers that I’m seeing — and my staff in working on this looked at the numbers — are rising, whether we like it or not. It’s a pandemic, and I think we should follow the House of Commons and make our situation hybrid until the end of June.
Having said that, I will support this motion, but my wish would be that it would be until the end of June. I look forward to revisiting this at the end of April and making adjustments if they are necessary at that time.
Senator Cordy, you will take another question, I hope?
Yes, I will.
Thank you very much. I want to indicate that I agree with everything you’ve said, including the comments that most of us want to get back to in-person sittings and two committee meetings a week.
I’m concerned that, even without hybrid sittings, our resources are very stretched. One of the things that concerns me is that there is a cyclical argument of, “We’ll go to April, and then after that, maybe to June.” There is a hope being held out that we may, within the next couple of months, fix this problem of resources.
I wonder if you could tell me if you would support an initiative where we sit down with the Standing Senate Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration, attempt to seriously address these issues and not wait until we know if we’re coming back to a full sitting or not. Thank you.
Thank you very much for that. I couldn’t verbalize it any better than you’ve already done. I think it’s really important. Resources were stretched before COVID, and they’re stretched now. Our office staff and the Senate staff have been going above and beyond, and I’m sure that exhaustion sometimes leads you to be more vulnerable to picking up COVID, colds or flu when you’re exhausted. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Senate staff and our office staff for going above and beyond.
You have raised a really good point that maybe we should have a working group looking at resources. We’re looking now, and Senator Gold gave us the numbers of people within our institution who have been getting COVID. However, we should certainly look at it and see where we need people and where we have to hire more staff. Thank you very much for raising that.
Would Senator Cordy take one more question?
Senator Cordy, you mentioned that the hybrid sittings allow those who are immunocompromised to fulfill their responsibilities and take part in the chamber. You’ve talked about the hybrid continuing until the end of June. I certainly agree with that, especially at a time when direct flights from our cities have not yet been put back in place. I’m from Winnipeg. Mine is not going to be back in place until June. That increases the occasion for some of us, as I have, to contract COVID. The hybrid sitting has allowed me to take part this week. I would not have otherwise, though I’d much rather be in the chamber, as you know.
Would you agree that hybrid sittings allow those who do contract COVID to continue to be active in chamber deliberations?
Yes, I did speak about those who are immunocompromised. I did not speak about those who may have contracted COVID and who are able to still take part by sitting at home and not going out of their house to spread it. Provided they’re not in a serious condition, bedridden or even in the hospital, they are still able to sit in a room in their house and take part.
You spoke about the lack of direct flights. I think all of us who have to fly to get here understand that. Flying to Nova Scotia used to be very easy with a choice of five or six direct flights a day. Now there are two direct flights a day. If I wait until the next day, it’s either 6 a.m., which doesn’t lead to a very productive day when I arrive at home — and that’s not a direct flight — or getting home late on Friday afternoon and heading back to Ottawa either on Sunday night or Monday morning.
I’ve spoken to one person who has to take three planes to get to Ottawa and could probably drive faster to Ottawa if she wished to do so. You’re absolutely right. There are a lot of things happening during the pandemic times and lack of convenient flight times would certainly be one of them. Thank you for raising that.
Honourable senators, I rise today to speak in opposition to this motion to extend the Senate’s hybrid parliamentary sittings to April 30, 2022.
As you may know, I have opposed similar proposals for conducting virtual and hybrid parliamentary business in the past. Frankly, I don’t think a virtual connection between senators is sufficient for adequately handling the magnitude of issues Parliament deals with every day — refugees fleeing from war‑torn Ukraine or Afghanistan, assisted suicide, the Emergencies Act.
As parliamentarians, we are called to come together in this place at the heart of Canada’s very democracy to debate the issues that matter most to Canadians. For us to be here, in person, matters. Our senatorial duties aren’t something we should fit in around the edges of our own lives — something to which we log on or off. Our primary responsibility should be to represent the interests of our respective regions in the legislative process. To do that, I think it’s important to stand up and make our voices heard.
This motion is indicative of a Senate parliamentary bubble that doesn’t reflect real life in Canada. Let me preface my comments by saying that I am proudly triple vaccinated, and I have promoted this widely on my social media. But at this point in time, every province has either dropped their vaccine mandates or has a plan to do so. Still, this federal Trudeau government obstinately refuses to drop the federal vaccine mandates or even plan for it.
With this motion, the government signals that it intends to keep this chamber under the boot of hybrid Parliament just a little while longer. As we’ve seen, a dull Parliament conducted by Zoom is much less likely to spark public and media interest, which is advantageous to a government keen to avoid transparency and accountability.
This motion is weak on any commitment to returning to in‑person Senate sittings. It reads:
That the Senate commit to the consideration of a transition back to in-person sittings as soon as practicable in light of relevant factors . . .
The Senate should “commit to the consideration of a transition”? I could “commit to the consideration of a transition” into a Winnipeg Blue Bombers fan, but it doesn’t mean I will. Such a wide-open phrase commits the government to absolutely nothing.
The reality is that most people don’t have the luxury of dialling in remotely to work. For months, Canada has been asking Canadians to work while still being as safe as they can. Cleaners, health care workers, mechanics, farmers, wait staff, first responders and truckers are just some of the people who have worked in person throughout this pandemic to support the public. And, honourable senators, as public servants — quite literally servants of the people — senators should be on that list too.
But that hasn’t been the case, has it? On top of the unnecessary election Prime Minister Trudeau called, we’ve been in virtual sittings for the past 18 months. We’ve had hamstrung committees that can only do half as much work as normal because of Zoom broadcast scheduling problems and frequent suspensions in the chamber due to technological problems at one end or the other. All of these interruptions and obstacles ultimately chip away at our democracy.
Because of challenging personal circumstances during the pandemic, many senators have not been coming in person to Ottawa at all. I haven’t seen some of my Senate colleagues for two years. This loss of informal, in-person communication between senators at committee or in the halls hampers not only political strategy but also the collegiality, communication and cooperation between senators. Previously, I have actually convinced other senators to vote with me on initiatives just as the whips were heading down the aisle before a vote, something that is just not as possible under a hybrid system.
Other COVID safety measures could have been employed in the Senate Chamber, which would have allowed us the freedom to safely social distance while still gathering in person for chamber sessions. These included measures like plexiglass dividers or speaking from a more distanced corner of the chamber or gallery, for example.
At times, when the Speaker himself has to attend the chamber by Zoom, the disadvantages of a hybrid system are quickly made apparent. He is unable to see the full chamber in detail and thus can’t see if a senator is rising in the chamber or if someone is trying to get his attention.
One of the biggest drawbacks to a hybrid Senate system is the impact it has on our parliamentary interpreters. This is an ongoing major problem, and it’s one I’ve voiced at the Internal Economy Committee and in the chamber. Hybrid Parliament has had very detrimental health implications for these employees, especially given the varying quality of audio equipment used by senators and witnesses in the chamber or at committees.
Furthermore, the limited number of qualified interpreters in the National Capital Region, plus a higher demand for their services, means an increased level of work overload and burnout. It is unfair that we expect interpreters to shoulder this increased burden at a risk to their own personal health so that senators can attend by Zoom from the comfort of their homes.
Furthermore, as a detailed House of Commons report found last year, hybrid sittings required double the number of employees in general to run, compared to an in-person sitting of the House. The argument that hybrid Parliament is better for staff simply doesn’t hold water.
Also, Ottawa’s vaccination rate is one of the highest in the country. The Senate already has a vaccine mandate as a precondition for employment or even attending at the Parliamentary Precinct. Yet, rather than those measures providing an additional measure of freedom within the Senate in the last several months, our restrictions have tightened. Now we not only have to wear a mask in the chamber, even at our seat, and sit six feet apart, but until recently we were expected to wear a mask while speaking in the chamber. This is different than the House of Commons where they have always been able to remove their mask to speak.
Of course, the Senate has continued to adhere to this masking policy even though the Province of Ontario recently removed its provincial mask mandate.
Meanwhile, Ottawa’s downtown is a ghost town. The streets in front of Parliament Hill are still locked down to vehicular traffic, weeks after the convoy left. No one seems to be able to explain why; it’s just one more of those infuriating details of life in a bureaucratic city. It seems every week another long-time small business is closing, no longer able to withstand the absence of its usual clientele.
What is the plan for reopening in this chamber, this precinct and in the streets surrounding us in the National Capital Region? We can’t live this way forever. It’s not good for Parliament, and it’s certainly not good for the Canadian economy.
Recently, the Senate circulated a notice announcing the easing of restrictions throughout the Senate and parliamentary buildings. That memo noted that only 25% of the Senate Administration workforce would be returning to the office by mid-April. There were no other indications about ramping up back-to-work plans beyond that.
Meanwhile, the Senate budget for the upcoming fiscal year has ballooned to $122 million, a sum that has continued to increase despite the fact that we have had two years of a pandemic, a significant portion of senators are not travelling back and forth to Ottawa, and we currently have 15 senatorial vacancies.
Other businesses and organizations have had to make difficult and often gut-wrenching decisions about layoffs and cutbacks because of this pandemic. Yet the Senate Administration has added employees; they and we have not lost one paycheque throughout this pandemic. It seems like everyone else in the country has a back-to-work plan. Why not the Senate?
The motion says the Speaker will only extend the hybrid Senate further after consultation with the other leaders and facilitators in the Senate. My question on that is, is that the Trudeau government’s patented brand of consultation? A phone call just before the emailed press release goes out?
One of the primary reasons I am opposed to extending the hybrid Senate is the Trudeau government’s penchant for using it to try to avoid accountability. This government has pumped billions of dollars in spending through this Parliament during this pandemic, ramming it through the Senate in brief hearings in Committee of the Whole, rather than holding the usual intensive Senate committee studies. With Committee of the Whole, a Trudeau minister or two appear for one or two hours, with no other witnesses, to give rambling responses that don’t directly answer even the most basic of questions. It’s unequivocally bad Parliament, and it impairs the ability for opposition, in fact, all parliamentarians, to hold the government accountable.
How many times throughout this hybrid Parliament have we seen the Leader of the Government in the Senate refuse to even deliver a speech on government bills and motions that they want passed lickety-split through this chamber? He’s even waived his right to speak on this motion, which also denies the rest of us the opportunity to question the government on this important issue.
There is no excuse, honourable senators. None. The Senate government leader has a budget of $1.5 million and a staff of up to as many as 15 people, plus the massive resources of the Government of Canada to draw upon to do his work. As the Leader of the Government in the Senate, he owes the people of Canada at least the respect of doing that job.
We saw it again this Tuesday with the government’s deputy leader in the Senate, who introduced two major government supply bills, worth tens of billions of dollars each, but then did not speak to either one at second reading. When I asked her how much money each bill would cost, she had to pause and look it up, saying she wasn’t expecting any questions. Why not? This is about government accountability. This Trudeau government treats Parliament like background noise to be muted and managed, and in that worldview, dialling it in by Zoom is good enough governance. But Canadians deserve better, honourable senators, and the Senate of Canada is not just a rubber stamp. We must not allow this chamber to be treated like one.
Hybrid Parliament is terrible for accountability, and it has also had an awful impact on Senate committees. First, because of the lack of parliamentary and broadcasting resources, Senate committees can generally hold only about half as many meetings as they would normally. For example, I looked up the committees I have been affiliated with in the past. Since April 1, 2021, the Legal Committee met only 14 times; the Rules Committee, only 7 times; and the Standing Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration — the committee that governs budgetary affairs for the entire Senate — sat only 9 times in the whole year. During regular, in-person sittings, Internal Economy would generally meet nine times in only about three months.
Senate committees have traditionally been known as the vehicle to showcase some of the Senate’s finest work — careful, measured, in-depth research and study on issues affecting Canadians. Instead, during this pandemic, committees have often been restricted to meeting once a week. The number of witnesses who can appear at meetings have been limited as well. Senate committees, therefore, bear the negative consequences of these limitations.
Throughout the pandemic, the Senate has been treated like the junior partner of the House of Commons regarding broadcasting time and equipment. The House of Commons was continually prioritized over the Senate; yet this was something that the Senate apparently agreed to, throughout.
Since almost the very beginning of the pandemic, the House of Commons has always had hybrid committee meetings. Almost right from the start, the House had committee meetings operating at nearly 100% normal capacity for almost the full pandemic. Meanwhile, at points, the Senate was forced to have only virtual committee meetings because of a lack of resource capacity. The Senate has had to continue to make do with the leftover scraps.
The Senate and the House of Commons are equal but complementary chambers of Parliament. We should not be continually forced to sacrifice our parliamentary work for the benefit of the House of Commons. The Senate should be returning to in-person committee meetings as soon as possible, not extending this hybrid deadline once again.
Honourable senators, I think we need to think critically about the effect hybrid Parliament has had not only on our committees but on Parliament, on this Senate Chamber and on us as parliamentarians. Does hybrid Parliament serve the best interests of the Canadian public in Parliament? Is this government becoming more open, transparent and accountable under a hybrid system, or has it become a convenient system for shoving spending through Parliament quickly without too much pesky opposition interference?
I fear the Trudeau government views it as the latter. And I, for one, do not want to stand by and watch that happen. I certainly won’t accede to it. That’s why I plan to vote against this motion to extend hybrid Parliament. We need to return to work in person and at full capacity, honourable senators. We should be standing here, in our places, for the people of Canada. Thank you.
Honourable senators, I rise today to give voice to concerns that I know many senators in this chamber have. I have always said that the Senate does its best work in committee. However, our good work is being hampered by the continuation of the hybrid format.
This was the crux of my question to Senator Marwah last week. I’m sure that many a steering committee has also been frustrated by the lack of resources causing severe limitations on timing and committee schedules.
I have the privilege of sitting on two steering committees, and I know well that my steering committee colleagues share my frustration.
I know that this motion will pass today, but as the leaders of the various groups debate whether we will further extend it past April 30, I want to put some important points on the record that I hope will help with our deliberations.
Today alone, 13 committees are meeting in the other place, colleagues. The Senate had three committees meeting today.
While the other place has been able to add meetings and even create two new committees, we are lucky if we get one meeting each week. Why is there such a gap between the resources available in the House versus the Senate?
Well, the first issue we must confront is that some of the much-needed resources we use every day during our committee meetings are not Senate resources but resources from the other place, with whom we have a memorandum of understanding to borrow staff, such as TV booth operators, multimedia system operators and interpreters.
According to the Canadian Association of Professional Employees, CAPE, which is the union representing interpreters, we have 25% less translation capacity than we did pre-pandemic. The main reason for this is stress and illness.
Both CAPE and the International Association of Conference Interpreters have called for a return to in-person meetings in order to safeguard the safety of interpreters. Despite best efforts — and I think we’ve all experienced this — jarring jumps in volume for remote participants in meetings has led to hundreds of injuries since the start of the pandemic, with at least one interpreter suffering an auditory concussion. I have to admit that I had never heard of that particular injury before.
During a March 3, 2022, committee meeting of the House Board of Internal Economy, Translation Bureau Chief Executive Officer Lucie Séguin and House Chief Information Officer Stéphan Aubé both reaffirmed the negative impact that hybrid sittings have on translation staff. Mr. Aubé was clear that, “the more participants are in person, you’ll see a reduction of incidents.”
With the shortage of translators, Senate committees are placed lower in the priority list as, according to the MOU, preference must go to the House. This affects not only those translators who provide simultaneous translation, but also translators in our Translation Bureau. The result — and I think we are all familiar with this in our committee work — has been massive delays in our ability to translate transcripts and written submissions, which has the domino effect of delaying the ability of the Library of Parliament to deliver on briefing notes and reports. It has also forced committees to place word limitations on written submissions, which I think is patently unfair to witnesses who are now faced with condensing their submissions at the expense of important testimony for committee consideration.
The delay in translation of transcripts and written submissions is unacceptable. It either results in senators needing to wait an inordinate amount of time before receiving critical information, particularly when it relates to consideration of a bill, or it forces a situation where senators must first receive the submission in its original language in order to have it considered as part of the testimony. In some cases, the translated version is not received until days later. Colleagues, this is an infringement on every senator’s right to conduct business in their official language of choice.
Leaving aside translation troubles for a moment, when reviewing the Senate Committees Directorate Activities and Expenditures Annual Report 2020-21, I was shocked to learn about the savings that hybrid has provided for committees.
Where we once used to pay up to $5,000 for witnesses appearing by teleconference, which often requires renting a studio, we discovered Zoom as a way to have witnesses appear remotely for the cost of a $100 headset. Remote participation also saves us the need to pay for travel, lodging and per diems of witnesses. It is estimated that this has resulted in savings of at least $450,000 over the past year.
Why, then, honourable senators, are we not using that money to hire our own TV booth operators and multimedia operators? Why are we not putting that money towards more interpreters?
With the greatest of respect, I believe that the statement of the Chair of the Internal Economy Committee, the Honourable Senator Marwah, in answer to my question on this same issue last week — namely, that these vital services are, as he put it, in the purview of the other place — is not acceptable.
Let the Senate be the master of its own house. We must proactively seek ways to ensure that the important work of our committees is not hampered. We need to ensure that our committees are properly resourced. At the very least, I submit that we should be redirecting the money that we save on in‑person witnesses and senators’ travel to ensure that we have the necessary staff in‑house to hold meetings more than once a week. We need to eliminate the limitation that we can have only two committees sitting at a time.
Finally, colleagues, I want to talk about the impact that hybrid has on our privileges. Poor connectivity and strict time limitations have led to no time for senators to ask questions and to some witnesses needing to be cut short in both their presentations and answers to senators. Where we once could count on a potential second round, senators are lucky if they get a single question on the record.
When I moved an amendment in committee relating to Bill C-12, connectivity problems resulted in my not being able to complete the defence of my amendment within the limited time available to the committee. This cannot be allowed to continue.
If we do decide to extend hybrid beyond the end of April, I contend that we must only do so if we have worked and made progress to address the significant concerns I have identified here today. Thank you.
Senator Patterson, Senator Dupuis has a question for you. Would you take a question?
Thank you, Senator Patterson. I agree with you that there is a time problem and that the committee meetings are problematic as well. If I understood what you said, the cause of these problems is the service agreement the Senate has with the House of Commons, to which we have given priority for all business, whether in the House or its committees. We are disadvantaged because of this agreement. The problems we have in finding interpreters and finding time for committee meetings are due to this agreement, which does not benefit the Senate, rather than to the fact we are holding hybrid sittings. Did I understand you correctly?
Thank you for the question. The agreement exists in the context of hybrid meetings and it disadvantages us because of the demands on staff of hybrid meetings. I believe that, through these debates, our Committee on Internal Economy will be inspired to utilize some of the available resources from savings resulting from hybrid sessions to provide our committees with the necessary resources so that they can continue to do the work, notwithstanding the limits of the service agreement with the House of Commons.
All I am saying is that since there appears to be a movement to continue hybrid even beyond April, let’s get our committees working adequately to address this problem within the Senate’s own resources and not rely on the service agreement. Thank you.
Honourable senators, I will be brief, but I do want to put my comments on the record.
I support extending hybrid sittings to the end of April. Tomorrow is April 1. If we extend to the end of April, it will give people a chance to transition to regular sittings on May 1. I would support reverting to regular sittings on May 1 and that hybrid not be extended beyond the end of April.
I have to say that hybrid sittings are a benefit. I live in the easternmost part of the country. We don’t have direct flights. The best bet to get to Ottawa is the 5:20 a.m. flight, so you have to get up at 3 a.m. You don’t know when you’re going to get home again because flights are often delayed or cancelled. I’m very familiar with the Sheraton at the airport in Toronto and also the Marriott in Montreal, because cancellations are not something that is unknown to me.
It is horrendous to travel, so the hybrid sittings have been a benefit. However, when I look at the Senate and our work, I think that it has had a devastating impact on the Senate. It certainly has had a devastating impact on the Finance Committee. We just finished speaking about that when we discussed Bill C-15 and Bill C-16. We have one regular sitting a week now for the Finance Committee, and it is same for the Banking Committee.
We need more. How can we in the Finance Committee provide oversight of government spending when we are so limited in our meeting times? I think that we really do need to revert to our regular sittings.
The other issue that concerns me is sometimes I feel as if we are in a bubble in Ottawa. When you look at people in the private sector — I have family members and a lot of friends who work in the private sector — they are all returning to their regular work schedules. Employers are having welcome back events for their employees. The government is supporting opening the economy again. We’re not setting a very good example by continuing to look at extending our hybrid sittings.
That is the basis of my comments. I will support extending the hybrid sittings until the end of April, but I would prefer that we revert to regular sittings May 1 so that we can do our work as parliamentarians. Thank you.
Honourable senators, I don’t support this motion. As you have heard, it’s clear that our chamber and committee work are less effective when we’re not in person. I recognize the comments from Senator Marshall and agree to some extent. It is convenient to be at home, but our job is here. When we took the job, we knew that was the circumstance.
Most of us are vaccinated, have the booster and wear masks. I’m at a loss as to how this place is so much riskier than a supermarket, a school or a hockey rink where thousands gather with no masks, distancing or vaccine provisions.
We have been told, colleagues, for two years that we have to trust science and listen to the experts. Senator Cordy now asks us not to listen to the experts who have advised the policy-makers that the restrictions will have no effect, but instead to listen to the House of Commons, which I find more than baffling. It defies logic, common sense and the good practices that we should be undertaking here in the Senate.
I am pleased to add my two cents to the debate on this motion. I rise to share the reasons why I am opposed to this motion, whose primary objective is to extend the hybrid sittings of the Senate until the end of April. As I have heard in some speeches, I’m sure that the next step will be to extend the hybrid sittings until the end of June or maybe even until fall.
Throughout North America and in most Canadian provinces, reopening has begun and life is going back to normal. We are seeing the consequences of the federal government’s decisions to shut down the Canadian economy and even impose restrictions on society as a whole. On Parliament Hill, we are one of the last organizations to resist the return to normal life. There is no scientific or medical basis for this confinement.
We are even seeing contradictions that defeat all arguments for maintaining and extending the hybrid model for parliamentary work. For example, if your offices are in the Chambers building, you are not required to wear a mask. However, if you are in the Victoria building, wearing a mask is mandatory. Is there scientific evidence that supports this decision? I don’t see any.
Here’s another example of how little sense this makes: If you go to the Tim Hortons on Sparks Street, you don’t have to wear a mask to pick up your order. However, if you got to the cafeteria in the Wellington Building, you must wear a mask. Once again, where is the science in all this?
This sterile dome, as I call it, that we’ve erected over Parliament Hill is symptomatic of how the public sees us, because it gives ordinary people the sense that we are separate from their reality. A few kilometres from Parliament, the Canadian Tire Centre can accommodate over 20,000 people, none of whom are required to wear a mask, while here parliamentarians maintain social distancing criteria that are utterly out of touch with reality.
Worst of all, maintaining a hybrid Parliament has resulted in months of persistent inefficiency within the Senate and has prevented us from doing thorough work because we have so little time to pass important bills. Hybrid mode does nothing to counter the Canadian public’s cynicism about the purpose of the Senate and whether Canada even needs it.
Our hybrid sessions require twice the resources to manage in‑person and online attendance, and committee meetings are time‑limited, which makes us inefficient and contributes to the public’s sense that the Senate’s work is useless.
I am thinking of the Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, which can only meet for two hours a week, when it used to have six hours for meetings. At the current rate of business and with that committee’s heavy workload, we will once again leave very important legislation to die on the Order Paper when the next election is called in three years’ time.
Some of these bills deal with matters of life and death. My bill on domestic violence comes to mind. While many countries are adopting measures to save the lives of abused women, here we are reflecting on how we are going to manage Senate business. We clearly have a poor definition of the word “priority.”
Senator Gold has not convinced me of the merits of maintaining our hybrid sessions. Rather, he has convinced me that he is a faithful messenger of this government, which, for several months, has been doing everything it can to prevent the democracy that forms the basis of our political system from returning to Parliament Hill, where it belongs, for the good of and out of respect for all Canadians.
The risk with this motion is that after April 30 we will find more excuses to keep this chamber in hybrid mode, and we will perpetuate the unacceptable work model of the past two years. This institution costs Canadian taxpayers nearly 100 million dollars a year. Many of these taxpayers find it difficult to make ends meet and are facing an alarming rate of inflation without being able to do anything about it.
Esteemed colleagues, we are more than privileged to be senators, and we had a lighter workload over the past two years because we were not required to meet in person. This situation must come to an end as soon as possible, and we must resume working at a pace that reflects our responsibilities so as to achieve the best results that Canadians expect from each one of us and from our institution.
Honourable senators, for two years I was always here in person. I never felt that my health was at risk, and I think the risk is even lower now, as deaths and hospitalizations have decreased. I know that some of you may have medical restrictions that would prevent you from being here in person. For that reason, I believe that absences must be the exception and authorized in advance, as they were before 2020.
I will be voting against this motion because Canadian taxpayers ask this of us and have every right to do so. I have a deep respect for them, and I have taken my duties very seriously since my appointment in 2010. I expect every senator to do the same.
I will conclude by stating that all of us want this chamber to gain credibility in the eyes of Canadians, and I know that you are doing everything in your power to that end. The next step is to return to the in-person model starting next week. Thank you.
Honourable senators, I rise today to share my thoughts on the government motion to extend the hybrid sittings of the Senate.
On March 13, 2022, we entered the third year of a devastating and deadly pandemic. Societies all around the world were plunged into turmoil and ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Canada was no exception, and our health care system was hit extremely hard as the virus spread like wildfire. I want to take a moment to acknowledge the women and men who, day after day, took in and then cared for thousands of Canadians who needed urgent and essential care. Our health care system cracked but did not collapse thanks to the dedication of these health care workers. I have the utmost respect for them.
Unfortunately, esteemed colleagues, another system was compromised during this pandemic. I am talking about our democratic system.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, our Parliament has been reduced to its simplest expression, and that was done at the expense of democracy, unfortunately. To be totally honest, I believe that the slowing down of the primary function of Parliament has served Prime Minister Trudeau well. Mr. Trudeau likes to govern by decree.
People often say that a picture is worth a thousand words. Every year, the Economist Intelligence Unit, a research and strategic analysis firm, publishes a document that ranks nearly all of the world’s countries in terms of health and democracy. The democracy index is based on 60 indicators grouped into five categories: electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, functioning of government, political participation and political culture. Ratings on a scale of 1 to 10 correspond to the average score across all five categories. Countries are then classified as one of four types of regime based on their average score: full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes and authoritarian regimes.
Canada has always placed high in the rankings, usually around 7th, 6th or even 5th place, which is enviable and an accurate reflection of the fact that our democratic traditions are well established. In 2021, however, Canada fell from 5th to 12th. It appears this drastic drop is due to the Trudeau government’s many authoritarian and anti-democratic approaches.
This fall from grace is worrisome according to Andrew Potter, Associate Professor at McGill University’s Max Bell School of Public Policy. How does Mr. Potter explain this slide? I’ll quote him:
What has happened over the last two years is that the Prime Minister has basically shut down Parliament for a long time and has been keen to limit the opposition as much as he can . . . . The House sat for a record low number of days . . . .
Mr. Potter went on to say, and I quote:
When people who disagree with the government’s decisions can no longer express themselves in the appropriate forum, they will look for other ways to be heard, on the streets if necessary. By deciding to silence the voice of the opposition within the institutions, Mr. Trudeau is directly responsible for what is happening . . . . His attitude towards Parliament has been contemptuous and dismissive . . . . What is happening on the streets of Ottawa is, to a large extent, a direct result of this. When people feel that their opinions are being ignored or disregarded, it is likely to lead to anger.
He concluded by saying the following:
If you were deliberately trying to make Canada less democratic, it would be difficult to do worse than what the Prime Minister has done over the past two years.
During the occupation of Parliament Hill in January and February, the government used the Emergencies Act to seize the bank accounts of protesters and force them to leave, in direct contravention of section 8 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects citizens from unreasonable seizure. The Deputy Prime Minister acknowledged this a few days after the Emergencies Act was lifted. This is outrageous and antithetical to a democracy that respects itself and, above all, that respects its citizens. I will give you another example of the government’s contempt for democracy.
In the midst of the pandemic, Mr. Trudeau called an election that no one wanted, in his words to deal with the pandemic emergency. After wasting $612 million on the election, which yielded almost the same result as last time, Mr. Trudeau waited two months before convening the new Parliament. Finding himself once again at the head of a minority government, Mr. Trudeau ignored the popular will, pulled out his cheque book and sealed an alliance with the NDP in order to run the country as though he had a majority government. Only a very clever person will be able to tell us how many billions of dollars this political and undemocratic alliance will cost the public treasury.
The government will continue spending billions of dollars, either for the Prime Minister’s enjoyment or, most importantly, to keep him in control for the next three years. In doing so, it will be outrageously and irresponsibly inflating Canada’s debt, which has already hit astronomical heights.
Now for the government’s legislative agenda, which is disjointed and hard to predict. The government is sending bills marked “very urgent” to the Senate at the last minute because it apparently cannot or will not give us enough time. On more than one occasion, senators in all groups have felt rushed and disrespected by the government’s approach. It is often very difficult for committees to study bills in hybrid sittings because the technology sometimes fails and senators have quite limited interactions with each other. We need to abandon this approach as soon as possible in order to breathe life back into our democracy, which is so important to our society.
Honourable senators, while the Prime Minister is gallivanting around the world, preaching love and peace, he has let his country’s democracy fall further and further into disarray, which I find incredibly sad and appalling.
Canada deserves much better.
Thank you for your attention, honourable senators.
Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to the motion before us on hybrid sittings.
It will come as no surprise to you that I’m not a fan of hybrid sittings. It is my view and my experience that the weighty responsibilities that have been placed upon senators require us to actually assemble in this chamber and be present in the Parliamentary Precinct.
Being a parliamentarian is not a remote job. If it is being taken seriously, it requires networking, building relationships, fostering collegiality, developing trust and, of course, meeting stakeholders. It requires connecting with fellow parliamentarians, with staff and the public in both formal and informal settings.
I recognize that there are many jobs and occupations that can, perhaps, be done remotely, but I remain convinced that being a parliamentarian is not one of them. It’s not a role that can be properly carried out from one’s living room or home study.
Nevertheless, I acknowledge that these have been exceptional times that have, at times, required exceptional measures. But as more and more jurisdictions continue to lift the various measures put in place to deal with the pandemic, it is time for the Senate of Canada to follow suit.
It is very appropriate and, I would argue, incumbent upon us to lay out a plan for moving forward without the constraints the pandemic has placed upon us. This includes the need to discontinue hybrid sittings as quickly as possible.
The motion calls for the provisions of the order of November 25, 2021, concerning hybrid sittings of the Senate and committees, and other matters, to be extended to the end of the day on April 30, 2022.
I believe this is a compromise; however, I do question whether it is supported by science and the reality of the facts as we know them today.
As I have stated, health officials across the country, including at the federal level, have started approving the removal of COVID mandates for some time already. In response, provinces have started lifting vaccination mandates, mask mandates, social‑distancing rules and COVID safety plans, including COVID passports, which are no longer required in most jurisdictions.
As of April 1, Canadians will be able to travel without having to provide tests. Mandates are being retained for our vulnerable populations, such as long-term care homes, retirement homes, shelters and so on but, other than that, they have been falling across the country.
Except, of course, right here in the Parliamentary Precinct. Here the rules are different. Apparently, compared to the Parliamentary Precinct, the COVID virus is less of a risk in privately or provincially owned buildings; but it is still a risk in federally owned buildings, such as the Senate of Canada. It seems that COVID is the most rampant and most dangerous in the Senate of Canada. For those working in a privately owned building where the Senate occupies accommodation, including 40 Elgin Street, 90 Sparks Street, 56 Sparks Street and 60 Queen Street, masks are now optional, and they are not required in common areas such as elevators, lobbies and parking garages.
However, this does not apply to Crown-owned accommodations, including East Block, the Victoria Building, the National Press Building, 1 Wellington Street and the Senate of Canada Building. For these buildings, health and safety guidance within Senate workplaces remain in effect, and masks are still required. Here in the Senate Chamber, we are required to wear our masks except when we speak, and yet up to 21,000 maskless fans were permitted to attend the game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Bell Centre just this past weekend. I guess COVID doesn’t circulate well at a hockey game, thank God. In this country we play a lot of hockey.
The changes to public health rules in the provinces and municipalities appear to be driven by the best available science.
What is driving our policies and procedures here in the Senate? Why do they differ so significantly? Are we thinking that the Senate needs to mirror the guidelines of long-term care homes? If so, I don’t think that this is the image we want to portray to Canadians.
I am pleased that the motion includes a commitment to the:
. . . consideration of a transition back to in-person sittings as soon as practicable in light of relevant factors, including public health guidelines, and the safety and well-being of all parliamentary personnel . . . .
However, I am puzzled why we are not already making decisions in light of these relevant factors.
We know, for example, that our translators have suffered greatly as a result of the hybrid sittings. Just last week this issue was raised in the chamber with Senator Marwah by Senator Patterson.
In addition, the hybrid format has severely limited the ability of committees to meet and work. Whereas we previously had two meetings a week, now we have one. That was addressed by Senator Patterson very effectively in his comments.
You have situations like that faced by the Standing Senate Committee on National Finance just last week. We were conducting an in camera review of their report on Supplementary Estimates (C). The committee needed more time than was allotted but was unable to continue their meeting because other committees required the resources. The only option was to place the final decisions in the hands of the steering committee because it was next to impossible to schedule an additional meeting.
That is negligence on our part when it comes to dealing with the estimates in this Parliament.
Under normal circumstances, the committee would have considered the option of just putting in some overtime and getting the job done, but this was not an option. The hybrid sitting format imposed a hard stop because of the limit of resources. This is a very inefficient way to conduct business on behalf of the people of Canada.
Colleagues, when hybrid sittings were first introduced, they were understood to be a temporary measure to address the public health crisis. As Senator Harder said on July 27, 2020, “The hybrid solution is the only solution that will meet the public health requirements of both chambers.” For that reason, we agreed to go forward with the hybrid sittings.
At this point, however, those public health requirements appear to no longer exist, and yet we seem to be clinging onto those hybrid sitting requirements, and I can’t figure out why for the life of me.
There is no question that COVID negatively impacted the ability of the Senate to conduct its business over the last two years and that hybrid sittings were a compromise for mitigating those limitations. But at this point, it is not COVID that is limiting our ability to do our work, but hybrid sittings. I see no solid rationale for failing to immediately lift the provisions allowing hybrid sittings, but I am prepared to compromise because this place functions on compromise.
The final paragraph of this motion notes that:
. . . any further extension of this order be taken only after consultation with the leaders and facilitators of all recognized parties and parliamentary groups.
It is my hope that such consultations will be brief, and barring any unexpected future wave of COVID infections, we will unanimously concur that no extensions are necessary but that we all need to get back to work.
Honourable senators, at the end of the day, our Parliament has an obligation to show leadership. Over the last two years, Canada has faced the most severe existential crisis of our time, COVID. More than 33,000 Canadians have lost their lives. We had to take drastic steps, but it’s in those moments of leadership and those moments of crisis that this institution had to stand up and probably work harder than ever before and represent Canadians’ concerns more than ever before.
However, the truth of the matter is we didn’t do what firefighters have been doing. We haven’t been doing what nurses and doctors and health care providers have been doing for the last two years. We haven’t been doing what truck drivers in this country, Uber drivers and taxi drivers have been doing, grocery store workers or people who stack shelves in pharmacies. You know what they’ve been doing during this existential crisis? Many of them have been showing up to work, and they don’t show up to work Tuesday through Thursday. Shockingly, most of them show up to work Monday through Friday. Most of them put in overtime, especially some of these professions, because there was an existential need to step up during this time of crisis.
Do you know what the leaders of this country did in the Parliament of Canada? We shut down. We went hybrid. We went virtual. The truth of the matter is that the biggest crisis facing our country, economically, over the last number of years, even before COVID, is our productivity. And yet, during this existential crisis, the upper chamber of Parliament and the other place of Parliament met less than ever before. We did output of legislation, motions and worked less than ever before. We rubber stamped hundreds of billions of dollars more than ever before with less scrutiny than ever before. And you know what I say? I say we lost an opportunity, as an institution, to show Canadians in a valid way what leadership is all about.
This place is always questioned because of a lack of accountability, transparency and the fact that we’re not an elected institution. Yet, in the words of Serge Joyal, we missed in this moment of crisis an opportunity to show that the Senate is more relevant in terms of oversight, governance and leadership than ever before, and we dropped the ball.
The truth of the matter is that we are privileged. We are the most privileged Canadians. We are in the most exclusive club in this country, and we have an obligation to show Canadians that we take that privilege seriously. What Canadians have seen, though, is a lack of equality. They see their Prime Minister climbing a plane ladder a few days ago in Ottawa leaving the country and coming down in the same plane over in Europe at a summit without a mask.
So a mask climbing the stairs going into his plane in Ottawa was necessary, but coming down and going to a summit over in Europe, the mask was left on the plane. I can go on, colleagues. When Canadians are looking at the work of our parliamentarians at the House of Commons and they’re all masked up, yet they follow committee work and the masks are off, or a camera flies quickly by an open door at a government caucus meeting where there are 160 parliamentarians and none of them have a mask on, it’s that level of hypocrisy and inconsistency that drives Canadians nuts.
I went a couple of weeks ago to a place called Jack Victor in Montreal. They make clothing and have 800 employees. None of them have taken a day off, none of them had the option to virtually, none of them had the option to go to Finance and order a comfortable chair and a comfortable desk and do their work from home, from their living room.
They show up every day, and these are the people who fill the Treasury Board with taxes so we can have the privilege to come here and do work on their behalf. That’s who I feel I represent, to be honest. Even though I’m not an elected parliamentarian, when I walk through a factory and I meet those 800 employees, I take the time to listen to their concerns. Let me tell you, they have a lot of them, and they don’t think COVID is the biggest concern.
This motion believes that the biggest crisis that Canada and the Senate are facing is COVID and we need to extend our virtual sittings until the end of June. Of course we want to extend them until the end of June. Who wouldn’t want to work from the comforts of their home? We have that privilege and opportunity to do so, but I think we also have a privilege to show Canadians leadership, that we’re willing to do what they’re asked to do.
Why are we not willing to do the things we ask these individuals to do? That’s the question they asked themselves. I’m telling you, colleagues — I have said it before in this place and I conclude — COVID is just the first step of a bigger crisis around the corner. Go to your grocery stores. Try to speak to citizens and listen to them about paying their rent, about single mothers trying to feed their children, trying to pay four times what it costs to buy a roast today than it did a month ago or two months ago. There is a crisis brewing in the country. There is unrest and discomfort amongst middle-class and poor Canadians, and this institution has to start speaking for them, has to start looking out for them. That’s why I believe more than ever before — we’re all double and triple vaccinated, the science indicated that if we get double and triple vaccinated that we can return back to some normalcy.
Let’s lead the way. Let’s make a commitment that we’re not going to go past April 30, government leader. Let’s make a commitment that this institution is going to start meeting as long as we need to meet, work as many days a week as we need to work in order to make sure that we give the best governance to citizens. Let me say something else. We have spent the last couple of days — and I’ll conclude — talking about how we need to change the rules and we have to go to the Rules Committee and study about making the rules more flexible so we can get more work done.
How about finding the political will to just show up here more often, work longer than ever before, sit longer than ever before, and deal with all the motions, a lot of the private members’ bills that are here before this place, that are here and asked to be heard by stakeholders in this country that want to be heard. That’s what we need to do.
So I hope, colleagues, we will all accept this compromise but as of April 30 accept that it’s time we step up and be the best that we can possibly be.
Would Senator Housakos agree to take a question?
Leader of the Opposition, I was looking at the photos that were taken recently during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to England, where he met with Queen Elizabeth II. She will be 96 on April 21, and her health is precarious, but no one was wearing a mask and it was a rather long meeting.
Can you comment on the Prime Minister’s behaviour during his meeting with the Queen, a meeting with a fragile woman that was held without masks, despite what is happening here?
Thank you for the question, Senator Carignan.
My opinion on this issue does not matter, but the opinion of the Canadian public does, and I have a perfect example. When I talk with workers back home in Montreal about the government’s actions, they ask me why the Prime Minister wears a mask when he boards his plane to go to a summit in Europe, but takes the mask off when he gets there.
It was not just a meeting with the Queen. Afterward, he went to different restaurants to meet socially with other parliamentarians and international leaders, all without wearing a mask.
People wonder what is happening. Is this a situation where there is one set of rules for the elite and another set for everyone else?
That is why we are seeing this frustration in society today, because of the behaviour of our Prime Minister and parliamentary leaders in general.
Would Senator Housakos take a question?
Reading between the lines of your speech, setting aside your comments about the Prime Minister’s travels, I believe you were indicating that you’d like us to be more efficient in our work.
Do you suppose that, once we’re back to in-person attendance, or even during hybrid sittings, we could try ringing the bell for less time? Instead of 60 minutes, it could ring for 15 minutes, saving us 45 minutes per vote. Could we also boost the Senate’s efficiency by not seeing the clock? That would benefit Canadians, wouldn’t it?
Senator Forest, there are all kinds of ways to make the Senate more efficient. Bells are a perfectly reasonable tradition that give senators the opportunity to participate in a vote. We often have a 15-minute bell, a 30‑minute bell, or even a 60-minute bell.
The real problem, senator, and I think you will agree with me, is the fact that we sit very little. Few parliaments around the world sit for the same number of days as the Senate of Canada.
If we were to tell Canadians that we’re not particularly interested in doing our work, so we sit for 90 to 100 days a year, they would laugh at us.
Again, if we look at the past two years, despite the fact that we have been able to work in hybrid mode and virtually, the Senate has set a record for the fewest sitting days. We also beat another record over the past two years: This government has passed fewer bills than any other.
There are many ways to improve the Senate’s productivity. The first would be to come to Ottawa and work here in Parliament.
Yes, there are several possibilities, including the length of the bell, for example, and they all should be considered. If we really are here in person, on site, we shouldn’t need an hour-long bell for a vote. There is absolutely nothing to gain in terms of productivity, when every decision we make must be efficient. Would you agree with that?
I agree completely.
You’re worried about the length of the bell, but when senators are here, they often work in committee, meet with stakeholders in their offices and have many diplomatic meetings.
Once again, the main problem is not the 60- or 30-minute bell that gives all senators the opportunity to come and vote. The biggest problem right now is that we have a government that doesn’t want to sit longer. It always wants to sit less, and that’s the first thing that needs to be fixed.
Would Senator Housakos take a question?
Senator Housakos, I was reflecting on your exchange with Senator Carignan about the Queen. I’m not quite sure what relevance the Queen has to this debate. But it did remind me of someone who was a queen in our midst, and that was Senator Forest-Niesing. As we all know, she passed away suddenly and tragically from COVID, and that was a particular circumstance.
We don’t know who else here may have an underlying medical condition because medical information is private. We’re mostly a senior citizen group. And it is also more likely — and the science bears me out — that older people will have greater affinity for catching a virus, even after they have been vaccinated.
So I ask you, Senator Housakos, in light of the fact that there are many of us in the Senate — and this is not reflecting on the age of the Senate staff, all the pages and the security services, it’s reflecting just on us — would you not think that it is wiser and safer to meet in hybrid mode so that the tragic incident that we experienced in the Senate at the passing of Senator Forest-Niesing does not occur again?
Where I do disagree with you, senator, is your claim that there’s evidence that people that are older in age have a higher propensity of catching COVID. That I disagree with. There is a case that the dangers increase with people of a certain age. That I totally agree with.
Having said that, we have seen now that with people who are fully vaccinated, it has completely mitigated the risk factor of getting sick to a huge extent. We see it in our hospitals.
Furthermore, you can take a bunch of steps that we have taken in this institution to protect individuals as they do in every other place of work.
All I’m simply saying is that there is an inherent danger with COVID. Every single profession faces it — police officers; ambulance workers; doctors, on a daily basis; respiratory therapists, of which my wife is one. So if these people have been taking the steps in their professions to mitigate the risks but still show up to work, I think it’s incumbent on us to do the same thing, to take the mitigating steps to make sure that we can do our job in an effective fashion.
But it’s inexcusable that our committees are operating at a third of the output that they’re supposed to be operating at. It’s inexcusable that we’re sitting fewer days over the last two years as this country faces a huge crisis. And what we’ve done is, during that crisis — some legitimate, some illegitimate — is set world record spending with the least amount of oversight. So, yes, there has to be a balance.
But currently, the general view is — and this is my view — we have completely put all the emphasis on making sure we’re safe and not enough of an emphasis on making sure that we can do our jobs while being safe.
Would the senator take a question?
Absolutely. I’m not used to you asking me. I am used to you answering me.
So you will forgive me, as there may be a bit of a preamble.
First, I appreciate your comments and those of all of our honourable senators in this debate, and in previous debates, because one theme that seems to recur is the importance — to which I entirely subscribe — of us having the time and the resources to do the job for which we were summoned. I appreciated especially, Senator Housakos, your comments about taking more time to do the work. You’re 100% right. We are privileged and can work harder, particularly in the context of the important work that our committees do and with the clear constraints that the hybrid setting has put on the ability of our committees to meet as regularly, frequently or intensively as we would otherwise want.
Would you commit to the opposition approving all requests for committees to sit during break weeks when there are more resources available, when the House is not sitting and, therefore, translation and other resources could be used to our full advantage?
First of all, as long as we need to be sitting in this place and doing our job, I will commit to being available to do our job as an opposition party. It has been the tradition in this place that committees serve at the pleasure — again, I’ve had these debates with other colleagues, especially some who have arrived here recently — of the Committee of the Whole. That is how Parliament has always operated, and we’re not going to change the whole Westminster parliamentary system to accommodate a process that doesn’t fit into the tradition in this place.
Our Rules, which are well established, do give both the government and the opposition a veto over whether a committee request to sit, notwithstanding that the Senate may be adjourned for over a week — they can approve or disapprove. Honourable senators will know that those requests have often been disapproved.
I’m asking whether you would agree, in light of the legitimate concerns you’ve raised about the importance of the work we do, especially in committees, and representing the opposition as the leader — at least today — that those requests should in fact be acceded to such that committees could do the work with greater time and resources.
As you know, government leader, those requests often have been accepted in extenuating circumstances.
First of all, to answer your question, you won’t solve much, because if you allow committees to meet while we’re not sitting, most senators won’t be here. That would be a breach of their privilege. The easiest way to have those committees sit is to call the Senate back during the weeks we’re not sitting to do their work. That’s the way to resolve the issue. Are you willing to do that? Are you willing, in those non-sitting weeks, to call the Senate back to allow us to do the extra work required? Nobody can stop committees from meeting if we’re sitting in this place.
Furthermore, if we don’t have virtual or hybrid sittings anymore, even if we grant that exception for senators and committees to meet while we don’t sit, they would still have to be here. Why wouldn’t you have senators be here while the committees meet and conduct the business of this chamber?
Senator Housakos, would you take another question?
Thank you, Senator Housakos, and everyone else who has spoken to this issue today. It brings out, as someone said, a number of themes that have emerged this week.
I’m going to take the word “COVID-19” out of the sentence. I would like your thoughts on this. I met last week with Waterloo business partnerships, 60 companies that all work together in the Waterloo region, and we talked about the workplace, what that meant moving forward, and what they were experiencing as presidents and CEOs. Someone commented, “Of course, you folks in the Senate are going to carry on in a hybrid format. I assume you would, because of the investment you’ve made and the environmental footprint.” They had four or five different reasons that paralleled their experiences and why they were going to carry on in this format.
I wonder, from a business perspective, and the folks you’re speaking to, if you’ve had that experience in your conversations also.
Thank you, Senator Deacon. That’s a very good question. I’ve had that discussion recently with my colleague Senator Seidman.
If you all remember during the early stages of COVID-19, many management consultants came to the conclusion that real‑life, on-site work environments would start seeing a decrease because law firms and companies were seeing the convenience and the time saved in terms of transporting people to and from work, as well as the reduction of overhead costs and unnecessary office space. As it turns out, two years into it, a lot of CEOs and corporate consultants, particularly in the United States, after a review, have found that productivity is starting to sink to such a degree that companies are starting to — even though they had originally planned to only bring back employees to work from their workplace in a reduced structure — come to the conclusion that it’s not cost-effective because productivity levels have shrunk drastically.
Of course, a case in point is right here in the Senate. Our productivity levels in terms of studies, committee work, output and oversight have completely diminished, but the savings have been marginal by comparison.
It will be interesting to monitor, in the months ahead, our various tables, particularly as they relate to — as you said — the efficiency of being in the Senate in person compared to being in the Senate virtually. Those are the pieces that we’re going to have to continue to wrangle. Thank you.
Senator Housakos, would you take a question?
Do you remember the oath you took in the Senate, in which you pledged to attend Parliament whenever Parliament was called to sit?
Absolutely. I imagine everyone takes this oath very seriously. It is our first obligation. As senators, being present is part of our rights and responsibilities. As I mentioned in my speech, the problem at the moment is that the general public thinks we are too privileged.
Parliamentary privilege is important. All of us who respect the British Westminster parliamentary system know that without parliamentary privilege we lose a fundamental right. However, parliamentary privilege and senators’ privileges are not what the public thinks they are. The public thinks that we have benefits and comforts that 85% of Canadian citizens would never dream of.
As soon as people perceive Parliament as a place of privilege, in other words, they think people in this chamber don’t have to follow the same rules as everyone else, we risk losing the people’s trust. Yet the public plays an important and fundamental role in a democracy.
Honourable senators, I’d like to thank you for taking this debate seriously and spending some time exploring the issue.
I want to reach well beyond COVID-19. The debate has been focused enormously on COVID, and I’m struck by the fact that in Nova Scotia, our doctors have started taking appointments by telephone. They have started renewing prescriptions by telephone. There have been cost savings, time savings and the enhancement of patient care. Yes, there are times when they say, “No, you have to come in for an appointment,” but a lot of the work can be done remotely through a telephone consultation.
That was something that had been discussed in this province for 20 years. All of a sudden when COVID-19 came along, it was implemented, and the benefits were so significant that it has now been extended permanently. COVID has actually provided us with an opportunity to innovate, change and improve how we do things. I think that’s worth looking at significantly.
I’ll go to what has been Canada’s largest company, the fastest company in the world to reach a billion dollars in revenue since inception, and that’s Shopify, which has chosen to be a remote‑first company. Looking at their employment pages that are advertising new positions, whether it’s in Asia, Africa, Europe, South America or North America, they are remote positions for highly technical sales and product development jobs. They have embraced this, and, according to their CEO, their productivity continues to increase.
We need to look at this from a broader standpoint and ask: What are the opportunities that could come from using hybrid in a properly resourced manner? I take to heart Senator Patterson’s concerns about the fact that we have not properly resourced hybrid because we have been going month to month. We have been taking a short-term approach rather than a strategic long‑term approach to our decision making here.
As we revisit this from a sober-second-thought perspective and look at it as something that could be an opportunity, I would like us to think about what benefit could be brought to bear for those who have far more difficult travel challenges than Senator Cordy and I do from Halifax, where you’re not just losing half a day but you’re losing a day in each direction. That commuting time is significant for us, but it’s also significant for other people we might want to be able to work with.
I’ve been struck by the tremendous meetings that I have been able to get. We get to know each other and start to work together quite effectively using virtual communications rather than in‑person communications, and it has provided us with some tremendous opportunities to have witnesses speak to us formally and informally. As you know, I did a session a couple of weeks ago with a Toronto company that, through their Australian operations, is helping to transform the Australian government’s use of blockchain in the collection of taxes, which has benefits for consumers, retailers, producers and the tax office. We got that great interview with one person in Adelaide, one person in Sydney and a group in Toronto all at the same time with a group of senators right across the country.
We have the ability to work with people that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to work with. If we start to constrain that benefit, I think it’s to our detriment.
The first year I was here, you would often ask senators if you would see them the next week, and they would say, “No, I have a medical appointment,” and as you well know, in many provinces, we can’t choose when our medical appointments are. That would cause them to be out of the chamber for a whole week if their medical appointment was mid-week.
There are a whole lot of benefits for us to continue some form of this work that is not related to COVID. I found that a huge amount of the debate was focused purely on COVID.
I look at this in terms of the employment opportunities for us with staff that are not located in Ottawa, people who wouldn’t or couldn’t move to Ottawa that we could have working for us in our offices. It’s a tremendous opportunity. I have benefitted from that personally in having folks for whom there wasn’t the budget to have them move in their own lives, because we can’t pay for our staff to move. But all of a sudden we’re working incredibly effectively at distance.
When I consider this issue, it goes well beyond the question of COVID, and it focuses on the benefits that we may be able to realize in a strategic way as an employer. I want us to be able to be as inclusive and competitive an employer as possible moving forward. I want to see senators apply for this job who maybe have issues with dependents, be they old or young, and can’t travel each week the Senate is sitting, but they still want to put in the hours and the work.
Certainly, I found rather troubling a few of the comments that were made, such as those suggesting that work isn’t being done if you’re not physically present in the chamber. That, to me, is an archaic way of managing in the 21st century. There are not very many employers who would get very far with employees if they start to view their employees in that manner and are not viewing people that they work with from the standpoint of productivity and evaluating that productivity based on its merit versus based on somebody’s physical presence. It worries me that that sort of attitude may limit whom we get to have work with us in the future.
There are all of those social and inclusive benefits, the travel benefits and the ability to have witnesses who are from very different locations than we have in the past.
We also have to start considering our carbon footprint. I am very proud of the fact that the chamber has committed to dealing with that aggressively, and what we will learn in doing that will help us do our job far better because we’ll have first-hand experience, and an ability to say, “Don’t just do as we say, but do as we are doing,” will help us to hold government to account on an issue that no government in Canada has lived up to in terms of commitments.
I want us to look at this debate as an issue that goes well beyond COVID. I think there is a tremendous opportunity as a parliamentary leader to show that there are ways to use new tools to become a more innovative employer and very much improve our productivity as an organization. To look at this purely through the lens of COVID is missing a great opportunity.
Thank you, Your Honour and colleagues.
Senator Bellemare has a question. Senator Deacon, would you take a question?
Absolutely, thank you.
Would you agree with me that yesterday we had testimony from Mr. Cléroux from the Business Development Bank of Canada? He said in answer to a question:
. . . I think remote work is here to stay, because the reception on the business side has really changed. . . . First, a lot of businesses have invested in technology to allow the workers to work from home. Second, they realize that productivity has been as high for people working from home.
I think remote work is here to stay, but there’s going to be more of a hybrid model. . . .
Would you agree that was the testimony of Mr. Cléroux yesterday who said that about the business community?
Thank you very much, Senator Bellemare. He was quite passionate about the issue and the transformation that has occurred as well as the issue facing many employers in terms of a shortage of labour if they do not start to become accommodating.
If we want to have the best people working for us in this organization, we have to be a competitive employer. I think that was the focus of our discussion last night in the Banking Committee. It was an important one from my standpoint because it got at the issue of talent. Talent is crucial in the ability of an organization to function. We want to make sure we have the ability to attract the very best talent as an organization. It’s part of what we have to look at as an organization moving forward and reaching beyond COVID. Thank you.
Will Senator Deacon take a question?
Thank you, Senator Deacon.
I’m going to try to get you back to being focused on the motion at hand here. At a later date, we can have a discussion about the benefits of hybrid working in the private sector and public sector. I appreciate the opinion coming from a CEO of a Crown corporation, but let’s focus now on the motion at hand.
Will you not agree, Senator Deacon, that when it comes to the last two years of output, both of committee work and in the Senate, the number of dates we sat in comparison to any other two-year period in the history of the Senate — and the fact that we have actually dealt with less government legislation than ever before in those 24 months compared to any other cycle, fewer private members’ bills than during any other 24-month cycle and less output in terms of our committee work than any 24-month cycle — will you admit that there have not been many benefits of hybrid vis-à-vis productivity in the Senate?
My second question is actually not a question; I’m correcting the record. Hiring employees who can work virtually for senators has been around for eons. My first two policy advisors — one of them was working out of Vancouver and one was working out of Montreal. This is not new; COVID didn’t invent this. It has been around for decades where senators, via email, Zoom and Microsoft Teams, have been able to hire staff, so there has never been an impediment to hiring staff who can’t work out of Ottawa in order to substitute or provide the best possible support staff to senators.
However, back to my point. Show me any benefit we’ve received over the last two years in terms of productivity in the Senate because of hybrid sittings.
Thanks, Senator Housakos.
I would say that how we have chosen to manage this issue as an entity has more to do with that than using hybrid services.
On an incremental basis, we have chosen to extend hybrid versus embracing it. If we had embraced it, I think we would be having cost savings and productivity improvements. That’s hypothetical, but I believe that firmly.
I don’t think that, as we consider the use of hybrid, we should just look at COVID and the experience of how we have chosen to use hybrid over the last two years as the only way of looking at this issue. If we look forward, there are many benefits we could extract from this experience in terms of how to do things and in how not to do things.
The other thing I will just offer in terms of the point you made about staff is that senators’ offices are a part of the employment group of staff in this organization, but we also have an awful lot of staff scattered around the National Capital Region. Those staff are the Parliamentary Precinct. Those staff are expected to be physically present.
So there is an opportunity to reach beyond in terms of everyone who works within our organization. Thank you.
Senator Deacon, your time is up. We have still two senators who want to ask questions.
Would you like to ask for more time?
That would be great, Your Honour, if the chamber so chooses.
Is leave granted?
Leave is not granted.
Thank you, Your Honour.
Are senators ready for the question?
Is it your pleasure, honourable senators, to adopt the motion?
Some Hon. Senators: Agreed.
An Hon. Senator: On division.
(Motion agreed to, on division.)