Construction work continues on Parliament Hill even as MPs, senators are told to stay away

Most MPs and senators have been told to stay away from Parliament Hill because of the public health risks involved in having a large number of people congregating in one place during a pandemic — but the same rules don't apply to the labourers carrying out rehabilitative work in the parliamentary precinct.

'I think this once again shows the Trudeau government's hypocrisy,' Conservative senator says

A construction sign hangs on the Queen's Gates on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Most MPs and senators have been told to stay away from Parliament Hill because of the public health risks involved in having a large number of people congregating in one place during a pandemic — but the same rules don't apply to the labourers carrying out rehabilitative work in the parliamentary precinct.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has curtailed construction work in the province to help stop the spread of COVID-19 on job sites — but hundreds of builders are still busy working on a decade-long renovation project in the parliamentary precinct.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said in-person parliamentary sittings present a "risk" because they require that support staff show up for work on Parliament Hill, increasing the chance of person-to-person transmission.

Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez also has said virtual sittings are preferable given the public health guidance about large gatherings. He said the government has told people to work from home whenever possible, and parliamentarians should do the same.

"On the one hand, we can't tell Canadians, 'Stay home because that's the way to fight this,' and then come here every day and meet. So let's see if there's different ways to do this," Rodriguez told a press conference Saturday.

"When we come here, it's not only the MPs that come here. It's all the cleaning people, security people, the technicians, the clerks, the political staff, interpreters. It brings a lot of people together."

Workers paint a corridor during a media tour of the renovated West Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on June 15, 2018. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

But Public Services and Procurement Canada, the department in charge of the construction, has taken a different approach to other forms of work on Parliament Hill.

The federal department has deemed this years-long rehabilitative effort as something akin to the essential construction work being done on the province's hospitals and other critical infrastructure projects.

Because this federal project is beyond the jurisdiction of the provincial stop-work order, construction is going ahead.

The work includes renovations to the original House of Commons and Senate chambers, the Library of Parliament, offices for MPs and party leaders and the Peace Tower.

In a statement to CBC, the department said the construction "will be limited to activities undertaken in unoccupied spaces to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 transfer for both building occupants and construction workers.

"Much of the activity is relatively isolated and can be performed without the need for close interaction with other workers.

"Necessary repair and maintenance work required for the safe operations of parliamentary facilities will continue. This is directly aligned with provincial direction."

The department didn't specify how many workers were onsite during this health crisis, but said workers were practicing social distancing and were following "face covering protocols."

The department said the size of the buildings allows for "compartmentalization."

Conservative Sen. Denise Batters said continuing the renovations sends "a very poor message to Canadians right now."

"Prime Minister Trudeau stressed the importance of everyone staying home to stop the spread. Even parliamentarians are being encouraged to do so. And yet, just outside the walls of Parliament, he's ordering hundreds of construction workers to be on the job for a project that isn't even slated to be finished for more than 10 years," Batters told CBC News.

"I think this once again shows the Trudeau government's hypocrisy."

Until recently, Batters was the deputy chair of the Senate internal economy committee, the body that oversees the Red Chamber's long-term planning for the parliamentary district. The committee's membership changed in a shuffle last Saturday.

She said the committee was told recently that Public Services and Procurement doesn't even have a timeline for completion of Centre Block and East Block renovations.

"They don't have a clue. It's so far out of the realm of being close to completion. Delaying construction for a month, in order to protect the health and safety of workers, will not have much of an impact."

Workers build concrete forms on the front lawn of Parliament Hill in February, 2020. (Stéphane Leclerc/Radio-Canada)

She said there's a real "blue collar-white collar dichotomy" at work, with federal public servants being told to work from home while labourers are expected to show up at the job site.

"We need to think about immediate priorities right now and the immediate priority right now is flattening the curve and saving people's lives," Batters said.

Centre Block closed in December 2018 to allow for some much-needed rehab work to reverse the deterioration of Canada's Parliament. MPs are now temporarily housed in West Block while the Senate meets in Ottawa's former train station.

East Block, which mainly houses Senate offices, is also under construction as workers complete foundation repairs, among other fixes.


John Paul Tasker

Senior writer

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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