Politics

MPs pass motion to hold in-person, virtual sittings in House on COVID-19 crisis

MPs have passed a motion to hold both in-person and virtual meetings to question and debate the government's response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Conservatives accuse government of trying to dodge accountability

Clockwise from left: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh. The parties are trying to work out an agreement on how many days a week MPs should sit in the House of Commons during the COVID-19 crisis. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

MPs have passed a motion to hold both in-person and virtual meetings to question and debate the government's response to the COVID-19 crisis.

The motion formally adjourns the House of Commons until May 25. A special committee — with every MP a member — will meet once weekly in person. Virtual meetings will occur online twice a week once technological and procedural issues have been worked out.

MPs defeated a proposed amendment from the Conservatives which called for two in-person sitting days, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

A smaller group of 36 to 40 MPs returned to Ottawa today following a mass killing in Nova Scotia. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today is not a day to engage in "partisan bickering."

He insisted the government has been flexible and responsive to opposition suggestions throughout the health crisis.

"We have been engaged with all parties over the course of this pandemic. There have been many good ideas brought forward by business leaders, by community groups, by individual Canadians, but also by MPs from all parties who've heard from citizens in their communities what's needed to be done to help," he said.

"This has been an unprecedented effort across government to try and make sure that we are giving Canadians the help they need to get through this difficult time, and we will continue to do that."

Over the weekend the Liberal government reached a tentative deal with the NDP and Bloc Québécois to have one in-person sitting per week. The Conservatives rejected the idea, insisting on more regular meetings each week.

Conservatives say 1 in-person meeting weekly not enough

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said that doing away with 80 per cent of sitting days does not serve the best interests of Canadians and that more in-person sessions would yield better results in terms of accountability, oversight and proposals from opposition parties.

"Millions of Canadians are going to work every single day to help their neighbours through this pandemic. Parliamentarians should be doing the same," he said.

Scheer suggested Trudeau is dodging accountability, preferring the "controlled" environment of daily news conferences outside his residence at Rideau Cottage to opposition questions in the House of Commons.

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet accused the Conservatives of holding Parliament "hostage."

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said regular in-person sessions are important to the work of addressing gaps in programs meant to support Canadians and businesses struggling financially through the health crisis, including students.

"We need to make sure more people get access to the help they need and that they get that help as quickly as possible," he said.

Watch: Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam says MPs will need to ensure public health measures are followed:

Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam says that if Parliament resumes for in-person sessions, MPs will need a plan to ensure public health measures are followed. 1:26

Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam said Monday that her advice to parliamentarians is the same as the advice she's given other workplaces conducting essential services: maintain physical distancing, stay home if you're sick and keep up the hand-washing hygiene.

"I think Parliament, like other essential workplaces, needs to have a plan to make sure all of these measures are implemented as they are having their meetings," she said.

The House had adjourned on March 13 until today, April 20. Green Party MP Paul Manly said that date was only a "placeholder" selected before the severity of the pandemic's global impact was understood.

He suggested taking part in in-person meetings would violate the rights of MPs from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador. Those provinces have quarantine orders requiring that travellers returning from outside the provinces self-isolate — which would force an MP returning from a meeting in Ottawa to stay away from their family members for 14 days upon arriving home.

"This is particularly painful given that, today, in the aftermath of those terrible murders, our colleagues from Nova Scotia cannot gather," he said. "They cannot console their bereaved constituents."

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