Bad acoustics delaying opening of new temporary Senate chamber

The Senate sat for the last time in Centre Block for at least a decade Thursday — but its planned move to a temporary chamber not far from Parliament Hill has been delayed as engineers work to address sound problems with the new space.

Committee delays prompt heated exchange between Conservative, Independent senators

The new temporary Senate Chamber at the Senate of Canada Building, formerly the Government Conference Centre, is shown in Ottawa on Thursday. The Senate has delayed its move to the new chamber because of sound issues. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

The Senate sat for the last time in Centre Block for at least a decade Thursday — but its planned move to a temporary chamber not far from Parliament Hill has been delayed as engineers work to address problems with the acoustics in the new space.

Following complaints about the acoustics from staff members who took part in a series of test-runs in the new chamber, the Red Chamber's internal economy committee said the planned move will be delayed until mid-February — weeks after the Senate had expected to return from its Christmas break.

So senators will be away from the upper house for nearly two months, with a planned return date of Feb. 19, 2019. The Senate will sit longer, and during previously planned break weeks, to make up for the lost legislative time.

The plan to start televising Senate proceedings — cameras are going to be broadcasting day-to-day deliberations for the first time — is also being delayed to no later than March 1 to allow for further testing.

The existing chamber in Centre Block will be closed for many years as the federal government completes extensive renovations to the historic Parliament buildings.

The problem is that the temporary Senate chamber, which will be at the heart of a redeveloped building that once housed Ottawa's central train station, was designed as an open-concept room.

Any sort of activity just outside the chamber's doors is clearly audible to those assembled in the chamber — meaning "scrums" with reporters, security screenings and private conversations can be heard clearly on the floor of the Senate. That could be distracting for members of the upper house as they do their work.

A stairwell leading to the Senate Chamber at the Senate of Canada Building, formerly the Government Conference Centre, is shown in Ottawa on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Rob Wright, the bureaucrat at Public Services and Procurement Canada responsible for the parliamentary precinct, said Thursday work will be carried out over the next few weeks to rectify the acoustics problem. Wright said workers will enclose the chamber with drywall to prevent sound leakage.

"This recent request from the Senate, we're going to fulfil that," Wright said, adding the work would be done by Jan. 7, 2019.

Rob Wright, the assistant deputy minister, parliamentary precinct branch, Department of Public Works and Government Services, said Thursday his department will carry out the necessary fixes to prevent sound leakage into the Senate chamber. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC News)

When asked why the Senate is delaying its return despite the early promised completion date, Wright deferred to the Senate.

'Critical design deficiency'

Conservative Sen. Scott Tannas, the chamber's point man on the move, said Thursday he and others flagged potential problems with an open-concept chamber to Public Works two years ago, only to be assured these issues would be addressed during construction.

"Once we had a full-blown rehearsal in here ... it was quickly determined that it just wasn't going to work," Tannas told reporters during a media tour of the Senate's new home Thursday.

"This did not come out to the satisfaction of people who were testing."

Tannas was even more pointed during a presentation outlining the building's flaws before the internal economy committee Thursday, saying the "ceiling gap" that is letting sound in from the neighbouring mezzanine is a "critical design deficiency that must be corrected before the Senate returns in 2019."

Conservative Alberta Sen. Scott Tannas, a member of the Senate's Long Term Vision and Planning subcommittee, hosted a tour of the Senate's new home Thursday. Tannas said sound issues need to be addressed before senators move there in 2019. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC News)

Tannas said during dress rehearsals it was immediately apparent to participants just how problematic the acoustics would be if not corrected, despite assurances from Public Works bureaucrats that there was "no need to worry" and that "noise transfer would be minimal."

"The noise transfer from the foyer and mezzanine was significant and disruptive to the proceedings inside the chamber. It made it virtually impossible for participants to hear the person that had the floor."

Talk of delayed meetings prompts angry exchange

And because the Senate will not be sitting until February, there is talk now of also delaying the return of committee meetings for the same amount of time — something that has some senators worried that the study of Bill C-69, the highly controversial overhaul of the Environmental Assessment Act, could drag on well into the spring sitting.

The potential delay to committee meetings prompted a dust-up between some members of the Independent Senators Group (ISG) and the Conservative Senate caucus Thursday.

Independent Quebec Sen. Rosa Galvez, the chair of the energy committee which will study Bill C-69, was accused of trying to plan future meetings and draw up an expected witness list without her Conservative deputy chair, Nova Scotia Sen. Michael MacDonald, present at a meeting Thursday.

A frustrated Manitoba Sen. Don Plett, the Conservative whip, said that Galvez inappropriately convened a meeting of the steering committee without all members present.

Galvez suggested the Tories were playing political games with the timing of committee meetings. Plett said it's the job of the Conservative opposition to oppose government bills.

(A steering committee is a multi-partisan group of three senators — a chair, a deputy chair and a third member — that manages the work of a larger committee.)

Galvez also denied it was a steering meeting, calling it merely a discussion with other committee members. She suggested the Tories are purposely skipping the planning meeting to punt decisions on the bill until the new year.

She also took issue with Plett's tone in the chamber when he questioned her knowledge of the rules. Galvez was appointed to the chamber by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in December 2016.

I find the tone of Sen. Plett talking to me extremely aggressive.- Independent Quebec Sen. Rosa Galvez

"I find the tone of Sen. Plett talking to me extremely aggressive. I'm very close. We are just a couple metres away. I can perfectly hear. I don't have any hearing problem," Galvez said of Plett. "In order to get an agreement on the witness list, we have to meet. So let's meet."

Galvez and other Independent and Liberal members of the committee would like the committee to hold meetings at the end of January before the Senate chamber resumes sitting.

Plett said Galvez should follow the Senate's rules on committee planning. "Do you not think you should obey the rules even though you don't agree with them?" Plett asked her during a raucous exchange in the chamber

Independent Alberta Sen. Paula Simons, a new member of the Senate and its energy committee, said work should begin as soon as possible on Bill C-69.

Simons said while she voted to advance the bill and send it to committee for further study, she will demand amendments before she votes to adopt the bill into law at third reading.

The Liberal government introduced C-69 earlier this year, touting the Impact Assessment Act as a way to streamline the approvals process for natural resources projects while bolstering consultation efforts with Indigenous communities affected by extractive industries.

Proponents of Canada's energy sector have warned that, despite the government's assertions, Bill C-69 could devastate an industry already grappling with constrained pipeline capacity and depressed commodity prices.


John Paul Tasker

Parliamentary Bureau

J.P. Tasker is a senior writer in the CBC's parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.