OTTAWA — The House of Commons resumed Monday amid weeks of mounting COVID-19 death tolls, provincial lockdowns, disappointing vaccine delays, a new U.S. president who dealt a crushing blow to a controversial pipeline project, and an ex-governor general whose vetting left the prime minister with egg on his face.
After a six-week winter break, MPs returned to work in a sitting mostly marked by political posturing and few signs of a willingness to work together.
The tone was set early in the morning, with a West Block press conference by Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole. Dressed in a dark blue suit and purple tie — the colour, a sign of bipartisanship, O’Toole noted the day marked a year since the first presumptive case of COVID-19 in Canada. Since then, he said, nearly 20,000 Canadians had died of the disease, 10 per cent of the population had lost their jobs, thousands of businesses had closed, and people were being asked to cope with mental health stresses from staying at home.
“Conservatives want the government to succeed,” the Tory leader said. “Our nation depends on it.”
Watch: O’Toole calls for immediate accounting of COVID-19 vaccines
“He does not take this issue seriously,” O’Toole said of Trudeau.
In a nod to parts of his party’s base who believe increased social spending from Western liberal governments will lead to “empowering elites at the expense of working people,” the Conservative leader also accused the Liberals of using the pandemic to experiment on “risky, ideologically-driven and unproven schemes involving the Canadian economy.”
Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, who later announced the start of public consultations for the 2021 federal budget, invited Canadians to submit proposals for how the Liberals could “build back better.”
“We are not simply aiming to get back to where we were before COVID-19,” she told reporters. “The pandemic has exposed critical gaps in our social safety net and the virus has hit certain sectors, certain groups of people harder than others – seniors, women, low-wage workers, young people, people of colour, Indigenous people.”
“For all of these reasons the 2021 budget will be among the most significant of our lifetime,” she declared.
If O’Toole was winking to more militant parts of his base in his description of the Liberals’ economic agenda, he was also engaged in trying to enlarge his Conservative tent.
Asked whether he thought it was appropriate for the director of the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC) to direct prosecutors to stop laying criminal charges for simple drug possession — no matter the substance, or whether MPs should weigh-in on the bureaucrat’s decision, O’Toole’s answer suggested a change in Tory policy.
“It’s not appropriate to have very serious punishment for Canadians who have drug problems. We must give them assistance,” O’Toole told reporter Hélène Buzzetti. “I am not in favour of a punishment that is very severe for crimes like that.”
““We are not simply aiming to get back to where we were before COVID-19… The pandemic has exposed critical gaps in our social safety net.””
Questioned by journalists about the fallout from former governor general Julie Payette’s resignation last week after an allegedly damning report about a toxic workplace at Rideau Hall, O’Toole demanded the prime minister consult opposition parties on the appointment of the next representative of the Queen in Canada.
“He is in a conflict of interest as he is planning an election in the middle of a pandemic, in a minority parliament,” O’Toole said, adding that Trudeau’s previous process had “failed” and that he’d “sullied” the office.
He blamed the prime minister for creating, what he called, a “small constitutional crisis.”
Green Party Leader Annamie Paul, who held a press conference by Zoom immediately after O’Toole, said she didn’t think MPs needed to be consulted.
“We have a system in place to deal with this kind of eventuality. While it is unprecedented, the chief justice of the Supreme Court is now the administrator. There is no vacuum and so that kind of language... is not helpful, it is certainly not correct,” she said.
Should Trudeau be defeated in the House or choose to visit Chief Justice Richard Wagner to request a dissolution of Parliament, Paul suggested someone trustworthy was there to ensure the proper functioning of Canadian democracy.
Still, she told reporters she hoped Trudeau would ensure that the recommendation — and the vetting — for the next governor general is done through a non-political, arm’s-length process.
The Greens’ main message Monday, Paul said, was to remind all members of Parliament that Canadians were counting on them to stay focused. “The urgent needs of people in Canada and not any kind of pre-election posturing or positioning has to be the priority,” she said.
Much of the spirit of cross-party collaboration that had allowed MPs to quickly pass emergency programs during the first wave of the pandemic had all but disappeared, she said, foreshadowing incidents to come.
She complained the prime minister had not briefed opposition party leaders on the latest federal COVID-19 measures since November 19.
“This is the kind of thing that prevents parties from having and presenting a united front to the public,” she said. “[It’s] something that I hope the prime minister will begin to do again.”
She also called on Trudeau to stop dithering on long-term care homes and implement changes that could help save lives. “We have the worst record among rich countries in terms of our protection of long term care residents and deaths in long-term care,” she said.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh echoed those comments.
It isn’t just seniors who are suffering due to negligence in long-term care homes, but front-line workers are also affected, he said.
He highlighted the case of Yassin Dabeh, a 19-year-old Syrian refugee, who arrived in Canada in 2016, and died recently of COVID-19. Dabeh had taken a contract job as a cleaner in long-term care homes. He was buried Friday, according to CBC. His family have also all contracted COVID-19.
“We need to redouble our efforts,” Singh said. “We need to focus on getting vaccines into the arms of vulnerable — and that means seniors in long term care but also front line workers, workers like Yassin.”
Singh also called for changes to make it easier for all workers to stay home on paid sick leave, and for for-profit to be removed from long-term care. The NDP leader argued Trudeau could take some steps immediately, while acknowledging most measures will need provincial approval.
“I think that the evidence is overwhelmingly clear, for profit has taken the lives of seniors. It means worse conditions, worse staffing levels, for profit has no place in our healthcare system.”
When the House resumed Monday morning, the first item — a motion to proceed towards electronic voting and to help facilitate virtual sittings of the House — passed unanimously. But the goodwill did not last.
There were worthy points of differentiation.
““I think that the evidence is overwhelmingly clear, for profit has taken the lives of seniors. It means worse conditions, worse staffing levels, for profit has no place in our healthcare system.””
Bloc Québécois MP Kristina Michaud, the first to speak during a debate on Liberal MP Bob Saroya’s private member’s bill seeking to impose tougher restrictions on those found to have knowing possession of a smuggled firearms, noted the Liberal government’s promise to ban semi-automatic assault rifles and to give municipalities the power to ban handguns had yet to materialize.
In question period, the political theatre resumed, with a personal tinge.
On Keystone, O’Toole accused Trudeau of betting thousands of oil patch jobs on one phone call with Biden, and later of having “no success with the U.S. relationship for seven years.” (The Liberals, this fall, avoided another round of aluminum tariffs with president Donald Trump and the renegotiated United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA) came into force last July.)
When the Conservative leader accused the government of having zero doses in the middle of the pandemic, Trudeau lashed back saying he understands the “desire to score political points but [O’Toole] shouldn’t purposefully mislead people.”
Still, O’Toole’s comments came on the heels of Ontario Premier Doug Ford noting there would be no deliveries of the Pfizer vaccines this week and only a small delivery next week.
“We need to go quick. Vite! Vite! Vite, as they say,” Ford said, at Queen’s Park.
Tory health critic on vaccines: ‘How the hell did this happen?’
Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner demanded to know “how the hell did this happen.” The Speaker of the House, Anthony Rota, reminded her that was “unparliamentary language.”
She then accused the Liberals of a “deadly screw-up” for failing to negotiate more stringent contracts. Canada is behind Romania, Poland, Italy, Spain, Czech Republic and France, who will all be receiving doses from Pfizer this week, she said.
Italy plans to take legal action, Reuters reported, to try to ensure it received its agreed-upon vaccines. Last week, Pfizer announced it had to delay shipments of its MRNA vaccine due to work at its Belgian processing plant to increase capacity. Vaccinations in Europe are being postponed because of the move, with Germany and Italy suspending first doses, according to the BBC.
Anita Anand, the minister of public services and procurement, noted Japan, New Zealand, Australia and South Korea haven’t begun vaccination. “We will be receiving over 300,000 doses from both Pfizer and Moderna next week alone. We will have six million doses in this country before the end of March,” she said, noting her 90-year-old father was also waiting to get immunized.
As question period continued, the Liberals announced through a press release that Brampton Centre MP Ramesh Sangha had been booted from the caucus. Sangha gave media interviews accusing former innovation minister Navdeep Bains of being an extremist. “Is he fit to be a minister?” Sangha asks in a Channel Y interview.
Chief Government Whip Mark Holland said the Liberals would “not tolerate conspiracy theories, or dangerous and unfounded rhetoric about Parliamentarians or other Canadians.”
Musical chairs continued when turfed-Conservative senator Lynn Beyak announced she was retiring from the Senate immediately. Beyak, who is better known for wanting to discuss the positive side of the residential school experience, faced permanent removal from the upper house as early as next week. In a statement, Beyak said she was keeping the promise she had made when appointed by prime minister Stephen Harper to only serve an eight-year term. Several of her colleagues appointed at the same time have since changed their minds.
Former Conservative MP Derek Sloan also made an appearance in the House Monday. Sloan was booted from the Tory caucus last week after his colleagues were finally given an opportunity to show him the door. He used his member’s statement to criticize O’Toole, his former leader, for supporting Bill C-12, proposed Liberal legislation that seeks to impose targets to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emission by 2050.
“I am voting against Bill C-12, and I hope some of my former Conservative colleagues will have the courage to stand against this assault on our energy industry,” he said. “God bless Canada and all of our natural resources.”
After question period ended, the Liberals tried to get unanimous consent to amend legislation that has provided sick leave benefits, worth up to $1,000, to Canadians returning from travel abroad. When the story first hit the newspapers after the Christmas break, Trudeau said the intention of the program was never to compensate people who took non-essential trips and had to quarantine. The Conservatives and the Bloc, however, denied unanimous consent.
The Bloc told HuffPost Canada they want the changes to be retroactive to last September not to Jan. 3, 2021, as the Liberals proposed. The Conservatives did not respond.
The NDP did manage to get unanimous agreement on a non-binding motion calling on the government to list Proud Boys as a terrorist organization — something Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said the Liberals were already considering.
Politics didn’t end there, of course.
Monday evening, during an emergency debate on the Keystone XL pipeline requested by O’Toole, the Liberals objected to Conservative MPs’ wearing masks in the chamber with pro-oilsands slogans. The chair agreed that they were props and should be banned.
The debate centred around the Conservatives accusing the Liberals of not doing enough to fight for the project. The prime minister should have “done more” for Canada’s “world-class energy sector,” the Tory leader said.He should have done more for the West.”
The Liberals shot back, saying they were “disappointed” by the president’s decision. Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan told the chamber the government had advocated for the pipeline project “at every level, and at every chance we could.”
Still, perhaps surprisingly, the biggest and newest threat hanging over Canada from the new U.S. administration went without mention.
The president’s executive order on “Buy America” was signed Monday afternoon.
The directive strengthens requirements to purchase products and services from American workers and companies. Freeland told reporters the government is “concerned” about Buy America and it will remain an item very high on the agenda.
Yet it did not receive any attention in the House.