Thank you, Madam Chair. It's an honour to be here this morning.
I want to say good morning to all the members of the committee, and thank you for the invitation.
Good morning, everyone. I'm happy to be here.
Your committee has been given a very important and challenging mandate further to the motion adopted by the House on April 11. Specifically, you have been asked to study ways in which members can fulfill their parliamentary duties while the House stands adjourned on account of the public health concerns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, including the temporary modification of certain procedures, sittings in alternate locations and technological solutions, including a virtual Parliament.
The House of Commons and its members play an essential role both in advancing legislation and in holding the government accountable. Given the importance of this role, which is simply the cornerstone of our democracy, collaboration among members and parties has enabled parliamentarians to continue to perform their duties on behalf of Canadians during this pandemic.
Since the House adjourned on March 13 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been recalled twice and it sat again yesterday to deal with some of the effects of this unprecedented situation. The House of Commons has also authorized certain standing committees to hold virtual meetings to ensure that Canadians receive the information that they need and that the executive remains accountable for its actions.
As this crisis persists, with devastating consequences for the livelihoods and personal lives of Canadians, members are being called upon to play a role while adapting to the current context by finding new ways to fulfill their parliamentary duties. Several standing committees have held public meetings by teleconference or video conference, and the House has met a few times with a reduced number of members in attendance, observing public health guidelines for social distancing and avoiding unnecessary travel.
While this approach has worked to advance support to Canadians and granted the government the necessary authority and powers to respond to the pandemic, it does present considerable challenges to all members to fully participate in the proper exercise of their representative role.
As Speaker and as a member, I am keenly aware of the impacts this pandemic is having on individual members and of how it's affecting our ability to perform our duties as we would wish.
Not surprisingly, others have had the same concerns, so you have been given the mandate to study the possibility of virtual sittings of the House of Commons, and even of sitting in alternate locations. The creation yesterday of a special committee on the COVID-19 pandemic will provide another mechanism to ensure that parliamentary oversight is maintained.
I'm listing the options that we're currently exploring because, despite this exceptional situation, I'm confident that the House will adapt and rise to the challenge. That said, we must recognize that a House sitting that includes the remote participation of members or a completely virtual sitting can't entirely reproduce the practice or traditions that Canadians are accustomed to seeing when they follow the proceedings of the House.
To this end, as you consider various options for House sittings adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic, I suggest that you bear in mind the following guiding principles, in addition to any that the committee might identify.
First, any model must uphold the rights, immunities and privileges of the House and its members.
Second, simultaneous interpretation, both in French and English, must be available to members. Members should also continue to have access to established processes for the interpretation of indigenous languages.
Third, all members must be able to participate, recognizing that connectivity can vary in constituencies. Because of the range of services available in different regions, and the varying security requirements and capabilities, it will be important for each member to take the time to work with the House administration to ensure the best possible outcome.
Fourth, any changes to the House's rules and practices should be made in a manner that ensures that the legal validity of the proceedings continues. The Clerk and the law clerk will be your next witnesses and are prepared to advise the committee, among other things, on the interpretation of section 48 of the Constitution Act of 1867, which deals with quorum.
Fifth, the solution should limit the changes to the rules and practices of our House to what is temporarily required for its implementation. Our rules and practices would undoubtedly need some adjustment. For example, it would not be practical for members participating remotely to rise in their places to be recognized to speak. Other long-standing practices that uphold the dignity of the House—for example, addressing remarks through the Chair, insisting the proceedings be conducted in a respectful manner and maintaining the rule that members wishing to speak wear business attire—can and should continue to inform how the House conducts its business, even though it's by virtual means. I have watched a few of the recent video conferences, including the one this morning, and could not help but notice that some members were, let’s just say, bending the dress code a little.
Sixth, the video of the proceedings of the House should be accessible, include French and English closed captioning, be available live and on demand through ParlVu, and continue to be disseminated to media organizations for rebroadcast and to CPAC for distribution to viewers across Canada.
With these guiding principles in mind, the committee may wish to consider additional factors that might help ensure the success of possible virtual sittings during the pandemic.
First, I wish to recognize the work of the employees of the House administration, who achieved so much in such a short time. The recent virtual and video conference committee meetings were an undertaking of a different order of magnitude from their daily responsibilities. Despite the considerable challenges posed by physical distancing orders, and various other concerns and anxieties, they worked hard so that these critical meetings could take place swiftly and effectively.
In the current pandemic, while the House administration and its partners are operating without a full workforce, they are committed to providing all necessary on-site operational support needed for the House, its committees and members in a way that secures the health and safety of all those employees whose dedication makes our parliamentary work possible. I believe it is important that we as members recognize that this is a reality and acknowledge that not everything is possible during this pandemic.
I say this even as the list of standing committees authorized to meet increases. The capacity of the administration and its partners is finite. These committees will not be able to meet all at the same time if a virtual sitting of the House is also taking place. It will be necessary to establish priorities. Accordingly, I have instructed the administration to provide the whips with a weekly schedule, founded on current capacity constraints, so that they can decide what they wish to see delivered. The administration will provide robust support to members through training, guidelines and testing, as well as assistance before, during and after their interventions in any virtual proceedings. I will ask that you continue to make yourselves available, be patient and allow time to resolve the difficulties that will occur as a natural part of this innovation of virtual sittings.
Further, during our deliberations I would refer you to my response of April 8 to a letter from the government House leader that I received on April 5, seeking advice with respect to virtual sittings of the House of Commons. As I stated in my reply, I have asked the administration to propose an approach that would allow for virtual sittings of the House within four weeks. This ongoing work by the administration involves experts from digital services, real property and procedural services, working in partnership with our public and private sector partners, with the goal of enabling the House to hold virtual sittings. The administration continues to consult other parliaments to learn from the technological changes they are making during the pandemic, as well as national and international security partners and experts in virtual collaboration.
As you weigh the various options, ranging from sittings held in alternate locations to hybrid or entirely virtual sittings, we, as members, must make certain that any approach allows the proceedings of the House to be carried out with the integrity and dignity that all members and all Canadians expect of their Parliament. We also have a responsibility with respect to order and decorum.
Having witnessed for some years now the extent of the on-site operational support needed prior to, during and following sittings of the House, I can only imagine the challenges and delays that sittings outside our nation’s capital would bring as we wait to resume our parliamentary duties.
Entirely virtual sittings also represent a significant change that would multiply the practical, procedural and technical challenges to overcome. To support any sittings in a manner that meets the existing accessibility requirements, we should continue to leverage the same physical spaces, technology infrastructure and human resources used for physical meetings on Parliament Hill.
The House's implementation of virtual committee meetings offers a prime example of the benefits of an incremental approach to delivering new solutions in support of parliamentary work. Taking a similar approach to virtual House sittings will allow the administration to offer the best possible service to every member, ensuring that each is able to make full, informed and effective use of remote participation tools and processes.
The largest challenge facing members is that a majority of the 338 members are now in separate locations far away from each other. An incremental approach should therefore consider the proceedings that better lend themselves to this reality, for example, as has been suggested, members' statements and ministerial statements. Based on that experience, the House could then expand the types of procedures covered in a virtual sitting to more closely resemble a typical sitting of the House, so as to effectively engage the full participation of members.
This could, in time, extend as far as remote voting through a secure technology, should circumstances require it and the House approve it. Any early indication that you can provide to the House administration as to particular options that you feel best respond to the needs of the House will help prioritize the issues at hand. To assist the committee, representatives from the House administration, in collaboration with our partners, stand ready to provide support and advice on how to meet your requirements.
In summary, we want to proceed as quickly as we can, keeping in mind the principles and other considerations I have mentioned, which I hope your committee will take into account. The earlier you can provide direction as to the options you would like to pursue, the quicker and more efficiently our staff will be able to provide a solution for the benefit for all members and the Canadians we serve.
With that, the Clerk and I would be pleased to answer any questions you would have.