Evidence of meeting #29 for Procedure and House Affairs in the 43rd Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was measures.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Allen Sutherland  Assistant Secretary to the Cabinet, Office of the Deputy Secretary to Cabinet (Governance), Privy Council Office
Clerk of the Committee  Mr. Justin Vaive

11:05 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Ruby Sahota

I call this meeting to order.

Welcome to meeting number 29 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.

The first hour will be in public, with Minister LeBlanc appearing on Bill C-19. For the second hour, the committee will be moving in camera to continue its consideration of the draft report on the prorogation study.

This portion of the meeting will be webcast [Technical difficulty—Editor] Only the speaker will show on the screen, not the entirety of the committee.

Pursuant to the House order of January 25, 2021, members can attend in person or virtually. I believe all members are attending virtually at this point.

Just as a reminder, mute and unmute yourselves and check your interpretation language. Make sure that it's selected and you're ready to go.

I don't have any other real issues to bring up at this time. However, I will, if I can, take five or 10 minutes at the end of the second portion of the meeting to take care of some committee business. That is expected.

Before us today we have Minister Dominic LeBlanc, president of the Queen's Privy Council for Canada and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs. With him are Allen Sutherland, assistant secretary to the cabinet, and Manon Paquet, director of special projects at the democratic institutions secretariat.

You can proceed with your opening statement, Minister. Thank you for being here today.

11:05 a.m.

Beauséjour New Brunswick

Liberal

Dominic LeBlanc LiberalPresident of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs

Madam Chair, thank you for inviting me. Good afternoon. It's the afternoon in Fredericton, New Brunswick, where I am today.

Good afternoon, colleagues. I'm pleased to appear before your committee, before PROC. I was a member of PROC for a number of years, so I am familiar with the good work your committee does. It's a privilege for me to be here to discuss Bill C-19, an act to amend the Canada Elections Act with regard to the COVID-19 response.

Bill C‑19is our government's response to one of the priorities that the Prime Minister entrusted to me, namely to work with all Parliamentarians to ensure the passage of any amendments necessary to strengthen Elections Canada's ability to conduct an election during the pandemic and to allow Canadians to vote safely. Obviously, the time during which we work with you and hear your views on this issue is important to our government.

As the chair indicated, I am joined by two senior officials of the Privy Council Office, Al Sutherland and Manon Paquet. They will be available to answer technical questions or to offer a perspective that perhaps I'm not able to contribute.

We are fortunate to have a robust legislative regime in the Canada Elections Act and a world-class electoral management body in Elections Canada, which celebrated its 100th anniversary just last year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been among the most challenging issues in generations, leading to far too many deaths and severely affecting vulnerable people around the world. Governments have, in turn, been forced to take unprecedented steps to stem the virus's spread.

While Canadians have demonstrated incredible resolve, they need to know that in spite of the pandemic, an election can be administered in a way that is safe, secure and accessible to all. Indeed, this topic has seized the attention of all elected officials and election bodies, as evidenced by the Chief Electoral Officer's call for temporary changes to the act and by your timely study, which put forward several recommendations in support of a safe election in these challenging times. We followed them closely and reflected them in many ways in Bill C-19.

Bill C-19 proposes changes that protect the health and safety of Canadians while allowing them to exercise their democratic rights. A three-day polling period will spread electors out and support physical distancing and other public health measures at polling stations. The three-day polling period specifically recognizes Monday as a voting day. We believe this to be important. Maintaining the Monday voting day recognizes that in some circumstances people might not be able to vote because of a religious obligation over the weekend and that public transit, together with child care options, may be more limited over the weekend. Thus, we thought keeping Monday as a voting day was important. Simply put, we're providing electors with as many opportunities as possible to vote should there be an election during the pandemic.

Bill C-19 would also support a safe vote in long-term care facilities and in facilities for persons living with disabilities. Sadly, as one of the most at-risk populations, the residents of these facilities have been gravely impacted by the pandemic. I think all of us were touched by some of the very difficult stories of COVID-19 in the context of long-term care homes. Bill C-19 would provide enhanced flexibility to election workers through a 13-day period during which they can work with long-term care facility staff to determine the most opportune dates and times to deliver the vote in those facilities.

To be clear, this does not mean that voting in long-term care facilities would take place over 13 days; it merely means that facilities would be able to determine for themselves the appropriate window for their residents to safely cast their ballots. This will support a vote that is safe for the residents, the election workers and the staff in these homes.

Holding a general election at any time requires an organizational tour de force. Canada is a large and diverse country, with 338 electoral districts of varying sizes and composition. In times of pandemic, the task is all the more daunting.

Public health circumstances across the country continue to evolve, pointing to a clear need for increased legislative authority for Elections Canada to react to any specific circumstance that may arise across the country in a particular electoral district. Accordingly, Bill C-19 would provide the Chief Electoral Officer with enhanced adaptation powers to adapt provisions of the act in support of the health and safety of electors and those working or volunteering at the polls themselves.

We have seen that jurisdictions across the country and around the globe have had elections during the pandemic and have seen a steep increase in mail-in voting. Research conducted by Elections Canada indicates that potentially up to five million electors may choose to vote by mail if there were an election during a pandemic.

At the federal level, Elections Canada has delivered this system safely and securely for decades, and there are important safeguards designed to maintain the secrecy and the integrity of the vote. Nothing in Bill C-19 would change that. In fact, we're proposing targeted mail-in voting measures to strengthen a system that we expect will see a surge in usage. Among its proposals, Bill C-19 will allow electors to apply online for a mail-in ballot and will establish secure mail receipt boxes across all polling stations for voters to drop off their ballots. To maintain the integrity of the vote, Bill C-19 includes strict prohibitions on installing or tampering with secure mail reception boxes.

Lastly, I would like to stress that the mail-in ballots cast within electoral districts will continue to be counted locally. As honourable members know, there was a drafting discrepancy between the English and French versions of a provision in Bill C-19 that made its meaning unclear. As a result, we will bring forward an amendment correcting this unfortunate error during the committee's clause-by-clause study of this bill. As you are aware, the Speaker ruled that this error can be corrected by the committee in studying the legislation.

Madam Chair, in conclusion, I would light to highlight three points.

First, these measures would be temporary, only applying in the event of an election held during an ongoing pandemic. These measures would cease to be in effect six months, or at an earlier date determined by the Chief Electoral Officer, after a notice that the Chief Electoral Officer publishes in the Canada Gazette that indicates the measures are no longer necessary in the context of COVID-19. This notice would obviously only be issued following consultations with the chief public health officer.

Second, the long-term care measures and adaptation powers would come into force immediately upon royal assent. The remaining measures, including the three-day polling period, would come into force 90 days following royal assent, or earlier, should the Chief Electoral Officer be satisfied that all the necessary preparations are in place.

Finally, Madam Chair, I would like to reiterate that our government is committed to working with all of you on the committee and with all members of the House of Commons to ensure that this legislation can be amended if it can be improved, but to ensure its passage as quickly as possible.

Madam Chair, thank you. I hope I haven't run over the time. I'm really looking forward to seeing some old friends who serve on your committee and to answering questions.

Thank you very much.

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Ruby Sahota

Thank you, Minister.

I think there's a real desire among many of us to see this committee get through the process as quickly as possible and send the bill back to the House, so we're going to work hard on that.

We will start with questions from Mr. Nater.

You have six minutes.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

John Nater Conservative Perth—Wellington, ON

Thank you, Madam Chair.

Thank you, Minister, for joining us this morning, or this afternoon, depending on time zones. It's always nice to have our ministerial counterparts before committee.

I want to start by going back a bit into the past, to Bill C-76.

When this bill was introduced in the House of Commons in the previous Parliament, there was an unfortunate decision to amend subsection 91(1), despite objections from the Conservative Party and the motion that I myself brought forward, which would have corrected it. Unfortunately, it went ahead and was ruled unconstitutional.

My concern is that Justice Davies was quite scathing in her criticism of your own department at PCO. She wrote in her decision, “More importantly, the advice given to the Standing Committee by Mr. Morin”—a senior adviser at PCO—“that the inclusion of the word 'knowingly' in subsection 91(1) was unnecessary, redundant and confusing was, for several reasons, incorrect and potentially misleading.”

She goes on to write, in paragraph 58, “To the extent Mr. Morin testified about the import of removing 'knowingly' from subsection 91(1), his comments were inaccurate and cannot be taken as reflecting Parliament's true intention.”

Minister, this was a senior adviser to your own department, the Privy Council Office. I'd like to know what measures you have taken to ensure accountability exists within your department and that unconstitutional advice to this committee will not happen again.

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

Dominic LeBlanc Liberal Beauséjour, NB

We have obviously taken note of and read carefully the court's decision. We accept the court's decision. You will note that we did not seek to appeal the court's decision, because we accept those findings.

I don't disagree with your characterization that it may have been an unfortunate circumstance. I've been a minister for five years. We receive advice from different government departments, including the Department of Justice, obviously, on highly technical legal matters. We're accountable for those decisions; it's not the public servants who offer the advice or whom we encourage to appear before committees to speak freely about their work and answer technical questions from colleague parliamentarians. We expect that to be a healthy, normal and good part of the parliamentary process, but we certainly accept responsibility for that legislative change, as you said, in Bill C-76. We thought Bill C-76 had a lot of positive improvements in terms of the Canada Elections Act, but we're happy to work with other parties to add the word “knowingly” into that particular section, which the court struck down. We accept the court's decision and we would welcome advice from colleagues as to the best way to remedy that in a legislative process.

We don't think that dragging it before the courts is the best way, but I'm not insensitive to your comment, Mr. Nater. Obviously I don't disagree with the substance of your conclusion. I regret that this was the way that this particular clause was treated by the courts, but I fully accept the decision of the justice.

11:20 a.m.

Conservative

John Nater Conservative Perth—Wellington, ON

Thank you, Minister.

I would note that it is being remedied in a section of Bill C-30, which I know some people are referring to as the John Nater vindication act, but I won't go there.

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Dominic LeBlanc Liberal Beauséjour, NB

I'm just glad you didn't say “omnibus”, sir.

11:20 a.m.

Conservative

John Nater Conservative Perth—Wellington, ON

Well, I'm using my words judiciously, Minister.

As you are well aware, the Prime Minister's hand-picked Governor General resigned on, I believe, January 22 of this year, leaving us without a Governor General and in the hands of a capable administrator, the Right Honourable Richard Wagner, Chief Justice of Canada.

As you are well aware, it would be unfortunate to bring the chief justice into political games, so we would like to see if there's assurance from you that the Prime Minister will not seek dissolution from the chief justice, as the administrator of Canada, unless, of course, there is a vote of non-confidence.

Can you provide this committee with that assurance that the Prime Minister won't seek dissolution from the administrator?

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Dominic LeBlanc Liberal Beauséjour, NB

Mr. Nater, we do recognize, as you said, that the circumstance of the Chief Justice of Canada—Chief Justice Wagner—serving as the administrator is not an ideal circumstance in the long term. At the time Madame Payette resigned, I think that I, in my enthusiasm, got ahead of myself in hoping that the process that I was a part of—the advisory committee that the Prime Minister established to look at recommending a short list of outstanding Canadians to replace Madame Payette—would have concluded earlier.

The good news, from our perspective, is that we have finished our work. The Prime Minister will have our recommendations in the next few days, and I'm hoping, like you, that all Canadians can see who Her Majesty will summon to the office of Governor General in the next few weeks. We're at the end of a process.

I found it a fascinating process. Our group had, I think, 12 meetings. We had four volunteers. The Clerk of the Privy Council and I co-chaired the group, but we had four very busy volunteers who gave us their time to consider dozens and [Technical difficulty—Editor] It was interesting and it was very valuable, and I think we've arrived at an interesting list. The Prime Minister has not made a decision yet, but I think that should be coming in the not too distant future.

I do share your concern that having the Chief Justice.... I can't imagine that we would ever put the Chief Justice or even the Governor General.... I think you talked about political games, Mr. Nater. I can't imagine that any of us would be responsible for something so shocking as political games. However, I do recognize that it's an unusual moment to have the Chief Justice serving as the administrator, so hopefully his volunteer effort to help the country in that capacity will come to a conclusion soon.

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Ruby Sahota

That's all the time we have for that round.

If I can remind the committee, the minister is here on Bill C‑19. We don't have a lot of time to get the valuable information we need in order to make the recommendations needed. There was an opportunity to invite the minister on estimates, where there would have been a broader scope, and I know that Mr. Nater is genuinely interested in these matters, so I did allow that leeway, but I would hope that we can refrain from that and really home in on Bill C‑19 going forward.

Next we have Mr. Lauzon.

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Stéphane Lauzon Liberal Argenteuil—La Petite-Nation, QC

Thank you, Minister, for being here today for this important meeting on Bill C‑19.

I'm a bit stunned to hear Mr. Nater asking questions that are outside the context of Bill C‑19, while we're all, in good faith, working out solutions for the election, and while Mr. Lukiwski is concerned that you're here for the full hour of the meeting. This committee will be cut short, and your very important presence will be cut short, by the Conservatives who are playing a political game in the House right now that will interrupt this meeting. I find that deplorable.

Let us get straight to the point. You talked about the broad strokes, but you know that I am particularly concerned about seniors. We know that seniors are the people who have been most affected in terms of long-term care during this pandemic.

What would be the consequences for seniors if Bill C‑19 were not passed before the next election?

11:25 a.m.

Liberal

Dominic LeBlanc Liberal Beauséjour, NB

Madam Chair, I thank my friend and colleague Mr. Lauzon for his question.

I fully share his sentiment. As parliamentarians, we have the opportunity to propose temporary improvements to the Canada Elections Act at the request of the Chief Electoral Officer. It was his report to Parliament last fall that prompted the government to prepare a draft of the bill that is before you today.

I know that, as a Quebecker, he has certain concerns. In the CHSLDs, just like everywhere else in the country, we have seen some extremely difficult times in the context of the pandemic. My mother was in a nursing home in Ottawa and she died there a year and a half ago, before the pandemic. That home was one of the ones that suffered extremely painful consequences.

Like everyone else, I think, we're all concerned and we're trying to find a way for these people, who have built our country and contributed to its prosperity, to participate in the election. They should not be prevented or discouraged from voting and exercising their democratic right. They must be able to participate in the election safely.

My riding is a rural Acadian area of New Brunswick. On election day, there was a tradition. Mobile polling stations would go to a number of nursing homes—in your area they would be called CHSLDs or private homes. This allowed these folk to vote on election day. The polling station was there for an hour or two in a common room, where people went to vote. It was an enjoyable time for everyone.

In the context of COVID‑19, you don't want to move around to different long-term care homes because of the risk of infection and transmission. You can't put residents and staff in a situation that is not up to the desired health standards. The idea was to have 13 possible voting days. The chief electoral officer in each riding will contact the administrators of the CHSLDs to see how the vote can be conducted safely and with all the necessary precautions.

There's an idea I thought was great. Let's say there's an outbreak on one floor. You could have it so that only residents on that floor can vote at one polling station, and residents on other floors can vote at another. This gives a lot of flexibility. This will be done with the advice of health professionals. So we can organize the vote and not put people's lives at risk.

11:25 a.m.

Liberal

Stéphane Lauzon Liberal Argenteuil—La Petite-Nation, QC

That shows just how important voting by mail is, Minister. As we have regularly heard, expanding access to voting by mail is essential in a global pandemic, as it would be in the case you just described.

Can you tell us why the measures to facilitate voting by mail in the situations you just described are necessary?

11:30 a.m.

Liberal

Dominic LeBlanc Liberal Beauséjour, NB

Thank you for your question.

Mr. Lauzon, I agree wholeheartedly that allowing greater access to voting—

11:30 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Ruby Sahota

That's all the time we have.

11:30 a.m.

Liberal

Dominic LeBlanc Liberal Beauséjour, NB

It was a fascinating answer.

What's going to happen? Mr. Nater wanted to hear my detailed explanation of mail-in voting. Perhaps I'll have the chance, Madam Chair, with another colleague who will want to hear that answer.

11:30 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Ruby Sahota

Absolutely. Unfortunately, we are really short on time because of the vote that may be coming as well.

Next we have Madame Normandin—

11:30 a.m.

Bloc

Alain Therrien Bloc La Prairie, QC

It's actually Mr. Therrien's turn.

11:30 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Ruby Sahota

No, it's Mr. Therrien. I'm sorry.

11:30 a.m.

Bloc

Alain Therrien Bloc La Prairie, QC

Good morning, Madam Chair. It's nice to see you.

Good morning, Minister.

Back in the fall, the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs studied situations related to a possible pandemic election. We met 11 times and heard from 20 witnesses on the issue. Among them were experts, the Chief Electoral Officer, a Canada Post official, provincial chief electoral officers, representatives of various associations, academics, citizens' advocates and public health authorities.

My question is simple. Were you aware that we were studying the issue? It seems that you introduced your bill before we finished our report.

11:30 a.m.

Liberal

Dominic LeBlanc Liberal Beauséjour, NB

Thank you for your question, Mr. Therrien. It's a pleasure to see you again, even if it is virtually.

Quite the contrary, we were very much aware. Privy Council staff, people in my office and I, myself, followed the committee's proceedings. We spoke with our fellow members on the committee, so we were very much abreast of what was going on. We paid close attention to what the witnesses you mentioned had to say.

We decided to bring forward a draft bill just a few days before Christmas. I say “draft” because, as we all know, in a minority Parliament, the final product is the result of consensus among members. In order to start the conversation, we thought it was appropriate to introduce a draft bill that largely took into account the recommendations that followed and the input of the witnesses, which we took note of throughout the process.

We know that the members of the committee and other members will likely propose amendments and changes. As a government, we are more than willing to listen to suggestions aimed at making the bill better or perhaps addressing certain aspects that are not sufficiently dealt with in Bill C‑19.

June 10th, 2021 / 11:30 a.m.

Bloc

Alain Therrien Bloc La Prairie, QC

You are saying you introduced a bill that was essentially in draft form. Without question, we will have amendments, as will even the government. I understand that, but what I have trouble understanding is why you did not wait for the committee to table its report to see what it said.

You alluded to time being a consideration. I can appreciate that the government has a minority and that we are in the midst of a pandemic. Nevertheless, you introduced the bill on December 10, if I recall correctly, and the House didn't discuss it again until March. Why did you not wait until the committee had tabled its report to ensure the bill took into account the committee's findings? That would have shown respect for the work of parliamentarians on the committee and the value you place on that work. Simply out of respect for what the committee was working on, you should have waited until we had tabled our report and you had familiarized yourself with the findings and, then, introduced the bill.

I'm pleased to see you again as well, Mr. LeBlanc. Truly, you are a very nice man, and that is the type of respect I would have expected from you. You are a warm and friendly person. Why, then, did you not show us that respect, so to speak?

11:30 a.m.

Liberal

Dominic LeBlanc Liberal Beauséjour, NB

Madam Chair, I want to thank Mr. Therrien for his question.

I hope it was not seen as a sign of disrespect. On the contrary, as a cabinet, we made a decision to bring forward a bill.

You're right that it was introduced a few days before the Christmas break. We were hoping it would spark discussion with members of the various parties. We were expecting that, come the new year, members would have discussed the legislation we had brought forward.

As I said, we followed the committee's work closely, including the comments of the witnesses who came before the committee. For instance, we did not agree with the Chief Electoral Officer's recommendation to do away with Monday as a polling day and to limit the polling period to the weekend. We thought it was important to keep Monday. That said, we are quite open to changes that may be proposed and we are obviously eager to see how the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs can improve the bill.

We are not purporting that this is the perfect bill, akin to some invisible web that cannot be changed or improved. We will obviously abide by the will of the committee and the members of the House of Commons. That is for sure.

11:35 a.m.

Bloc

Alain Therrien Bloc La Prairie, QC

I hear what you're saying, but it would not have taken much to render this conversation unnecessary, out of courtesy.

I admit that I am more familiar with the workings of another legislative assembly, so I don't have a ton of experience in these matters. When I told some of my colleagues about the situation, they said that this was how things worked, that sometimes, the government did not respect the role of committees. I'm not saying that's what you did, but that is the message it sends, the wrong message. I really wanted to tell you that. I understand what you're saying, but the fact remains, this could have been avoided.

I don't know how much time I have left, but I do want to discuss the weekend element.

11:35 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Ruby Sahota

You have about a minute.