Mr. Speaker, it is an honour to stand in this place, with my feet on the floor of the House of Commons, and to have the opportunity to use my voice as the member of Parliament for Lethbridge to speak on behalf of my constituents, and I would even go so far as to say to what I am hearing from Canadians as a whole. I am thankful to have that privilege.
I was elected to represent my constituents, in 2015 after my first election and then in 2019 after my second one. As a member of Parliament I have the ability, along with other members in this place, to participate in the legislative process employed within this country, which we call a parliamentary democracy.
It is a position I hold with the weightiness it deserves and it is a responsibility I do not take lightly. Additionally, as a member of the official opposition, it is my constitutional obligation to join my Conservative colleagues in holding the Liberal government to account with regard to the decisions that it makes and to ensure that Canadians are rightly represented.
These roles and duties have been all but stripped from me during the past several months. Yes, I agree, I have been able to participate in makeshift accountability periods that have been put together virtually, and I have used social media in order to amplify my concerns and those of my fellow Canadians, but I have not been able to stand on the Commons floor and publicly address the government, as is my right and duty to do.
As word of the pandemic and its possible effects spread, we very quickly entered into a phase of closure. That was on approximately March 13. Knowing the pandemic was worldwide and spreading like wildfire, we agreed to suspend Parliament for a period of time. As the weeks went by and social distancing measures came into place, our return to Parliament, and the recalling of the House, became less and less certain.
Despite our willingness to work collaboratively with the government to ensure each other's safety, it soon became apparent, to the detriment of Canadians, that the Prime Minister was using this pandemic in order to avoid an element of accountability. He was perfectly comfortable issuing media statements from his front doorstep, but on the whole he was unwilling to take questions from members of the opposition. It took days of negotiation for the party opposite to finally agree to one House sitting per week. Even then, the Prime Minister could be seen here for several moments, but not long after.
If we suggest that Parliament's role is optional, as we have heard time and time again from members opposite, then we are effectively telling Canadians that there is no difference between a democracy and an autocracy, and that is a shame.
If the people's voices across this country do not matter in the midst of a crisis, then do they matter in the time period when there is good?
Is this simply an optional activity, or are we doing important work in this place?
Can we shut the doors and see no difference in our country, or do those doors need to be opened in order for us to continue and move forward as a nation?
By refusing to have Parliament resume, the Prime Minister is sending a strong message to Canadians that he alone is the one who matters. I would propose that is absolutely wrong. Parliament is essential. Parliamentarians are essential workers. Especially during a time of crisis, Parliament has the responsibility of holding the government to account, and this accountability best takes place right here, in the House of Commons.
Make no mistake. What the government is proposing today is not a resumption of full Parliament. It would like Canadians to believe that is the case, but it is simply not true. What the government wants to do is actually assemble what is called a special committee, or a committee of the whole. It is stripped of some key powers and responsibilities. For example, the government would still refuse to allow for opposition day motions. It would not allow for the request of emergency debates. It would not allow for the debate of private members' bills. The order of publication of government documents, and the debate and vote on committee reports, would not be allowed, either.
If the Prime Minister is willing, however, to now do four days here in the House as a committee of the whole, then he is proving, or showing the Canadian public, that it can be done safely. We can assemble in this place and do so while respecting one another's safety.
If that is possible, then why not resume Parliament in its full function to allow us to debate the necessary issues of the day? Why not allow us as Parliamentarians to do the important work that our constituents sent us here to do?
What the government is doing at every turn is skirting accountability. As many of my constituents have conveyed to me again and again, if grocery store clerks, restaurant workers, hairdressers, farmers, nurses, doctors and front-line workers can work, if they can look after Canadians, then surely parliamentarians can meet again in this place in a regular and safe manner. They can do so in a way that brings Parliament back in full force.
I have received hundreds of phone calls, emails and messages from constituents urging us to start sitting together as a full Parliament. Indeed, they understand that there is important constituency work to do, but they also see the value in Canada's Parliament, and they want to know that parliamentarians are debating the issues of the day and making sure that their voices are heard here in our nation's capital.
Here are a few notes that I have received.
“If the Prime Minister is staying in house arrest, he should not be allowed to make decisions.”
“Why is this even a thing?”
“Parliament needs to open up all powers required to run this country immediately.”
“Parliament must sit now.”
Parliament is an essential service and MPs are essential workers. When each of us put our name on a ballot, we should have done so with great sobriety and out of an underlying conviction that we exist to serve. We serve in the good times and we serve in the bad times. That is what it means to put our name on a ballot. These happen to be the bad times, but that does not mean that we run and hide. It does not mean that we stay within the safety of our own homes. It means that we, as 338 privileged individuals who have been sent here to be the voices of our constituents, come and we sit and we look after our country.
As Marc Bosc, former acting Clerk of the House, said:
The House of Commons needs to be functioning and to be seen to be functioning....[It] is an essential service to the country. Members of Parliament are... essential workers.
We need to be functioning and be seen to be functioning, which means we are here in this place. The place to engage in robust debate is in the House of Commons. It is not Facebook. It is not Twitter. It is not the mainstream media. It is here. That is what our parliamentary system is based on. That is the historical nature of this place. That is what the health and prosperity of our country so much relies on.
If members feel that their work is non-essential, then I would suggest that they fail to understand their roles and responsibilities, and they ought not put their names on ballots in the next election. This is not simply a place of process. It is a meeting ground where we use our minds and skills to convince our political opponents of our positions. It is where we give impassioned speeches and where we vocally express our dissatisfaction with a less-than-sufficient government response. If we allow it to, the back and forth of exchange can produce excellence. One side puts forward a thesis, the other sides puts forward an antithesis, and then the synthesis of ideas takes place. That is what democracy is about. It is the exchange of ideas. When did we lose an appreciation for this?
Diefenbaker famously said that “Parliament is more than procedure. It is the custodian of the nation’s freedom.” The House of Commons is not some random place simply used to facilitate the goings-on of Parliament. It is a crucial part of upholding democracy with debate, scrutiny, opposition and questioning of the government on all matters that affect the Canadian public. To characterize it as anything less than essential is an utter degradation of our Constitution and the fundamental freedoms for which our ancestors fought. At the very heart of democracy is the preservation of personal liberties, and the guardian of those liberties is Parliament.
Again, there are 338 of us who have been given the grand privilege and the sobering responsibility of being in this place in order to represent Canadians. If we are not here doing that, then who is?
For the government to use this pandemic to avoid accountability and to have us meet only virtually, where dissent can literally be silenced by the click of a button, is unconscionable.
There was a man who worked at a sawmill, and he would faithfully go to work day in and day out, and at the end of the week on Friday, he would exit the compound. Going past the security guard, he would be pushing a wheelbarrow full of sawdust. The security guard would look at the wheelbarrow and ask him what he had in the wheelbarrow, and he would reply that it was just a bit of sawdust, and the security guard would say that it was okay and to go on through.
The next week, the same worker would come back to work on Monday and work faithfully on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Friday would come around and this worker would fill his wheelbarrow again with some sawdust and go past the security guard, who would ask him what he had in his wheelbarrow. The employee would reply that it was just a bit of sawdust and continue on his way.
This happened for several weeks. Finally, the security guard pulled him over one Friday and asked him if he did not mind his asking what he used the sawdust for. The employee, not missing a beat, leaned in, and asked him in a whisper if he could keep a secret. The security guard said that he could, and the worker said that he was not taking the sawdust but stealing wheelbarrows.
How easy it is to be distracted from the real things going on before us. Indeed, the government must respond to the current pandemic and ensure the safety and security of Canadians. This is, in fact, the first responsibility of any government, but there is more taking place here than what meets the eye.
The Prime Minister will take the media's questions from the comfort of his home, but he is unwilling to take questions from the people of Canada, through their representatives right here in Parliament. The Prime Minister is willing to hand out money to individuals, businesses and not-for-profits, but he demands something in return.
The government wants the Canadian public to be informed, but only with the information the government carefully curates. In March, the Liberals indicated that they were looking at the possibility of implementing legislation that would crack down on what they were calling “misinformation”, information that the government deemed unhelpful.
Further to this, the heritage minister recently confirmed that millions of dollars are being spent on censorship. No legislation was presented in this place on that, no debate took place here and no discussion was had. The Liberals have crowned themselves now as the czar of what is true and what is false, what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, what gets to stay and what has to go.
Since when is it the government's responsibility to arbitrate truth? This is not democracy, and these types of silly things are the things that happen when this place ceases to meet and when the official opposition is unable to hold the government fully to account. This is a direct infringement of our freedom.
I recognize that no one likes misinformation, but since when is it okay for the government to determine what is wrong, what gets to stay and what has to go, what is in and what is out? It is a massive overreach of power. I find this particularly unsettling given the fact that the current government is actually responsible for spreading some of the most dangerous misinformation that has been put out there. Canadians will recall that it was the government that initially propagated the false notion that COVID-19 could not be spread by human-to-human contact. That was proven false. It was the health minister who declared that closing Canada's borders was not necessary to protect Canadians because COVID-19 would pass quickly. That was false. As well, it was the government that misled the Canadian public into believing that a mask over one's face was not necessary and would not be helpful. That was false too.
If these are not examples of misinformation, then I do not know what is. If the government is looking to crack down on unhelpful or misleading information on COVID-19, then it really need look no further than in the mirror, or at least that is where it should start. The reality is that the government does not have all the answers. We are in this together, learning and discovering. Information is evolving.
Free speech is part of a thriving society. Free speech is what helps us maintain our fundamentals as a nation. It is how we share ideas. It is how we engage in creativity. It is how we advance. It is how we innovate. It is how we move forward. When did we become afraid of robust discussion? When did we become unable to disagree without being disagreeable? When were these ideals eradicated from our Canadian values, from the social fabric that we call home?
Having convinced the security guard that he was simply taking sawdust, the man cleverly pushed his employer's wheelbarrow home knew there was profit to be made. Things are not as they immediately seem. Things are not fully what they appear to be to the naked eye. As Canadians, knowingly or unknowingly, we are being asked to exchange our freedom for what the government is calling “security”, but to what end.
When Parliament fails to meet and the government ceases to be held accountable, it is safe to say that democracy is in fact under siege. I am concerned that so many have been willing to short-circuit democracy when times are difficult. I have heard members talk about the added travel time it would take to get here, the extra safety precautions they would have to take, the strain it would put on them physically, and so on and so forth. Some members have expressed concern about social distancing. We appear to be doing that quite effectively today and could probably continue it.
We swore an oath to serve our country in good times and bad, in convenient times and inconvenient times. Since when did the members of the House start putting their name on a ballot out of convenience? There are plenty of other careers that people could have pursued if that was their ultimate goal. If life were meant to be convenient, if that is what people in the House are seeking, then this is not the place for them. Rather, this is a place of service. This is a place where 338 individuals from across this country come together and engage in robust and productive discussion for the sake of Canadians. This is a place where the exchange of ideas occurs and where legislative decisions are made. This is a place where the voices of Canadians are meant to be represented. When we fail to show up in this place because it happens to be inconvenient, that is a shame, and it is not a shame on Canadians, but on all of us in the House.
This place is essential and we are essential workers because Canadians are the ones who are being represented here and they deserve to have their member of Parliament in this place, speaking on their behalf, making decisions for the greater good of this country.