Madam Speaker, it is with mixed emotions that I stand here tonight to participate in this debate. The emotions are really a misunderstanding of why we are even debating this, and somewhat anger as well that we are actually using up valuable time in this place to debate a futuristic issue that somehow the government House leader is predicting to occur when everything else around the world, including 10 feet outside of this building, has returned to normal.
It does not make any sense to me that we are wasting this time tonight when there are other issues we could be discussing, including the affordability and inflation crisis going on right now. The inflation rate rose to 7.7% today, which is the highest level in 40 years, and we are not seeing any solutions from the government to deal with that.
In fact, earlier today I asked for a unanimous consent motion to deal with an emergency debate on the inflation and affordability crisis given the news of today. Given the fact that Canadians are struggling and suffering under the weight of these financial pressures, and the level of anxiety they are facing right now, I thought it would be prudent to use the time this evening to have a debate on inflation and affordability.
Right now, across this country there is a situation where even the most basic services the government can provide, passport services, are a fiasco. There are lineups right across the country. People are travelling in those small confined spaces: the airplanes that the government House leader just described as being a risk. They are waiting in line for passports. Some have trips coming up in a couple of days and are still waiting for their passports to be processed. In Montreal, we have seen lineups around the building. In North York, there are lineups around the building and down the street.
The most basic government services to be provided are under a complete weight of collapse right now because of the mismanagement of the government. Why are we not talking about that tonight?
One employee in my constituency office, Sarah, is solely dedicated to dealing with passport issues right now. One day last week, she was on the phone waiting for five and a half hours to get through on the MPs' passport line. She waited for five and a half hours. Once she got on to process seven passports to help constituents of mine, she had to be on the phone for another two and a half hours. That is eight hours of her day spent trying to service the people in my riding who were in desperate need of passports because they wanted to travel coming out of the COVID pandemic. This is the type of stuff that we should be discussing, not using valuable real estate or time in this place to talk about the complete collapse of basic services in this country.
The other thing we should be discussing tonight, rather than some futuristic plan of a hybrid Parliament the government House leader and the NDP House leader have cooked up, is the situation going on and the news coming out of Nova Scotia about political interference by the Prime Minister's Office and the public safety minister's office in an investigation into a mass murder that the RCMP on the ground suggested strongly would compromise or jeopardize the investigation. Those are the things we should be talking about.
That is why Conservatives, earlier today, asked for an emergency debate on those issues, and not a motion to return to hybrid Parliament when the rest of the country and the rest of the world is moving on. It just does not make any sense at all that we are in this position.
Earlier, when the government House leader was speaking, he gave a history lesson about when COVID started. I was in this place when COVID started. I believe the Speaker was, too. There was a lot of uncertainty at the time. None of us knew what was happening. We had heard about a virus that was coming. We saw it rage through China, and then it started to rage through Europe. At the time, and I think it was January 27, the member for Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles called on the government to close the borders to stop this virus from coming into Canada. Shortly after that, we found out we had our first case.
These are the things that Conservatives were trying to do in the absence of any information or any knowledge of what was going on. There was a lot of fear being incited. Even at that time, because of the concern that we had and the request by the hon. member for Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles to shut down the borders, I remember the government was referring to us as racists. Do members remember that? We were trying to protect Canadians at the time.
On March 13, we found out that the virus was really raging across the country. That is when the decision was made to shut down this place. It was shortly after the election in 2019. In fact, some of the members who were elected in 2019 had an opportunity to sit in this place for only three months before everything basically shut down. It shut down for a full month. I remember being in on those meetings with the leadership team under our then leader, the member for Regina—Qu'Appelle. We were talking about the unknown: talking about the things that were going on, and how we were going to adapt to that.
The issue of hybrid Parliament came up and a return to Parliament, because the nation's business needed to continue. There were serious issues, such as health issues, procurement issues and all of the things that Canadians were facing. Businesses were shutting down, individuals were being kept away from their places of employment, and Parliament had to function. We came up with a system. I give full credit to the House administration staff for the work they did in making sure that our parliamentary democracy was able to function at that time.
There was very limited opportunity for members of Parliament to participate. We had talked about a minimum number being able to be in this chamber, as the development of Zoom came up. None of us had even heard of Zoom at the time, then all of a sudden Zoom became a permanent fixture in our lives to deal with this pandemic. House administration staff started working on that. We started working on a voting app system. At the height of the pandemic, we could rationalize it: we could justify it to ensure that members of this place would be able to participate in the democracy and represent their constituents.
At that time, I sat through the Procedures and House Affairs Committee. We focused on hybrid Parliament. We were focusing on the system. I remember that we were doing it on Zoom at the time. Several concerns came up, not the least of which was the fact that we did not want this to be a permanent-type system for Parliament. I remember that Conservatives and I argued at the time that there had to be some sort of sunset clause: if we got to a certain point, we would not continue with a hybrid Parliament.
There was always the opportunity for House leaders, the leadership team and leaders themselves, to continue with this hybrid system, understanding that there were still things happening and subvariants that were coming in. I recall January 2021 was one of the most traumatizing times that I have dealt with as a public official, and I have been doing this as a city councillor and as a member of Parliament now for 16 years. It was when we dealt with the situation that was going on at Roberta Place: Over 100 seniors died as a result of the delta variant. We were still fighting for vaccines at that time. In fact, we were just starting to get the vaccines.
There were still a lot of things going on back then that required us to be diligent in the safety measures that were being put into place, not the least of which was hybrid Parliament and the voting app. We continued along that line. We continued in that vein.
As we were going through this stuff and dealing with this at PROC, the concern was always the fact that there had to be a time limit. We heard from constitutional experts. We heard from our law clerks. We heard from former speakers. Speaker Milliken appeared before the committee to talk about the peril of continuing through hybrid Parliament and what it would mean to our democratic institution of Parliament, and not least what it would do to other institutions across the country.
The Constitution was clear, and the evidence was clear as it was presented to us at PROC, in that this is the seat of Parliament. This is the seat of power here in Ottawa. It is in the Constitution. It is not through a Zoom call. It is not through a computer camera. It is here in Ottawa, so the warnings that were placed upon us back then were to make sure that this was not going to be permanent. We talked about changes to the Standing Orders, and there were recommendations made through PROC not to have changes to the Standing Orders and not to move to a permanent measure.
As the situation evolved, we continued to evolve with it. We continued to carry on with hybrid Parliament. We continued, and we enhanced the voting app so that people could participate not just at the height of the pandemic, but at the downside of the pandemic.
Here we are today. Everything is opening up: everything except Parliament. Public health agencies across the country, both provincially and federally, have all lifted their mandates. They have lifted their vaccination mandates and their mask mandates. Just this past week, the federal government announced that there were no more vaccine mandates. The world is moving on from COVID. The only two people who are not moving on from COVID are the government House leader and the House leader of the NDP.
It is not just public health agencies. At legislatures around the world and legislatures across the country, both provincially and territorially, no one is using a hybrid system at this point: not even the mother Parliament in England, which stopped using it last July. There is in-person voting and in-person Parliament for members of Parliament. Canada would be an outlier in this. We would be an outlier if the government gets its way, and there is no reason to believe that it will not because of its NDP partners. When we return in September, we are going to be virtual again.
That has come with some significant problems. We have seen it just in the past week. Last night, for example, we saw a server break down and we saw the inability of members to participate in this place. They could not log on. Last week, during a private member's bill, we had a crash of the voting app. It took a little while to accumulate the numbers. Can members imagine if that had been in the middle of a confidence vote? If it had been in the middle of a budget or an estimate vote or even a throne speech, can they imagine the chaos that would have ensued as a result? It would have been unbelievable.
We have also seen, obviously, some embarrassing things over Zoom in the past couple of years. We have seen members who have been caught on camera and embarrassed at great personal consequence. It was a great personal embarrassment not just for them, but for their families as well. It does come with consequences.
It is around here. I have had the privilege, since I became the opposition House leader, to sit on the Board of Internal Economy. I have heard testimony, and I have received and read reports, of the impact that this is having on our interpretation bureau. We have seen a ninefold increase in workplace injuries related to the interpretation bureau, and it is directly attributed to a hybrid Parliament. There are sound issues. We have heard tinnitus issues. It is unbelievable to me that we would continue to put our world-class interpreters in a position where they could sustain further injury as a result of hybrid Parliament.
I have asked the question of what would resolve the workplace injuries with our interpreters. In the reports and in the testimony, the answer is always the same: We have to get back to normal. We have to get back to a situation where interpreters are not wearing headsets, and the sound injury problem is not impacting them to a point like it would not when they were here in person. It is the same thing with committee work, as well.
Notwithstanding all of the public health measures that have been lifted and the public health guidance that has been going on, why are we not thinking about the people who work here? Why are we not thinking about the translation bureau? There is a diminishing pool of interpreters. That is going on right now, and I would suggest that given the importance of bilingualism in this place and the importance of recognizing the French language, we run a real risk of not having the same quality of bilingualism to allow this place to function properly. It is a real challenge with the diminishing pool of interpreters, and it is a problem that can easily be addressed.
We have heard what the solution is. The solution is to return to normal. The interpreters, who are working in the back and who work at committees, are much less likely to be injured if we are here. This is a party that speaks about and has a motive to look after workers, and the NDP at a minimum should be thinking about this, yet these are not even considerations in the decision to continue with hybrid Parliament. They should be, and I cannot overstate how serious this problem is for the people who work here. It is a serious issue.
I have talked about the public health issues. I have also talked about the guidance that has come out of public health agencies. I can walk literally 10 feet out of here and not have the same level of restriction I have within our symbol of democracy. People are not wearing masks and there is no vaccine requirement anymore. Even throughout the course of COVID, there was theatre on the government side. There is video evidence of members sitting in this place who are not wearing their masks, and then all of a sudden the camera gets on them and we can see them putting their masks on.
Despite or notwithstanding the rule in this place that people wear masks, which was determined by the Board of Internal Economy, we have been to receptions recently in the Sir John A. Macdonald Building with 200 or 300 people and nobody was wearing a mask. Everybody was together, talking and socializing. It is theatre. It is not following any evidence and it is not following any science. I have not been given any evidence or science on why we should continue with a hybrid system, other than anecdotal evidence by the government House leader and the NDP House leader.
I often joke about this, but not really, because I am mocking them a bit: They are not doctors but they act like doctors. I have been in situations where I have been talking to the government House leader and the NDP House leader, and they have said that somehow there is some new variant coming from the southern hemisphere in the fall. This is part of their rationale for why we have to continue with this sham hybrid system.
I have asked where the evidence and science are. The last time I checked, the government House leader and the NDP House leader are not world-renowned immunologists, epidemiologists or virologists. Where are they getting this advice? The chief medical officers of health are not talking about further restrictions come the fall. I have not heard any evidence as to why this place needs to continue in a hybrid setting this fall, other than this anecdotal information I am receiving from the government House leader and the NDP House leader.
If there is a reason for us to go back to hybrid, they can show us and provide the evidence as to why. There is no evidence, and that is why it does not make any sense, especially when the world is moving on and no other legislatures around the world are doing what we are doing.
On May 31, I sent a letter to the government House leader, and I circulated it to all the other House leaders and provided a copy to the Speaker. In it, with an understanding that this was the direction the government House leader and the NDP House leader had cooked up, I offered what I thought were very reasonable and practical solutions to not continue with hybrid Parliament in September.
If the rest of the world is returning to normal, businesses are returning to normal and people are going back to work, the signal this Parliament should be sending to people is exactly the reality that is happening outside of this place. People are going back to work. Unvaccinated people are going back to work. We are getting to a point where this is endemic and people are starting to live with this situation. They are starting to take responsibility for protecting themselves.
I wrote a letter to the government House leader, and I thought there were some very reasonable and practical solutions in it. This is what I proposed, and I am putting it on the record for those who did not see it so they can see how reasonable it was:
Therefore, I propose the following arrangements be put in place to succeed the current ones:
Members shall participate in debates or other proceedings in the House of Commons in person, in the House Chamber.
Members shall participate in House committees in person, in committee rooms.
The pre-pandemic practice for witness appearances would be resumed whereby most witnesses will appear in-person while a limited number of witnesses located at some distance from Ottawa could appear by videoconferencing.
That is exactly what we were doing before we started with the hybrid system. I remember sitting at committee with witnesses coming in from Australia. That capability existed and there is no reason we cannot get back to it.
I also said, “Ministers and senior officials would always be expected to appear in person.” That speaks to another issue that I think has gone on as a result of hybrid Parliament, and probably conveniently for the government. We have seen many ministers not show up in this place. I know the government House leader is proposing in this motion that as many ministers as possible show up in the House. Unfortunately, I cannot take him at his word on that.
We have seen, over the course of the last several months, a limited number of ministers in this place. We have seen many of them appear on Zoom. It speaks to an issue of accountability. Ministers, when they are here, are in the hot seat, especially in question period. Sometimes they are prepared and sometimes they are not. However, there have been times when I am sure they have been surrounded by ministerial staff on Zoom and are being handed notes as questions come in. We are not naive. We know that is happening, and when members are here in person, they are far more accountable. Not only that, but the media has an opportunity to question ministers as they walk through scrums, so they are not chasing them through Zoom or sending requests to their offices.
This does speak to an issue of accountability and transparency for a government that, in 2015, ran on the premise that it was going to be accountable and transparent by default. Ministers and seniors officials should always be expected to appear in person.
The other suggestion we made is “No Member of the House of Commons will be denied access to the sittings of the House and the meetings of its committees.” This obviously happened at a time when the Conservatives were proposing that all members be allowed to participate in the House, just as the rest of the country was moving on and the provinces and territories were removing not just their vaccine mandates, but their mask mandates. There were several occasions when the Conservatives tried, through opposition day motions and other motions, to get the government to try to come to its senses on these things. However, it kept holding on and kept controlling the lives of Canadians and their ability to return to some sense of normalcy. That is what this particular request represented.
There was another thing we suggested. I know that the government House leader, when he was up here, talked about disenfranchisement, or the inability of members of Parliament to participate actively in this place. He said that somehow they could not do it without the hybrid system or the voting app.
Going back to the PROC study, this is precisely one of the main concerns we brought up: Members could use this system, if there was no sunset clause or it was made permanent, to perpetually electioneer in their ridings. They could use this system as an excuse, especially if they are in close or tight ridings. Being in their ridings and engaged in their ridings could mean the difference between electoral success or not. To use the voting app and hybrid model as an excuse to perpetually electioneer in their ridings to effectively build their brand was always a concern. It was a concern that I brought up at the procedure and House affairs committee regarding how the system could be used.
If a member becomes sick, is facing an illness or is dealing with a family matter, there are existing rules and standing orders within our procedures and rule books that allow members to pair. They have that ability. We have no problem with setting up pairing for travelling. It means that one vote casts out the other when, for example, a member is sick and is unable to come to Ottawa.
I am not unempathetic and unsympathetic to the plight of those who are sick. I can think of Arnold Chan and what he went through, a Liberal member who developed cancer and unfortunately passed away. I saw him coming into the House at the height of his illness and doing his job to represent his constituents. In that situation, Mr. Chan could have paired with a Conservative member. It is a long-standing practice. It is in the Standing Orders. It is a rule of this place, and we use it when ministers travel, for example.
Why can we not use that type of system to deal with a situation where somebody is dealing with illness, dealing with an injury or dealing with family situations, whether it is a sick family member or even a newborn child? There are things that can be done under the existing Standing Orders.
We therefore proposed this: “Our age-old pairing practices...should be vigorously embraced to support Members with compassionate circumstances to ensure they, and their parties, are not disadvantaged by an unavoidable absence from the House.” We were doing it prepandemic. There is no reason why we cannot do it now—