Speech on the Motion to Extend Hybrid Sittings
Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to the motion to continue hybrid sittings in the Senate. I am sure that it will come as no surprise to you that I am very opposed to this motion. I believe that we have lost all sense of perspective with this pandemic and that we are now failing to fulfill our duties as senators. I acknowledge that there are ongoing challenges and uncertainties with the pandemic, but treating the Senate like it is a long-term care home is an insult to taxpayers and to the constitutional significance of a senator’s role.
If we are looking for a way to diminish the public’s view of the Senate, we probably could not find a better strategy than to keep insisting that we are not up to the task of doing our jobs properly. That, honourable senators, is exactly what we are doing. We are shirking our responsibilities and hiding behind flimsy arguments based on a fear of the unknown instead of doing the right thing. I would remind this chamber that the motion we agreed to on March 31 reads in part as follows:
That the Senate commit to the consideration of a transition back to in-person sittings as soon as practicable in light of relevant factors, including public health guidelines, and the safety and well-being of all parliamentary personnel . . . .
Honourable senators, the primary issue that should be at the top of our list of relevant factors is the fact that, under hybrid sittings, we are unable to complete the work that needs to be done in a timely and productive manner.
Everyone in this chamber and on Zoom understands that the hybrid format cuts the number of committee meetings in half and diminishes our productivity across the board. With the changes this motion proposes to our sitting schedule, this will allow us to increase the number of committees, but we still will not be back to the level of productivity required. I was very supportive of that part of this motion. I was very much a part of the discussions on that part of the motion. Any decision to maintain hybrid sittings despite this fact should be driven by factors that are obvious and compelling to everyone. Those factors have not been provided to us. Instead, all we hear are anxieties about the possibilities, which have a questionable basis in reality.
To be clear, honourable senators, I am in no way minimizing the impacts of the pandemic and the ongoing risks it presents. These are real, but this is now our new reality, and it is with us to stay. This virus will change, but it is not going away. It will be part of our lives for the foreseeable future.
I believe that’s why we see a consensus growing across Canada that we must learn to live with the virus. We cannot wait until all uncertainty is gone because that day may never come, honourable senators. We must continue to protect our most vulnerable. We must prepare for periodic surges, increase our health care capacity, keep our vaccinations current and be wise in our personal decisions, but we must get on with our lives — and that includes our role as senators.
I have said it before and I will say it again: The role of a senator cannot be properly carried out if we are not gathering in Ottawa. Zoom is no replacement for face-to-face meetings, debates and other interactions that take place in this chamber and these halls. I know that some senators like the idea of working from home because they claim it gives them the ability to do more constituency work; that’s fair. But I want to remind all senators that for the last 155 years, senators have managed to be in Ottawa during sitting weeks and still get their constituency work done on weekends and break weeks.
Why is that so difficult now? Are senators forgetting that the primary purpose of their appointment is to be present here in Ottawa in order to do their work? That is what we were appointed for, and it says so right in the summons that brought us to this chamber:
AND WE do command you, that all difficulties and excuses whatsoever laying aside, you be and appear for the purposes aforesaid, in the Senate of Canada at all times whensoever and wheresoever Our Parliament may be in Canada convoked and holden, and this you are in no wise to omit.
Honourable senators, this is not a casual suggestion. It is a command, as stated in the text. It is clearly written to impose an obligation upon senators to be present here in this chamber in order to do their work. Although hybrid sittings were useful as an interim measure in order to help us navigate the uncertainty of the early days of the pandemic, we have moved well beyond those days. It is time for us to get back to work at our place of work.
It concerns me, colleagues, that while the rest of the country has gone back to work, here we are today — or at home, on the taxpayer’s dime — debating whether we should do the same. We are not debating legislation. We are not studying government bills. We are deciding if, more than two years after the start of the pandemic, we should once again be required to show up for work.
Colleagues, nurses have shown up for work all through this pandemic, as did doctors, orderlies, truck drivers, grocery clerks and gas station attendants, as did civil servants who plowed your streets, delivered your mail and emptied your garbage. We call them essential services. But, for some reason, the majority of senators appear to believe that their job is not an essential service. Instead, we demand that others carry a weight of responsibility that we ourselves are unwilling to shoulder, even though we hold one of the highest offices in the land.
Colleagues, there was a time when leadership meant leading by example. It is something which still inspires people today. Those who demonstrate these qualities find themselves earning the respect of those they serve through their office.
We have seen this modelled in the leadership of Ukrainian President Zelenskyy. As the war broke out in Ukraine, President Zelenskyy refused an evacuation order by the United States and said he would remain in Kyiv. Ukraine’s embassy in Britain quoted President Zelenskyy saying: “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.” That quote, colleagues, went viral. The president then began releasing videos of himself standing his ground in the streets of Kyiv. In one, he said:
I am here. We will not lay down any weapons. We will defend our state, because our weapons are our truth . . . Our truth is that this is our land, our country, our children and we will protect all of this.
This is a man, colleagues, who had very good reason to prioritize his own safety over being present with those who were fighting for the country, yet he refused. He knew that a leader must lead by example in order to inspire confidence in the people and demonstrate that your actions are not determined by what is in your best interests but what is in the best interests of those that you serve.
Because of his courage and selfless example, President Zelenskyy has become an icon of leadership around the world. He has been applauded for his courage time and time again. As he appeared by video conference to address the governments of the nations, his strength, fortitude and stubborn insistence on leading by example at great personal cost have inspired untold millions — billions — of people around the world.
Colleagues, we are not at war with a neighbouring country like Ukraine is. We are not having missiles lobbed into our residential areas killing women, children and seniors. We are not facing the kinds of brutal war crimes that are being inflicted upon Ukraine by Russia. But rather than diminishing the appropriateness of this analogy, it only strengthens it. As a wise teacher once said: “If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in larger things.”
Just because we are not being bombed does not mean that we should not be leading by example. Colleagues, I encourage you to look beyond your own situation, your own security and your own fears and consider that we are living in a time when the public’s confidence in their institutions is showing clear signs of erosion. How we conduct ourselves as senators is not just a question of what the science says, it is a question of what the country needs. It is a question of what our role demands. The science is clear enough and we will get to that shortly, but there is more at stake here than simply what the optimum health protocol is. We are in a time when many Canadians are questioning their trust and confidence in those who have been placed in positions of authority. It is time for us to do more than enough, rather than just enough.
We are not being asked to put on a bulletproof vest and wade into a conflict zone. We are being asked to fulfill the responsibilities given to us by our nation and to do so with a view of what is best for the nation, not what is best for us. We are simply being asked to be faithful to the summons we responded to when we first came to this place, and to insist on a very high threshold before we deviate from that.
Colleagues, it is my view that such a threshold is not being met. There is no need to continue hybrid sittings and we need to return to in-person sittings as this is the custom of this chamber, the original intent of the founders of this nation and the expectation of the people we serve.
When the pandemic began, we were dealing with a lot of uncertainty. We didn’t know what to expect because this was a novel coronavirus. We had not seen the virus in humans before and we had little understanding of how it was transmitted, how lethal it was, what the long-term health impacts would be and whether it would be closer to the common cold or to Ebola.
Colleagues, that was 25 months ago. Since that time, there have been thousands of studies completed on this virus and hundreds of studies on those studies. There have been papers, research letters, literature reviews, clinical trials and academic commentaries. There have been weekly morbidity and mortality reports, daily epidemiological summaries and regular vaccine surveillance reports. There have been charts, graphs, tables, projections, reflections and recommendations until our ears are ringing and our heads are spinning.
Our learning about this virus has not stopped — and it will not stop — but we, colleagues, are light years ahead of where we were in March 2020. Canada has now approved six different vaccines, including Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Novavax and Medicago. In addition, for the purposes of travelling to and from Canada, the government has also approved Sinopharm, Sinovac and Covaxin. We have mRNA vaccines, viral vector-based vaccines, protein subunit vaccines and plant-based vaccines. We learned last week that Moderna’s preliminary results of a new version of their COVID vaccine suggested stronger, longer-lasting protection against Omicron. The study is being met with mixed reactions, but it demonstrates that the science continues to unfold and our understanding of this virus continues to evolve.
Colleagues, we are slowly but surely winning this battle. I know that for many of us, we were hoping for vaccines which would provide serializing immunity against COVID. We saw this with the measles vaccine, where once vaccinated a person is completely immune from catching measles. Our expectation was that the same outcome could be achieved for fighting COVID. While this still may be a possibility, it certainly is not what we have now.
Nonetheless, vaccines have been a significant tool in the fight to keep infection rates down, protect vulnerable populations, reduce severe outcomes and dampen the overall impact on the health system. As of April 25, Health Canada data showed that if you are fully vaccinated with a booster, you are 7 times less likely to be hospitalized because of COVID and 11 times less likely to die from the infection. Because this is a four-week, age-standardized rate, these numbers change from week to week, but they clearly demonstrate that there are significant health advantages to being vaccinated.
This shows, colleagues, how far we have come because of science. Science has given us tremendous tools to fight the pandemic, but it also shows that the pandemic we are fighting today is far from what we were facing in 2020 and 2021. Some of this difference can be credited to high vaccination rates and some of it due to the changes brought on by the more transmissible but less harmful Omicron variant of concern.
If we break the pandemic into the period before Omicron and the period with Omicron, we see two very different scenarios. From the beginning of the pandemic to the end of November 2021, when Omicron was first detected in Canada, there had been just 1.8 million cases of COVID and almost 30,000 deaths. That’s a death rate of 1.64%.
From December 1, 2021, to April 24 of this year, there were another 1.9 million cases of COVID, and just over 9,000 deaths. This brought the death rate under Omicron down to 0.49%, a 64% decline. However, because we are no longer testing for COVID like we were before Omicron, we know that the actual reduction to the death rate is even greater than this. Studies in other countries have shown a 75% decline in the death rate between Delta and Omicron, and we are very possibly in that same range.
We have seen a similar decline in the severity of the disease under Omicron. Before Omicron, we had 6,400 ICU admissions, at a rate of 0.36% of cases. With Omicron, the number of ICU admissions dropped to just over 2,900, even though we have had more COVID cases in the past five months than we had in the previous 20 months. This brought the rate of ICU admissions down to 0.16% of cases, a 56% decrease.
Scientists will be researching for a while to determine the exact causes of these decreases. It is partly because of the fact Omicron is less severe, but our high vaccination rates also provided greater protection.
In addition, we are doing a better job of protecting our most vulnerable citizens in long-term care homes now than we were in the first year of the pandemic.
All of this will be factored into the bigger picture. But regardless of how it all breaks down, one thing, colleagues, is clear: The pandemic we are dealing with today is not the pandemic we were dealing with when we were first introduced to hybrid sittings in this chamber. Today, we not only understand much more about this virus than we did in 2020, but we know its impacts are now much less severe, as I just noted.
Furthermore, the risks of us travelling to Ottawa to be present here are minimal compared to what they were when the first hybrid motion was introduced in 2020, when there was no vaccine. Today, senators are fully vaccinated and boosted. We can choose to travel to the airport in our own vehicle or with a driver who is fully vaccinated. We check in at the airport where every employee is fully vaccinated and every other person in the airport is fully vaccinated.
We board our plane with passengers who are fully vaccinated, along with a fully vaccinated crew. Once we arrive in Ottawa, we take a taxi with a fully vaccinated driver, or we can rent a car and drive ourselves to our place of accommodations. When we check in at the hotel, everyone there is fully vaccinated.
It is difficult to see how we could reduce the risk of coming to Ottawa any further, except perhaps by travelling in a haz-mat suit. In fact, if we are honest, it is probably more dangerous to stay at home than to travel to Ottawa because the public health restrictions in our own constituencies are going to be much lower than those you face while travelling. If you are staying at home, are you going out of your house? Are you doing shopping at the grocery store? Are you going to your grandkids’ sporting events? Are you going to church? All of these things are more dangerous than coming to Ottawa. So unless you are quarantining and not leaving your home, there is no reason you cannot be in Ottawa.
Frankly, at this point, it is no longer clear to me what we are waiting for. Where is the justification to retain hybrid sittings? It simply does not exist.
In Canada, the number of new COVID cases has been dropping rapidly since April 11, with the seven-day average dropping from over 11,000 per day to just over 8,000. In Ontario, the effective reproductive number, which measures the average number of additional infections caused by one infection, has dropped below one. In Ottawa, the COVID-19 wastewater viral signal has been declining since April 11.
There are no more lockdowns anywhere in the country, and COVID mandates are falling from coast to coast to coast. Most provinces have ended their mask mandates in most situations, including B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador. The territories have lifted almost all of their mask mandates. P.E.I.’s mask mandate expires on May 6. And Saskatchewan had no COVID-related public health orders at all. How is it safer to be in Saskatchewan with none of this than it is in Ottawa?
But then you have the Senate of Canada which seems to be following along like a puppy dog, mirroring everything that this NDP-Liberal government decides instead of following the science. And this NDP-Liberal government seems to have stopped caring about science a long time ago if they ever cared at all.
The other week, my wife and I went to a Service Canada location in Manitoba. When we got there, the door was locked, not because it was closed, but because of COVID. A security guard had to unlock the door so we could get in. And then he began interrogating us about COVID symptoms and eventually provided us with masks which he insisted we had to wear. Every employee in the place was both wearing a mask and sheltered behind plexiglass shields. It was surreal, colleagues.
We left there and we went to the Sobeys grocery store, just down the street. Sobeys had no COVID capacity limits, no mask requirements and no social distancing guidelines. We walked in. There were hundreds of people, some wearing masks, some not, but everyone was doing their shopping, milling around, happy, visiting and going about their business. Even the cashiers, although some wore masks, were not hunkered down behind plexiglass out of fear that someone might speak moistly to them. It was like there were two parallel universes running side by side. At Sobeys they were following the science-based guidelines recommended by the province’s chief public health officer. At the federal building, they lived in a fantasy land directed by the anxieties of Prime Ministers Jagmeet Singh and Justin Trudeau. It was like an alternate reality. We see this inconsistency repeated over and over again.
You can go to a stadium and it is jammed to the rafters with people cheering and eating and drinking beer with no masks and no social distancing. They are getting on with life because this is what the science indicates we should be doing.
But here in the Senate, administration staff were told on March 23 that 25% of them could gradually begin voluntarily returning to the workplace starting April 11. But then on April 8, this date was suddenly changed to April 25.
I’m not sure what it means to return to work gradually, but it sounds like you can perhaps cover a few blocks a day, until you eventually arrive at your place of work.
But, colleagues, it gets worse. On March 21, an email went out from Client Service announcing that:
Effective today, March 21, 2022, the provincial mask mandate has been lifted in Ontario. This means that the wearing of masks will no longer be required in venues that fall under provincial legislation. For those working in a privately-owned building where the Senate occupies accommodation, including 40 Elgin Street, 90 Sparks Street, 56 Sparks Street and 60 Queen Street, you will notice that masks are now optional, and not formally required, in common areas such as elevators, lobbies and parking garages.
Please note that these instructions do not apply to Crown-owned accommodations, including, East Block, Victoria, National Press Building, 1 Wellington and the Senate of Canada Building. Existing health and safety guidance within Senate workplaces remain in effect and we continue to require those in Senate workspaces to wear a face covering.
At first, I thought the wording of this email was confusing. But then I realized it is a policy, in fact, that is confusing and the email was just reflecting that fact. This is what happens when everyone is claiming to follow science but everyone seems to have a different science.
Let’s see if we can untangle this mess.
First of all, masks are not required in privately owned buildings because of a change in provincial requirements. So far, so good.
Second, as the email states, if you work in a privately owned building where the Senate occupies accommodation, such as 40 Elgin or 56 Sparks, “masks are now optional, and not formally required . . . .”
However, the email states that masks are optional “in common areas such as elevators, lobbies and parking garages.” Why would you go to the effort to single out common areas such as elevators, lobbies and parking garages if the entire building is privately owned and falls under provincial regulations? Does this mean that there are areas in privately owned buildings where you can still be required to wear a mask? The email is silent on that.
Third, it is pointed out that this mask-free mandate does not apply to Crown-owned accommodations. If you are in East Block, Victoria Building, the National Press Building, 1 Wellington or the Senate of Canada Building, you need to wear a mask. That makes absolutely no sense, colleagues.
Fourth, we were told that existing health and safety guidance within the Senate workplaces remain in effect and we continue to require those in Senate workspaces to wear a face covering.
What is not clear is what happens if your Senate workplace is in one of the privately owned buildings. Do you not wear a mask because the building falls under provincial guidelines, or do you wear a mask because it is still a Senate workplace? It’s not clear.
Perhaps that’s why the email pointed out that masks were optional in common areas. Perhaps, if your Senate office is in a privately owned building, you don’t have to wear a mask in an elevator or in the hallway but, as soon as you are in your office, you are required to immediately put it on.
This, we are supposed to believe, is what following science looks like.
Two days after this confusing email, on March 23, another email went out. This one was from the Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration. The subject line was, “Easing of certain COVID-19 preventive measures in Senate workplaces.” This email noted that masks remain mandatory in all common spaces, but they can be removed at workstations or desks where physical distancing is possible.
The memo made no distinction based on the building you work in. It just said, “Many preventive measures, such as mandatory masking, remain in place at all Senate workplaces.” So does “all” mean in every building, whether it is Crown-owned or not? It is not clear. This is confusing.
Two days after that, another email went out, this one also from Internal Economy. It repeated most of what was in the email two days earlier but then added the following line at the end:
Under the Parliament of Canada Act, CIBA is considered the employer on behalf of the Senate and has authority to implement workplace measures.
In other words, regardless of the building you are in, and regardless of the rules that everyone else has to follow in that building, your rules could be different because Internal Economy has decided to ignore the science, ignore the advice of public health officers and go its own way.
But wait. There is more.
On April 8, Internal Economy circulated another memo under the subject line “Update to COVID-19 Protocols.” This email notified us to “. . . please be advised that the Senate is now aligning with the City of Ottawa’s latest guidelines.” We were not given any detail about what that meant, except that the previous 10-day quarantine period, after testing positive for COVID, was now changed to 5 days.
So if we are aligning with the City of Ottawa’s latest guidelines, what are those guidelines? If you go to the City of Ottawa’s website, the guidelines are listed on the page entitled, “Current Orders and Instructions.” There we discover the following:
Orders for Residents
There are no Orders currently in effect.
Instructions for Sports, Recreation and Fitness Sector
There are no Instructions currently in effect.
Instructions for Businesses and Workplaces
There are no Instructions currently in effect.
What about masking? You have to dig a little deeper but, if you do, you will find a link on the city’s website called “Wearing a mask.” If you follow that link, you will find out that the City of Ottawa did not extend its mask bylaw after it expired on August 26 of last year. Instead, they noted that province-wide masking regulations continue to be in effect.
So what are the province’s masking regulations? The province’s website tells us the following:
As of March 21, 2022, you must wear a mask in the following indoor spaces:
public transit, including indoor areas and vehicles. . . .
health care settings including:
specimen collection centres
home and community care provider locations only if you are an employee or a contractor
long-term care and retirement homes
shelters and other congregate care settings that provide care and services to medically and socially vulnerable individuals.
That’s it. Masks are not required in any businesses, malls, office spaces, restaurants, clubs, gyms or anywhere else that is not public transit or a health care setting.
So on one hand we are told that we are aligning with the City of Ottawa’s latest guidelines, but, on the other hand, it is clear that we are not aligning with them.
I can go across the street, colleagues, to the Metropolitain restaurant with no mask and sit with as many people as I want, side by side, enjoy food and drink and great conversation.
But if I walk across the street into the Senate of Canada Building, I have to immediately put my mask on. No food is allowed at meetings unless you can maintain a six-foot minimum distance and food is individually packaged.
I had no idea that science was different for the north side of Wellington than for the south side. I had no idea that walking 40 feet across asphalt would plunge me into an alternate reality governed by completely different science that is in complete contradiction to what I just experienced on the other side of the street.
I have never been much of a believer in magic, but I’m beginning to think that this is the only explanation behind all of this.
Weeks ahead of time, we are told the public gallery in the Senate will be open on this date. Why that date? Why not another date? Why not immediately? Why not later? What is the scientific basis for arbitrary decisions like this?
Is our beloved friend and Speaker psychic, and he just knew that on such and such a date it would be safe to open the public galleries, and then on such and such a date it would be safe to begin to allow visitors? Does the virus magically disappear when you cross the street or leave the Parliamentary Precinct? If you are following the science, then why is everything so inconsistent and contradictory?
Science tells me that if I go to the roof of the Senate of Canada Building and I step off the ledge, I am going to fall. Now, don’t get your hopes up — I do not plan on proving this. I am sure there are people in this chamber who could calculate the rate of my descent and the speed I would be travelling when I hit the ground. That’s how science works, colleagues.
Science also tells me that if I go across the street and jump off the top of the Fairmont Château Laurier, the same law of gravity applies over there as well. I don’t fall up on this side of Wellington Street and fall down on the other side of Wellington Street. Science is consistent and measurable.
But the Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration Committee seems to disagree with me. They appear to think that science is different on this side of the street than on the other. I can’t help but wonder where the committee is getting its information from. Does it have its own scientists locked up in a back room? If so, someone should let them know that they are at odds with practically every public health authority across the country. If there are no mad scientists behind the scenes, is it just the four-member steering committee making these decisions?
I have the utmost respect and appreciation for every member of our Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration Committee and every member of our steering committee, from the chair right to the other three members, including my colleague Senator Smith, but I am beginning to be of the view that decisions like this should be made much more transparently with all members of the committee, and maybe even the entire Senate.
I am a member of Internal Economy, and maybe I missed it, but I don’t recall being asked to review any data which painted a different picture than what public health authorities have given us.
Colleagues, I’m not sure when we stopped following the science, but it is time that we listen to our public health authorities, align ourselves with provincial guidelines and get back to work. We have a limited amount of time left before the summer recess, and I suggest we use it wisely and efficiently. There is no legitimate basis to suggest that we should be marching to a different drum beat than the rest of the country, unless, of course, the government just does not want us to return to normal, unless those conspiracy theories we have all been reading about in our inboxes are actually true, and all of this is just a vicious plot imposed upon us by silent actors in secretive places pulling strings to destroy our society, unless the World Health Organization really is manipulating our health policy behind the scenes and Justin Trudeau really is a puppet on the World Economic Forum.
I used to wonder how people could believe such nonsense, but the reality is that this government routinely pours gasoline on that fire. Just last week we learned that after scolding us endlessly about climate change — we talked about this at Question Period a few minutes ago — the Prime Minister accumulated over 127,000 kilometres of air travel in 10 months. Colleagues, that’s the equivalent of three trips around the globe. This government says one thing and then does another. They make rules for everyone else that they don’t follow themselves. They say they follow the science, but then they conveniently ignore the science whenever it suits them.
We have a Prime Minister, colleagues, who wears a mask to board a plane in Ottawa but then disembarks on the other end with no mask. He’ll stage photos with just him and his wife and they are wearing masks, even though there is no one near them. Then following a G7 meeting, you see him partying it up at a bar with no mask and no social distancing.
It’s not hard to understand why people become cynical and create conspiracy theories out of this. When someone is trying to make sense out of nonsense, it should not surprise us that they come up with things that make little sense. This government makes it logical to believe the unbelievable. When you normalize absurdity, you will start seeing more of it, and we certainly see a lot of it under this government.
Let me give you another example of this absurdity. A few weeks ago, again, my wife and I crossed the border from the United States into Canada. After the mandatory testing requirement was lifted, we crossed the border with no issues. A few weeks later, it was brought to my attention that, with or without mandatory testing requirements, the government still requires any travellers coming into Canada, including children aged 5 and up, to wear a well-constructed and well-fitting mask for 14 days when in public indoor and outdoor spaces.
First of all, the government failed to let anyone know this policy existed. Secondly, and more importantly, the policy makes no sense. I cannot recall a single time during this pandemic when a public health officer recommended that people should start wearing masks outside when physical distancing was possible. I cannot recall a single study recommending that this might be a good idea in order to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
We have all seen people walking down the street alone wearing a mask. This is one thing if you’ve decided to keep the mask on for convenience’s sake, but it’s another thing for the government to promote this kind of thinking as science-based public health policy.
And there it was on the government’s website. CTV did a story on this, and in their article they noted the following:
Dr. Peter Juni, scientific director of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview on Wednesday that he does not believe the rule is necessary at this stage in the pandemic.
I don’t think that there will be a difference made in the situation we’re in through masking behaviour that is different for travellers coming internationally, as compared with people here.
What you just heard is the scientific director of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table saying the government’s policy makes no scientific sense.
What did the government say in response? The article goes on to tell us that a government official stated that:
The Government of Canada’s priority has been, and will continue to be, the health and safety of all Canadians . . . . Throughout this pandemic, science has been the foundation of its response and has guided its decision making, its actions and its guidance to Canadians, to limit the spread of COVID-19 in communities.
On the one hand, the government claims to follow science but, on the other hand, their policies are not based on science. It’s a hard circle to square.
Last week the Minister of Transport was responding to a different COVID-19 policy and said:
We constantly consult our experts and whenever the advice that we receive changes because the circumstances change, we will change our regulation.
The Prime Minister — not Jagmeet, the other Prime Minister — also waded in and said:
People want to stay safe but they also want to get back to the things they love. And the best way to do that is to lean in on what the science is telling us, what the experts are telling us, and make sure we move forward in the right way.
I see the government came to its senses over the weekend, and they cancelled this particular requirement. But if this government had actually been interested in leaning in on what the science and experts are saying, many things would have been handled differently throughout this pandemic.
You might remember that in early 2020, when we learned that the virus was circulating, Justin Trudeau refused to shut down air travel between Canada and Beijing. He said it would be racist. Other countries were taking the virus seriously. Dozens of them moved quickly to implement protective measures, including shutting down international air travel. But not our government. They were slow to recognize that we had a problem and slow to react to the situation. Now, they are slow to realize that the pandemic has moved beyond their policies.
Some of those in the Senate leadership team will remember that I pushed — I asked — the Speaker to shut this place down back in March 2020 when the virus was first circulating. We were facing health risks of unknown impact, and we needed act. The Speaker, although sympathetic toward my request, was resistant. I saw the importance of acting quickly, and others opposed it. Now, when it is clear that we need to move on, those same people are opposing action once again.
What I would like to know is this: What is the end game for this government? Why is there no plan to see these restrictive measures come to an end? Why does the government leader in the Senate have no plan to see the Senate get clear of these restrictions? Does this government just want things to go on forever because they enjoy having control over people’s lives?
It is clear they prefer the reduced level of accountability that hybrid sittings gives them, but why would we go along with that, colleagues? Accountability and democracy in Parliament are crucial, regardless of what challenges the nation is facing and regardless of our support, or lack thereof, for any government. We, senators, are accountable to the people.
Unusual circumstances of the pandemic forced Parliament to adapt, but it is time to return to normal. Accountability cannot wait another day.
Colleagues, we passed the original hybrid motion on October 27, 2020. Our first hybrid meeting was November 4, 2020. It served a purpose during those times of uncertainty, but it has outlived its usefulness, and we need to move on. It is not supported by science today, and it serves no clear purpose. Instead, it is hindering our ability to do our work efficiently and effectively.
This is not a matter of doing what makes us feel good in order to mitigate our own personal risk. It is a matter of aligning ourselves with the present realities so that we can fulfill the professional responsibilities we have been given and properly carry out our public role.
COVID has changed, but it is not going away. It is time for us to learn to live with it. It is time that we aligned this policy, and all our COVID policies, with the science and the reality of today, not the fears and anxieties of yesterday.
Colleagues, in the motion that we approved on March 31, we committed to considering a move back to in-person meetings:
. . . as soon as practicable in light of relevant factors, including public health guidelines, and the safety and well-being of all parliamentary personnel; and
That any further extension of this order be taken only after consultation with the leaders and facilitators of all recognized parties and parliamentary groups.
That’s right out of the motion, colleagues.
There has been no consideration of the “relevant factors,” there has been no examination of “public health guidelines,” there has been no consideration of “the safety and well-being of all parliamentary personnel” and there has been no real “consultation.” Instead, we have sat here today and listened to the Government Representative in the Senate as he has merely parroted the NDP-Liberal government’s talking points, which conveniently ignore the science and the current public health directives.
Colleagues, this is not acceptable. We are to be in this chamber of sober second thought, not the chamber that dutifully nods and falls in line with the government’s latest mantra. We need to do what we committed to do on March 31 and make this decision based on real facts, real data and real science.
If the government wants to continue to hobble our work, then it needs to make a solid, scientific case, based on the best expert advice for why it is necessary.
Make no mistake about it: This is not Senator Gold’s motion; this is a government motion. Senator Gold is the government’s representative in this chamber, and when he stands to make a motion, it is on behalf of the Government of Canada.
This government needs to provide us with the evidence that supports their assertion that we cannot meet in person. They need to provide us with the rationale for why they are insisting that we cannot return to work at our place of work. They need to provide us with the data, and if the data does not support hybrid sittings, then they need to provide us with a plan to return to in-person sittings.
Colleagues, we agreed to transition back to in-person sittings “as soon as practicable.” That places the onus on us to make the transition as soon as possible, not as slowly as possible. We need to remember that our default is not hybrid sittings; our default is in-person sittings. Any deviation from that must come with solid evidence based on clear scientific criteria.
We have not received that from this government.
I believe that we should continue to sit in a hybrid fashion until May 9, which will provide the government with time to provide us with the information it agreed was necessary to make the decision we are being asked to make.
Whether a senator wants to vote in favour of ending hybrid sittings or extending them, we should do so only after having been provided with the necessary information and the proper consultations. Our decisions should be based on facts, not fear, and the government has not provided us with those facts.