Yes, Ms. Rempel Garner. You will be first to speak to move your motion when the time comes.
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Before we start, I would like to make a couple of comments regarding the letter that requested this meeting.
First, the letter decries that it has been 45 days since the previous meeting. I find this odd since this is the normal intersession interval that happens every year at this time. There is nothing unusual or remarkable about it. The letter continues on to say:
We are deeply concerned that you have chosen not to call a meeting during the Committee's next regularly scheduled time slot. We expect the House of Commons to adopt a motion to renew the provisions which empower Committees to meet virtually. There is no reason this meeting cannot occur.
I should point out that, as of the scheduled start of the meeting this morning, there was, in fact, no such motion available, so the committee was not, in fact, empowered to meet at the prescribed time. There was also no clear expectation as to when such an authorization might be achieved, given that the state of the discussions last week was somewhat in flux.
It seems to me unreasonable to bring the House staff, to bring the committee staff and to set up witnesses who might sit there and hang all day waiting for such approval that might not come. I think it would be totally irresponsible to call a meeting in those circumstances.
This impediment is, in fact, acknowledged in the letter, which carries on to say:
If the house does not adopt an Order to empower this committee to meet safely, we will rescind our request to hold this meeting.
I would like to point out that this meeting was called on an erroneous pretext. Nevertheless, no such pretext is, in fact, required to call such a meeting. The only requirement is the signature of four members and a stated reason for holding a meeting, and those have been met, so here we are.
Let me say that I certainly welcome the opportunity to bring forward ministers at this time. I think it's very timely and very important. However, I have some concerns that the motion as proposed is not receivable. I'd like to explain why I have those concerns and follow up with some suggestions on how I think they could be addressed.
I note that the House motion of October 26 states:
That the Standing Committee on Health be instructed to undertake a study on the emergency situation facing Canadians in light of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that this study evaluate, review and examine any issues relevant to this situation, such as, but not limited to....
It then proceeds to enumerate a few examples.
I contend that this requires that any study, any receipt of information and witness testimony on COVID-19-related matters be subject to this motion. I think that is inherent in the request for the meeting itself today.
That being the case, I'm troubled as to where to fit this particular request in that structure. The most obvious place into which to fit that is paragraph (bb), which says:
(bb) within seven days after all documents have been tabled pursuant to paragraph (aa), the Minister of Health, the Minister of Public Services and Procurement, the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, and the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry be ordered to appear separately as witnesses before the Standing Committee on Health, for at least three hours each.
The problem with fitting that in is that it's triggered only upon receipt of all documents noted in the previous paragraph.
As we know from correspondence received from the Privy Council Office and the office of the law clerk, there are some millions of pages of documents in the offing, a substantial portion, the majority, of which of course require translation. This will involve a considerable amount of work and a considerable amount of time, and will also tax the capabilities of the law clerk's office in order to vet them for appropriate redactions and to prioritize them according to our previous request of the House.
This means that the timing of this paragraph (bb) being triggered is undetermined, and I suggest that is a problem we might want to rectify at this point.
Failing the application of paragraph (bb), paragraph (t) of that order specifies “that each party represented on the committee be entitled to select one witness per one-hour witness panel, and two witnesses per two-hour panel”. As we know, according to protocol and custom, ministers typically will attend in conjunction with other ministers and staff, but not at the same time as other witnesses. This kind of means that paragraph (t) of that order cannot be met by this motion.
In order to address those particular concerns, I would suggest to Ms. Rempel Garner that she might consider, when she moves a motion, first of all, incorporating a provision to report to the House a request to change paragraph (bb) from “within seven days after all documents” to simply “documents”.
Second, I would suggest that she indicate in the motion that the invitation to ministers be pursuant to paragraph (bb) of the House motion of October 26, and, provided the House grants concurrence to the indicated report, request changing paragraph (bb) and change the time in today's motion to three hours or drop the time entirely because it is actually encompassed in paragraph (bb) in any case.
That is my main point regarding the receivability of this, but I would also suggest that the second bullet of this particular proposed motion is not needed, and I would suggest that she omit it. The last meeting on the mental health aspects of COVID-19 is currently scheduled for Friday coming up. This provision of the motion would simply move that to Monday. Frankly, by Monday we could have that whole matter done and dusted, so I think this would be a good idea, and I would suggest that she just omit that particular requirement.
The last point is that the third point in this motion is in part redundant, to the extent that it duplicates some aspects of Mr. Davies' motion of November 13 and, to some extent, seeks to overturn it, although that is to the extent that the previous point on the mental health meeting is or is not retained as it stands. I would suggest in this case that when she moves the motion she change this aspect merely to specify how many meetings—between one and four inclusive per Mr. Davies' motion—to specify for the vaccine portion of the study.
That having been said, I will open the floor to Ms. Rempel Garner to move her motion as she pleases.
First, as vice-chair, I'd like to clarify some information that the chair provided.
The meeting we are currently undertaking as the Standing Committee on Health is happening during the middle of a pandemic that has caused many deaths in Canada and great economic burden on millions of Canadians. The meeting we're having is happening under the auspices of Standing Order 106(4). This is a procedural provision that allows members of the committee to call a meeting in order to consider business that might be of pressing urgency for the committee.
The notice that was provided to the committee, which precipitated this meeting, was done because of a very urgent situation that the country is facing right now. The fact is that many other countries around the world are receiving doses of what could arguably be described as the hottest commodity on the planet, the life-saving Pfizer vaccine. However, Canada is not, even though the government provided assurances to Canadians that this would be happening. This is something the government should have anticipated, given that it was briefed by the pharmaceutical company throughout the fall, and that production scale-ups happen when there's a new product.
The reason for this meeting is to hopefully move a motion to determine why Canada is not receiving these vaccines right now. Regardless of political stripe, I hope we can put aside our differences and agree that this is something that, at this present moment, the Standing Committee on Health should be investigating.
Why did we use Standing Order 106(4)? The chair asserts that there's nothing remarkable about this situation, that 45 days passed and that is the standard period of time that committees don't sit over the holidays, but this is exactly why 106(4) exists. I would argue that something remarkable has happened, and that is that dozens of people are dying in our country every day from a virus that could be prevented if people were administered the vaccine.
That characterization of bureaucracy and pedantry is standing in the way of the work of a parliamentary committee tasked with the mandate of health, during a pandemic. That it should somehow be unremarkable that it is not meeting is slightly problematic.
The second thing is that Parliament resumed on Monday. For those who are watching, and this might be inside baseball for people, our committee typically meets on Mondays and Fridays. There was no meeting called by the chair for this Monday. When I saw that last week, I was concerned. It meant that the committee would not have met for business today, which meant we wouldn't meet until Friday. We would have had a meeting called by the Liberals, and we probably wouldn't have had an opportunity to call the or the to talk about a vaccine shortage that is literally killing people and will be for some time to come in the future.
Canadians deserve better than that, and that's why we put this request forward. We need to put aside bureaucratic arguments about why the committee isn't meeting, and start meeting the needs of our constituents. That's what this committee is for, to actually hold the government to account on its decisions.
The chair has put forward a bunch of reasons why we should be editing this motion, and why it could fit under this motion or that motion. The reality is that the committee has the ability to change its mandate and its tasks as it sees fit, as the government often reminds us when we ask questions about committees in the House when the government manages to put things through that it finds beneficial.
In this situation, it's important to remind the chair that we are facing a monumental challenge in this country. We need answers on why we have a vaccine shortage and, more importantly, what the government is going to do to fix it. That's the only hope we can offer Canadians right now, and it's of the greatest significance. What we're discussing is probably the greatest thing that Parliament is doing right now. That's the gravity of this, and we need to do this.
I would be very uncomfortable going back to my constituents and reading a lot of wordy procedure as to why we couldn't invite the or the , who is responsible for getting Canada the vaccine, to the health committee today.
I actually don't accept any of the rationale the chair tried to put forward with regard to how I should edit my motion. The motion I'm about to put forward is in the best interest of all Canadians. It still allows the Liberals to proceed with the meetings they've put forward. It gives the Liberals, actually, the opportunity to decide whether or not they want to proceed with a meeting that was agreed to in an entirely different context six weeks ago, before we were in a vaccine shortage that other countries aren't in right now. That's really going to be up to the Liberals. I'm going to work that into the wording of the motion.
Given the shortage, and given that we need answers for Canadians, I think it's important that we consider the motion as I put it forward in the letter. Canadians need to know when exactly they're going to be able to get a vaccine, and the provinces need to know when vaccines are going to arrive so that they can plan to deliver them.
Chair, should you rule it out of order, my instinct would be to challenge your ruling for all of the reasons I just gave you. We have to do this, and you know it. Every Canadian is depending on this committee to do this type of review. We have doctors on this committee. We need to get to the bottom of this, and we need a path forward.
With that, Chair, I move:
That the committee invite the Minister of Health, the Minister of Procurement and their officials to appear before the committee for no less than two hours each regarding all matters related to Canada’s COVID-19 vaccination strategy, and that this meeting occur no later than February 5, 2021;
That in accordance with a motion previously passed by the committee, the clerk of the committee be instructed to schedule the final agreed-upon fourth meeting regarding the Liberal-selected mental health theme of the COVID-19 study during the committee’s regularly scheduled meeting on February 1, 2021, unless the Liberal members of the committee elect to forgo this meeting in favour of beginning meetings on the next theme of the committee’s COVID-19 study;
That the committee select its next theme of the COVID-19 study in the agreed-upon manner set out in the original motion, with the next theme being selected by the Conservative members of the committee, with the Conservative members selecting the theme of all matters related to Canada’s COVID-19 vaccination strategy, and that the first meeting of this theme commence at the next regularly scheduled meeting of the committee after February 1, 2021, which is February 5, 2021, unless the Liberal members of the committee elect to forgo the last meeting in the prior theme per the option outlined above, and that parties shall submit witnesses to the clerk for these four meetings pertaining to vaccines no later than January 28, 2021 at 4 p.m. Eastern.
Again, to colleagues who are considering how to vote on this motion, every one of you has communities that are under lockdown right now. For those of you who are in Quebec, your community is under a curfew. Many of you have long-term care facilities in your riding. I know I have colleagues who have emailed me that they've had a variant go through their long-term care facility, and 40-plus people have died in recent days. Front-line health care workers are calling in tears, asking, “When am I getting my vaccine?” In some cases, some people have received one dose of the vaccine and are not sure when they're going to get the second. If it's delayed for a certain period of time, what does that mean for their health? Is it going to work? Provincial governments are telling the federal government that they can't deliver what they don't have.
There are times when we will fight on this committee. There are times when we are going to disagree on policy, but this motion is very reasonably laid out. It gives the Liberals the option of proceeding on Friday per the schedule we had before Christmas, before all of this happened. That's really up to the Liberal Party. I didn't want to fight you guys on that. It's up to you.
We give you the choice, but there is no situation in which the Liberals can argue that the and the should not be coming before the federal Standing Committee on Health within the next couple of weeks to answer these questions. Every day that we go without having them, without getting these details and just hearing more platitudes, is another day that people are getting infected, that health care workers have stress and anxiety and that we're under curfew or lockdown.
We have the floating the idea of the Emergencies Act. Our country needs to get this together. For those of you who haven't had a situation like this—or perhaps it's your first term in Parliament—this is real, and this is why this committee exists. It exists to get these types of answers. Should this motion pass, what it's saying is that we're going to start the next theme of the study either next week or on Friday, depending on what the Liberal Party wants to do.
It's up to you. Mental health is important. Vaccines are important. It's over to you guys.
Also, to get some answers, we're inviting to committee the ministers who are responsible for getting Canada's vaccines. How are we getting through this? I'll be very honest with you guys. I just had a devastatingly terrible panel on CTV National News with one of our Liberal colleagues, who was trying to suggest that Canada wouldn't make the target unless we were approving vaccine candidates that no other country has approved. He then had to walk that statement back. I'd like to have the ministers here to get to the bottom of that.
With deep respect and humbleness, I submit the motion as put forward in this Standing Order 106 notice. Chair, if you rule it out of order, I will be challenging you on that ruling, because I believe that you would be ruling it out of order based on pedantry, not on the Canadian public interest. I would encourage all of my colleagues to ensure that your ruling is overturned.
We need to have the ministers here and we need to get some answers from the pharmaceutical companies on vaccine supply, because we need a path forward. I would not feel comfortable as a vice-chair for the Standing Committee on Health, as a member of Parliament or as a Canadian if we were doing anything less. This is what we need to do over the next month as a committee: put differences aside and get to the bottom of this.
For those of you who are Liberal Party members, I have had moments where I have had to think about what is in the best interests of my constituents and not necessarily in the best interests of my political party. I would really encourage you to think about that in this moment.
There is no reason, no logical reason, why the and the should not be coming before the federal Standing Committee on Health at this moment in time. I'm hoping that we can dispense with this motion, we can support it, we can schedule things out and we can move forward with getting some answers and some hope for Canadians.
Once again, it's good to see everybody back. I hope everybody had a chance to relax, and I wish a happy new year to everyone.
I'm going to speak in favour of the motion. If I get right down to the chase here, I don't want to comment on events that have just been ruled upon, but we're here because it's Monday and, up to now, we haven't heard anything from the chair about what the proposed schedule would be. I heard the chair reference that this Friday we would be doing the mental health study. I haven't seen any notification of that.
One thing we all share is a sense of urgency. I would have hoped that last week we would have received a proposed schedule of meetings from the chair that allowed us to meet today, this Friday and next week in an orderly way, so that we can get right to business. However, that didn't happen.
I also want to point out that a Standing Order 106 meeting is an extraordinary meeting. It's the prerogative of any four members of this committee to sign such a letter and cause us to meet within the prescribed time period, and that can be at any time. With great respect to the chair, that operates in addition to the normal business of the committee. It doesn't contradict, in any way, any motion that's previously been passed, so I find this motion in order.
The real question is this: What does this motion do? The motion calls the ministers before this committee. I think it gives them until February 5, which I think is respectful. I'm open to suggestions. I know the ministers are busy but it's January 25 today, so that's a good 10 days from now. I think I speak for all members of Parliament and every Canadian when I say that we're extremely anxious about the state of vaccines in Canada. Governments do what governments do. The government may try to put forward as positive a picture as possible, but the fact is that we're receiving no vaccines this week and receiving 79,000 vaccines next week. The United States last week vaccinated an average of 1.1 million people a day. We haven't even vaccinated 800,000 people in Canada to date, so we have production issues.
I want to also point out that, just this morning, there was disturbing news out of the EU that they are thinking about proposing export controls on vaccines manufactured in Europe. The government blithely says that this is just a temporary disruption and not to worry about it, but there could be other problems coming. The fact that the government has not released a single word of a single contract it has signed with seven vaccine manufacturers leaves us in the dark on this. I think all Canadians deserve to know what's going on as much as possible, and I think the ministers have an obligation to come to our committee to address this.
The other thing I like about the motion is that it proposes a way forward. I'm open to some finessing of the dates, but the way I read the motion is that Monday hence, we have our fourth meeting on mental health, which was the final meeting of the Liberals' priority on the COVID study, so that takes care of next Monday. The following Friday we begin the first meeting of the Conservatives' priority, which is on vaccines. By the way, I still think as a committee we need to pass the assessment of how many meetings we will attribute to that. Ms. Rempel Garner's motion mentions four, but we do have to formally decide that. I personally will support four meetings.
That leaves us with the question of when we schedule the ministers if they have to appear before February 5, which is next Friday, as the motion suggests. That would mean we would have to have the ministers here between next Monday and next Friday.
I'm not going to move this at this point, because I want to hear what my colleagues have to say about this, but it would make sense to me to reschedule this a little by saying this Friday is the fourth meeting of the mental health theme of the COVID study. We then begin the Conservatives' first day of vaccines on Monday, and then we invite the ministers to come the following Friday to give the ministers the maximum amount of time to come.
I would be interested to see how Ms. Rempel Garner feels about that, if that's a friendly amendment or if she feels strongly about that. I don't see in the motion what we're doing with this Friday. Given the urgency that she so eloquently spoke of, and that I think we all feel, I would like to use this Friday, if at all possible.
The final thing the motion does, and I think it's positive, is that it gives a deadline for our submitting witnesses for the vaccine component of the study. I think it's January 28, which gives us several days to submit what amounts to four witnesses. We each get one witness per meeting, assuming the committee agrees that we'll allocate four meetings to the vaccine part of this study, which I personally will support. I think most of us will, because we all know how important vaccines are.
Those are my thoughts on why I support the motion. I would support it the way it's presently written, but I think my suggestions of utilizing this Friday and putting some shape to these meetings make sense. I'm interested in hearing my colleagues' thoughts on that.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
I don't want to repeat what my colleague Mr. Davies said. However, there are still some things that must be noted.
First, I want to commend my colleagues' efforts to hold this type of meeting this evening. We must move quickly to organize our work. Without the motion—signed by four of our colleagues—to hold this evening's meeting, we wouldn't be trying to organize our work quickly.
Mr. Chair, I'm a little surprised that, in your opening remarks, you didn't refer to a new development over the break. We heard reports of a vaccine supply disruption. We're well aware that, in the current crisis, the only way to see the light at the end of the tunnel is to vaccinate people as quickly as possible, especially the most vulnerable people and the front-line workers.
Restrictive measures are in place. The measures in Quebec are particularly stringent. I'm thinking of the establishment of a curfew. In barely an hour, we'll be under curfew. As a result, we must be able to start organizing our work this evening.
Of course, the House couldn't have known in advance about the agreement regarding a hybrid Parliament. However, in practice, as soon as it became clear that everyone would set aside partisanship and agree on the hybrid format, it was entirely appropriate to arrange to meet as soon as possible, on the same day that Parliament returned, in order to organize the committee's work.
The motion moved by my colleague Ms. Rempel Garner simply seeks to organize our work in accordance with the motion adopted by the House. This is absolutely what the motion seeks to do. Furthermore, she was careful not to upset our Liberal colleagues who, before the holidays, wanted the committee to start the study of the motion passed in the House by looking at how the crisis is affecting mental health. My colleague was also kind enough to point out that the Liberals could, if they wished, ensure that the committee immediately address the vaccination issue, which is the most urgent. She gave them the choice.
I see in this motion nothing more than a desire to organize our work in a way that saves time. That's why I support the motion. The motion also states that the vaccination issue, which was everyone's priority before the holidays, is the Conservatives' priority. In light of the supply disruption and the scheduling issues, I'd like the Liberals to quickly tell me whether the government, on its honour, is making a commitment to all taxpayers in Quebec and Canada to meet the vaccination targets.
We must be able to quickly ask the and the questions. I gather from the motion that we could start a series of four work sessions next Monday.
We voted against your ruling that the motion is out of order. I commend my colleagues' efforts and I want to reassure all my colleagues. This crisis is significant enough. This crisis has resulted in far too many deaths for us to indulge at times in partisan politics. I can assure you that I'll never let myself get drawn into this type of vice or partisan behaviour.
I'm here this evening in good faith. I'm pleased to see that, as soon as the House returned, we could meet and organize the committee's work. This includes shedding light on the vaccination and the issues encountered.
That's why I support the motion and why I challenged your ruling, Mr. Chair.
Thanks to everybody for their interventions. I have great respect for all of my colleagues, particularly Dr. Powlowski. I share so much of his perspective, but I do have a couple of small disagreements with his last comment that I think are important.
From a structural point of view, it's been said that time is the most valuable currency in Parliament—I guess next to majority votes. Generally, government is going to win the votes at the end of the day in a majority, but in the opposition, we have time.
I'm going to point this out again. The Liberals hold the chair in this committee. If they had come before this committee with a nice schedule for the next four weeks, they would have been able to propose all sorts of things, including starting the COVID study on Monday and proposing that their witnesses, whom they're entitled to have first, would be the ministers. However, they didn't do that, so we're left here with the vacuum that Michelle Rempel Garner has filled.
The issue here is that a meeting under Standing Order 106(4) is an extraordinary meeting. That's the motion here today. This isn't a motion to schedule the first meeting of the COVID study and to allocate the witnesses. It's to have an extraordinary meeting with the ministers. That's over and above anything else we're doing here. If the Liberals wanted the ministers to be the first witnesses in four meetings, they could have and should have moved that. They're now moving it as an amendment to this main motion. They are effectively making the ministers everybody's witnesses, which is contrary to the main motion that we passed in the House of Commons.
I agree with Dr. Powlowski that there's a very simple fix here. If we really care about the urgency, which we all do, and we want to quit getting mired in procedural wrangling, here's the answer. We schedule the fourth meeting on mental health for Friday. On Monday, we hold the first meeting on the COVID vaccines. We get our witnesses in by this Wednesday, and we call the ministers for the following Friday. That's not one of the four meetings of the vaccine study. That's the extraordinary S.O. 106(4) meeting.
I would like to illustrate why that wouldn't work. When the ministers come—I don't know who said this, maybe the chair said this, or maybe it was Mr. Fisher who said this—the ministers are not anybody's witnesses in particular. They are the ministers. That's why they don't come with other witnesses. It's why they come with staff. It's a separate kind of meeting that is conducted out of respect, and in consideration of the special role they occupy. They're not just any other witnesses. They're the ministers who are in charge of things.
That's entirely different from the four meetings that I'm envisioning on vaccines, where we're calling scientists, epidemiologists, emergency room doctors, infectious disease specialists, maybe Pfizer, and people who can tell us things with regard to COVID. I am adamantly against wasting one of our four special meetings on COVID, when we should be hearing from Canadian stakeholders who we normally don't hear from.
In terms of ease, I could turn this around on the comments that were just made. What's the problem with having five meetings on vaccines? Are we really wasting time worrying about that? No. I see Mr. Fisher shaking his head no. We all agree with that. Let's just get down with it. Let's get this done and finish off that important mental health aspect that Mr. Van Bynen championed on Friday. Let's start COVID vaccines on Monday, with each of us with our one witness, in congruence with our original motion. Let's get the ministers here on the following Friday.
The other reason the ministers should come the following Friday is that it gives them more time. Every time we call the ministers, we are made aware of how tight their schedules are, and I respect that. You want to give the ministers as much time as possible to rearrange their very busy schedules. By giving them next Friday, that gives them almost two weeks to get ready to come to committee.
I think what I just said is a compromise that meets everybody's objectives. We should just pass it and get on with it.