Mr. Speaker, like other members, I will begin by echoing the comments by the member for Regina—Qu'Appelle, the leader of Her Majesty's official opposition, that our prayers and thoughts are with the victims of the shooting over the weekend. It reminds members how precious life is and how short time is on this earth of ours.
I have been tasked by my caucus to speak on their behalf during this period of questioning and to make sure that I reflect their thoughts and comments on what we are all hearing from our constituents back home, both on matters of policy involving the different subsidy programs that are meant to offset some of the costs related to the shutdowns and for our constituents who are hurting because they cannot work or be with their family members because they have been asked to self-isolate.
For many weeks I have been dealing with constituents who have been trying to be repatriated to Canada, especially from Peru. I want to make sure I thank the Minister of Foreign Affairs for his work on the file and making sure these many Canadians were repatriated. It was a difficult task to accomplish.
Before I move on to some of the caucus commentary I have heard over the last little while, I will mention virtual Parliaments. I need to address that, as the chairman of one of the larger caucuses in this chamber that includes our senators. I can tell the House what a virtual Parliament is going to look like and what the defects and deficiencies will be of trying to host a meeting with over 150 people in it, including the very few staff members who are permitted by our caucus to join us on these calls.
There is a seniors lodge in my riding that has been affected by the spread of COVID-19, the McKenzie Towne Continuing Care Centre. I want to make sure I give my thanks to the staff and tell the seniors in that facility that our thoughts are with them during this time.
Many seniors have passed away in that facility, but there is one I would like to mention, 93-year-old Keith Earl van Vliet, who tested positive for COVID-19. He recovered just today, so I want to make sure I mention him. I mention it too because he comes from a a long line of Loyalists who crossed the border many centuries ago into Canada. Van Vliet is not a typical Québécois name, but his family members were Loyalist Quebeckers for a very long time and then moved out west. They are very proud of their background. They are anglophone Loyalists who decided to speak French. He comes from a long line of them, so I wanted to make sure I mentioned them and the fact that the patriarch of that family has recovered.
At 3 p.m. every day, residents in my riding go to this home. While maintaining physical distancing, they cheer the residents on from outside the home just to bolster their morale. They held a monster truck rally on Friday outside the home and on Saturday some friendly dinosaurs showed up as well. I wanted to be sure I mentioned them. It is appreciated by the residents and the operator of the facility, and also by the staff members who have been affected.
It is said that being the chair of the Conservative caucus in this chamber is like wearing a crown of thorns. I will confirm that in fact it is; it is not an easy thing to do. It is unprecedented what this country is going through, this viral pandemic. There have been many in the past, and this Parliament has continued to meet through difficult times, including through world wars, great depressions, very severe recessions as well as pandemics.
In this chamber we are duty bound. We all ran for public office with the expectation that we would be required at times to make difficult decisions to be away from our families and to ask more of our staff members than sometimes they would like to give in the first place. I know I have depended on staff members in my office to make sure that our caucus can continue to meet virtually, but it is not the same thing as meeting in person. It is absolutely not the same thing.
Every single government program announced thus far has been amended at some point, either by press conference in the morning by the Prime Minister or during the technical briefings. We are always informed after the fact, whether it is regarding CEBA, CEWS or CERB, programs that many of our constituents across the country are taking advantage of.
A great deal of those those changes were brought forward by opposition parties, by both this caucus and others, and not to criticize but to improve and make it better, make it actually work for the people we are hearing from. I have double the volume of phone calls in my office on a regular basis. I have about triple the emails now on a regular basis. In many of these cases, if it was easy, they would simply call Service Canada if they could actually get through. If it was easy, they would go online and log on to their MyCRA account. However, every single case is either unique, falling through the cracks, or is a hardship case that is unusual. It is something Canadians expect their members of Parliament to resolve and bring up in the House, which has been called the “cathedral of democracy” by many current, outgoing and past members. Perhaps in this time, that description is more ephemeral and people may think about those as nice words, but democracy is an essential service and our democracy functions here.
I was looking at what other countries have been doing. Japan, Italy, France, Germany, Greece, Sweden, Finland and the European Union parliaments are meeting on a limited basis. We were accused on this side of wanting to have 338 members of Parliament here. We can see that that is absolutely not the case. We are sitting respectfully at a distance from each other. We have listened to the direction given to us by the public health agencies.
I was speaking with the speaker of the Alberta legislature, which is meeting three times a week. Of course, a reduced number of members are showing up in that chamber, but they still hold question period and still have a Q and A back and forth. In fact, the premier and the leader of Her Majesty’s opposition in Alberta had a one-hour back-and-forth debate between each other on what was going on in Alberta and how Alberta was dealing with it. There are many legislatures in our country that continue to meet, and so can we.
Our proposals were made in good faith. We were always going to return on this date. That was the original agreement. We have done it before. On March 13, when this chamber met, we agreed to return on April 20. We have returned twice already to pass important legislation that the government wanted to see passed. Now, members will excuse us in not being entirely trusting of the government's wishes when it tables legislation that is far in excess of what was discussed between House leaders and then shared with caucus members. We have a certain expectation that good faith negotiations will continue, and we did. Our intention all along was to do right by our constituents and on the issues we were hearing about.
I come from a western province, but there are many areas right across this country that we hear from in our caucus calls. There are issues for our farmers, ranchers, small business owners and golfing club owners. It is a very difficult time for all types of businesses, and now the government will get to discover how business owners organize themselves in order to make a living.
I was speaking with one of the small business owners in my riding, a franchisee of the OPA! of Greece restaurants. I think it is timely since it is the Orthodox holiday now. This gentleman, Raj Chahal, who is obviously not Greek, owns these restaurants. He lost 60% of his staff, and not solely related to COVID-19, but to the government's CERB program whose generosity means that his employees are choosing to stay home. Now, he has worked it out with some of them who wish to come to work so he can continue to serve people. There are other people who are delivering our food to our doors with Uber Eats, DoorDash and other options. I think everybody is taking advantage of this right now. They are essential, just like democracy is essential.
Before I continue, I would like to thank the interpreters in this chamber who are doing, no doubt, incredible work. I want to thank the clerks, security guards and the people who do IT security for us. Some of these people would be in this building regardless of whether or not we were sitting.
Turning to virtual parliaments, we host virtual caucus meetings every Wednesday, as usual, and more as needed. That is the tradition. Our caucus meetings have interpretation services.
Our caucus meetings have interpretation services. The members of my caucus wanted me to be their chair. We are a bilingual country, and I want to make sure that we can do our job in the House of Commons in both official languages.
However, I cannot do this alone; I depend on the House interpreters. Every Wednesday, I ask them to come to Parliament Hill. In fact, their director just informed me that interpreters are required to work on site, whether in the House or committee rooms. We have caucus meetings every Wednesday and we consequently have interpretation services. I ask my staff and computer services personnel to come to the Hill in order to help us do our job. We certainly follow social and physical distancing instructions, but certain House personnel will need to be here, whether we are sitting in the Chamber in person or virtually.
I chair a Conservative caucus of 150 people, including 121 members, over 20 senators and a few staffers who were authorized by our caucus to sit in during our calls. Holding these meetings is no easy task. Just look at how the virtual meetings of the Standing Committee on Health and the Standing Committee on Finance are unfolding; they have encountered some major problems.
It is not easy to raise a point of order in a virtual committee meeting. Aside from the issue of interpretation into English or French, there are multiple buttons that need to be clicked so that members can be heard by their colleagues. I am not just thinking of unilingual francophone MPs, but also unilingual anglophone MPs. I sometimes end up interpreting for my members, which slows down our meetings, meaning that a meeting that should take an hour or two can stretch out to four or five. No one wants to spend four or five hours on a call. I see the President of the Treasury Board nodding in agreement.
In a virtual Parliament consisting of 338 MPs located across the country, either at home or in their constituency offices, we will have problems with time zones and calls being dropped. Some MPs will not be able to connect, while others will not be able to understand what is being said. These problems are already cropping up during our own caucus meetings, even with MPs located in Canada's big cities, who sometimes struggle to hear their colleagues. There are so many things that can go wrong during a virtual meeting and cause a total breakdown, yet I still hear the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons saying that we are basically going to ignore the work done by the procedure and House affairs committee and move directly to a virtual Parliament.
Sometimes an MP wants to ask the clerk a question. How can we do this in a virtual Parliament without interrupting debate in the House? It took me almost four years to learn enough about all the House procedures to be able to defend my rights as an MP and the privileges of my constituents. How are members supposed to do that in a virtual Parliament?
In a virtual chamber, nothing stops government ministers or other members from having those around them give answers and help them. We expect a certain amount of preparation by every single minister in the House to bring us the answers to what we are asking. We are not trying to fulfill our personal curiosities. We are trying to get answers on behalf of our constituents. Constituents are asking us why certain government programs ignore their businesses. They ask, “If I am a sole proprietor, why am I ignored in this program?”
I had a call in my office, one I still intend to return, regarding RDSPs. There is nobody manning those phone banks right now. They are completely shut down, but people have to file. They have to call to make sure that all the transactions are done, but there is nobody picking up those phones right now.
We are not asking for the impossible. I thank the staff who are here making it possible for our democracy to work and for members of Parliament to be here. We are being responsible in how we do our work, and we are being responsible in how we address public health concerns. We could have negotiated, perhaps, a month-long stay for MPs so those who come to Ottawa can stay here and not travel back to their constituencies.
This is the important place where we get answers from the government, stuff that cannot be done on Twitter or Facebook, where different people are exchanging ideas. A lot of our political debates now happen there, but there are things that can only be done in this chamber and can only be done on behalf of our constituents when we rise in the House.
It is an honour and a privilege for us to be selected by the residents in our ridings to come here and do that work for them. That is their expectation. In fact, while sitting here I have received several text messages and emails from constituents in my riding saying they expected me to be here. I hear a member opposite saying no, but I have them. Their expectation was that I would come here and speak on their behalf. I am also conscious that I have to speak on behalf of the other members of my caucus who are not here to speak on behalf of their constituents and their issues with many government programs.
Many of us build relationships with ministers and try our hardest to make sure we bring individual cases to a minister's attention when a person has fallen through all the cracks. We have passed into legislation broad policy measures that the government has proposed. We have expedited them. In fact, the reason we are having this debate today is that we have expedited the motion. We said they did not need to give us a notice and that we would debate it right away and deal with the measures therein. We accept the fact that we find ourselves in an unusual situation, but our house leaders could not reach an agreed-upon consensus ahead of time.
Our caucus is very active. It wants to be heard. It wants an opportunity to test the knowledge and be able to challenge individual ministers to make sure they are not affected by groupthink.
In the United Kingdom, the Conservative government house leader, Jacob Rees-Mogg, mentioned that he welcomed that they continued sitting. Now they are going to have virtual Parliament sittings, which is something we might want to look at. They are bringing screens into the chamber. Physically, ministers and the Prime Minister will still be expected to be there.
I do not know how that would work in this chamber, and I do not know how that would work IT-wise or how many people would be required to make it happen, but Jacob Rees-Mogg mentioned that he wanted to avoid groupthink among his own ministers and within his own party. That is what we are trying to get at. We are trying to make sure that government decisions and policy mechanisms being used to address certain industrial sectors and all the job losses we are seeing are improved. This is about our constituents who are losing their jobs and being left behind by various government programs. This is about landlords, both residential and commercial, who are being left behind and have no have measures.
I am going to switch to French to ensure that everyone understands. We are a bilingual country. We are supposed to work in both official languages in the House and when we do all parliamentary and committee work.
I want the government and you, Mr. Speaker, to defend our rights and privileges, not just on our behalf but also for future members, so that we are able to work in both official languages, move motions and amendments, and conduct all parliamentary business in accordance with the wishes of our constituents. That is very important.
As I mentioned, I chair a virtual meeting of a caucus of almost 150 people every week. It is not easy to ensure that 150 people can follow the agenda, ask questions and make comments to contribute to the work of Parliament. I believe that it will be an enormous challenge. The government says that we are immediately moving to virtual sittings without giving the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs the opportunity to decide how this should work or if it should work in this way.
In conclusion, I want to point out that we are here to work on behalf of our constituents. This is not about advancing our political careers or doing polling. We are here to ensure that all government policies and programs truly help the people who need it most during this pandemic, during which the government has forced the majority of private sector businesses to shut down.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for this opportunity to address the House.